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Triumphing after 19 hours and 35 miles: Phil’s Channel swim

Imagine swimming for 16 hours across the Channel, being within one mile of the French coast and then having to keep going for another three hours because of the pesky current.

That’s exactly what happened to Channel swimmer Phil Preece, 54, who discovered it was a case of mind over matter to ensure he successfully completed the challenge. In total his swim took 19 hours, he travelled 35 miles and he had to give it everything he had to get to shore.

“I never understood before why people say swimming the Channel is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental attitude, but I completely get it now. By the end, it was my mind keeping me going.”

We’d like to give a big shoutout and thank you to Phil, who is now among the elite to complete a solo Channel swim, and in doing so he raised more than £3,600 for SwimTayka.

So, what inspired Phil to tackle the Channel and join the handful of successful solo swimmers. Less than 2,500 have completed the feat – far fewer than have stood at the top of Everest.

In his day job, Phil is a civil servant, working with The Office for Product Safety and Standards. His home is in the Midlands in Leicestershire, so he couldn’t live further from the coast, and initially this deterred him from taking up the challenge.

“I’ve been a swimmer all my life, and used to swim competitively until I was about 18, carrying on after that to keep fit,” he said. “I got into open water swimming a few years ago, and started taking part in events and enjoying them. I’ve done some 10km and a 13km swim, and as the distances got longer, and I coped with them OK, I decided to give the Channel a go, even though we live hours from the sea.”

Phil began preparing in 2019 and hoped to swim in 2020, but was forced to delay by two years due to Covid lockdowns interrupting his training. 

Most of Phil’s training was in the pool, but he spent many weekends swimming at Dover, to acclimatise to sea conditions. He also decided to raise funds for a good cause, and we’re delighted he chose SwimTayka to be the beneficiary.

“I wanted to raise money for an organisation that teaches swimming in developing countries, and SwimTayka was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Coincidentally, I then came across SwimTayka when I was training in Dover, and found out a bit more.”

It was with a combination of nerves and excitement that Phil finally set off at 2.50am on August 6, on his Channel swim. Initially, all went well. The water coming out of Dover was choppy, but as the sun eventually rose, it turned into a beautiful day and Phil was swimming in a calm millpond, and even able to see well enough in the sunny water to dodge the many jellyfish.

Phil then got within touching distance of France, and believed the tide was in his favour.

“I began mentally celebrating, with only a mile to go and I thought ‘I’ve got this’.” So, Phil upped his speed and stroke rate, but soon realised he was no longer making progress.

“I swam hard for about 20 minutes but when I looked up I found, to my dismay, that although I could still see the shore it was actually getting further away!” The current had changed, so Phil had no prospect of making land at that point and was told he would need to swim for at least another two hours. 

“When l learnt about the current change, it was pretty devastating. I had assumed it was almost all over and in the bag, and I’d used a lot of my remaining energy for what I thought would be the final push, so I was exhausted. The water was choppy, the sun had gone down, it was getting dark and I really thought about giving up.”

But he didn’t, he kept going, tracking the coast before he was able to try to come in again.

“I wondered when it would ever end but when my pilot boat eventually lowered the dinghy for me to follow into shore I was delighted. I could still hardly see anything other than some lights on the coast and it was hard to know if they were getting any closer. Once I could eventually put my foot on firm sand, I knew it was over.”

Despite having such a difficult crossing, Phil is thrilled he completed the swim and is even happy to recommend it. “Any good open water swimmer, who has an inkling to take in this most iconic swim, should go for it. But you can’t take it on lightly, you have to really commit; it’s a lot of time and effort, but well worth it.”

Phil’s wife and three daughters are super-proud of his efforts, and at SwimTayka, so are we. And Phil is still fundraising, so if you would like to support him, and therefore support us, you can visit his JustGiving page here.

And if you have been inspired to swim the Channel, and perhaps want to start off by joining a SwimTayka Channel Relay in 2023, you can find more information here.