08 Sep 2014Charlotte Samuels swims the Channel
Charlotte swam the Channel in 20 hours 44 mins and 27 seconds.
I guess I should start at the beginning because it all really is a whole picture and not just the English Channel itself. On August 23, 2014, my mom, my dad and I boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight headed to Heathrow airport. I guess it’s safe to say that none of us ever expected we would ever get THAT far. Only a week ago we had truly decided that we were going to head to England in very high hopes of even GETTING a spot to attempt a swim across the English Channel. For those of you who don’t know, the English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world and the swimmers’ equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest… Except you get no gear at all-just a little suit one cap and one pair of goggles. Also for those of you not yet informed, right now the English Channel is booked up until 2017. So quite TECHNICALLY there are no spots. A swimmer books a tide within the summer and within the tide they are given a number. It is sort of first come first serve and there are literally no guarantees. You can be first in line for a tide and the week of your tide will go by and no swimmers will be able to swim. Then you will have to wait around until another tide where even if you were first in line for the last tide you will be placed all the way at the end after that tides’ last swimmer. As the weeks go by and there is bad weather the people stack up and many leave because they haven’t booked their hotel rooms for so many weeks of just waiting. So technically I never should have been able to swim. We went to England on an absolute limb because we had spoken to a boat captain and he told us that if we were willing to come and “sit” waiting for 3 weeks then I SHOULD have a chance to be able to make an attempt. Extreme NO guarantees. But because I have really rad parents who want me to chase after my dreams at full speed we booked 3 tickets and headed to England. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. I could have all bad weather and more and more swimmers stacked up and never get to go, I could just never get to go, or I could (very little chance) have a chance to go and even smaller chance get to complete a crossing.
The first week we were there it rained non stop and no swimmers went out. I went each morning to train in the harbor and came out cold and scared of the future. Whenever I was scared I talked to my friend Mariel on the phone and she reassured me and helped me get acclimated to the water. Finally come a couple days later, my South African friend Roger Finch arrived with his friend Otto Thaning who was also hoping to make an attempt. Roger and I had met last year at the Ederle Swim and we kept in touch ever since. Roger was also good friends with Dave Barra, one of my long time swimming friends who helped us so so much to set up our trip and get in touch with a great boat captain from Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation named Paul Foreman. Dave and Roger are both Triple Crowners and wonderful people. Dave told Roger I was coming and it worked out perfectly because Roger was coming and meeting his friend Tracy Clark later in the trip to crew for Otto. Within minutes of meeting Otto we were instant friends and Roger and I picked up right where we had started off.
Each day we had a routine- we woke up, met Roger and Otto for breakfast and the Dover Marina Best Western, swam in the harbor, had warm drinks and Starbucks, and then went for an exciting trip to different towns in Kent. Everything was absolutely wonderful. However we all had the little thought in the back of our heads about when we were going to swim. The trips and routine distracted us but the first week was so hard because we knew that there were so many swimmers left over from no swims being attempted in the bad weather. However after the week passed we got word that a nearby hurricane would actually cast awesome effects on the conditions in the channel. The nearby hurricane brought in an Indian Summer. It barely rained again and boat captains went through swimmers much faster. Each day I felt stronger in the Harbor. But I just wanted to swim! Finally the following Thursday Tracy arrived! Tracy and I became close friends within minutes. Tracy swam the Channel last year in very hard conditions with FORCE 6 winds! She was a tough swimmer with a tough mind and she really inspired me. Tracy left her whole family (as did Roger) in order to come to crew for Otto and me. We met many more swimmers each time we swam in the harbor, people chasing after dreams and people like Graeme and Gary- both dedicated to helping people after their own swims in previous years. One day Gary brought his kids and their friends who were all between the ages of 8-11 and I played with them in the harbor after my swim with Otto. Roger and Gary had a talk which spurred discussion about maybe trying to find another captain who would be willing to take me since Paul was so overbooked. Paul was such a gentleman and helped me find a captain named Eddie Spelling who then agreed to take me on the Sunday following. There was so much excitement in the air! I was finally going to have a chance and my possibility of having an opportunity to make an attempt was greater than ever.
That Saturday I woke up to my parents telling me that Otto would be swimming! I was so elated because after so much waiting we both were going to have this opportunity. We went to see Otto off. That night Otto became the oldest person ever to swim across the English Channel at the age of 73. Now it was my turn. Eddie told us to meet at the Dover Boat Harbor at 5AM the next morning. I woke up at 3AM and lathered lots of sunscreen on and ate a PB&J sandwich (my morning ritual for swims!) I had my suit on and all of our bags and supplies were packed. Finally when I went to see if my parents were up they told me to check the tracking. Anastasia and Eddie Spelling and his crew were with a breaststroker who still had hours to go. My heart was pounding. Would I be able to swim? What time would I start? Would they move my swim to tomorrow? Am I going to lose my spot? Eddie contacted us and told us that we would go when they got back. I got a hold of Roger and Tracy who were staying at Varne Ridge and who were up and ready to go as well. Roger told me not to worry because I was getting a chance and I had to run with it no matter what time of day it came at! He told me to get some rest and I tried to. Eddie later contacted us saying that he wouldn’t be able to get back in time for the next tide change and that my swim would be moved to a 7pm start. And boy did I know what that meant. For those of you who do not know, I swam across the Catalina Channel last month- a swim that starts in the pitch black and goes into the morning light. Swimming in the darkness was the scariest most out of body experience I had ever experienced. I felt so deprived of my senses and I felt like I was neither sleeping nor awake during my swim. I immediately started freaking out and because a swim starting at 7PM surely meant a prolonged night swim. I would see the sun set and then rise again. I would be swimming in the pitch black darkness for ELEVEN hours. The anticipation felt so horrible and I never wanted to go back to the fear and hallucinations I had at night in Catalina. However I knew that I had a chance. And all I needed and ever wanted was a chance.
At 6PM we arrived at the Dover Harbor Marina. I sat in the car with my mom as my dad went to get a parking pass. The minutes of this day had been dragging since I got up at 3AM that morning. When I got out of the car I saw the sun hanging low behind the cliffs barely even there before it slipped away. I felt small and scared. Right before I was about to go back to sit in the car, I saw a tall figure walking on the sidewalk towards the Harbor…OTTO! I had to stop myself from running over to him and I walked quickly to his open arms and he gave me a huge hug. I congratulated him on his absolutely terrific swim the day before and he reassured me over and over that I was going to do amazing because I was tough. It was so good to hear it from Otto because he had just swum the channel literally hours before. Later I would learn that my conditions were quite the opposites from what Otto had out there. Otto helped carry supplies down to Anastasia, my support boat that was docked close to where we were with the supplies. I met the crew of Anastasia and soon Roger and Tracy arrived. I met the observer, a very kind and gentle man who asked me questions and filled out his log. I then met Eddie who shook my hand and promised he would do everything in his power to help get me there safely and successfully. Once we were all aboard the beautiful Anastasia we finally left dock and headed for Shakespeare Beach where I would begin my swim. Tracy put Vaseline all over my body in the possible spots that I was likely to have chafing and out of the huge container we had we used more than half! She then helped me secure the blinking light to my goggles and another to the back of my suit. I said my goodbyes to my mom and dad and then to Roger and Tracy and the observer. A deckhand named Paul helped me to climb down a ladder to the bottom of the back of the boat. Right before I jumped in I took one last look at the cotton candy sky and the beautiful white cliffs. I jumped off the back of the boat and swam to Shakespeare beach. It was very quiet with only a few fisherman and a couple with a little kid. I stood up and faced the ocean, everything in the world behind me. All the support of everyone I loved and loved me, on the boat 4 crew members and a whole boatload of people who had only my best interest in mind and wanted me to accomplish my dream. With that I walked into the beautiful blue water. I immediately began swimming instead of walking further out because the rocks hurt my feet to walk on. I felt loose and free. I caught up to the boat and everyone was cheering and taking pictures. With that we carried on out and away from the harbor and out into the first section of the swim- English waters. I made every stroke worthwhile and I was so so happy. I knew that darkness would soon cast over everything so I worshipped the little light that was left. It got darker and darker each breath I took but I was sure that this time the darkness wouldn’t be as bad as it was in Catalina. My first feed didn’t come until 1 hour later and by then it was already dark. To all the art teachers out there who don’t consider black a color-rather a shade- I now understand. It took many shades of black to get to the real black with no light escaping. Out of nowhere I saw them waving light sticks on the boat. I picked up my head to hear Roger yelling to me that if I didn’t get closer to the boat then Eddie was going to pull me. Scared and stunned I brought myself closer to the boat-so close I could almost make out their faces even though it was so dark. They switched on the bright lights which lit up the dark water to a green shade beneath me. My entire crew sat on the edge of the boat and cheered. I wondered what kind of conversations they were having. I thought about my family and home and wondered what was happening there at this moment. I quickly learned that my conditions were not like Otto’s. Every time I stopped for a feed I drifted very quickly backwards. The swells were big and they pushed me into the boat. After a couple hours my crew told me that I had to move to the other side of the boat (boat on my left) because then the boat could block some of the swells. The swells lessened but I struggled to stay side by side with the boat. The fear of being pulled was very great so I swam as close as I could and changed my breathing pattern so that I breathed more on the left than the right-that way I could angle myself and have a better perception of where I was compared to Anastasia. At 4 hours Roger would jump in and swim with me for one hour. I used that as a point of reference. The rules were that Roger could swim with me for 1 hour segments up to every 2 hours after initial 3 hours as long as he didn’t touch me and as long as he stayed behind where my shoulders were. This was very difficult due to the size and strength of the swells. We kept bumping into each other and at one time I accidentally stabbed my finger into his ribs. They had to take Roger out eventually because his blinking light wasn’t working. When Roger had gotten in I wasn’t allowed to stop even though the boat had stopped. I got mixed messages about whether I should keep going as they were getting him in and eventually I kept going because I knew I would either drift or get cold if I waited. I found myself all alone in front of the boat being pushed further and further to the left-all alone in the middle of the ocean. I swam back because I had seen how big the waves on the other side of the boat were. I soon had seen a light in the water-Roger- and he swam with me. Once Roger was out of the water I was left alone in the darkness once again. I wondered how many hours until sunrise and my whole body hurt from being pushed and pulled into the boat by the swells. A jelly had also stung my arm and it was stinging really badly. I avoided EVER complaining to my crew for fear that they might take it the wrong way and pull me out. I asked for Advil but every time it got lost in the water because of the movement of the swells. It was hard to take any feeds besides the warm Carbo Pro out of squirt bottles. Night was endless and unforgiving. Even though Roger could’ve gotten in more times they didn’t let him because of the rough water. Many people on the boat were getting pushed around due to the repetitive rocking of the boat. I was alone with my own mind which was hard to tame and hard to quiet. The only interactions I had were during my feeds at which I couldn’t talk because I was drinking. At this point we were well into the first shipping lane. I wondered if we were near a curve because the tide changes every 6 hours and I figured out with the timing of my feeds that it was probably around 1AM. Some parts of the night felt so lonely and scary that I cried. I cried to make myself realize that it was real life and not some sort of dream land. Sunrise seemed days away yet I knew that if I got to sunrise, I would beat it. I would beat my fears. I would finish the swim. And although so much was ahead I knew that night was the only fear that could grip me. I swam for over 10 hours of darkness. I still cannot grasp how I feel or how I was able to do that. When I felt out of body or scared I told myself that I was getting something very few channel swimmers get- both a sunset and a sunrise. That comforted me. The soothing words if my family and Roger and Tracy during my feeds also brought me back to reality. It wasn’t long before they told me that I only had 2 more hours until sunrise.
The sunrise wasn’t as beautiful or dramatic as the sunset had been but it was all the same the end of my fear. As the sky began to lighten I thought about Devon and how she had jumped in for the first 30 minutes as the sun came up and I kept her with me through my transition to light here in the Channel. I wished that she was really there. I imagined her matching my stroke and my breaths- smiling and cheering whenever she came up to breath. I thought about my friends back at home in New Jersey- many of them just going to sleep. I thought about how I didn’t have to be scared anymore. And I no longer felt alone. I felt awake and alive. Because the sun was now up I could begin to get whiteboard messages. The messages apparently flowed in one after another and my crew struggled to get them all down on whiteboards to show me. We were now out of the separation zone and into the 2nd shipping lane. I wondered if I would be able to see the huge ships now that it was light. I saw some in the distance and many others were traveling on the other side of Anastasia and I couldn’t see them. The 2nd shipping lane lasted forever. It was weird that I had already been swimming for almost 12 hours because I felt fresh and strong as ever with the new light of the sun. I had been consistent and strong the whole night even though I had to battle the swells and the loneliness. My stroke rate was higher and better than it had ever been and I never let up. Eventually Roger was able to get in and swim with me again. I missed him so so much! When we swam he looked at me and smiled. A couple days before my swim we were in Deal and we walked by a street festival where a band began to play “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. Roger took my hand and looked me in the eye and told me “Yes Charlie I promise I will”. With that he gave me a kiss on my cheek and we listened to the beautiful music. We swam together and it made me feel so loved. Once Roger got out I looked at my crew- my mom, my dad, Tracy and Roger all huddled up on the boat watching me and I thought about how for the rest of my life I would be indebted to them for helping me. I love them all so so much. The sun got brighter in the sky and I knew that I had been in the 2nd shipping lane for a while which meant that the French Waters (the last section) had to be close. Some of the messages I had been getting were making me so teary eyed as were the fact that I no longer that to battle the night. At my next feed I looked in front of me and there it was. Hazy but there all the same-the French coast. The sight of land after a long night and nothing but black brought me hope. Each stroke I took brought me closer and closer to land. A couple feeds later I got word that I was in French waters. As I drank my Carbo Pro, Captain Eddie opened his window from where he was navigating and shouted to me (in a very British accent) “You’re doing great love! Keep going like you’re going and you’ll get there!” I was so happy to hear this because the pilot knows absolutely best- he’s seen people fail and succeed and he knows what it takes so I did what he said. I kept swimming strong and steady. The length of time I had been in the channel water didn’t phase me. I was enjoying each minute of it since the sun had come up and now I could see France! Every time up until this moment that I had asked for medicine I was unable to take it and it took until then to actually take an Advil successfully. I told myself that it would help me and I think it did. I no longer ached- I just wanted to pull and keep going. I was so happy and I felt so so lucky. I even told myself that if it all ended right now it would be okay because I beat my fear of swimming in the darkness. But I wanted to finish! And I was determined. To keep my spirits up, I wondered what my finish would be like. I pictured everyone on the boat cheering and watching closely as I touched the rocks beneath my feet and stood up and walked out of the water with Roger beside me. I imagined hugging him and crying and then swimming back to the boat and getting lots of hugs and kisses and warmth. I knew that the end wasn’t far. At the feed that followed that, Tracy, Roger and my parents told me that I needed to move quickly and push hard to get through the current. I was so close but I knew that the end is always the hardest part of a channel swim. I wondered what Cap Gris Nez looked like and if I was looking at it or if I was going to a different end point in France. There’s a saying among Channel swimmers that you train for a swim across the Channel but the swim doesn’t actually start until the last 5k. So many swimmers get through the whole swim well and then spend a long time trying to fight a current to get into the Cap. Many swimmers give up in the last 5k. Others that keep swimming miss the Cap all together and have to swim to another beach. Due to the time of the tide I got to the end my captain decided it would be best if I went very far right of Cap Gris Nez. That way since the current was going left, if I aimed right diagonally it would be easier to get to the right and not be fully swept to the left as I would be if I was going in a straight line or just aiming for the shortest distance. During that last 5k Captain Eddie called everyone to put away their cameras and get to my side of the boat and cheer their heads off so that I would be able to have as much encouragement as I could. During that last 5k my life really flashed before my eyes. Every time I looked left I saw these beautiful and loving people all dedicated to my dream. Each with a story and a hope. And in my own mind I saw a little kid, a girl with brown hair and brown eyes, torn down at times but a kid who always loved and lived to be in the water, someone who had persevered through all odds to get here, someone who knew what passion was, someone lucky enough to be able to have a chance to swim and a chance to be brave. And I tried to live through little Charlotte. Little Charlotte who stuck with swimming all these years even though she wasn’t the fastest. Little Charlotte who had coaches yell at her and her team ripped apart and the possibility of her passion burn to the ground but yet always kept going back because she knew it was love and it was meant to be. Because all she wanted was to swim and to feel alive like she felt as a little kid playing in the ocean in LBI with her cousins. I felt my body hurting but my mind was on fire and so was my soul. My crew held up whiteboard messages that read “I love you so so much xx” “pain is temporary triple crown is forever” “Devon says this is your swim”. Back in California when I did Catalina, the last message Devon wrote me was “this is YOUR swim”. It had been 17 long hours of swimming the Catalina Channel when they told me to push to get through the last 5 miles and I had the kind of recollection that I had in the channel. Roger also held one that he wrote that said “you know I would never lie to you. 200 yards to the shallows once you get there you are safe”. My eyes filled up with tears. I couldn’t contain the raw emotion I was feeling. All these people on the left on the boat cheering and giving everything for me and all over the world more and more people sending me good vibes and love cheering me on even though they were worlds away. For my last 5k in the English Channel, each 10 strokes I dedicated to a different person. I dedicated it to each and every person that came to mind, each and every person who has loved and stood behind me and raised me up to the sky and has helped me in whatever way they could so that I could have the opportunity to chase my dreams. Whether that be getting an A on a test in Chemistry or going after a seemingly impossible goal like becoming the youngest Triple Crowner at the age of 16. I made every stroke worth it because every person who I dedicated the strokes to deserved my full effort and my full heart. As I was swimming I realized that behind me they were removing the dinghy from Anastasia. We must be close. Out of no where I swam into a plastic bottle and as a was drinking it I realized that it was a different feed which meant that it was my last feed. They told me I had to drink fast because the current was so strong and I had to keep making forward progress because I was being pushed really fast to the left and back. During the feed I saw that everyone was crying. They looked so hopeful and that gave me hope. I’m not exactly sure what happened next but there was a lot of miscommunication and the deckhand went onto the dinghy and I followed swimming next to him-I wasn’t supposed to. I started swimming completely left and in, the current carrying me. Everyone was screaming but I didn’t hear them. I finally picked my head up and the deckhand screamed that I needed to aim to the right towards the colorful houses on land and get closer to Anastasia. I went fast, sprinting. I didn’t know it at the time but the national anthem was playing. At this point I was really crying. Eventually the boat dropped away and I was left with the dinghy and the deckhand. I kept going forward thinking about Rogers words. I wondered how far I was from the “shallows”. How much longer would it be until I was safe? I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I had finished until I had. I asked the deckhand where to aim and he pointed to these flat rocks ahead of me. He told me DO NOT GET OUT JUST TOUCH THEM AND IT WILL COUNT. Finally out of absolutely no where I saw it. Sand! Rocks beneath me! Real life LAND. France. Under my body there were rocks covered with grass and around me there were lobster pots and the current had died down. These were the shallows. I kept going. Enjoying every stroke because my dream was so close to being complete. I almost didn’t want it to end. The dinghy was far away and although there were houses nearby, no one was around. A couple little fish and grass were bending in the waves beneath the surface of the water. I was all alone. And for the first time in a long time it was peaceful. In front of me there were flat rocks which when I got to I picked my head up, took my goggles off and looked at the beautiful land called France and then touched the rocks at which the deckhand waved his hands in an “all clear” and I swam back to the dinghy. He helped me on and congratulated me but as I was getting on I realized I didn’t have a rock from France! I told him but he said that we didn’t have time because the current was getting really strong -strong for even a motored dinghy! Since I had touched to finish I had a different kind of finish from where you get out on a soft beach I was unable to get a rock to bring back with me. He said I could look at the bottom of the sand near the dinghy for a rock if I wanted. I did and I found one all alone in the sand. I grabbed it. I handed it to him to hold for me and got onto the dinghy and we went back to Anastasia. Aboard the boat everyone hugged me and kept me warm and we all cried tears of happiness and relief. We had all accomplished the impossible and at the age of 16 I had become the youngest person ever to achieve the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. Plus I had just swum across the English Channel in less than ideal conditions. They all commended my strength. Tracy told me that she had never seen anyone so determined, not even an adult, and she said that I have a heart of steel. My parents hugged me and we were all in shock (and still are) at how everything somehow worked out. Roger kissed my right shoulder and held me close. The observer and deckhands and Eddie congratulated me and everyone helped me get warm. I had started my English Channel swim at sunset, a time almost no one starts and I had finished my English Channel Swim 20 hours 44 minutes and 27 seconds later in a little town called Audresselles, more than 3 miles from the Cap, a place almost no one ever finishes. My experience, my age, and my conditions were all a big shock to lots of people. My swim was fueled by love and passion.
Since obviously I’m small and the goal I set was rather large, I have a LOT of people to thank. First and foremost thank you from the bottom of my heart to my mom and dad. Marathon swimming is very taxing, emotionally, physically and mentally. They put a lot on the line to give my the chance to have these opportunities this summer and more than that they went to England for 3 weeks with absolutely no guarantees. Thanks to you guys for always believing in me and for never giving up on me. Thank you to my dad for his never ending support and for making sure I always had what I needed with my feeds and everything else. Mom, thank you for cheering for me and for being there when I needed you most during the last 5k. I couldn’t have done any of this without you both. Thank you to Roger and Tracy. Both of you helped me with no strings attached and you are both in my heart and we are all bonded for life. Thanks to Roger for swimming with me and helping me in the harbor and always making me laugh and cry and smile. Thanks for calming me down whenever I was freaking out and for making every day in England hilarious and awesome. Thanks to Tracy to always believing in me and cheering for me and being there the whole time to tell me exactly what was going on and for handling the social media piece of my Channel swim. Thanks for being such a great friend and for making me laugh and always feel safe and showing me that I was always in good hands. Thank you to Roger’s wife Lindsay for lending Roger out to Otto and me to help us both to accomplish our goals. Thank you to Tracy’s husband Andy for lending her out and to her two sons Alex and Connor for lending out their super cool mom! Thank you to Otto for training with me every day in the harbor and for always making me feel good about my swimming and making me laugh. Also thanks to Otto for sharing his crew with me! Thank you to Captain Eddie and his deckhands as well as my very kind observer for helping me get to France. Thank you to Paul Foreman for giving us the push we needed to come to England and for helping us find Captain Eddie who had less bookings than he did. Paul is a real gentleman and a really kind guy who wanted me to succeed even if it wasn’t with him. Thank you to David Barra for helping so much with logistics in my swim and travel. Thank you to my magnificent little brother who has given up so much (even mom and dad) and started high school on his own with Grammy just so I could come to England. Thank you to my amazing Grammy for making sure everything on Melrose place is going well and for always loving and supporting me and watching Seb and the animals. Thank you to my whole family, all my cousins and aunts and uncles for loving and taking care of me always. Thank you to my Uncle Lawrence for always making me laugh hysterically and for all his help with my swims this summer. Thank you to my family in Cali for always supporting me and being there for me. Thank you to Bergen Barracudas and all my teammates for supporting me so much this summer and this year in all of my dreams and for training with me. Thank you to my church community of USR and CUC for being so welcoming and supportive and always giving me a place to fall back to. Thank you to Ridgewood High School for supporting me in my task to become the youngest swimmer to swim the Triple Crown and for accommodating my missed school work. Thank you to all the people who have supported me for MIMS and Catalina and have helped me get through those swims so that I could get to England. Thank you to all my friends for their support near and far both in NJ and all over the world including people I don’t even know for giving me the support I’ve needed to finish these 3 huge swims. This has been an incredible journey and has truly changed my life. I have discovered so much about myself and how I want to live my life. It’s been a great dream and it finally came true. With endless humility, gratitude, salt water, love and infinity, thank you.
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°)