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

18 Mar 2020Super Old Swimmers Story

Super Old Swimmers Story

Article about one of the CS&PF 2019 season award winners by Irene van Wijk

Super Old Swimmers Story

Have you heard that joke about the man who was to swim the Channel? This one ends differently than you would expect. He went. But…, not alone.

Channel-swimming is known, but also unknown. You never meet an athlete in action. You can watch them swimming, in the Gaasper-pond or some local ditch. But then they are not channel-swimming. Cause that’s only possible in The Channel, or La Manche, depending on the coast you choose. And from that coast you don’t see any swimming, just lucky landings or rueful retreats. Provided you know where they will do that. Because, dear runners among the readers, there is an ideal line, but it moves while you swim. Thus, you aim for Cap Gris Nez, but then, having land in sight for a long time already, you have to turn left when the current says no. To kiss the coast only miles away.

So, supporting is not an option. Unless you are willing to slosh on high waves for hours in a small boat in snail’s pace. Resulting in a high puking probability and a greenish appearance. Marianne knows all about that. The swimmers too, by the way. The remedy “looking straight at the horizon” is not an option if you lie in those waves. In pitch dark, with just the boat’s light as orientation.

But now I’m getting ahead. We have to go back, years back, to athletics club AV’23. It was then when some runners pushed their limits: to the Weesp triathlon. Running technique is useless in the water, so they went to swim class. Not just any class: but right away with Olympic bronze Enith Brigitha. Very well spent on Johan and a bit less on the others. But Johan was still a runner, an ultra even. Up until his Achilles’ heel found him and forced him to seek another outlet for his energy. And that was swimming. And a new dream: to swim The Channel. That dream was cherished for years. Out of necessity, as Trudy threatened, might the plan be executed, to prefer safeness over sorrow and abandon the ship of love before Johan sunk.

But in reality, if you’re not an asylum seeker, channel-swimming is not that dangerous after all. A boat sails along with you, with an experienced captain, a helmsman and an observer. And with your own Leo and Marianne for catering. Then try to drown. Hardly anyone can.

Trudy’s consent appeared to be the easiest obstacle after all. Next the official rules come in: through an approved channel-swim body, with an approved pilot boat, in an approved outfit (swimsuit only), on a date predefined well in advance. Especially the latter is a thing: the channel-swim candidates outnumber the channel-swim slots. Which makes it “normal” to buy a slot for two years from now. Of which the only certainties are the tide and the time of year. Not the wind, nor the water and air temperature, nor if you’re still alive in the first place.

Johan was, when the time came. Two years older though. And wiser since his last IJsselmeer crossing, which made him invite his (even older) training buddy Jaap to turn the one man show into a relay duo. And so they left for Dover. Boat ready, swimmers ready, caregivers ready, get set and go you’d expect. But that is overlooking the weather. The wind was on a roll, keeping suspense high. That might have forced them to go home un-swum. Finally, on the second last day, they would …. but again not.

Only the very last possible option was “bingo”: on the 21th of August 2019, at 1 am, the boat set sail. First with all swimmers aboard, an hour’s hobbling to the start. Followed by the first swim-dropping: Johan out, on his way to… the English coast. Because that’s where the start is, on Samphire Hoe beach. The start horn sounded, Johan did not hear a thing, but went along anyway.   

And that’s where we stopped above, in the dark, in the waves, with a reluctant stomach. Covered only by a swimsuit, while the water is 18,3 degrees and the air above much colder. And that’s your dream come true. One hour later: Jaap in the water; Johan may get out only after Jaap passed him (relay it is). Jaap never had this dream, he was in the dark in his nightmare. During his first turn and his second.

The captain knows the ropes; he sails to France alongside a swimmer for the full season. He reckoned: if those oldies swim like this, it will take at least 20 hours. We elderly athletes know better. Because endurance sport is mental: the body may be old, but the spirit only got stronger. If the body starts to whine, the mind closes its ears.

So, what’s slow? While the morning sun coddled their bodies, our cold fishes swam ever faster. To even squeeze out, after 12 hours, a full hour’s sprint to catch the good current. Bravo Johan!

A bit too slow to land on Cape Green Nose, but probably just a setup by the gents. Because at Wissant, after 14 hours and 40 minutes of swimming, there was a whole crowd of beach dudes ready for a reception with cheers and applause. And that’s much nicer finishing.

Were they done swimming by then? No, then they had to return to the boat. That boat cannot go to France, the French won’t allow it. So it sits a few hundred meters from the coast. Sad isn’t it, this captain that tries, time and time again, but always has to turn and sail back to Dover with his swimmers. Brexit avant la lettre.

Some facts to finish with:

Each Channel day is a unique combination of current, tide, wave length, height and type, wind force and direction, temperature, hours of daylight, shipping, jelly fish density and plastic soup. Thus, is the fastest channel swimmer the best indeed or just the luckiest one?

So, although results from the past do not guarantee an honest comparison I (proudly) present some statistics. Over the past 5 years (from 2015 until the 15th of September 2019) our Seriously Oldies became: 22nd of the 32 relay teams in 2019, 12th of the 22 duo relay teams as of 2015 and 148th of all 255 relay teams as of 2015!!! Mind you: out of all those teams there were just 22 with two swimmers only. The rest very often had 6 people, who were much younger than 65 and 67 years old.

15 September 2019, Irene van Wijk

Some clarifications, not part of the article

  • ZOZ is the name of the open water swimming club that Johan and Jaap are members. In Dutch z.o.z is an abbreviation used for “zie omme zijde” which literally means “look at other side” which in English is indicated by p.t.o. or “please turn over”. As the swimming club started with a bunch of 50  and 60 year old’s, they tend to translate ZOZ into “Zeer Oude Zwemmers” meaning: very old swimmers. Currently the club is flourishing and has lots of younger members.
  • The Gaasperplas is where ZOZ has its home. It is a small but deep lake that was dug out to use the sand as foundation for housing in the south east of Amsterdam.
  • AV’23 is an athletics club, founded in 1923, which resides in Amsterdam. Johan used to be a member until his injuries forced him to stop running. He used to run marathons and longer runs.
  • Trudy is Johan’s wife
  • The IIsselmeer is the big lake that emerged after the Dutch shut of the Zuiderzee (sea) with a long dike in the north between the east and the west of the Netherlands. 

Sandettie Lightship Observations

5pm, 28th September 2020


Water: 62.1 °F (16.7 °C)

Air: 59.4 °F (15.2 °C)

Wind Speed: 18.1 kn (33.5 km/h)

Wind Direction: WNW (300°)

Channel Weather 

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