Frequently Asked Questions
There will be many questions for which you will need answers when it comes to swimming the English Channel. We have placed some questions with basic answers here to help get you started.
When is the best time to swim the Channel?
Thanks to Mother Nature, no one can plan the optimum weather day for swimming the English Channel. It's impossible to accurately predict what is going to happen with the weather more than five days in advance. Occasionally, accurate forecasts can only be made within a two-day window, and even these are subject to change. This applies to any time of the year for the English Channel.
Successful Channel swims happen during the 'Channel Swimming season' which is usually between late June to the end of September, although some swimmers succeed in early October.
Conditions depend on many factors, one prime one being the water temperature. Summarised below are the approximate water temperatures for the relevant parts of the year.
The water is still warming up in June and early July with recorded average water temperatures ranging from 14°C to 16°C (58° to 61°F). The plus side at this stage of the season is that the days are longer and the air temperature is usually "warm" by English Channel standards.
By late July to early August, the waters warm up to around 17°C (62°F). The air temperature remains good but the weather can be comparatively unsettled.
From the end of August to early September the water tends to reach 18°C to 19°C (64-67°F), but the daylight hours shorten and the air temperature often drops to 15°C (58°F).
For two weeks from mid September the water is often at its warmest but the days are short with the air and water temperature during daylight being similar. The nights are cold.
How do I find other aspiring Channel swimmers?
It is a good idea to talk to other aspiring English Channel swimmers and there are many ways to find them.
First, you should ask swimmers in your area and try and gather knowledge locally. Staff at swimming pools frequently have current information regarding local swimmers. A web search for swimmers using the phrase "open water swimmer" and your location will yield results.
There is a also an internet group which has been set up for those who wish to swim the English Channel. Ask fellow swimmers how to find the email address to request access to the group.
Can you get sea sick whilst swimming?
It takes time to develop "sea legs" and the best way to do this is by spending time at sea. Motion sickness is one of the last causes of sickness whilst swimming. It's usually the feeding or ingestion of the water in which you're swimming. As for genuine seasickness, consult your doctor or pharmacist for medication but do not try this for the first time on the day of your swim.
How do I acclimatise for the cold English Channel water?
If you are attempting a solo swim, part of CS&PF's rules are that you must have a certified six hour swim in 61°F (16°C) water (or colder). For relay swimmers the required assessment swim is a two hours swim in the same conditions.
Please regard the "certified 6 hour swim" not as the sole "qualifying swim" but that it should be counted as part of your preparation for the Channel. You should expect to prepare for and complete more than one six hour swim.
It is another part of the CS&PF "Duty of Care" and Health and safety risk assessment. It is the sort of temperature and time which will give you a good indication as to what you are letting yourself in for. It is also a means of making you aware of the dangers, hence the need that both you and the person who watches you sign an affidavit to say you have completed it.
Please do not practice swimming alone.
If you are planning to swim the Channel you will need to be doing swims well in excess of 6 hours in your preparation. Six hours is the first, and easy part, of the average 12 to 16 hours it will take you to swim the Channel. The Channel water temperature ranges from 15°C at the end of June to 18/19°C, (if it's a good year) during the first couple of weeks of September.
Swimming alone in open water is not advisable, especially if the water is cold (below 16°C) - if it's below 10°C then it's obviously more dangerous. Hypothermia is "variable" to each person's metabolism. Some can take it, some cannot. Hypothermia can set in very quickly once you stop swimming, sometimes within two to three minutes. Often you do not notice it while you are swimming which can make swimming 15 yards/metres a hard job when you realise you are cold. In some cases that distance is impossible. A person who is drowning is usually unable to raise their arms to flag for help. It takes time to acclimatise, so when you arrive for the swims in Dover harbour in early May anticipate that it can be a challenge.
Be honest with yourself - sort out your own risk assessment that fits with your body zones and plan accordingly. If you really have to swim alone in open water (which we do not advise), consider towing support of some sort - it will not hamper your swimming that much. There are a lot of good "divers aids" and marker buoys etc which can be inflated by a small air cylinder (similar to a lifejacket system) that will give you enough support to return to the shore.
To sum up: cold water, get used to it. Swimming alone, don't do it.
What about jellyfish?
If the Inuits have 50 words for snow, and the Americans 50 words for a car crash, swimmers probably have 50 words for jellyfish, most of them rude. The sea is our playground, but it is their home.
There are the scary Portuguese man of war jellyfish which are deadly and rarely appear in the English Channel, note rarely. Lion's Mane jellyfish have a nasty sting which can cause muscle paralysis. You need to avoid the long trailing tentacles of all jellyfish. These tentacles can extend to three metres in length.
Some swimmers carry vinegar in their kitbag as it helps reduce the pain by applying it to the area of the sting. Left untreated, a jellyfish sting can cause blisters, cramp, nausea and/or a heart attack. Always ask a local about recent bloom sightings before you get into the water.
It is incredibly rare for a Channel swimmer to be significantly affected by jellyfish. It is more of a psychological worry, rather than a real risk.
Where do swimmers train and when does the training season start in Dover?
Swimmers generally train in swimming pools during the winter to build up a solid base of endurance swimming. Many swimmers also combine indoor training with regular outdoor swims to remain acclimatised to the cold water. The more cold water swimming you do, the more likely you are to generate brown adipose tissue, or 'brown fat' which helps insulate you in the water. It takes more than one season for your body to accumulate brown fat rather than the more normal white fat which more sedentary people carry.
The swimming training season in Dover starts on the first Saturday in May and runs until the end of the season in September, every Saturday and Sunday. During this period, Freda Streeter and her team kindly donate their time, experience and wisdom in helping as many swimmers as possible achieve their goal.
Please check the News section on this website for more information.
What about stretching?
It is vital to protect your body whilst doing a vast amount of repetitive swimming work. Stretching after your swim will help you limit the risk of developing chronic injuries to your shoulders or other parts of your body. Speak with other swimmers and a physiotherapist and learn about your shoulder which is one of the most complex joints in your body.
How important is the boat pilot?
Not even Matthew Webb would have achieved his swim without a boat pilot in 1875. Swimmers and pilots are part of a team and trust in each other is vital. You mustn't touch each other during the swim, but equally you can't be out of each other's sight. Your boat pilot is essential.
How early can I register for my swim?
You can register as early as you like for a swim. The later you register, the less likely you are to get a date with a good tide and conditions. Most people book long in advance using historical averages to hopefully book a slot when the water and weather is at its most benign. Leave it late and you might forget something or omit something. Book early and remove the pressure from all.
Is goose fat useful?
These days we know that goose fat does not insulate, it merely protects against chafing. Goose fat is also very messy to apply, and the same applies to lanolin. Most swimmers now apply Vaseline which can be purchased in pharmacies and supermarkets. The aim of the Vaseline is not for insulation but to stop sores developing in areas which chafe during your swim.
What should I eat and drink?
Swimmers dehydrate in both warm and cold water. You need to rehydrate and you need to refuel. Experiment with energy drinks during your training and never try something new on the day. Many swimmers use Maxim, but it's your choice. Find the right fuel for your body and stick with it. Do not consume alcohol as it takes 48 hours for your body to completely process alcohol from your system.
Is the water clean?
The English Channel is one of the world's busiest stretches of water for marine traffic. The water is very salty, brackish even. We don't test the water, but swimmers have been swimming in the English Channel since 1875.
What sort of budget should I estimate?
Each person's budget can vary enormously and depends on your own circumstances and location. You need to allow for the fee for the application to the CS&PF, fee for the boat and the boat pilot. Also budget monies for food on the boat and many unforeseen sundry extras which will arise. It's not cheap and can involve a lot of costs for gear, travel, accommodation etc. Acquire individual quotes from your pilots and speak with swimmers who have previously swam the English Channel.
Where are the other swims which might help me?
Look locally and ask around as you will find that there are an increasing number of open water swims which will help you develop your skills and confidence for open water swimming.
What exactly are English Channel rules?
In very basic summary, if you want to swim the English Channel, you must do the following:
- Wear one swimming hat, a pair of goggles and standard issue swimming costume.
- No neoprene is allowed.
- You must start on land where the observer can see you standing on land and not in water.
- You must finish on land where the observer can see you standing on land and not in water.
- You are not allowed touch the boat at any time, this includes whilst swimming and whilst feeding.
If you break any of the above rules, your swim will be disqualified.
What weight should I be to swim the channel?
You can be any weight to swim the English Channel. Many people add as much as 10kgs or 20 pounds leading up to the swim. The more bodyfat you have, the better your personal insulation. If you are too heavy, you might struggle. Work it out yourself.
Do people fail to swim the channel?
As the saying goes, "a winner fails many times, a loser fails only once". People fail for a variety of reasons. Sadly some people have lost their lives. People succeed too, but always remember what Capt Webb said: "Nothing great is easy".
Are jelly babies useful?
Jelly babies are those useful sugary treats which well-behaved swimmers receive occasionally when doing a distance swim. My friend's Dad used to take them to the ballet once a year when he went under instruction of his wife. He would eat them slowly and partially, arms, legs, body, head. If you want to be an English Channel swimmer, develop your own style for the consumption of jelly babies. And when it comes to ballet, remember the line from Billy Eliott: "Ballet, that's for lasses".
Sandettie Lightship Observations
4am, 29th May 2015
Water: 54.1 °F (12.3 °C)
Air: 52.7 °F (11.5 °C)
Wind Speed: 16.0 kn (29.6 km/h)
Wind Direction: SW (230°)