We did it in 15 hours and 7 minutes

I was beginning to wonder when it would happen so I didn’t want to risk believing it when we were told it was happening Thursday. My plan was to just carry on as normal so that meant a very tough Spin class followed by an abdominals class on Thursday morning at 6.45am followed by work. The confirmation came at 1 pm so I signed off from work and made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and took the dogs for a walk. A massive pasta dinner followed by a laydown, I couldn’t sleep so I rested and before I knew it Tim was taking me down to Dover marina at 9.45pm.

My emotions were already running high. With goodbyes said, we were on the boat and set off for Samphire Hoe at 10.45pm.

Our first swimmer Alan was dropped off to swim to the beach. He stood up and then the Claxton on the boat sounded for him to start his first swim it was 11.23pm. We have jobs besides swimming so my first job was to support the #1 swimmer and then observe him for the whole hour making sure he is okay. Swimmers #4 and 5 were stood down and told to get a bunk and sleep. #2 swimmer was to relax and get ready to swim.

All set ready to swim

My first swim came at 1.23am those who know me know I am an 8-hour sleep girl and I don’t do well on sleep deprivation so it was amazing I was even awake. I jumped off the boat and Richard got on and my first swim started. I have done night swims and I have practised swimming alongside the boat but this was really tough.

It was pitch black and choppy as a result it was very easy to become disorientated with waves crashing over you from left hitting the boat and coming back from the right. It was like being in a washing machine. You can’t see anything in front, or to the left only the dazzling lights from the boat to your right and your only job is to keep the boat parallel to your right and swim as fast as you can for the whole hour. You have absolutely no concept of time or distance but you cannot lose focus and slow down the pace has to be maintained. My first thought was ‘god what am I doing, I am not sure if I can maintain this speed’. My second thought was to all you amazing people that have supported me and at that point, I knew I wasn’t letting anyone down. I just kept swimming. There is a spotlight from boat shining on you as you swim but invariably it shines in your eyes adding to the disorientation so I tried to keep ahead of the boat which is easier than it sounds. Oddly 55 minutes went fast because it was dark I couldn’t see movement on the boat so I wasn’t aware of #4 swimmer getting ready and then I saw the hand signal from Keiran #5 meaning 5 mins it was the longest 5 mins ever. The changeover was slick (they all were, as we had practised).
I was wrapped in my dry robe by Keiran and then changed out of wet swimsuit into a dry one my Zoggs and I went to bed for 2 hours. I didn’t sleep but rested and I was back up at 4.10am to support the #1 swimmer for his 2nd swim. I had an hour of observing, an hour preparing for my next swim.

At 6.23am I was back in the sea for my 2nd swim. It was now daylight and the sun was up. The Channel is like a dual carriageway, a South shipping lane, a separation zone and then the north shipping zone. With ships going in one direction in the south and the other direction in the north and nothing in the separation. Our job was to cut through them all and head for Cap Nez Gris, Calais. Our pilot is in constant communication with the coastguard and so the big ships know we are there and it’s their job to stay out of our way. On this day there were about 8 boats out with Channel swimmers in the water we could see them all around us.

So,   I was swimming through the separation zone notorious for jellyfish and seaweed and I saw lots of jellyfish swimming around and beneath me but I wasn’t stung.  Again it was still quite choppy but the light made it all that much easier, however, it still meant having to breathe unilaterally to the right and I found myself breathing every 2 strokes which is unusual for me.  It was tough but what made it hard was that I could see movement on the boat I can’t say exactly what but I could see #4 swimmer getting ready which plays havoc with you because you honestly have no idea how long you have been swimming but you know you need to keep an eye out for the 5 min signal.  The changeovers are a crucial part of the relay and if you mess it up by being too late or early or touch the person or boat your swim may not be ratified so it’s stressful.  The changeover happened and I was out at this point we weren’t sure if we would get a 3rd swim but it was likely so a change into another dry swimsuit and bed this time for just an hour enough time to miss the seal playing at the back of the boat.

By now the sun was out and it was hot so after eating my slimming World overnight oats which tasted amazing I sunbathed and watched the swimmers only to spot 2 porpoises heading in the opposite direction to Dover.

By now France is really visible but still, so far away,    we can see the buoy that we need to be on the left off in order to get to the cap.  Sadly the tide pushed us to the right and so we began to see that we were now looking at beaching at Wissant.  This also meant that there was some real pressure on us all to ensure we didn’t get pushed too far to the right as if you get too close to Calais Harbour the swim could be aborted.

At 11.23am, you notice there is an exact time each changeover this is monitored by the swim team observer, but also the crew who help with the changeover and also the invigilator.  Yes on every channel swim there is an independent invigilator who monitors and observes the swim.  Geoff our invigilator takes all your medical details, next of kin and monitors every changeover and each swims logging all the key parts even each swimmers stroke rate.

So before I went in Eddie the pilot spoke to me and told me I had to put in my fastest swim ever. He lured me with a pork pie albeit the threat of him throwing it like me if I dared to slow down although I told him I was more likely to swim faster at the offer of a pint at the end.  So I got in,  it was getting choppy again as neared the French coast, but as before I could see absolutely nothing only the boat to my right.  Which was rocking like mad with the rails and then the keel?  My only focus was to swim fast faster and stay parallel with the boat.  At one point I could see Kieran pointing and I was worried that I wasn’t swimming fast enough it turns out there had been a baby ‘sunfish’ swimming on the other side of the boat which then came under the boat to my side.  Sunfish are incredibly rare mostly seen in the tropics and they can grow to a couple of tons in weight luckily this was a baby but of course, I had no idea.  

So I swam for my pride and eventually, I got the sign,  I was gutted as I knew that this was my last swim apart from going to the shore,   I was in the zone and was loving it.  I came out of the water up the steps with a huge grin on my face I was I happy.

As it happens we weren’t allowed to go to shore.  Kieran #5 was swimming but his hour was close to being up so Alan got back in the water and they did the changeover in the water being given the exact time by Rob (crew) in the rib boat looked at carefully by the invigilator on the boat.  So Alan went in first and Kieran as he was in the water 2nd.  Alan had to land unaided and not touch anyone or anything and wave his hands at that point the time is clocked 14.29 meaning 15 hours 7 mins.  Alan had swum for 7 mins on his 4th swim.  Kieran followed and they were met by an English Couple on the beach who were incredulous that we had swum overnight.  

It must be said that at this point the tide was turning and if the pilot had let us all out of the boat there was the concern that we may not have all made it due to the tide turning again.

Bryan (our team manager), Richard, Stephen  & I stayed on the boat and popped the prosecco.   The swimmers are allowed to stay on the beach for 10 minutes then the Claxton sounds and its time for them to swim to the rib boat and be brought back to the main boat, any longer than 10 mins and the French authorities consider them as immigrants.

We then had a 2 1/2 hour journey back to Dover Marina at 8knots. Some of the crew fell asleep or dozed but Stephen Kieran and I were literally buzzing. We celebrated with a drink at the premier Inn and then dinner and drinks at Cullens Yard before crashing.

It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  The training has been tough with me facing many fears and bouts of self-doubt and confidence but the hours I spent getting myself swim fit and sea acclimatised really paid off.

Thank you to Suzzane for writing this article, so inspiring, to read more about her adventures go to her blog:

English Channel Relay Swim 2019