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

21 Sep 2020The Journey

The Journey

Andrew Hill-Smith relives his 2017 Channel relay experience

The journey

I was looking for another adventure.  After our cycle ride from Lands’ end to John O’Groats I couldn’t quite figure out what to do next.  My adventure mate Henry wasn’t passing me any ideas so I was feeling stuck.  Watching my daughter’s hockey one day I was discussing this with other parents and came up with the idea of a channel swim.  It’s not that swimming was very attractive to me or that I’d heard inspiring stories, but I just thought it sounded like a cool idea. Henry doesn’t like swimming, so I had to go it alone.

There were floods at Christmas in Godalming in 2013 and we went for a walk around the streets bemused by the water everywhere, walking carefully on the pavements trying to avoid our feet getting wet.  I met Martin in the street.  By chance we had spent an evening in the pub a few days previously whilst the wind and rain were lashing down.  He likes swimming and we chatted about the idea of a channel swim and he sounded really enthusiastic which sounded like he could be a potential partner.  We kept in touch over the next year.

But things drifted on.  I asked about, enquiring of my nephew Thomas who is physically fit, but usually up a mountain rather than down in the sea.  My sister Maisie said she wanted to join me.    Cousin Steve made some positive noises.  I asked other people I knew from the sailing club, people who I thought were good swimmers who sounded interested but did not follow through.  This seemed to go on and on.

I joined Martin for the River Arun swim to find out how I would manage in an open water environment.  It seemed to go okay and it was good to make a connection with Martin.

It was time to commit so I looked up the procedure and booked a pilot boat with what I thought was a good slot – neap tide; in September; slot 4 – which I thought was good – and the deposit paid so a financial risk.  But could I find a team?  Thomas was wavering.  Other people were interested but would not commit to a contribution to the deposit.  Martin said he was not sure he could follow through because of personal and financial circumstances.  I was getting worried.  Adverts in the local swimming club or asking about did not produce any positive leads, and I was close to giving up.  Could we swim as a 4 person team?  Possibly but if it dropped to 2 or 3, I didn’t think so.

I went for a test swim off Brighton in my bathers with no wetsuit in October 2016.  5 minutes of staccato breathing finally settled down to something of a rhythm.   Maisie was in her neoprene so we meandered happily along from the marina to the pier with the sea undulating gently and the shore line of Brighton perched on a hill, moving slowly along.  But the 2nd 30 minutes left me feeling colder and colder, chill creeping up my arms and legs.  Getting out I could hardly feel my hands and feet and struggled to scramble up the steep shingle beach shivering wildly as I tried to redress myself thinking “I’m not doing that again”.  The challenge seemed ever more daunting.

But then my genius sister posted an advert on the Brighton triathlon club Facebook page, and enquiries poured in.  Incredible!  This could be possible.  I had been close to giving up but now there was light.  The wave had been broken but now it was forming again.

The team

What a wonderful team.  I’ve really enjoyed the company of everyone involved.  3 girls and 3 boys – nicely balanced. A collection of English characters embarking on a crazy mission to swim across the most iconic stretch of open water in the world.  What amazing people with such endurance and determination doing it all in an English way.

I thought we were relatively old aged 56, 55, 54, 52, 42 and 41, but it seems not.  Down at Shoreham, Paul Maggs is about to approach a solo swim for the 3rd time.  What an honour to meet and swim next to someone who has managed this.  He would swim in May when the sea was about 13°C and I wouldn’t even dream of going in without a wetsuit.  A large tall man with a cheerful disposition and pink bathers.  At the age of 56, he completed his swim in August 2017.  What an incredible achievement.

Nick is the oldest.  He is a bus driver – an airbus driver he says.  Cheerful enthusiastic and energetic with an air force background it was usually Nick who was first into the water and first with the communication.

Carla is the closest to the Shoreham hut being 5 minutes away on her bicycle.  She said afterwards that she would often come down, think twice about going into the sea because it looked too rough or too cold but would be spurred on by other people.  Carla often talked about fears – of swimming in the dark; through seaweed; of swimming for a long time – but each time she came across a fear she overcame it.  We swam the Arun river together earlier in the year.  The preparation involves taking a double-decker bus to the start.  “I’ve never been on a bus wearing a wetsuit” she said.  Slightly awkward.  But yet again, she just did it.

Lisa is the youngest and a fellow medic and swam in her youth.  She is a GP in Bournemouth so living close by as well.  I was worried initially since she often paused before joining for a swim.  But on the day her calm efficient technique was the envy of all and the admiration of the observer.

My sister and I have not been swimmers in our youth, unlike the others.  But we have persistence and determination and she was quietly focused on the job in hand.  Maisie had been reluctant to swim without wetsuits but as the weather warmed up we became increasingly confident that we could manage the journey without.  Thanks to Maisie for encouraging us all with that.  And thanks to Maisie for hosting some meetings in her house in Brighton – early gatherings to cover administration and teambuilding – a key part of the bonding process.

Being fairly cut off by distance, it was always hard for Steve to feel fully part of the team.  And I have to admit to never being fully confident in his commitment.  He kept saying I won’t let you down, but I was not so sure.  He is fit and healthy and has no trouble overall in handling physical challenges when properly prepared.

Lawrence, though not a swimmer in the team, is a key member of the group since he hosts the Shoreham hut.  Lawrence is endlessly present and encouraging, providing helpful tips and advice just when you need them. Classically unassuming but quietly brilliant, patient and wise, he is clearly made in England.  We are very blessed.

The sea and the waves

Swimming.  It’s simple really.  One arm in front of the other with breathing from side to side, over and over again.  And yet it’s hard to understand how some people go faster than others.  How will I ever get any quicker?  If you swim faster it’s easier to breathe but as you get tired and water gets in your mouth, you feel like you’re choking and maybe even drowning.  Swimming through the waves makes it worse.  Swimming in the dark makes it worse still.  Swimming in the cold makes you lose your motivation.  You feel lost and disorientated and ready to sink.  The fear of drowning comes and grips you by the throat, but you have to keep going.

Steve and I went to the West Coast of America with our families, a month before the allotted swim date.  In Monterrey we went to the aquarium and listened to a video about great white sharks which migrate along the west coast from San Francisco down to Los Angeles and back.  They follow the seals and catch them, but there are not many reports of shark attacks on humans in the area.  That sounds reassuring.

August often brings sea mists so getting into the sea off the sandy beach of Monterey was cold.  The Pacific Ocean waters are even colder which brings a deep chill.  Steve had not been swimming in the sea up to this point. He had no swim hat so was missing the extra layer of heat protection and was repeatedly asking when we were going to get out.  He managed 50 minutes and then was desperate to leave for the land having dropped some way behind me in the water.  We shivered our way back to the apartment taking an agitated wrong turn or two on the way and slowly warmed up.  Steve said a seal had swum beside me which I hadn’t noticed.  No sign of any great white sharks fortunately.

At Shoreham when the tide is out there are patches of seaweed that come closer to the surface.  If it is calm you swim straight through them.  At first you feel alarmed by the reeds wrapping themselves round your arms or draping like slithering snakes around your neck.  After a while you figure out what’s going on and your imagination appeases itself, reassuring you that this is not some monster from the deep or an errant fishing net trying to drag you under the surface.  Then as you relax you can enjoy the strands smoothly caressing you as you pass, pointing in the same direction as the tide, waving you along and encouraging you on your way.  They become something to look at as you swim by and they help you feel like you are making progress. When you swim out against the tide the weed seems like it is getting in the way, tangling with your arms and tiring you out.  But coming back to base and this time swimming with the tide, the hindrance turns to help and it seems like the weed welcomes and urges you onwards down to the next buoy.

On other days there had been a stiff cross onshore breeze down at Shoreham.  Like swimming with the weed, it’s easier going in one direction compared to the other.  Swimming with the waves it feels like you are almost surfing.  Against them it is a battle with your head and half your torso (so it feels) bursting out of the top of the oncoming wave and then your body splashing down into the trough.  You have to keep going.  Kite surfers and windsurfers fill the air.  Lawrence, the owner of the hut and protector of the swimmers, stands on the shore and valiantly uses his megaphone to direct fliers-by out of the swimming zone.  When you’re in the water, it doesn’t take much to make it hard to see.  Swimmer’s heads protrude 6 inches or so from the surface, hence they are easily concealed behind a one foot wave.  You can see the kite surfers and windsurfers coming towards you but you feel powerless to stop them and to top it, they are usually looking in a different direction.  Occasionally a kite surfer literally flies overhead.  It always looks impressive.  I would prefer it if they were further away.

It’s your first swim next to the boat so it takes a bit of getting used to.  The swimmer is slower than the boat can travel in its lowest gear so it goes forward ahead of you, and then drifts out of gear, waiting for you to catch up hoping not to be blown too far off course by the wind.  The swimmer has to follow the boat but sets the pace for the craft. 

In the dark, swimming by the boat, the sea seems unfriendly.  Sometimes you just want to swim straight, and focus on your stroke but the darkness gets stronger.  Swimming into the dark and getting lost seems like a real danger because finding a faint white dot and green stick in a swirling dark sea can be difficult for the crew.

Like a moth to a flame you see the light fading if you move away from the boat so you move back towards it, only to find yourself drifting off course again or the boat moving away and the darkness surrounds you.  As you swim into darkness, the water has turned black and sinister in the chill night, tempting you to sink into its midst. Maybe there is something there in the deep below?.  You imagine an object or living thing below you and panic, not wanting to look anymore but unable to stop staring.  And then the moth moment takes over and you look up and correct your course, lurching back towards safety. 

Then all of a sudden the hull of the “optimist“ protector looms above you like a terrible white truncheon threatening to strike you down into the depths Threatening to cast you aside for all your life’s missed courses and misdemeanours. The only redemption is to change tack and return to the dark. Is there no righteous path in this spiritual journey? Is there no proper course?

It’s only an hour.  But there’s no clock.  This could go on forever.  I think I’ve done 30 minutes, but I just don’t know.  I want some encouragement, but “swim” is all I am likely to hear.  It’s still dark and there is only the glow of the lights from the boat to look at.  In a later swim I asked someone to hold up the board to show me the time.  That’s almost worse since I think I’ve been swimming for ages but it only says 30 minutes.  I am getting cold and tired.  But I have to keep going.

For my last swim I get the hang of things.  It’s daylight.  Carla’s been sitting on the top of the boat where the life belts are stored.  She’s wearing a green jacket.  When I breathe to the left, I look up and see whether she is still there because if she’s moved to below deck I know that she has gone to get changed which means that I’ve nearly reached the end of my time.  I look up and she’s gone.  That’s encouraging.  But I later discover that she has allowed at least 20 minutes and not the usual 10 as I had imagined, so the last quarter seems to drag on forever.  Maybe I’m getting tired or maybe I’m just getting chilly.  I’m dying to get out, but I must focus on my technique and my breathing.  Occasionally a wave is amplified by the boat and if you miss time your breath you end up with a mouth full of sea water.  Some coughing and spluttering leaves you discouraged and going slower.  That makes it hard to breathe.   We must go on.  We’re making progress.  We’re going to get there.  I’m looking forward to warming up.

During the crossing, when we were approaching the north-east Lane, the wind faded and the sun even came out with light breaks in the cloud.  It was warm on deck and I even thought about putting on my sunglasses.  This is just what I imagined.  Comfortable, warm and rested whilst we were making progress.  The pleasure of great company, out at sea with the contentment of the channel around me with the extra joy of more than half of the journey gone.

The go no-go day

We are all ready to go, training up-to-date, swim Certificates completed, kind of packed.  Our slot is not due for a couple of weeks.  Paul calls saying what about going on Saturday?

I think it could be possible.  The weather looks great.  I want it to be possible.  I want it to be possible because organising 6 people and having a weather window good enough to go is going to be difficult. We are slot 4 and  Slot 4 means that we need four swimmable days in a five-day period and that seems fairly unlikely, particularly in September.  If we cannot go in our time period, we go to the back of the queue.  The people booked in for the next time period will take precedence so we get the same problem repeating.  It seems like slot 4 wasn’t such a good idea after all.  I want it to be possible because organising 6 people to go when there is a weather window and the pilot will be able to take us is looking nigh on impossible.  And if we can’t go in September, then we will have to wait till June of next year and wait for the sea to warm up, and work out the logistics of coordinating 6 people going, all at the drop of a hat. A constant stressor.  It could drag on through to next summer.  More training.  My life has been on hold.  I desperately want to go.  But my sister is in France.

I ring her.  She said it might be possible.  She doesn’t say no.  Steve is about to go on holiday, again.  He is stressing about catching up with work.  He has had a lot of holiday.  He is about to go on a week’s anniversary trip with his wife and that can’t be postponed which is quite right.  He says he has 30 emails to read.  I press him to consider it.  Nick is on an aeroplane but he could get back in time if it is a 6 AM start at Dover.  He is stressing a bit.  Is this all too much of a rush?  Lisa is packed.  Carla is apprehensive.  Steve rings back and says he could move things around.  I tell Paul we may well be able to go.

I ring my sister in the morning having completed a home visit.  I’m not fully able to concentrate on work since I can’t stop thinking about the swim.  It’s a lovely warm day and I’m imagining getting in the channel, feeling the pleasure of the sun shining on our faces and our backs as we swim, and then reaching France with great joy and relief.  I know my sister is at her parents in law’s house and it is the last time they are there for a visit, so a precious break.  I don’t want to stress her out but have to ask the question.  I manage to speak to her and she fills in more details.  Andrew her husband has not travelled out yet so although she could get a flight back that evening she would greet him at the airport and say goodbye.  Not only that, she now tells me it is her 20th wedding anniversary and they were due to go out for a meal that night.  That seals it.  We can’t go.  There is no way that we could go without Maisie and she’d never forgive me.  I ring Paul to tell him we have to stand down.  I feel really disappointed.  Will we ever get to go?

The weather

Watching the weather had become an obsession.  Trying to understand the mind of the pilot and what conditions would suit was a puzzle.  One website after another was scrutinised and problems shared.  We could see what was going on for the swims, from the live tracking from the channel swimming and piloting federation and the channel swimming association as well. The conditions looked good but why were people not going out.  Surely they should give it a go.  At Shoreham the sea looked flat and appealing, but no one was going.  Sometimes one or two boats would go out and seem to make it easily across.  But why only one boat?  It made no sense and added to a feeling of lack of control and helplessness.  Would we ever get to go?

Shoreham Shingle

The beach, if you can call it that, is covered in Shingle.  Yellow mixed coloured stones make a crunching sound as you walk on them, just about manageable with bare feet, elegant to look at but not so comfortable to sit on.  The hut is surrounded by shingle like a Surrey house with a posh drive.  If you drop something on the stones like a piece of jewellery it can be hard to find.  I did.  My wedding ring no less.  And then when you look around to find it furtively stepping on the stones, they move allowing your precious item to wriggle further down, camouflaged by the mixed colours of grey yellow and light brown.  No longer a shining spectre of joyous marriage and fidelity, but instead a brazen band stolen away by stones, banished white gold and gone.

One cold swim day I could feel my wedding ring getting loose on my finger as I swam towards the 60th minute and feared it slipping off into the grey green sea, never to be seen again.  I nearly forgot to take it off next time so hastily lobbed into my bag of clothes, only noticing that it had not returned to my hand when I had warmed up at home that evening. 

Coming out of the water makes you focus on getting dry dressed and warm.  You scramble out of the sea and feel slightly comforted, but by the time you get to the hut and reach for your clothes you start to shiver and the cold begins to creep through you.  My fingers are white.  My toes are white with blotchy red patches.  Lawrence offers you a hot drink and something to eat because, he says that helps you warm up.  People tend to gather their things quickly and go and I too was preoccupied by the idea of a warm car and an hour’s journey home.  I was even thinking about swimming at the Godalming swimming club to make it 2 hours in the day.

I must’ve pulled my clothes out of the bag in a shivering rush and tipped my ring onto the floor.  I noticed when I was sitting at the table at home having dinner next to my wife.  My wedding ring!  What an unmitigated disaster I thought.  Liz seemed surprisingly unperturbed.  A few months back I lost her waterproof watch to the worth of £15 and she was furious.  I bought another one but then discovered the original a month later when I was dressing to swim the river Arun and wondered what the lump was in my wetsuit and discovered that her watch had become stuck to the Velcro. So now she has two watches and only one ring.

Losing my ring was a bad omen.  This whole project was becoming a nightmare.  I was desperate to find it.  I couldn’t think of anything else.  It was the scheduled swim week and we were due to go on the Monday so I had optimistically scheduled the day off.  The weather and swim tracking websites said there was no way we were going to be able to swim that day so it was mission find the ring instead. 

With the aid of some telephone calls, online assistance and a bit of ingenuity I managed to hire a metal detector from a small shop called “Detector Nicks” down in Arundel.  Two elderly gentlemen sitting comfortably in tub chairs surrounded by metal detectors and related accessories in a packed but rather tired shop, did not look like they needed to be disturbed.  But it turns out they proved themselves invaluable offering calm and gentle instructions to their tense and lonely or perhaps only customer. 

Armed with the mighty machine, I returned to Shoreham finding my precious ring within 2 minutes.  This was a good sign.  Unlike the Hobbit, instead of becoming invisible, with the ring we were now invincible.  We were going to France, I was sure of it!

The Sunday

I am so anxious, unable to relax.  Would we go or would we not.  Apprehension fills my body.  I now understand what it must be like having a generalised and anxiety disorder – constantly on edge trapped by the tension, wanting to do something but there’s nothing to do, fearful and fraught with thoughts going round in circles, but not producing anything of any worth.  Will we go today?  Should I have cancelled my Monday clinic?  What if we go on Tuesday?  Have I got everything ready?  Will Steve get down to Dover in time?  What makes Paul decide whether the weather is good enough? The forecast as looked good before, but no one has gone out, so what’s to say anyone will go this time?  If we do go tonight when shall I get to sleep?  Feeling like this makes everything seem less possible but that makes me more fearful.

We went for a walk to try and help me relax.  Liz suggested an exercise which she has tried with one of her coaching clients of talking to a tree.  Oh no what’s this?  Nothing to lose since at least it will occupy my mind with something.  What was interesting was that I came across another fear that I had not quite recognised – the fear of failure.  There had been so much preparation and latterly uncertainty about whether we could or could not go, that the whole enterprise had become totally preoccupying.  I had advertised and communicated to so many people about the swim, asking for their support and sponsorship, to fail would be a crushing disappointment and a public let down as well.  No wonder I am feeling so tense.  I also want to be able to move on and focus on other things since the channel had begun to fill my life and my head and there was no room for anything else.  I had been taken over by a crazy and impossible project doomed to failure.

I missed a call.  It was Paul, ringing earlier than expected.  Despite a dodgy signal in my arborial location, I hear his voice clear enough.  He said let’s go and we will “give it a look” - another slightly cryptic and loaded comment.  He said it would probably be a bit “lumpy” to start with, and having looked at the weather earlier I knew he meant that the wind was strong in the early hours, so the sea might be quite wavy initially.  “What do you mean by give it a look?”  He said we could go out for an hour and if it was too rough we would turn back.  Goodness – yet another possible scenario that I had not envisaged.  More uncertainty.  But still let’s go.  I was now filled with excitement.  We were on!!!.

But what about Steve?  I get through to him straight away.  The call is an hour earlier than expected so gave him some extra time.  He has a five-hour journey from Yorkshire to Dover with the call having been expected at 7 PM to arrive at Dover at 1 AM.  Steve had decided to leave it to the last minute in case we were not going.  But knowledge of Steve tells me that he is quite often late so I ask him to be there for 12:30 AM.  He says why has the time changed?  “I’ve got a lot to do.  I’ve got commitments”.  What!  Six hours to go and he has got other commitments.  I cannot believe what I’m hearing.  But prior knowledge of Steve tells me that when he gets anxious he pushes back against demands.  I had to roll with the waves of feelings.  I am furious and anxious at the same time fearing that he would let us all down.  Part of me hoped he wouldn’t come.  Paul said we must bring our passports which I sent out as a last minute message on whatsapp to the group.  Steve had been reluctant to use whatsapp communication so a part of me hoped he would miss that critical message.  But this is the one message he does read.  He got there at midnight with his.

Getting on the boat and motoring out of the port with a calm warm night and the faint glow of the White Cliffs of Dover behind us, I could start to relax.  The excitement of actually going was with us.  Paul said there would be no going back.  So this is it.  At last.  I had talked to Steve from the car on the way down to Dover so had briefed him about the practicalities, and settled my annoyance with him plus soothing some of his anxieties asking him not to share too  much of his apprehension and lack of preparation.  I did not want his anxiety to spread around the team.

The moon

The moon shines on the sea.  The moon hides behind the clouds.  She waxes and wanes as she moves around the Earth, keeping her mother planet steady on its axis.  She gently pulls the seas towards her, whispering softly "come hither, follow me".  The waters ebb and flow obligingly..  The moon

When the moon sits beside the Earth the tide is not so strong but when the sun and the planets are aligned, the waters move with much greater vigour.  Swimmers like it when she is beside the Earth – the seas are more friendly. 

Like flotsam on the waves we are drawn hither and thither creating an elegant arc whose nose points towards the North Sea and whose toe is angled at the Atlantic.  Paul the pilot says the tides do strange things.  Looking at the tracks of previous swimmers, there is a danger that we could miss France.  The moon in her earnest might pull waters past the ‘cap’ and wash you back to England.  There’s no way of beating the tide.  It will do the moon’s duty.  You must cross it and not get cross with it.

On my last leg, we could see the Cap in the distance when I got into the water.   A quick look up, straining to see forward above the waves, meant that I could view the Lighthouse which looked like it was close to.  But then is was passing by, firstly to the north, then straight ahead and then moving south of us.  We had to swim on hopefully getting “into the blue” which is the shallower waters and slack tide, making a beeline for the shore.  The moon had other ideas.  A strange eddy had taken hold meaning that instead of still waters, we were being swept backwards in a loop, heading towards the Isle of Wight.  Carla was in, swimming valiantly.  Paul and his team were huddled together over screens and charts and muttered amongst themselves that they had not seen this before.  Paul and team were clearly not in the mood to be interrupted nor were minded to offer reassurance to the team leader. The moon was playing tricks.  It is best not to fight her so we turned south, swimming back towards the Cap from whence we have just come, heading into the fading grey light. Maisie got in.

My sister showed one last act of defiance.  She wanted to beat the moon by swimming into the tide in what she thought was a direct line to the shore.  We shouted furiously at her to stick with the boat.  A grim determination and well-fitting earplugs meant she was quite some way away from us before she changed course.

But we made it.  What joy as Maisie stands valiantly on the rock with arms outstretched whilst waves crash around her and a seal pops his nose out of the water to see what is going on.  The light is falling.  We made it.  I want to swim out to greet her on the way back but it’s not allowed.  Huge excitement.  She clambers back into the boat with celebration and sharing and joy all round.  We can be friends with the moon now.

The 6th man

With persistence I managed to get Steve to buy some anti-sickness tablets.  With persistence I managed to get him to test them out for side-effects.  With persistence I managed to get him to arrive in Dover on time.  When we were motoring out of Dover on ‘Optimist’ he said he didn’t need the anti-sickness tablets or the patches saying “I’ll be fine”.  He went downstairs and in a moment, fell asleep on the bunk downstairs for 4 or so hours leaving little room for his compatriot swimmer who had to share the bunk.

It was time for Steve to go.  He drank one of his bottles of Lucozade and took a Kwells (anti-sickness) tablet.  But as soon as he got into the sea he said “I feel so sick”.  Oh no.  He was swimming breaststroke.  “I just feel sick”.  “Try and do some front crawl Steve”.  He swam 3 or 4 strokes and returned to breaststroke.  It was quite wavy.  “I haven’t done enough swimming in the sea”.  He carried on swimming breaststroke.  We carried on encouraging.  “There’s no way he’s getting out” I said to the others.  I was furious.  I knew he had not prepared enough and all my worst fears were coming true.  Paul the pilot came up complaining that this is not meant to be a training session and I was embarrassed, feeling responsible since I have heard him say something equally disparaging about other ill prepared swim teams.  I was also angry and on my own since none of the others knew Steve at all.  I wished he hadn’t come.  Tony the observer said that the slow speed meant that the boat was blown sideways by the cross wind and then would correct its course, zigzagging over the sea meaning that little to no progress was made.  Paul said we had made 100 yards over the full hour!

Steve finished his time and got out.  He went downstairs with his towel, still complaining of feeling sick.  2 minutes later there was a sound of vomiting and Steve reappeared on deck, throwing up over the side 3 times with a great roar.  He sat on the bench looking pale shivering in his blue towel looking forlorn and slightly indecent as he lost control of his coverings.  Carla and Lisa were advised to look away.  “Where are your clothes Steve?”  “Downstairs in my suitcase”.  So down I went clambering over the vomit on the stairs looking for this item then that item, carefully filed away in his bag, only to be told it was not quite the right thing.  So down I go again trying not to slip on the sick, rescuing more items from his suitcase.  Finally I help him put on his hat and coat and socks to try and get him warm.  I fed him warm water, tea and ginger biscuits over the next few hours and stick a hyoscine patch behind his ear to try and help the sickness subside.  Meanwhile, I went downstairs to clear up the puke with occasional instructions from the crew.  I was not amused.

Time is a great healer, and a few hours of looking green and then grey, sprawled across the bench at the back of the boat, Steve was starting to recover.  About 30 minutes before his time, he quietly asked me “if I don’t do the 2nd swim, would I be letting the team down?”.  His oft quoted line of “I won’t let you down” came back to me in my mind and I knew he had meant it.  “Yes” was the answer, and with as much kindness as I could muster, “but if you’re not up to doing the swim that’s okay”.  And his time came.  Steve redeemed himself.  He got in and swam with vigour all the way, front crawl without a break.  Everyone was delighted.  Even Paul was impressed congratulating Steve when we got back to the shore at Dover. What a relief.  We could still be official Channel swimmers.

Martin

I went to see Martin a few weeks before swim day.  A soothing warm summer’s afternoon, we sat in his garden.  He loved swimming and had completed several charity open water events over the years as well as the River Arun with myself the previous year.  On the phone he talked about going for a swim after we met but I soon realised that this was confusion and fantasy rather than a realistic prospect.  His brain tumour had come back as he told me it would.  He had had a debulking operation a few weeks before hand, but was not in any pain.  He was unsteady on his feet and slightly confused.  But it was good to see him.  Martin was kindly gentle and grateful for company and support, and not wanting to cause trouble.  I wanted to reciprocate the kindness and wished that maybe Martin in his dying days could join us on the boat during the swim, but looking at him more closely and hearing the conversation with his wife, this didn’t sound like a sensible thought.  I didn’t mention it.

Sitting on the deck in the daylight as we were swimming across the channel, I shared the news of Martin’s illness, telling the sad picture of his declining health and wishing he could have been with us.  Bizarrely a bat appeared around the boat and flapped about for a short while before moving on to inspect another craft.  Maybe it was Martin’s messenger.

Martin’s health had declined even further and he had gone to a hospice in the week prior to our swim.  At his funeral two weeks later, there was a picture of Martin in a wetsuit all ready with goggles by the sea at Lee on Solent.  His wife Jo kindly mentioned Martin’s wish to be with us on the channel swim and I shared with her that we had swam a mile for him in our journey.  Little did I know at the time, but on my last stint in the water near France, furtively looking up to see the shore of the Cap moving past in front of my eyes was the precise time that Martin had died.  He had been with us all the way across the channel and wanted to make sure we would make it, and seeing the land close by, he could depart, confident in the knowledge of our collective success.  Thank you Martin.  Our thoughts will be always with you.

Back to England

As we motored back for the 3 hour journey to Dover, the constant pitching and rolling of the boat was disorientating, and meant that a good deal of the Champagne we tried to drink ended up on the deck rather than in the glass.  But we didn’t mind.  Tipsy on tiredness and the celebration of achieving our collective challenge we needed little alcohol to fuel the feeling.  Besides which, several of the six pack were feeling sick again.  Whilst others were feeling nauseous, my sister and I were nausea free so enjoyed some sibling bonding fuelled by the joy of our success and finishing off the fizz.  What an incredible achievement.  Despite all my anxieties and apprehensions, in my heart of hears I never doubted we would make it.  I am so pleased and so proud to have been part of our great team. 

Empty motorways but a struggle to stay awake after only a few hours of sleep stood in the way of a warm shower and a long sleep.

Back at home and on line there had been a great flurry of support and hundreds of pounds of sponsorship.  What a fantastic response from everybody.  I am so proud of what we’ve achieved. 

I was 10 minutes late for work the next day. 

“Sorry I’m late”, I said, “I have been swimming the channel”.  That has to be one of the best excuses ever. 

How are you feeling they asked?

“Emotionally at sea really”.                                                                                              

After all the apprehension and trepidation, everything is still.  Just joy.

Sandettie Lightship Observations

10pm, 23rd October 2020


Water: 59.2 °F (15.1 °C)

Air: 56.8 °F (13.8 °C)

Wind Speed: 24.1 kn (44.6 km/h)

Wind Direction: SW (230°)

Channel Weather 

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