Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation "Nothing great is easy", Captain Matthew Webb

12 Jul 2014Mark Sheridan Solo

Mark Sheridan Solo

Mark Sheridan swam English Channel solo in 14:33 on 12 July 2014

So there I was on the way to Bala for the annual BLDSA 2-way and 1-way (9 miles in total) swim weekend, stopped at Cirencester in the Cotswolds to have lunch & pick up one of my best mates, Hugh, then get up to leave when my phone suggests that I have a text. That's odd I think - none of my mates would text at 2pm on a Friday and must have had a 6th sense that it's my pilot, Neil Streeter.

'Are you one of the ones keen to bring your Channel Swim forward?'
'Sure, ready when you are' I replied.
'10pm tonight?'
'No problem, see you at the Marina at 9.30pm then...'

And that was that - everything was meant to be. Turned round the car headed 3 hours back to Sevenoaks with Hugh, called the other 3 crew members - Kev, Mick and my brother Richard - they were all up for it although Kev seemed more upset than the others as he had to cancel a hot date of the evening and a table at Gaucho in Richmond.


We met at my house, Rose Cottage, near Sevenoaks at 8pm and finalised all the kit that I had been meticulously preparing for weeks after washing down the finest plate of Ginger Chicken Udon at Wagamama on the way back from Cirencester.

We got to Dover Marina. Hugh had a massive panic as had left his and (more importantly) my passport at home (45 mins away) cue a phone call to Emily to meet him half way on the M20 at breakneck speed to get back asap!! (There's always some crisis that ensues in these swims!!

Whilst Hugh was retrieving said passports, Neil and Adrian decided that would be an ideal juncture to throw co-pilot Sam Jones into the water of the Marina....twice! I giggled so hard any last nerves were obliterated and definitely took the edge off passport-gate!

Anyway, we stowed all the kit on majestic Suva that Neil Streeter had painstakingly refurbed over the winter and were told that as we were swimming on a Spring tide would leave from Samphire Hoe. Ok no problem....bring it on....Forecast to get up to 4/5 at some stage and then drop the closer to France. Neil was reasonably happy with wind direction of south west. Fine. Ok - what experience do I have of Channel swimming? - I just had masses of desire! Hugh came back with the documents and we were off! No turning back

Took 25 mins to motor to Samphire Hoe. The crew commented how fast the tide was shifting outside of the harbour with the boat making hard headway against it. Wow. First time I had been outside of the confines of the harbour. 5 mins to go.

Greased up by my brother, goggles, lights, ear plugs and then said 'see you in a bit' and swam the 50-100m in to the beach. Hooter went off and then we were underway. It was 10.49pm Friday 11th July 2014.

Felt absolutley terrific as I hadn't been at work but had 8 hours in the car all day. I reminded myself that I had swum over 21 miles on 3 occasions, definitely had the distance in the shoulders plus a stroke to work for the occasion which seemed to extinguish any anxieties completely. The water gradually felt like something that I was going to acclimatise to although it felt quite tasty & chilly on the initial plunge! The plan was to swim for the 1st hour then have a feed then 40 minute intervals thereafter. In the end that worked just fine.

The crew had the spotlight on me for that first hour until it was making me feel like I was in an interrogation room & was disorientating. The first hour was spent getting used to the odd pale jellyfish bumping into me ('what the hell was that?') but not stinging me plus trying to get used to the swell. 1st hour gone, in for a feed and 2 jelly babies. I asked Neil to turn off the spot light and now it was me in darkness save for green LED lights and the boat lit up with green lightsticks that were placed below the gunwales.
Ploded on and then, completely unannounced, felt a sudden rasping burn all the way down my left arm as I was stung my a more aggressive variety of jellyfish which hurt from elbow to hand but gradually dulled during the swim - but at the time felt like one of the Dover massive had knifed me all down my arm. Ouch - bloody ouch I thought. The swell and waves increased the further we ventured from the shore and was hard order swimming in the dark - I just couldn't work out a rythmn that is usually so easy to find anywhere else I have swum.

The next feed came quickly at 40 mins with maxim and a mini Mars bar. Little was I to know then that this would pretty much be the last solid of the day. Swam up to the boat and got a mouthful of engine fumes (like each time I fed). Yuk. I swallowed the feed and fought off the urge to gag. This was a similar pattern for most of the night feeds - almost praying for the wind to get up to move the fumes as far from me as possible. The lights of Dover continued to shine brightly (seemed like forever) although we first managed to lose Folkestone into the night gloom. Ferries went up and down and seemed spookily different lit up at night almost like something from outer space - the Varne lightship seemed like something from a James Bond movie..... I thought I was beginning to hallucinate and forced myself to get a grip.....

We trundled on and I remembered how mentally exhausting it is swimming at night with only the outline of the boat and a few lights for reference points. 2 of the crew were now noticeably not on deck and I envied them being wrapped up in the sleeping bags we packed. It was sensible of them as the 4 took it in turns for each team of 2 to have 2 hour shifts (and I would recommend such a plan btw). We got to the end of darkness and I was beginning to feel really sleepy and just was desperate to get my head down myself. Get a grip Sheridan...The gloomy night gradually lifted and the cloudy day began.

The air temperature felt cold at this early hour and I went in for a feed. The 5 litre pump-action thermos which had been initially filled at 8pm the previous evening was now tepid at best. I complained about craving a warm feed. 40 mins passed and then I had another cold feed but was reassured that the kettle was on and the next feed would be warmer. I was beginning to feel miserable and marginally sorry for myself......

I swam on through the gloomy morning into a reasonable swell, the boat was pitching back and forth & I was terrifically thankful that I was not on that rocking boat following a slow motion swimmer (I giggled to myself for a while about this that kept me going). Then ALL OF A SUDDEN a pain in the knee!!! A biting mouth!!! What the heck was that? A fish was trying to take multiple chunks out of my right knee (thank god it wasn't going for the middle of my 3 knees I joked to myself) I reached down and just about managed to get hold of the slimy eel-looking creature and threw it as far as I could and let the crew know that I had been attacked by a fish. They must have thought I was completely bonkers - 'nothing will do that to you in the Channel'.  It was thought to have been a Gar fish but is more likely to be a Sea Lamprey Wikipedia Link now I've had a chance to consult.... Very odd.…We soldiered on

Anyway, the swell was continuing and each feed was just about being held down despite me gagging forever and a day until I couldn't take any longer and did 3 really terrific wretches and I produced enough sound effects to create as much drama as possible to make people laugh - I don't think they heard me over the sound of the engine though. Felt marginally better after losing much/most of my stomach but really burning the back of my throat in the process. Ouch. Masterpiece of crewing from the lovely Sam Jones was the immediate change of feeds to tea with fruit sugar then coffee with fruit sugar. Game changer as I felt more with it and after those feeds could then get back on the maxim - but this time much more super-charged maxim that Sam takes a great pride to stir up in her cauldron like chewing gum!

We steadily made our way passed the French shipping lane and into French in-shore water where it gradually and finally became much calmer & the air and sea was warmer. I found a decent rythmn and the water felt ace. Still swimming over masses of jellyfish 6 feet down but I certainly wanted to be nowhere else but here in this warmer calmer water right there and then. I couldn't see the French coast although the boys assured me it was visible through to cloud. The crew noticed my pick up in pace and were congratulating me as had probably long concluded they were dealing with serious plodder here trying to get his money's worth.

We eventually swung down the coast on the spring tide and France was there in front of me. To the left I could even just about make out Cap Gris Nez and the lighthouse behind the headland. Wow. Is this the fairytale ending that people talk about I wondered? I started to feel slightly excited although didn't count my chickens. France never came closer but I decided to give it much more beans in the water to give it a proper go. All of a sudden the tide turned and we were heading back up towards the Cap. Wonderful I thought. Little did I realise that the now 5 knot tide was sweeping me past this ideal and I was a mile out with no chance of landing it at 12 hours….. I had lost touch with the boat and when I finally caught up with them, Neil was out on the rail giving me a blasting that I deserved:
'Forget the fairytale lighthouse, that's over. Stop looking at your f-ing watch, stop f-ing looking up at France, get your head down, follow me and graft. Let's get this swim done and we're going into the Bay'.
'Yes Sir' I replied with the compliance of an obedient child who might have jeopardised getting their bike for Christmas...'I will follow you'.

Missing the cap was going to cost another 4-5 miles of swimming and perhaps 2.5 hours in the end but bit by bit I assured myself that if I could put one arm in front of the other then I would get there eventually which was something that I had remembered reading Zoe Sadler's Channel write-up.

I then began to pick up and see a beach that Neil seemed to be aiming for. There was no-one on it - oh how ideal - a deserted beach all to myself. But the more we kept going it never seemed to get closer. I stopped swimming and enquired 'please can you assure me that I am actually moving somewhere? Am I making progress?' Affirmative came back the answer. The thought entered my head that Susan Taylor had perished tragically in this bay (perhaps close to this very spot) almost a year to the day and I empathised with her at this very moment struggling like me in this particular spot trying to get the job done.

Another 20 mins went by and the beach was still yellow sand but then, all of a sudden, I could see people on the beach, a tractor, a dog running perhaps and loads of seagulls overhead.
Then a few arm strokes later the boat stopped and Sam said over the rail:

'Hugh is going to get in and swim with you to the shore. The boat isn't going any further as it is too shallow'.

I hadn't realised that Hugh had donned his jammers and had launched himself off the stern of Suva to accompany me the last few hundred meters.

We made for the beach and then noticed some steps that led out of the water on the right-hand side. How ideal I thought of them to put them there for someone with a disability who struggles  to get out of the water. We rocked up to the steps through the waves and cleared the sea amid cheers of all the watching French people who stood beside the Coastguard Tower on the promenade. I raised my arms in the air and Suva's horn went off. We had made it!


A smiley Frenchman enquired where I had come from and how long I had taken - 15 hours I thought but was corrected by Hugh that it was nearer 14 1/2 hours. Bonus. I would have bitten your hand off for under 15 hours before getting in.

Hugh suggested that I find some stones but, in my state and where we landed, that looked like an absolute impossibility. Next thing I knew he duck-dived down and found 3 immediately shoved them in his trunks and we swam the few hundred meters back to majestic Suva glistening in the sunlight. The whole world seemed warmer all of a sudden and there was no urgency anymore. I even did the odd breaststroke or 2 which was a relief after 14 1/2 hours of front crawl!! I climbed up the ladder onto the deck no problem at all,  my brother got me dressed in short order and spent the rest of the trip looking back to France with a can of Fanta gradually falling asleep with my brothers sun glasses on until we were stopped by HMS Valliant for a passport check 1 hour later!!

What an ace crew and top swim. All I had to do was to get in, get on with it, swim some more, then get out. Mission accomplished - simples (cue the meer-cat!). All the meticulous training and preparation stood me in good stead. Particularly the 7 hour & 6 hour Sat and Sunday weekend at Dover in early June plus the BLDSA Champion of Champions & Torbay 8-milers as particularly ideal training. Nothing was left to chance and it was only going to be a serious weather pattern surprise that was going to spoil the show.

I owe a particular shout out to the following people, the 'Sherpas' (other than crew) as super honorary mentions without whom my swim would never have been possible

Giovanna Richards - Made me realise in 2010 that I could swim a mile in an outdoor pool at David Lloyd in Kings Hill, Kent and encouraged me to go to the local lake in a wetsuit to see how liberating open water swimming would become. Never worn the wetsuit since.
She's a Swimsmooth swim-coach and really motivated me to believe I could keep testing my boundaries - nothing is deemed impossible for G. She will attest that 4 years ago, during a midlife crisis, I was able to come to this sport with no experience and deliver a Channel swim.

Ray Gibbs - Swim coach and founder of Swim Canary Wharf. Helped me craft an effortless stroke over the years. When I got back from swimming the Channel on the Saturday, I swam for an hour in Dover on Sunday and did some sprint sets.... This is testament to the teachings of Ray 'Mr Miyagi' Gibbs. If you are serious about becoming a marathon swimmer or encounter shoulder pain in training look up Ray. (he gets booked up though so use the Winter months to do the grunt technical work)

Anne-Mette Friis - My Pilates coach who after the Marsden single-handedly has helped me get the most of what my body can deliver. I have unreal flexiblity & core strength after 18 months of 1:1pilates 1x per week and very rarely require a sports massage. Find her in London (at scandipilates.com).

Pascale Kippelen - Brunel university - The expert who helped diagnose that I had exercise induced asthma (or EIB) - & gave treatment prescription. Had no problems breathing during the swim thanks to a healthy dose of Serevent before getting in the Channel. Amazing how many experts you need on your side to deal with what your body throws at you as my body started developing EIB after all these relentless long distance swims....

Professor Meirion Thomas - Head of Surgical Oncology at the Royal Marsden -Was only one of 3 surgeons in the country who could have saved my life by removing a complex life threatening grapefruit-sized tumour that was discovered sitting on my left femoral nerve in October 2012. Was left with major left leg disability with no use of left quadricep. He though I would never swim long distances again but I take great pride in sending e-mails of my swims and letting him know that one can swim without a left leg-kick. He saves lives but it reminds you that you can swim the Channel with a good arm stroke and little leg kick - I am living proof! Don't give me any excuses if you are perfectly able bodied as I'm unlikely to have any sympathy!!

Freda Streeter, Barry and Irene Wakeham - The solid beach crew, ever-present in all weathers with oodles of experience, patience and cuddles. They just give their time but isn't that the most valuable thing in life? They have given hundreds of swimmers their time & insights which are priceless.

Is the English Channel a tough swim? I would say of course it is. Loch Lomond and Two Way Windermere are much tougher on the shoulders as they are less buoyant in the fresh water & Lomond, in particular, is colder. Those BLDSA swims were also undertaken over a late afternoon, an evening then an entire night to get them done which was mentally very tough. HOWEVER,  The Channel messes with your constitution as it's salt water, swell and chop that all serve up a concoction that is quite aggressive on your mouth and makes you feel really grim at times. I finished Lomond in 14hours 44 mins and I'd say it's tougher as you have to organise so many of the logistics yourself and it was a huge unknown with so few people conquering it - there's no pilot hand delivered for you easily.... Some people also say the the 2 Swim 4 life is tougher than the Channel which I would probably agree with for the mind-numnbing factor but again no salt water so doesn't mess as much with your soul!!

Have a go. It will change your life and perspective on many things for the better!
CS&PF NEWS

Sandettie Lightship Observations

7pm, 24th April 2017


Water: 51.3 °F (10.7 °C)

Air: 49.3 °F (9.6 °C)

Wind Speed: 15.0 kn (27.8 km/h)

Wind Direction: WSW (250°)

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