Three weeks ago we were all in Dover on our last training weekend when we got a phone call. "There's a weather window... You can swim on Wednesday if you wish". Three weeks before we were supposed to swim, passports all over the country and a date our boat leader couldn't make we had to make a difficult decision whether to take it or leave it. We didn't want to swim without Kay as boat leader as she had been a key part of our team getting to where we were, but we were 4th on the tide for the end of June meaning the possibility of great conditions was down to luck, and if the weather was bad it could get postponed until later in the season. After many discussions, quick trips back home to get the passports and the plea's to work to move the AL 3 weeks earlier than planned, we were back in Dover car park, bleary eyed and wondering why we were about to start swimming to France when everyone else was going to bed.
Yes, that's right. The swim would start at 1.15am to catch high tide meaning the first three people would be swimming in the pitch black with just the moon and a spot light from the boat to guide them. We motored around to Samphire Hoe, and after a slight English Channel swim traffic jam (we were one of 4 boats crossing that night) Stephen jumped in and swam to the beach to officially start the swim. At 1.15am we set off to France, the sea conditions were good (I think - it was dark so hard to tell, but the boat wasn't moving much) and the white cliffs of Dover slowly started to retreat. Being third in the rotation meant I was soon attaching a light to my googles and a glow stick to my costume so I could be seen in the water, and I experienced my first night swim (no place like the channel to experience new things...). This actually ended up being my favourite swim of them all, and I was lucky enough to start the swim with the channel bathed in moonlight and to finish the swim just as the sun was beginning to rise.
The channel itself is broken into three main parts, the first being the SW Shipping Lane, the next being the separation zone and then the NE Shipping Lane. Not only is your boat pilots job to try and get you to France along a good route, they are also there to make sure you don't get in the way of the many cargo ships and ferries that travel along the shipping lanes. I hadn't been quite prepared for how close we would be to the container ships, or quite how many there would be, and you feel really quite vulnerable in the middle of the channel on a 42ft boat! As we pushed through the SW shipping channel the weather was proving to be great, the sea was calm and the sun was shining, meaning that warming up after a swim in 13 degree water was relatively easy! The separation zone is where a lot of the 'rubbish' collects, i presume as empty water between the two busiest shipping lanes in the world. We were fortunate to not experience too much and were able to swim around some of the larger floating debris fields, but we did experience the slightly nerve inducing jellyfish swarms. Invisible from above the water, when in the water swimming it was common to see swarms of jellyfish about 2m below you. It appeared that the water was still a bit too cold for them to have all come to the surface, but the odd one did suddenly appear in front of your face and make itself known as you swam over it!
We entered the NE shipping lane in good spirits, we were making good time and France looked incredibly close. We had caught up with some of the other boats who had left before us, and were discussing about how the winds had suddenly picked up when suddenly Kalie piped up 'Look there's a Shark'. Cue laughter and a rush to the back of the boat where we expected to see a Porpoise in the direction she was pointing, when the stunned silence made it perfectly clear that yes, 20m off the back of the boat was a little shark, up on the surface having a little look at what we were doing. It turns out there really is sharks in the channel (we think it was a smooth houndshark). With Polly blissfully unaware in the water, we attempted to not make a big deal out of it, with Tessa (our adopted Boat Leader and diver extraordinaire) consoling me that it definitely wouldn't eat me when I got in the water in 10 minutes time and the chances of it coming back were really quite small.
As it turned out, ten minutes later I had much bigger problems to contend with. The winds had picked up to 25 knots, the sea was white capping and the slightly more sheltered side of the boat was not my favoured side (all to do with breathing and spotting) and meant that the currents would keep pushing me into the boat, so rather than swim alongside I would have to swim at an angle to try and stay parallel. By this stage two of the other channel boats had pulled the swimmers out the water and turned around due to deteriorating conditions and my instructions from the boat pilot were 'swim as hard as you can for the next hour if we want any chance of making it'. Quite frankly, it was horrendous. It was probably more horrendous for the 6 people stuck on the boat, as it was tipping, rocking and getting thrown around everywhere, but I was thankful for having swum off Hythe Beach a few weeks previously in big swell. The next hour became a game of attempting to not get pushed into the boat (the swim is over if you touch the boat), attempting to breathe despite getting constantly dunked by the waves and attempting to stay afloat and make headway. I knew I was aiming to make it into a bay where the conditions would be slightly calmer and allow us to make a change-over, and three jellyfish stings later, and alot of swallowed salt water I was pretty happy to see the sign indicating the change-over. Quite possibly the worst swim of my life but also the most rewarding!
Exactly 59 minutes and 56 seconds later, the Aspire Sea Eagles landed on the beach in France. 15 hours, 59 minutes, 56 seconds we were officially the first relay team to successfully cross the English Channel in 2017 and the earliest ever Aspire relay team to successfully cross the channel. Would I swim it again? Most definitely.