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

05 Jul 2015Spencer Ladies drink bubbly

Spencer Ladies drink bubbly

Four ladies from the Spencer Swimming Club sip bubbly on the French shore

Amy, Vicky, Jess and Clare, all from the Spencer Swimming Club swam the Channel in a very respectable 11 hours and 33 minutes, under the careful guidance of Captain Paul Foreman.  There were plenty of jellies, and some good rain storms to battle through.

All of this was made worthwhile by the bubbly waiting for them on the French sand, kindly provided by the lovely JP from the restaurant at the Cap: La Sirene (

Below is the full write-up of their swim by Jess Campbell.

On Sunday morning, 5th July, Spencer Swim Team’s Ladies +120 years relay four of Clare Humphries (33), Amy Middlemast (23), Jessie Campbell (45) and Vicky Miller (29) completed their English Channel swim in a crossing time of 11 hours and 33 minutes. Their time is one of the best ever for an all-ladies 4 relay, and only been beaten, we believe, by the quartets of Sister Act (2014) and Mambo Ujasiri (2013).

To achieve this, Clare, Amy, Jess and Vicky started at 43 minutes past midnight; on a strong Spring tide; covered over 50 km; encountered huge ocean going ships, stormy weather and jellyfish; and all on little sleep with 3 novice sea swimmers in the team!

Spencer Swim Team’s London Ladies epic English Channel swimming adventure unfolds at 9.30ish pm, on a pavement somewhere in Dulwich, on Saturday 4th July…

Oh, they’re coming!” Jess says to her husband, as she adjusts the newly acquired GoPro head strap – a must have accessory for any outdoor adventure. Unfortunately they haven’t invented one that prevents you feeling like a twit, standing around with camera protruding from your forehead.

Vicky, who successfully completed an English Channel solo swim in 2014, jumps from the passenger seat. Team mate Amy stays firmly behind the wheel, ready for a quick exit (we’re running a little later than planned).

You packed well Jess, that’s great.” Vicky says as she pushes a trendy, bright yellow, Overboard 40 litre waterproof bag into a bulging car boot, whilst glancing at Jess’ ‘cool box’, of food provisions.

Vicky fails to spot the 50 litre sports bag, currently resting, hidden on Jess’ Husband’s shoulder.

Err” Jess giggles, nervously, looking at the back seat whilst pointing to her sports bag “do we have room for this too?”

Crikey! Didn’t spot that!” Vicky exclaims. Jess goes from hero to zero in the space of 10 seconds.

We’re not going on a holiday!” Amy laughs from the driver’s seat, as Vicky adjusts the baggage “just as well we’re meeting Clare at the Harbour. Not sure we’d fit her and her stuff.”

As it transpired, fitting Clare into the car would not have presented a problem, as the trio discovered on greeting Clare in a Dover Harbour car park, shortly after 11pm…

I forgot to pack all my warm stuff, so I’ve got practically no clothes to change into!” Clare confessed

I have got lots of food, though” Clare offers by way of compensation, along with a hug and excited laughter. (Enough food to feed the Russian Army, as it turned out.)

Jess looks at Clare’s luggage, nonplussed. Jess knows that Clare had Friday and Saturday off work, had been on her sun lounger, for hours not minutes, spent loads of time sending the team WhatsApp messages, and watched tennis. ‘How on earth do you manage to do all that, then turn up for pretty much the biggest physical challenge of your life so far, with nothing but a pair of goggles, food and string (to fix lights to swim costumes)?’ But Jess keeps these thoughts to herself, as she looks again from Clare’s one smallish, black rucksack back to her own 3 bag, +50kg monster pack.

Oh don’t worry Clare, we’ve got loads of warm gear and three DryRobes between us. We’ll be fine.” Vicky kindly reassures her (DryRobes, according to their own publicity are warm, waterproof, windproof changing robes).

Amy looks sceptical, thinking she’ll be wearing at least two of those DryRobes and most of the fleeces, but decides to join in with Jess, repeating reassurances to Clare. Not least, the team need an apologetic Clare to stop beating herself up, and be fit and focussed to swim within the hour!

After Clare and Vicky sort some admin at the Harbour office, Spencer Ladies, excited, joking, laughing, noisily make for the jetty to meet Pilot, Paul Foreman and his boat, Optimist.

On board Optimist, tied to the jetty, conditions seem perfect. Pan flat water and bright lights from the harbour and vessels, providing deceptively good visibility, raised team spirits even higher. Other boats either side also made preparations to set off in the night.

Paul, Optimist Captain, gives a safety briefing. Loretta Cox, official Observer for Spencer Ladies swim, takes the relay’s swimmer order (which can’t change once set).

Optimist casts off! Twenty minutes later, a rockier than anticipated transit delivers the team to choppier waters and Samphire Hoe, the starting beach.

It’s a lot darker than I thought it would be.” Jess says, looking towards land.

Amy and Clare voice agreement. They, with Jess, had a romantic notion of moonlight glistening on the mirror flat sea. Not dark, gloom and choppy water.

Clare, swimmer one, a novice sea swimmer (a couple of dips in Dover Harbour type novice) and zero night swimming experience, laughs nervously and asks Vicky “…so I’ve got to jump off the boat and swim to where exactly?”

Everyone peers through the dark, trying to pick out dry land, with cliffs about 400m away barely visible.

Don’t worry Clare, we’ll shine a spot light. Just follow that, you’ll be fine.” Vicky suggested. (The morning after mid-summer eve, Vicky successfully completed an unbelievable overnight, 12 hour non-stop sea swim in Dover Harbour, consolidating her credentials as the only seriously experienced sea swimmer in our team.)

Anxiety in Clare’s voice intensified, as night lights illuminated her cap and swimming costume, so we on the Boat wouldn’t lose sight of her in the dark.

Amy couldn’t help herself feeling secretly relieved she hadn’t fought for the honour of swimming the first leg. An exchange of glances with Jess, gave Amy all she needed to conclude Jess felt the same. Both decided to keep their reservations to themselves. Clare gave every indication of needing serious encouragement to depart the safe, well lit deck and head off in darkness towards starting beach.

Clare admitted later that she only went through with it because she had strongly, confidently, volunteered to be the first swimmer, albeit from the comfort of her couch some weeks previously. Night swimming (in this case following the lights of a boat in the dark) is a skill in itself, and one that took a bit of doing.

So what shall I do when I changeover to Amy? Which DryRobe should I use when I get out?” Clare asked just before climbing down the ladder.

Oh yes…” Amy looked around at our various bags “Did you put our DryRobes in the cabin Vicky?”

No. I didn’t lift them from the car. Did you?” Vicky replied

Me neither!” Amy exclaimed, her face fell. Amy felt more annoyed with herself, owing to the fact that Vicky and Clare had gone to the Harbour Office to sort parking, leaving herself and Jess in charge of unpacking the car. An easy task one might think, unless, that is, you are obsessing about a cold water night swim in open seas… and chatting.

They’re where we left them then, behind the passenger seat.” Vicky confirmed and all eyes turned to Jess, the proud owner of the only remaining DryRobe (new and pink fleecy lined) between the team.

Eh, use mine Clare.” Jess offers, wondering how dry her DryRobe will be after 8 or 9 uses, and with rain forecast into the bargain. Still, what are teammates for?

Amazingly, without the need for Vicky to chisel fingers from the metal handrail, Clare finally relinquished the relative comfort of the Boat. Green high visibility lights flashing in the water signalled her position as she expertly navigated her way to shore (sea temperature 15.7 degrees). Somehow she managed to follow a haphazardly projected but powerful torchlight.

Clare climbed on to the beach, waved to the officials to show she was ready, and then, by stepping back into the water, started Spencer London Ladies Channel Swim Relay clock at 43 minutes passed midnight.

Now after 01.40 (ish), and second swimmer, Amy, shivering, launched herself into the water shouting “I’m scared!” as she vanished into the darkness of an inky sea, swimming to Clare’s lights, signalling an end of the first leg and enabling Clare to climb aboard.

That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do…” Clare announced, hauling herself on to the deck, grasping the handrails, feeling seasick.

Oh dear’ thought Jess as she looked down at Amy’s lights in the pitch black realising she would be replacing her at 2.43am…

Daylight emerged around 4am along with calmer waters.

5 am. Shrieks from Clare sounded the alarm. There were 100s of large jellyfish, of various types, possibly thousands.

I can’t do this!” Clare yelled at the boat treading water, surrounded.

You’ll be fine, just do back stroke for a bit so you can’t see them. There’s really not that many!” Jess fibbed.

Loretta Cox, the fantastic official Observer, joined in with words of encouragement and support.

Amazingly, Clare flipped onto her back and continued, bearing the brunt, omitting only the odd cry of discomfort, until clear of the biggest clumps.

Meanwhile, Amy (next to swim) and Vicky snoozed on a berth below deck, oblivious to the commotion. Jess thought this no bad thing. Amy would have less time to stress about the marine fans awaiting her arrival.

In fact, Amy and Clare proved their metal, bravely acting as the team’s main jellyfish magnets.

By the time Vicky’s 2nd swim got underway (8th hour after start), the water seemed broadly jellyfish clear. Then, Loretta the Observer spotted a large brown form.

Oh, thank goodness, it’s just seaweed.” Loretta confirmed.

Vicky, continued swimming directly towards it, leading all on deck to further relax.

Then, a scream so loud it’s rumoured ferry passengers heard it, followed by weird cries and a vertical juddering backward movement revealed, an otherwise unflappable Vicky, had not only been surprised by the seaweed, but also misidentified the floating mass as a jellyfish.

It’s seaweed…. It’s just seaweed Vicky! It’s okay, it’s seaweed!” Loretta the Observer, Jess, Amy and Clare chanted.

Huh?” Vicky did a double take. (I mean, did she think the team might fib?)

A triple check it really was seaweed, Vicky gathered her wits about her and she was off again, non-stop until handing back over to Clare.

So, just over 7 hours after starting only the odd jellyfish - and the odd bit of seaweed masquerading as one - to contend with, and a lovely calm sea. Jess’ hopes rise for a super quick 10 hour breaking crossing. It turns out that the old saying ‘the calm before the storm’ is true…

The wind increased, brining dark clouds and rain. The boat pitched, moving rapidly from side to side through what seemed like a 90+ degree angle. Jess, feeling dizzy for most of the crossing, gripped the deck handrail, white knuckles, shivering, in sub 16 degrees wind and rain, wearing only a standard swim suit, cap and goggles.

I’m scared…I d-d-don’t think I can d-d-do this” Jess squeezed out through chattering teeth.

It’s only a few waves” Barry of the Optimist crew said (probably unnecessary to point out the name of the Boat Barry crewed for).

They can’t hurt you, you’ll be fine.” Loretta said in all seriousness.

Amy and Clare had got in and coped in similar conditions. This knowledge did nothing to stop Jess shaking with fear. A lifetime phobia of open seas (which had resulted in her family being uncharacteristically speechless on learning of her involvement in this crossing) gnawed at her resolve and diluted the reassurance from those around. Time was up. Swim or void the relay.

Swim so that Amy can get back on board for a rest. With that thought in her head, no-one pushed her, Jess just closed her eyes and threw herself onto a big wave.

And before long, land ahoy!!

Shortly after midday, completing her 3rd swim of the day, Vicky headed to a French beach. The team jumped in, feeling only elation, swimming the last few hundred metres to shore, behind Vicky (who had to exit onto the beach first according to the rules).

Wonderfully, the French owner of La Sirene restaurant followed Spencer Ladies’ progress on satellite tracking and waited on the beach to welcome them to France (despite the pouring rain). The team joked about bringing the British weather. He, in turn, offered a rather tasty glass of champagne. Vive la France!

Lovely when four ordinary women of all ages get together and do something ….mad?!

With special thanks to Paul Foreman and the Optimist crew, and the fantastic Loretta Cox, as well as a big thanks for all the warm words of support from friends, family and Spencer Swim Team.

A footnote to all those novice sea swimmers contemplating an English Channel relay. This is not for the faint hearted!! If you are serious, here are Spencer Ladies top tips (get a full list of what you might need or how to prepare from the CS&PF):

  1. Acclimatise to cold water and practice doing 3 x 1 hour sea swims in sub 15 degrees, with a 1 hour break between, as well as the 2 hour qualifying swim required of you.
  2. Decide what you are going to eat. Try to eat between swims. Stick to simple food, easy to eat and digest: stuff that you are used to eating regularly.
  3. Drink lots of fluid, mostly water (take small bottles/flasks).
  4. Take sea sickness pills before and during the crossing.
  5. Take Vaseline or alternative grease to protect you from costume rub.
  6. Swimwear (4 costumes at least unless you want to struggle into a wet one).
  7. High visibility lights for attaching to goggle strap and costume (enough for all swimmers saves the mess about transferring lights between swimmers).
  8. Industrial torch light to guide your teammate in the dark (shine the light in front of their hands).
  9. Lots of towels and warm weather stuff, including hat, gloves/mitts, thermal socks.
  10. Sleeping bag for napping on deck or a berth below deck.
  11. Take wet weather jacket/DryRobe – expect rain.
  12. Expect jellyfish and bad weather, and if you encounter neither, fantastic!
  13. Camera.
  14. Goggles that don’t fog up and provide maximum visibility for gloom/night swimming (and a pair for protection if sunny).
  15. Passport and pilot’s payment!


Sandettie Lightship Observations

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Water: 49.3 °F (9.6 °C)

Air: 47.5 °F (8.6 °C)

Wind Speed: 26.0 kn (48.2 km/h)

Wind Direction: SW (220°)

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