The Night We Swam To France

Significantly more people have reached the summit of Everest than swum the English Channel. It is one of the Ocean’s Seven, considered the world’s toughest sea swims. Successful relay teams are no more prevalent, although the effort is split, swimmers need to be resilient enough to repeatedly think it’s a good idea to jump in and out of the busiest shipping lane in the world to commune with the powerful currents and the jellyfish.

So, after 3 days of waiting on standby, and 1 almost false start, it was quite a surprise to see 9 boats at Samphire Hoe all in the business of getting swimmers across the Channel. (Samphire Hoe is not a Folkestone drag queen, rather, the man-made beach made of Chunnel spoil, which is the departure point for swimmers, tucked under the White Cliffs and a safe distance from the ferry port.)

Just as pop bands are manufactured, Team Golf were the creation of Karen and DQ of USwim. After 12 months of training and bonding, we were the open water swimming equivalent of the Spice Girls. Our visit to Swimmers Beach in Dover (where all the Channel swimmers train and wait on the weather conditions and tides) was a nerve wracking test of whether we northern wannabees could look cool and fit in. (On which note, I ponder who is Posh Spice, darling Su or Cheshire Life star Bec?)

Youngest, strongest member of the team, Ben was sent ashore to be the driving force out from the British side on a glorious, sunny, calm evening. A celebrity attempt coincided with ours, so he was greeted, unusually by a crowd on the beach. The horn sounded, Ben powered into the water, and to top it all off, magically, a Spitfire flew over the White Cliffs.

At times, our training had been unpleasant. We were challenged with a plan intended to make us strong endurance swimmers both physically and mentally. As we headed into a night time crossing, spirits were high. The wait was over. We had high hopes. We were living the dream!

Now, I knew that I suffer from motion sickness. I expected to find the boat ride unpleasant, and, in anticipation of this, I had trained with various combinations of sea sickness meds. I had heard the many tales of attempts being pulled because a swimmer was too ill to continue safely, but never considered that this was likely to be me.

Each swimmer took turns, and as we drew further from Dover, the water changed character, with long sweeping swells rocking the small fishing boat from the side. I waited my turn, breathing steadily and keeping my eyes focused on the horizon. I ate a peanut butter and marmite sandwich, little knowing I would be tasting it again soon.

Our team performed brilliantly, cutting a straight line out to sea in the slack tide. Last in the rotation, my swim was steady and strong. Before we knew it, the sun had set, the boat lights were turned on and each swimmer was illuminated by a glow stick and flashing light attached to our goggles. We could make out the pin pricks of lights in France, but they still looked a long way away. DQ put some tunes on and danced. Team Golf were in party mood!

As we headed towards the shipping lane, I began to feel worse. I vomited a few times and am sure there’s some fish out there that had a great supper of my nutty butties. The horizon no longer visible, all I could do was close my eyes, wrap myself up, and sit very still.

We each had a boat buddy to look after; I was useless. My poor friend Su finished her swim, was dragged aboard, mid-wee, with no-one to wrap her up and tell her she was amazing (which she is.) As she shouted, crossly, for her towel and robe, others had to step into the breach. I couldn’t move without throwing up. I felt awful.

My 2nd swim approached and mentally I began to prepare. My stomach was empty, my mouth dry and I couldn’t move around to get my stuff. A few times I glanced balefully at the kit box, right by my feet, but I couldn’t muster the energy to fight the sickness and reach down. I remembered the Kendal mint cake in my pocket, nibbled a few squares and hoped it would be enough to fuel an hour of inky, black sea swimming.

At each change over, the 2 official Channel Swimming Association observers came out of the cabin to make sure everything was done according to the rule book. The dictates are clear and we had practiced them; timing and positioning were strict, everything had to be done perfectly.

On Paula’s call I jumped into the water. For a brief moment, my brain panicked! I was surrounded by darkness in the middle of the sea! This was bonkers! This was dangerous! What if that boat capsized? What would happen to me? I took 4 or 5 strokes of breaststroke to calm myself, got my head in the water and started to swim…

Immediately, I felt better. The cool water was calming, the metronomic arm stroke rhythmic and as I sighted to the blue lights on the swaying vessel, I was over the moon not to be on board. I smiled to myself, got a gob full of diesel-tinged salt water and got on with the job in hand.

I played cat and mouse with the boat as the pilot tacked along, and every now and then, made it up to the front of the boat where the lights were less bright and I could appreciate the surreal beauty of being alone in the water, far out in the English Channel at night. Huge ferries, cruise ships and cargo vessels could be seen close by, row after row of lights illuminating their mammoth scale. It was magical.

My hour passed too quickly and, before I knew it, I spotted the green light on the boat, which was our signal to approach (not touching) and listen for instructions on where the pilot wanted us to position ourselves ready for the changeover.

I have never felt as dreadful in my life as I did on that boat. At the time, I thought I was doing quite well, holding up and putting on a good show. My team mate’s references to Dawn of the Dead and the fact that, at one point, they had to check my pulse, with hindsight, indicates otherwise.

In the dark there wasn’t anything to focus on which wasn’t lurching violently (and I include Neill’s naked buttocks in this as he was caught off guard mid-change!) I detached myself entirely from the surroundings, kept my eyes closed and just awaited my next instructions.

A word on Ben. Ben is 17 years old. He was 16 when we started training for the challenge. What sort of strange teenage boy wants to swim the Channel, for goodness sake? Why wasn’t he at home playing GTA on his Xbox, locked in his bedroom like a normal teen boy? Quite simply, because Ben is an astounding young man.

As we left the harbour, Ben’s mum Helen, had understandably shed a few tears. I hugged her and promised her I would look after her boy and bring him back safe. Only a few hours later, as I clung ashen-faced to the side of that boat, it was Ben who calmed me, and incredibly, made me laugh. He was by far our strongest swimmer, but has also, a solid character. I feel privileged to have been at the beginning of what I’m sure will be some impressive future performances.

We were getting nearer to France and Neill was tasked with breaking through the final tidal barrier that was keeping us out at sea. From my corner, clinging on a plastic barrel, I heard Karen shouting at him to focus. The waves were throwing him around and he kept getting dangerously close to the boat. The observers were all over it and Karen had to work almost as hard as poor Neill, signalling with a red light and shouting instructions to keep him on track. He swam with everything he had, returned to the boat exhausted and frustrated. It wasn’t yet enough…

I have learnt a lot about myself during the process of training for the Channel. I don’t like being told what to do. I resented instructions. Coach Karen metamorphosed into a shouting, angry, slave driver in my mind, and I became more bitter with each email of instructions. Karen knew this and started using the gentle voice that teachers reserve for the unruly child with “issues,” speaking to me as if I was a simpleton who needed careful handling.

As well as directing us on the boat, throughout the night, Karen kept our loved ones up to speed and relayed messages from our friends. At one point, when I was barely awake, I felt her arms swaddle me in the biggest hug and vaguely heard her say it was from Richard. My husband had read between the lines of the Facebook posts and sent a text to her to deliver some love.

As we listened to the messages, we would each respond with “she’s one of mine!” I didn’t really register the words but was comforted by the familiar names of my people. Karen had also secretly arranged for cards from home which were a real motivator for the team. In my part, I saved mine for later; I felt I needed to keep focussed on the boat and the task in hand. We knew people were tracking us when the calls turned to the likelihood of us able to smell croissants.

As the Channel loomed and our training cycle a succession of lovely summer open water dips, Karen had kept nagging us to be working hard down the pool. She explained that we needed to maintain the speed and strength of our yucky Winter sessions. We would need it for that final push. Thank goodness we listened.

Su was next in the water. Our most inexperienced team member, she had worked unbelievably hard to reach the level required for this swim, which she was doing to raise money for MND charities in memory of her dad. Su was sent into the water with the instruction to swim her guts off; if we didn’t break through this last stretch we would be pushed towards Calais port and automatically add another 4-6hrs on the swim. You cannot imagine how I felt as I heard this.

25 minutes into her turn, Kevin, our pilot, came out of the cabin for the first time. “She hasn’t moved,” he said. Su was basically on a sea treadmill, going nowhere. The whole team massed on one side of the boat to scream and cheer her on. We waved and clapped and hollered till Su cracked it. With land still looking a long way away, Bec, our next swimmer was told that she would land!

You would have to go a lot further than France to find a woman more determined than Bec. In the morning light, we could see her gritted teeth as she swum. This is a woman who fought cancer and transformed herself; the sea is nothing to her! It was decided, with a little cajoling, that as the next in rotation, I would be the person allowed to swim ashore and record the moment Bec stepped onto dry land. I was incredibly pleased to have a 3rd swim, like the rest of the team and, hey, taking photos is my forte!

Landing wasn’t straightforward. I had been issued with instructions not to get in front of Bec and she must be the first to clear the water. No danger; I couldn’t catch Bec she was on a mission! Kevin had told us to head for the red house on Wissant beach. I shouted, but Bec didn’t even know I was behind her. We were both equally oblivious of the seal bobbing along behind us (just as well as I fear I may have freaked out,) concentrating instead on the cloud of hundreds of huge blue jellyfish that we knocked through with each bashing stroke.

We landed 13hrs and 33minutes after we had left Dover. It was anti-climatic in that our instructions were to be as quick as possible recording the moment and returning to the boat, which appeared to be drifting a long way out. Oddly, a lone man ran towards us shouting. Confused, we let him take our photo. We learnt later that this was Patrice, a Channel swimmer and dot tracking super-fan. His pic awaited us back on the boat, posted directly to the CSA observer along with his hearty congratulations.

So, that’s it. A year ago 5 strangers met for lunch in Cafe Rouge, next to the docks in Salford. 12 months later and we have peed alongside each other in buckets, dressed each other like carers aiding invalids, seen body parts goose-pimpled and shivery, snuggled together like penguins for warmth and rubbed each other’s backs whilst we vomited. We have been scared together, cried together, shared Vaseline, been exhausted and frustrated. We have laughed, laughed and laughed, cared for each other, built each other up and shared some amazing experiences.

Team Golf, we did it. We swam to France!

12 thoughts on “The Night We Swam To France

  1. You did incredibly well. I don’t know much about open water swimming but got a glimpse of how tough the Channel swim is with the StandUp2Cancer celebrity attempt. Looking forward to your future exploits!

    Liked by 1 person

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