A little over two months ago the Aspire Sea Eagles became the first relay team to successfully cross the English Channel in 2017. The sea state was pretty horrible, the sea was a chilly 12 degrees and it took us 16 hours from setting off to reach the beach in France. I'd trained for it for months, pretty much thrown out my brand new wetsuit I'd bought the season before after swearing to only swim in skins going forward and spent the boat ride back from France thinking 'I really want to do that again'...
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.
The sun gods were on our side as we arrived in Dover last weekend. Well actually Hythe... because Dover harbour is being dug up and is out of bounds for swimming on Saturday mornings... however, standing on the beach with France the only thing visible on the horizon, it seemed a good place to start my journey to swimming the channel. First up was meeting the rest of my team (Stephen, Stephen, Kalie, Charley, Polly and our boat leader Kay) and thankfully i couldn't ask for a better group of people to swim with. Friendly, supportive, slightly crazy and inspirational we bonded with our first sea swim. The water was a cool 12.3 degrees (your average swimming pool is at least 25 degrees), wetsuits are banned, and the swell was frankly big enough to have fun surfing in. Have I mentioned I've not (properly) swum in the sea before or swum open water without a wetsuit on...?!?
With just over 3 months to go before myself and the rest of the team take on the English Channel, I've been doing everything possible to make sure I reach the start line in a good condition and can put in strong swims for the team. My swim training has been going well but there's only so much up and down I can take before I start to get bored, lose count of what lap i'm on or get annoyed at the other people swimming in my lane...
I am itching to get into open water, however, the water is still pretty cold, and although good for acclimatizing, it's not going to help in my aim to get fitter, quicker and stronger as I just can't spend long enough in it to make a session worth while. Plus, I really hate cold water and am trying to put off the inevitable as long as possible.. Therefore I've spent the winter 'cross-training', have got a new PT, joined a new (super fun) gym and am running as much as possible to get my cardio fitness levels up.
It's not as simple to swim the channel as just deciding you want to go. For starters, its the busiest shipping channel in the world, with between 500 - 600 ships passing through it every day. Secondly, at its narrowest point it measures 34km (21 miles), so it's not exactly a leisurely swim. Add to that a very small number of boats and pilots who are able to support channel swim crossings, and only operate under good weather and tides to give the best opportunity for a successful crossing and you are soon looking at a rather long wait. Why do you need an official channel boat pilot? The list is endless but they make sure you are swimming in the right direction (there's no black line or lane markers in the channel to help you out here...), they help you cover the shortest route possible with the tides, and probably most importantly, ensure you avoid being hit by a ship which is certainly not going to get out of your way!
As the crow flies its 21 and a bit miles from England to France. Most people choose to take the ferry or the tunnel to make the crossing, but every year a small number of people choose to walk into the sea at Dover and swim. This year that will be me.
This adventure will see me team up with 5 other people, grouped together at a channel swim assessment day to form the 'Aspire Sea Eagles', and we will attempt to make an official channel swim 6-man relay crossing, following all rules as set by the channel swimming association.
I love swimming. When I swim I get that feeling that people who love running talk about all the time, that feeling of freedom and ease and more importantly enjoyment! The only part I don't love so much is following that black line up and down followed by the sudden confusion after drifting off in thought as to whether this is lap 64 or 66... did you already swim lap 65 or was that your next lap?!? Open water swimming solves all that.
I'd never actually swum open water until this event, having been away with work for 6 weeks in the summer in a location where swimming open water would have probably resulted in a visit to the doctor, but for once I wasn't nervous at the beginning of a challenge. I feel at home in the water, able to submerge into my own little bubble and swim my own race, without worrying I'm going to be the last person out there (in hindsight, after 10 challenges and this not being the case once I think i probably need to get over this!). The biggest concern was whether to wear my wetsuit or not. Having just spent a small fortune on a brand new open water wetsuit and feeling like chrismas had come early when it arrived I felt that I should, but it was uncharitalistically warm and the water temperature allowed swimmers to enter not wearing one. I watched a few waves exit the water and decided more people were wearing wetsuits than not, and if I didn't wear it I was required to spend money on a tow float to be allowed to swim... decision made, wetsuit was going on!
Swimming the channel is an incredible feat. 22 miles of rough sea, shipping lanes and jellyfish separate the English coastline from the French coastline. Currents, wind, and speed of swimmer can all dramatically effect the route each swimmer takes, and realistically, few swimmers will swim 22 miles. Most will swim more, as currents push them away from their desired path and add on many extra hours to their swim. Only a small group of people get to call themselves a channel swimmer, and apparently more people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the channel.