The English channel
Here are some questions English Channel swimmers have been asked. • Do you have to swim the whole way or can you get on the boat to rest? • Do you go the whole way without eating? • Why can’t they get on the boat to eat? • Does the grease make you warmer? • How many sharks did you see? • Where do you keep your passport? You definitely have to swim the whole way, there is no easy route or shortcut. You can't have a rest on the boat unless you are doing a relay.
One of the great things about doing my open water qualifications is you get to meet loads of fantastic people. I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Murphy and Kathy Bates from The Kings Swimmers, they are also part of the CS & PF Observer Liaison team. Kevin has swum 28 solo Channel swims and 3 doubles, making that a total of 34 Channel swims. Kathy has a massive amount of achievements and been in 18 teams that have conquered the Channel and also done a solo Channel swim. It really was an honour to meet them both and hear all their stories.
So, this was how I got the opportunity to be a trainee observer on High Hopes for The Chinese Woman’s Channel relay team, in July 2019. A shout out for observers is sent out via text messages that a boat is going out and I had to get to Dover harbour at 8.30pm. It was a mad dash to get everything sorted at home and get all my open water classes covered. I felt that I was just as nervous as the swimmers. The relay team were Chinese so there was a language barrier. There was an interpreter with them, but still difficult to engage with the swimmers as to how they were coping mentally. I watched all the paper work been done. Yes, we all had to have our passports with us in case immigration stopped to check. Safety briefing, checked the swimmer’s costumes, goggles. The order in which the swimmers were going to swim their relay and on which side of the boat they want to swim, had to be noted. The swim started at 10.00pm. All swimmers were required to wear two lights, where one was attached to their swim costume and the other on the goggle strap located at the back of the head.
Energy levels were high and the excitement was catchy when the claxon sounded the beginning of the massive challenge ahead – The English Channel. Lots of cheering and encouragement from everyone on the boat. The sea water and air temperature were 15 degrees. I really felt so sorry for the third swimmer who had to start her swim at midnight. It was pitch black. The sea was black, the sky had limited light, except for a few stars, and the night was quiet. I could see the swimmer panic and her utter fear of swimming in the dark sea. She eventually calmed down and did her 1-hour swim. Night swimming definitely needs to be added to your training schedule. Imagination is definitely no recommended and certainly no reading Steve King novels before you embark on any night swim.
So, what is the role and duties of the Observer? Is to assist observe and authenticate those taking part in the sport of swimming in their attempt to cross the English Channel. Observers are in sole charge of timing the swim, and are responsible for observing compliance with the Channel swimming rules. As an observer you are the ears and eyes for each swimmer, to record the rest of the swim experience. Basically, you never lose sight of the swimmer whilst they are in the water for the whole duration of the Channel swim. Notes taken include: • stroke rates • feeds and medications • relay changeovers • support swimmers • swim kit changes (goggles, night lights, extra grease etc.) • waypoints (shipping lanes, buoys etc.) • weather, sea states, passing boats, wildlife, other swimmers • anything else you deem relevant to the swim When do Channel swims usually take place? Swims are usually planned between June and early October and takes place during a specific tide. It’s a period of 5-8 days on either “neap” or “spring” tides. What are “neap” and “spring tides”? Spring tides are when the sun, moon and earth are aligned so the tides are at their maximum strength. Neap tides are 7 days after the spring tide. The sun and moon are at right angles to each other making the tides moderate. As the swim progresses the sea sickness took over and the moral hit rock bottom. Seeing swimmers being sick on deck and then having to jump into the cold water to swim for an hour is certainly tough. Then when the sea sickness hits your support team, motivation really fades. I was extremely lucky and didn’t experience any sea sickness. I had taken Stugeron tablets 2 hours before we left Dover harbour. When you swim in a lake or river you have to learn how to sight forwards to swim in a straight line. When swimming the Channel, you need to sight the boat and be close to the boats side, so an eye can be kept on the swimmer. This is where all that bilateral breathing training comes into practice. The one swimmer could only breathe to her right which put her at a huge disadvantage as to which the waves were crashing. She was swimming in massive waves. If she had the correct swim training and better stroke technique, the better side would have been on the opposite side of the boat breathing to the left.
What are the rules when you swim in a relay? You have to keep to the swim order and remain in that order for the entire leg of the Channel swim. A swimmer swims for 60 minutes and then there’s a change over for the next one hour. When you need to change swimmers, the observer will get the next swimmer on deck 10 minutes before the time you are to enter into the water. It will be a countdown, 5 minutes, four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, one minute and always in direct communication with the pilot and co-pilot. Then 10 9 8. It’s very important for the swimmer on the changeover that they must jump into the water from behind and swim past the preceding swimmer who has completed the designated swim for 60 minutes and exit the water as quickly as possible within the maximum of five minutes. The changeover can be quite scary because unfortunately there’s not many chances for you to practice it before you start a Channel relay swim.
Watching the sun rise was magical and definitely a highlight of the whole trip. The whole horizon was alight with bright, yellows, oranges and reds. The swimmers had estimated their swim would take them 15 hours but it took them 20 hours to complete. The Chinese Relay team were so lucky to have Simon Ellis as their pilot because adding an extra 5 hours onto your swim could really damage their chances of achieving the Channel swim. As the swim progressed the swimmers got slower. The slower they swam, so the slower the boat had to move. This then caused more rocking and then more sickness. Every single one of the swimmers had to dig deep to actually achieve their goal and keep going. I found the not sleeping for 20 hours really hard. Especially sitting below, all nice and warm I could have nodded off very easily.
I was amazed at the lack of petrol fumes coming from the boat’s engine. I have heard that the smell of the petrol whilst swimming can really make you feel sick. Simon the pilot had worked extremely hard with maintenance to have the boat running at a high standard. Negotiating the busiest shipping lane was an experience. Seeing how massive the container ships was quite an eye opener. The container ships presence overshadows the tiny boat and only after 20 minutes the after effects are felt, big waves!
The Chinese ladies definitely worked hard to achieve their goal of swimming the English Channel. Watching the swimmer exit the water in France and standing on dry land, waving, was a wonderful experience to see and admire the true determination to complete the massive challenge