Friday, 20 September 2013

2013 Relay Channel Swim for Aspire

The Pelicans on Dover Beach

The preparation for the Channel relay started a long time ago.  The first thing any Channel aspirant needs to do, apart from learning to swim, is to acclimatise to cold water.  For a Channel swim to be officially recognised by the governing bodies of the sport you are not allowed to wear wetsuits or anything other than a basic swimming costume.  So think about those English coastal holidays you may have had in July and August and how a dip in the sea takes your breath away, sends your “special bits” northwards and reminds you that an extra £2,000 to get you to the Med would have been money well spent. Well, we had to get used to those temperatures and  temperatures a lot lower,  be prepared to swim in them for an hour at a time, get out, get warm and then get back in again for as many times as it took us to get to France.
So my friend Dave Dawson and I started going to lakes around the M25 where you can do something called “open water” swimming.  These lakes are populated by middle aged men like me who are undergoing varying degrees of mid-life crisis as they train for their triathlons.  I’m not mocking – I am one. I share the pain of trying to be a 20 year old in a 48 year old body. The scent of middle aged testosterone is everywhere and if you don’t have something with an Ironman logo on it then you are, quite frankly, someone to be patronised.  Everyone sheds their lycra and dons their wetsuits, and, as part of the mid life crisis is about getting rid of tummies matured over sedentary desk bound years, we men tend to look like a group of snakes that have recently swallowed a pig as we line up to jump into the water.

But Dave and I took the testosterone thing to a new level by jumping in without any wetsuits at all as part of our cold water training.  On our first trip on April 28th this was downright stupid and I still have the bruising caused by my internal organs rearranging themselves when I jumped in.  The water was 8 degrees; a lot colder than a cold, cold bath at home.  It feels like you are in the grip of an electric current locked around your body.  You can palpably feel your own body heat radiating out contrasting with the chill of the water.  After a while I found the whole sensation quite pleasant and marvelled at my body’s ability to adapt.  I later found that such a feeling of wellbeing is an early indicator of hypothermia, so don’t go for a walk in winter with me.

Anyway, as we got out of the water and walked past the branded Ironmen in their wetsuits it was hard not to imagine how they must be thinking “Man, I thought I was Iron, but these boys are Titanium “.  Or maybe they were thinking “Blimey, that bloke in his Speedos has nipples like a fighter pilot’s thumbs and he’s lost all his “special bits” from swimming in near zero temperatures.  What a twat”.
In reality I adapted well to the cold.  A winter diet of pies and suet had created a good barrier of insulation and soon we were training in Dover and I was able to complete a two hour sea swim that qualified me to take part in the relay.  I could talk for hours about Dover training weekends and the concentration of all that is wonderful about Britain and its eccentrics.

But, let’s not do that now because it was at Dover I met the rest of the Pelican team.  I assume that if you are wanting to swim the Channel you must have various levels of dysfunction to deal with, and therefore may not always be the most comfortable of people to be around.  But this team, and here I get misty eyed, were the most wonderful people.  In keeping with all Aspire Channel teams we had to adopt an animal/fish/acquatic name and we became The Pelicans, and Pelicans we will always be.  The Pelicans are amazing swimmers.  Selena, Charlie, Dave and Barney were county /national standard whilst Georgie and I were good, but decided to play more of a team morale boosting role, by joking a lot and making the others feel better about their swimming ability.  More than that, they were, indeed are, as well balanced, caring and supportive a bunch of people as you are ever likely to meet.  There were some trying personal circumstances during the six months that we trained together and the team protected and looked out for one another during the turbulence that life can throw at you.  We also supported one another through the horror of having to make our 2 hour sea swims.  Often, we would leave the water, and our bodies would shake for up to an hour afterwards.  It’s really uncomfortable and a little scary, as well as sapping all your strength.  I learnt a key lesson that I hope you too can take with you in life; “hug, not rub”.  That’s the way to warm someone up, and I rather like it.  We Pelicans shared a lot of hugs.  Mine were mainly with Dave and Barny, who still eye me with some suspicion.

By August we were ready, and our swim was scheduled for the 27th of the month.  A little bit of bad weather set us back a day, but we finally got the call to get ourselves down to Dover for a 3.30am start on the 29th August.  I loved this part of the whole event.  The nerves, the excitement, adrenaline running through you; even at such a ludicrous hour you don’t feel tired.  Then, setting foot on the boat and being steered on this tiny vessel out of Dover Harbour.  To someone like me who has only ever been on ferries and pedaloes I was in new, exciting territory.  The Dover lighthouse drilled a sweeping tunnel of light into the darkness, and I felt like I was in a nautical version of The Great Escape. (One day, I am going to re-shoot that film and Steve McQueen will get away!)

We anchored off Shakespeare Beach; such a noble name for a noble undertaking and Dave, our lead swimmer swam to the shore.  Once he jumped back in, the clock was started and our attempt had begun.  But first, Dave, being a Kiwi had to perform a Haka.  From the boat we could see a man with a swim hat, goggles and a pair of skimpy briefs exhorting us to battle.  That was odd, but we knew what was going on.  The insomniac man who was walking his dog at the same time just stared in disbelief.
Finally, Dave dived in and we were off........and then we weren’t.  Dave is a fast, strong swimmer and shot off like a torpedo.  But we wanted to go to Calais and Dave seemed to want to go right to Brittany.  He was illuminated with a small flashing light on his swim cap, and a glow stick attached to his briefs.  Not a lot to help spot him in the English Channel, and we lost sight of him.  Eddie our boat pilot was pretty tense about the affair and used some very sailor-like language to express his dissatisfaction.  Using a mixture of encouraging shouts and a searchlight we enticed Dave back to us, and then off he went and we were bound for France.

Each swimmer had to swim for exactly an hour and we had to swim in strict rotation in a set order.  Selena, Olympic trialist and as self effacing about her abilities as anyone could possibly be, followed Dave in and between them they cut us loose from dear old Blightly.  Charlie was next in, an astonishing swimmer who could swim breaststroke faster than I could swim front crawl, and as she powered away the sun came up from out of the sea.  I’m not sure I have ever seen a sunrise from the ocean. I love sunrise in general, but this was just beautiful.  As the sun levitated itself clear of the sea, a beautiful three-masted tall ship emerged from the horizon’s haze.  All the Channel boats out that morning wrote of the “ghost ship”, as it became known.  It will be a perfect image that will live with me forever.

Fourth to swim was Barny. We christened him “Shakey” during our Dover training sessions because once the cold had got into him his body would react so violently and he could shake for anything up to two hours.  He is also a big Shaking Stevens fan.  On the day, the man swam like an eel with the heart of a lion transplanted into him, and I guess with Barney’s head on top of the eel-like part of his body. As similes go I realise this needs some work. A Barneelion?  After the first four swimmers we were way into the northern shipping lanes and heading for half way.  The need for a passport was becoming real.
And finally my turn was here. 6 months of training, culminated in a drop off the back of the boat and into the real English Channel for the first time.  I found it very sea-like;  quite wet and a bit salty.  It was wonderful to be in,  and I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the sea.  All those cold water swims had done their job and I relaxed and produced what will probably be the dullest, least noteworthy swim of the day to everyone on the boat.  But, to me, it was all excitement and intrigue.  The boat was to my right and sometimes I was up at the bow, and sometimes back at the stern.  I thought this was caused by the speed of my swimming.  Duh, obviously the boat pilot was tacking because a boat will always be faster than a swimmer. 

Oh yes, the jelly fish..… as I looked down in the remarkably clear waters I could quite clearly see the sinister shapes of jelly fish sweeping by.  About ten feet below me – big brown pulsating globs, with poisonous tendrils.  It was never far from my mind that I might bump in to one of them, and it is one of those things that concentrates the mind and heightens the senses.  It was only whilst training that I learnt that a jelly fish isn’t just one animal but lots of micro organisms lumped together working symbiotically.  I’m no marine biologist but I think that is nonsense.  How would all these individual organisms know how to lump together in the same “jellyfish” shape?  If it were really true, surely less coordinated collections of jelly fish micro organisms might look like spanners or the lunar module, or a Ford Focus. Hmmmm.
Finally, with the flourish of the practised performer, Georgie completed the swim cycle.  Georgie and I were what I would call the solid, dependable, no frills swimmers.  We had a job to do and we did it, and this was a job that Georgie did with total bravery.  I knew she was really nervous, her instincts were telling her that this was a bad idea and that she should run.  But, alas, she was stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean and had nowhere to run to, and so she had to swim. 

But when it came to bravery it was Dave who took top prize.  Having swam the first leg he had been sitting around on a boat for 5 hours.  The swell had built and the sea had become quite choppy.  Within an hour of swimming Dave had discovered that he is prone to sea sickness – very prone.  Whilst we had all been getting excited about our swims, ghost ships and jelly fish, Dave had been studiously feeding the fish.  So much so that we had some of the French fishing fleet trailing us such were the easy pickings as more and more fish followed us to make the most of Dave’s presents.  Dave, or Iron Kiwi, as he is known, should never have got back in, but he knew that to refuse to swim would mean our attempt was off and all our work was for nothing.  With a resounding belch that could have been heard in Calais, he got back in and swam for what he hoped would be the last time.  It was torturous to watch.  We could all feel his discomfort.  It was made all the worse because we were now swimming in a place called The Separation Zone.  This is the mid way point of The Channel and is the place where the crap and detritus from us human beings collects.  Poor old Dave, nauseated as he was, had to pick his way through plastic bottles, bags, seaweed and much, much worse.  But, he did his hour and effectively set us up for a successful swim.

I would like to describe more at this point, but the sea had begun to make me nauseous.  I had overdosed on sea sickness tablets and passed out on the bow of the boat where I successfully cooked the right side of my face in the blazing sun.  Whilst I was having hallucinogenic dreams, Selena and Charlie put in a double swim that pulled us from mid Channel through the Southerly shipping lanes and to within a couple of miles of the French Coast.  I regained consciousness to find that I was looking at a different country.  Looming ahead was the real French coast and now it wasn’t a question of “will we make it?”, but “how quickly will we make it?”.  Dave, Charlie and Selena had obviously taken some short cut, because we were now on for a super fast time.  Eddie, our pilot, was looking gleeful, because he could see that he was going to be home in time for his tea. This left us with the next big question: would Barny make the coast and land the swim?
In went Barny at number 4.  We were still a good distance out, and here I hang my head in shame:  I wanted Barny to put in a good swim and to really enjoy it.  I wanted him to feel he had completed the best leg of the entire swim.  But deep down, in some dark shadowy place within me; a place where I am scared to go, I knew that if he didn’t finish the swim then it would be left to me to get us to France and I selfishly liked that idea.  Go on, whip me….

Barny did put in the swim of his life.  He powered through the waves. I don’t think he ever looked up, but just kept surging on. In fact, I am not sure he even lifted his head out of the water to breathe.  I think he may have actually held his breath for a whole hour smashing all known records for breath holding.  If only Norris MacWhirter had been on board to log it. But with 30 minutes of his swim left, Eddie called me over and told me to get ready, as he was sure the distance was too great, even for Shakey.  Eddie then exhibited a very sweet, non hardened sailor side.  He told everyone else to get ready to swim.  As explained, the rules of Channel Swimming mean that only one person can swim at a time.  But, as we had made such good time Eddie gave the go-ahead for everyone to follow me in, provided only I got out to finish the swim.  We all thought this a great idea, apart from Dave who was still throwing up and Barny who was breaking breath-holding records and wasn’t consulted.

At 2pm Barny was pulled out (I still feel his pain in not completing this.  He deserved it) and laughing boy was put in.  I swam as hard as I could, mainly because everyone following intimidated me and I knew that I would be so slow compared to them.  I had already spotted Charlie swimming with a copy of The Times crossword behind me, so she wasn’t expecting much.....  I kept the boat to the left of me, always to my left, until suddenly I looked over my shoulder to see the bow almost crashing down on me. I found out later that we had both changed direction at the same time and it had been a close call – everyone relaxing at this late stage could have caused me a big headache.  And then  the boat was gone.  It could go no further and this signalled the fact that I was cut loose to finish our swim.  At 2.15pm I clambered over some rocks, which was bloody difficult and very uncomfortable – I could have done with my flip flops.  Once fully clear of the wate,r the swim was finished.  We had done it.  I looked down at my wonderful colleagues swimming around the rocks under orders not to get out and I felt very unworthy.  They had all worked so hard and swum so brilliantly to get there. Lions each and every one of them, apart from Barny who was still this eel/lion/man thing.

I did the obligatory arms above my head in celebration thing, but the only photo of me taken from the boat seems to show me staring down my swimming trunks.  A moment I can neither remember nor do I treasure.
That was it, we splashed back to the boat whooping and laughing (and throwing up) and once aboard high tailed it back to Dover so Eddie could have his tea.  We toasted with champagne and lovely cake supplied by Colin our official observer, who was almost independent apart from his previous swims for Aspire. It was lovely to be back in Dover where we went to the famous White Horse pub.  There we were able to add our name to the walls of the pub along with all the other successful relay teams and soloists.  It will be there for posterity, including the properly and completely cocked up team name that I wrote and had to cross out, because I am so uncoordinated.

 I am so proud of being the 3rd fastest team this year that.  But I am more proud of the team and being a part of a fabulous endeavour.  It was a privilege.  And I am proud that so many people felt this endeavour was worthy of your support.  The Pelicans raised over £13,000 for Aspire and people with a spinal cord injury.

On a hugely selfish note, this summer of training has been my real introduction to the world of Channel swimming.  In less than 12 months I will be attempting the journey again as part of my Arch 2 Arc.  This time I won't have an amazing team of people. It will just be me and it will follow an 87 mile run the day before. This blog hopes to chart that journey
Sept 2013 

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