English Channel relay swim

So what was it like? We met at Dover Marina at 10 pm on Thursday 1st August, ready for our tide before midnight. Our team was reduced to five swimmers: one of our members, Lucy, was already part of another relay team, and as Team SwimTayka was delayed a fortnight by bad weather, the inevitable happened, and her team got called on the previous tide to us. So here we are, the five swimmers in the team and Bryan Avery at the front, one of the directors of SwimTayka who has also been our manager over the past nine months since the team first did our trials in a pool in the Cotswolds. We are a diverse bunch – an orthodontist, a church minister, an electronic door technician, a university lecturer who teaches teachers PE, and an IT specialist who keeps the internet safe. It was great to make new friends.

‘So, do you want to do this?’ Bryan asked us, as we stood on the quayside. Once we set foot on the boat we are committed, and if anyone changes their mind then, the team is disqualified. We all said ‘Yes !’ We also met our independent observer, who sails with us and makes sure the rules are kept – only swimming costumes, hat and goggles (and earplugs !) – and no one can touch another swimmer or the boat when in the water. We climbed aboard, passing our single bag of kit, and a bag of food, up onto Anastasia, our pilot boat.

Anastasia headed west from Dover leaving the harbour lights behind, to Samphire Hoe, a nature reserve created from the spoil which was dug out from the Channel Tunnel. A few hundred metres from the shore, in the darkness, at 11.23, Alan climbed down the ladder at the stern of the boat, stood on the platform for a moment, then plunged into the waves. He swam to shore, cleared the water and stood on the sand and raised his arms for us to see in the beam of a powerful searchlight. The boat siren sounded, and he was off swimming back towards us, but this time swimming beside the pilot boat. An hour’s swim. Then it was Richard’s turn, then Suzanne, and then mine, like number four. The sky was clear, and we could see constellations clearly, the Plough behind us, pointing up to the North Star. There was quite a swell, and when it came to my turn, I jumped in and felt quite panicky. The drill is to start swimming straight away, put your head in the water and get on with a strong front crawl. But for a few moments, I couldn’t get my breath so paddled, then started to swim, but again fear took over and I couldn’t get my breath. The water was more than 17 degrees Centigrade, not bad at all, and it would get warmer on the French side. There were shouts of encouragement from the stern of the boat, and I got into my stride and started the hour-long swim. There’s a saying about Channel swimming that it is only 20% in the physical effort but 80% about mental attitude! The waves were big enough that I had to think about rolling on each stroke and breathing on every fourth. Bilateral breathing – breathing to both sides – is something I’ve always done, and it surprised me that one our fastest and experienced swimmers can only breathe to one side. A real highlight of my first swim was that I got a glance of the stars every time I breathed, which kept me going. As you see from the next photo, we wore flashing green lights on the back of our goggles, a safety requirement. This was when Kieran took over from me. I’m the ghostly green on the right, just finishing my hour’s swim. Kieran has just leapt in.

Between swims, we go and sleep for an hour or so. There are bunks at the stern of the boat and in a true navy fashion we ‘hot-bed’, one out, one in. We need to eat to keep our energy levels up. I took homemade flapjack, pork pies, water to combat dehydration, oat biscuits, and dried soup. There was plenty of tea and coffee to hand as well. Then after two hours of relaxation, we take a turn on watch, keeping a close eye on our teammate who’s swimming. Then an hour to relax, change back into trunks, to be ready for our next dip. The current swimmer gets a five-minute warning that their time is nearly up. For the swimmer in the water, it feels like an eternal five minutes that never seems to end, and then you see the next teammate at the stern of the boat, climbing down the ladder, and that is the cue to swim back to the platform. The next relay swimmer jumps off, swims around you, and you grab the ladder and haul yourself up onto the deck, to the sound of lots of encouragement. There is a lot of shouting at swimmers. That is because we have earplugs in. So if you see some of the videos don’t be put off!

Dawn. The sea was grey, and at last the sun came up over the Channel. The perks of a Channel relay are starting off, swimming into the dawn, and finishing the relay. (Incidentally, the French authorities don’t allow swims to start from France, though a return swim can be done from the UK.) There was a calmer time in the middle of the Channel, as we entered the Separation Zone. The water looked quite smooth. The Channel Swimmers and Piloting Federation enables you to track your course, and others can do this as well, so my kids were following our progress. Each mark is a quarter of an hour. The journey is always an S shape because of the tides. My second swim – I felt something hard pass by my left hand and thought it was a plastic crate. When I got back on the boat, I was told it was a big wooden post and I was lucky it didn’t get me head-on!

With a relay team five of us, we all got to swim three times for an hour. The wind got up nearing the French coast and it got choppy. I really had to concentrate hard on rolling my body so that I could breathe, and I didn’t drink any sea this time. I was thinking I can’t let the team down at this stage or my sponsors. A vicar in Wales had sent me a message on Facebook: ‘Tip 1: avoid ferries. Tip 2: talk to God. Tip 3: keep breathing – and talk to God.’ Can’t say I’m very good at the God bit despite my work! By this time the French coast was getting close – or we were getting close to it – but from a wave eye-view to my surprise I couldn’t see the cliffs at all. The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, but like aeroplanes, ships are guided by computer. We did see a few big boats change course, wondering whether they’d aim in front or behind us. By now the water was 19 degrees Centigrade, and none of us felt in any way cold.

Kieran swimming number five after me. By this time slack water had ended, the tide was changing and started to push us eastwards towards Calais. We were close enough to the Cap Nez Blanc that it didn’t matter. Kieran’s hour was up, and he stayed in the water whilst Alan polished off the relay swim with seven minutes to the shore, with the ‘rib’ (inflatable launch) beside them, as the water gets too shallow for the pilot boat. Our Channel relay had taken 15 hours and 7 minutes. We felt exhilarated, on an absolute high! All that training. All that cold water, slowly acclimatising ourselves to stay in longer through the winter and spring. It was a real team effort. I have learned so much, and wish I’d got some proper lessons decades ago! I am the slowest of the team, but still, feel I’ve come on such a journey over the past nine months. (Subsequently, my son, Barney, admitted he was reconciled to never seeing his dad again! I was never that pessimistic !) I did confront many of my own demons in the process and was encouraged to hear another team member say the same thing. The name of our boat, Anastasia., means resurrection, and the challenge has helped me after a difficult time in my life. This is also a theme you pick up among open water swimmers. Coldwater is therapeutic, good for body and mind.

And of course, Swimtayka, though a small charity, does fantastic work. My fundraising total should reach £3000. And together our team has raised over £10,000, with odd donations still coming in.  It was a life-changing experience for me, and the passing on of skills by the charity will be life-saving for many. Just to re-emphasise that all the sponsorship has gone directly to the charity as I did not want people to pay me to do something exciting!

So we sped back to Dover in a mere two and a half hours. We had rooms booked in Travelodge, and after a drink, and a good meal, I think it was not long after 9 pm when we admitted defeat and headed for a night’s rest. The next day, as we were there, three of us went for a celebratory swim in the harbour where Dover Channel Training happens every Saturday and Sunday from May to September. The sense of euphoria and the achievement of doing something completely new is still with us. So thanks to each of my team, to Bryan, to Eddie the pilot and his sons, and to all who helped SwimTayka.

There was plenty of sea life: a large seal, porpoises and a sunfish which had strayed out of tropical waters. This was a juvenile. The adults weigh tons. The body is a disk, hence sunfish I expect, and it flops along at the surface and looks really ungainly. There was plenty of jellyfish but they were some way down and kept a respectful distance, so through our goggles, we could see but not touch, as we swam. A bit unnerving at first! I remember swimming away from the boat – learning to swim in open water takes some practice – and thinking, ‘I’m swimming in very deep water … and I feel fine.’

Swim Tayka Channel Relay 2019

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SPI (Stephen)