On Saturday 24th of September 2011 I swum the English Channel.
I can hardly believe it!
Here’s the story of how the day panned out……………
After waiting for a week for my swim window, I finally got the chance to swim.
Friday 23rd, 8pm
Mix the maxim feeds, load all the boxes in cars. Go to sleep (or try to!)
Saturday 24th, 3am
We got packed up and went to the harbour at 4am to board our boat, Sea Satin.
I felt sorry for our poor pilot Lance Oram -- he’d only just got in from a previous swim! I don’t know how these guys manage to think during the silly season -- it must be as exhausting as a channel swim itself!!
Sat 24th 4.30am
Then as we pulled out of the harbour, the crew had the rules read out by our CS&PF (Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation) Official, Rachel:
As my team fought for the right NOT to grease me up, Mike and Chris were the slowest to run away and got saddled with covering my hulking frame with the famous “Channel Grease” -- a mixture of Lanolin and Vaseline to stop my body chaffing, and to try to prevent the jellyfish stings getting through too often.
Once covered in grease, Lance shouted that we were close to Shakespeare’s Beach and that I could jump in the cold deep water and swim to the beach. Unfortunately, I brushed my now grease-covered arm against my goggles and couldn’t see anything! Luckily we’d brought some Fairy Liquid, so Tanya quickly helped to clear my goggles.
Now I could see again, it was time to go. Although the night air was cold, when I jumped into the black water, it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would have done. As I swam to shore, I just tried to keep my nerves under control. My heart was hammering away and all I could think was “this is it, this is it!”
I climbed out of the water at Shakespeare’s beach and collected my thoughts as I adjusted my goggles. I remembered all the weekends I’d spent at Dover and missing the kids summer holidays. I remembered all the donations that people that had been made. I remembered a few negative folk at work who bet on me not finishing the attempt and putting really short times in the sweepstake. I then thought of my wife SJ and her certainty that I was going to do it. Then I remembered the amazing send off the staff and kids at Penny Fields Special Needs school gave me before I left.
And then I remembered that this was the ONLY time I would ever do this.
I was to make the most of it and keep going no matter what. It was now or never. I remember how worried SJ looked when I left. I knew why now. She knew that I wasn’t going to leave the water no matter what. I’d even upped my life insurance, just in case things didn’t work out, so SJ and the kids would be well provided for, such something go badly wrong.
Sat 24th 5:03am
As I walked into the water, I realised that I had made my mind up to get this done properly a while ago. There was no way I was going to stop. I was either getting out at the other side, or was going to be hauled out by someone else. There was no way I had come this far and was going to mess it up now. I’d done the physical training at Dover. I’d done the mental training and had many psychological tools to hand, should I need them (huge thanks to Nick Kemp for those!)
I’m glad I’d made my mind up, because the first few cold hours were horrible, the waves were slapping into my mouth, I gagged a bit on the strong salt water as it burned the back of my throat and nose, and I struggled to get into a good rhythm.
Once I’d found my stroke rhythm, I was a much happier chap. My goggles were still airtight, my swim cap was staying put. And the trickest (in my experience) piece of equipment -- my swimming earplugs were holding fast too (thanks to Phil Spencely at Specsavers Huddersfield for giving me specially moulded earplugs to the swim for free -- what a star!!).
So I started to enjoy myself more in the water, and even more surprising, even started to enjoy swimming in the pitch black! My head light flashed away on the back of my goggles, whilst the green pencil shaped light glowed from my waistline.
I always thought that swimming in the dark would be scary, but it turned out to be surprisingly relaxing. In fact, in many ways it was more simple, as there are simply less distractions and more opportunity to focus on stroke and form.
Sat 24th 6:37am
As dawn broke, I was treated to a rare and beautiful experience -- sunrise over the ocean that you’re actually swimming in. My crew mate Mike Forster captured the moment beautifully………..
One thing that was a lovely surprise was how clear the water was. I was used to swimming in the perpetually cloudy waters of Dover harbour, and was unused to seeing much ahead of me other than my elbow. The water in the channel, whilst a very poor beverage indeed, is much clearer than I thought. That clarity was handy later for dodging jellyfish!!
Chris Keegan (see many other posts for how helpful he’s been!) another very good mate who was part of the crew, took a great video as I swam into the dawn.
Sat 24th 2pm
On channel swims, you are allowed to be joined by a companion swimmer for a maximum of 1 hr to keep you company. Then they must leave the water and not rejoin you for at least 2 hours. The CS&PF (Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation) Official also checks that they don’t break any rules -- i.e they can’t touch me, or swim in front of me (which counts as assistance).
I was in the very fortunate position of having two of my crew mates being nice enough (and mad) enough to join me in the channel -- both Paul and Helen are highly competent athletes in their own right. Paul decided to brave the depths first and despite having a wetsuit on gave a satisfying yelp of shock as he jumped into the baltic water!
It was lovely to have Walesy in the water -- after all, we’d been in the same class at school since I was 11 years old, we’d trained at the same swimming club, had my first pint with him, and we used to pester girls together at the local nightclubs in our formative years -- you name it. He was even my best man when I married SJ.
So, to be joined by Paul in my biggest adventure to date was truly a brilliant thing. Just to have someone to swim next to does make it so much more pleasant. Especially if he’s your best pal. It also helps to have a material witness when you explain to unbelievers how bloody cold the water is in the Channel!!
All too soon, Paul’s time was up and he had to exit the water and back to the warmth and comfort of the boat.
A few hours passed, where I lost all track of time (which is a good thing when swimming for 18hrs!). Later on I was joined by Helen. Now Helen is uberfit. She’s competed and won a number of top flight triathlons, so all she had to do was remember not to dash off without me!
Now, apologies to Helen -- I hardly looked over to her as she swam next to me -- I was wary of seeing how far away France was if I looked up to my left! It was really good to have some company in the water again, and it certainly lifted my spirits. I’m sure not many people could name two of their friends who would be prepared to jump into the channel and swim alongside them for a time. I know I’m a lucky man indeed. Thanks guys!
Again, Helen’s time ran out far too fast and she retreated back to the boat for warm, towels and a Pot Noodle!
Although I missed my companions when they’d gone, both Paul and Helen’s front crawl stroke style was so meticulous, it reminded me to keep my stroke nice and tidy…….
I was letting my thoughts idle way and was fairly happy until I saw what I first thought was a small jellyfish underneath me. As I focused my eyes a little better, I could see that it was an absolutely MASSIVE jellyfish way down deep beneath me. I had no idea they got that big -- this bugger was a tan colour and looked like it was about 15 feet across!! And it was it my imagination, or was it getting bigger -- in other words coming up to the surface to greet me?
I wasn’t going to hang about and discover that this wasn’t a hallucination! I kept looking at it as I kicked harder and pulled faster through the water to get clear of it. I didn’t look forward until I felt a sharp sting on my forearm and looked up.
Jesus -- there were dozens of much littler pink jellyfish -- but they were EVERYWHERE!!
I shouted at the pilot and said something like “Ahhhhh -- jellyfish!!”. Then one stung me on the palm.
Then it happened again
Then the pain kicked in
Gary, the pilot at the time (Lance had gone for a well deserved sleep) saw what was happening and made a snake motion with his hand. He was meaning that I could probably avoid most stings by trying to weave and dodge the worst of them.
Since the water was so clear, I could see most of them coming and dodged them. Mike and Chris had put a good lot of grease on the back of my hands, so I used them to knock the ones I couldn’t avoid out of the way. I saw a few of the “purple nasties” type-of jellyfish, which I respectfully avoided like the plague. Luckily, none of those type got me, so I got away pretty lightly considering. The ones that got me felt like a strong nettle sting -- so nothing to fuss about really.
I continued ducking and dodging for another fifteen minutes or so, when gladly the jellyfish became less and less frequent. God knows how many there were -- I’d lost count after 200. I was glad that neither Helen or Paul were swimming then, but sad that they couldn’t have seen them (if for no other reason than to verify what I’d seen!!). Although they were unnerving up so close, they were still a thing of beauty -- some of the purple ones looked like translucent chandliers.
What a crew!
One thing I never worried about was my safety -- and I have the team to thank for that. Every single time I looked up at the boat, there was always at least one team mate keeping a watchful eye. I can’t tell you how important that was -- it’s so important to know that you’re crew are taking care of you -- they were absolutely brilliant from start to finish.
As well as counting stroke rates, preparing and delivering feeds and writing nice messages on the whiteboard, the team also did a fantastic job of managing all the modern media stuff -- taking loads of photos, videos and updating the twitter account - it’s enough to ask your mates to look after the feeds on a rocking boat for 24 hours, but to do all the other stuff as well is fantastic. What a lucky chap to have such brilliant and capable mates. Helen and Mike I think did most of the “twittering” and responding to texts -- in addition to other duties as they cropped up!
Sat 24th 5pm
After 12 hours, my arms and shoulders were hurting a fair bit (understatement!), but the best crew on the planet kept showing me motivational messages to keep me going!
I loved that message. However much things were hurting, I had to keep it in perspective -- it was after all just one day in the whole of my life. As Kevin Murphy said to me once;
“The pain is temporary -- the glory lasts forever!”
I was also practising a lot of the stuff that Nick Kemp had taught me about emotional state control. I can’t say enough good things about Nick -- I went to him when I was concerned about how many fears and panic attacks I was getting during training in May. His various methods of dealing with such anxieties were brilliant. They required little effort to implement and they worked perfectly. If the channel is indeed 80% mental and 20% physical, it would have been madness to neglect getting my mental state right for the challenge. I’d recommend Nick to anyone in a similar position.
The crew were doing brilliant too -- the feeds were spot on, and 5 minutes before each feed, they would show me the sign I loved to see………………….
Ah yes! The 5 minute sign. Whenever the crew dangled that over the side of the boat for me to see, it meant that I only had 5 minutes left until my last feed. Bliss!
Now, Freda (as in Freda Streeter, “The General” who trains us on the swimmers beach at Dover) did warn me against using a whiteboard, as it had proven to be a distraction to the swimmer as they tried to read it whilst swimming. Taking that advice in to account I decided we would still use a whiteboard, but at two times only. Firstly, it’s only use when I was swimming was to signal “5″ so I knew a feed was coming. Then, when I got closer to the boat to have my feed, the team could write one simple message (i.e. not loads of tweets, which would be too hard to read and would be distracting). I’m happy that we had the whiteboard -- it was a great help to me, and we didn’t overuse it.
The team did a great job of this -- I had a pre written list of quotes that rang a bell with me (let me know if you want them). They could choose from those, or write the latest donations figure from www.justgiving.com/peteswims. Although I loved their improvised message, as it really lifted my mood:
Sat 24th 6pm
At about 6pm (or what I estimated to be that time, as I didn’t have a watch, so was using the position of the sun to guess), my arms were pretty tired. I did for a split second think that the challenge was getting the better of me, but then I thought
“If I do get out of the water, I’m only going to have to do all this, all over again. I’ll have to swim to this very point again. I’ve just swum 12 hours in the channel that I will NEVER have to do again. Get a grip, and keep going.”
Following that internal discussion, Walesy (Paul Wales) with perfect timing dangled this message (from my 6 year old son, Jem) over the boat:
I imagined how proud the kids would be in the future if they could say their dad was a Channel Swimmer. It was just the boost I needed!
Sat 24th 6:30pm
Everything was going well at this point. I had swum into the sunrise and was about to start swimming into the sunset. Although channel swimming is hard, it also has some wonderful moments if you make a point of looking for them.
I mean, how many people ever get to experience swimming in the ocean for a whole day and see the rising sun and the setting sun in the same swim?
Not many. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to do it. Again, because my pilot and my crew were so good, it does give you the necessary “head-space” to take in the good stuff, as you don’t worry so much about what could go wrong.
Sat 24th 9:30pm
As I swam on in the dark, I noticed a movement on my left out of the corner of my eye. Now, during the day, I refused to look to my left for fear of seeing France (or rather seeing how far away it still was!). But now it was dark, I reckoned I could risk it.
I’m glad I did! The movement to my left was a couple of little fish (about the size of sticklebacks) that were glowing a bright luminous green! They must have seen the green stick light attached to the back of my trunks and thought they had a new mate! There were other fish alongside them too, all swimming at exactly the same speed as me. I actually reached out to touch them to check I wasn’t hallucinating (which happens after so long in the water, I’d heard).
I caught one the the green fish in my hand and it wriggled out and continued swimming next to me. Brilliant -- so it wasn’t my imagination! It was a lovely experience, and really cheered my soul to think that real wild glowing fish were swimming alongside me.
Sat 24th 10:30pm
Again I had a quick feed and then I noticed Paul had jumped in to swim alongside me. I thought that maybe I’d slowed down a bit and assumed Paul had been put in next to me to make me swim a little faster. I wouldn’t have been surprised, as since it had got darker I really began to feel the cold. Unknown to me, the crew (on Tanya’s advice) had also bumped up the maxim dosage -- in hindsight, this was a very wise move indeed.
I held my hand up to let the team know I was going to try an have a pee. By now I was cold and trying to pee was getting more difficult. Since I had to stop swimming to try to pee, I drifted away from Paul and the boat. I started to realise that the tide taking me away from the boat was running very fast indeed, so I’d have to be quick.
Since I was looking at the boat, neither the boat nor Paul could see my lights, as they were attached to my back. Paul shouted out and told me to swim back quick, and then the boat crew started shouting too. So there I was, floating away from the boat at a fair rate of knots, tyring to pee whilst 8 people shouted at me and scoured the waves with a spotlight to try and find me. Hardly conducive to being able to do said task -- talk about getting “wee stage-fright”!!
Anyway, after what seemed like 10 mins, I’d finished the longest wee ever and swam back to get alongside the boat. When I got there, I noticed all my crew had moved to the front of the boat. I didn’t think it strange, I just thought they wanted to splay out on the deck to enjoy the the stars of a wonderful (if chilly) cloudless night sky.
As I swam alongside the boat Mike yelled
“Keep going Pete -- you’re nearly there!”
At first I thought “Damn it Mike, I told you not to tell me anything about being near -just in case the tide turns”
Then Mike shone a light in front of the boat about 300 yards away. It was a tree.
“Funny,” I thought, ”a tree in the Channel. Fancy that.”
Obviously my brain was starting to show the effects of swimming for so long. Paul was alongside me and shouted that we were nearly there.
“What?” I shouted, ”You’re joking -- Really?”
“YES!!!” yelled the whole crew on the boat “GO GO GO!!”
I didn’t need telling twice -- as the crew whooped and hollered, I fairly sprinted to the shore and for the first time ever swam faster than Paul! I must have been flooded with adrenalin. As I swam I felt so excited that I was actually just about to put my toes into French sand after having touched nothing since I walked into the water on Shakespeare’s beach at Dover so many hours ago. As I clambered over the sharp rocks, I cut my legs and feet on the rocks, but didn’t even notice.
Sat 24th 11:58pm
I cleared the water and I could hear the crew on the boat going nuts!
Paul walked up to me and gave me a massive hug.
“Well done buddy -- that was bloody amazing!”
That was a moment. Having a manly bear hug on a random French beach somewhere between Wissant and Sangette with my best man, old swim club team mate and best mate. A moment to savour. But not for too long -- the air was absolutely freezing, and I was already pretty chilly by now.
We carefully made our way back into the water and swam back to the boat. Getting on the boat after I’d finished was fairly easy -- I think the adrenalin had kicked in, and so I had a lot more energy than I would have supposed. Walesy, ever mindful of the dangers made sure he came up the ladder last, just in case I fell backwards.
What an experience! And what a crew. I could hardly believe I’d made it.
I felt OK considering and phoned a jubliant (and champagne-sodden) SJ, but had to hang up fairly soon as the maxim and sea water suddenly made their presence felt in my stomach. After a pukey 5 mins, everything was ok again and I had a can of Coke to settle my tum, which worked just fine.
Here’s a brief video we made as the boat powers up and heads back to Dover.
And despite swimming to shore with me and ensuring I didn’t come to grief on the rocks, Paul still had enough energy to leave message for his family. Paul had flown over from Geneva to support me and had sacrificied his Cambridge Annual Dinner to help me get across the Channel. What a generous friend indeed. Cheers mate.
We got back to Dover Harbour and the crew unloaded all the gear (I was claiming to be too tired to lift anything!!)
If you ever wondered what the best swim crew look like -- here they are:
From the left we have Paul Wales, Mike Forster, Helen Parris and Chris Keegan. All total stars. They put up with my bootcamp style training, total calendar disruption as the weather played havoc on our swim tide and never complained once. What a great bunch -- I know it’s my name on the certificate, but you all played a part.
Speaking of crucial team members, there was one missing on the day. By astonishing bad luck, Ben Clayton got chicken pox the very week of the swim. Ben had already more than helped by being my canoeist and feeder in our practice swims across Coniston. He’d also cleared his diary and came to the Dover training sessions. What a shame that he’d been felled by something totally beyond his control. Whilst we were gutted that Ben couldn’t come, he was still a vital part of the success that day. Cheers Ben!
And what a lovely welcome back to Varne Ridge -- they’d put up a banner saying “Congratulations on Swimming the Channel” on the caravan AND had put the gas fire on so it was lovely and warm inside, so we could thaw out quickly.
How thoughtful -- David and Evelyn must have stayed up late to find out if my swim was successful and then set about preparing our welcome in the wee small hours. Amazing!
And then off to bed. Well, I couldn’t sleep much, so I reviewed the twitter messages and mobile texts. Crikey -- it really hit home then. Loads of people had been following the tweets from the boat and dozens of tweets and facebook updates from SJ (despite a dangerously high blood/alcohol level towards the latter stages of the swim!!). It was amazing reading through the messages. Those of you who know me well know that I’m a sentimental thing, so I don’t mind admitted shedding a good many grateful tears as I reviewed those messages. Thanks so much to all of you!
There are many, many people I ought to thank for contributing to my getting across the channel, but I’ll leave that for another day and another post.
I should thank Archie though. When you find out your child has got special needs, it needn’t mean the end of your life. Sure, I did think that for a while (2 years to be exact). But then you realise everything can be positive if you are determined to see it that way. There’s no way on earth I would have ever seriously contemplated doing something as ambitious as swimming the channel, had we not had Archie. And Archie himself, whilst blissfully unaware of the channel madness that has engulfed his daddy for the last 2 years, it going to directly benefit from it (we have raised enough donations on www.justgiving.com/peteswims to buy a new disabled-adapted minibus), and have a happier more satisfied Dad to boot.
And last but not least I should thank SJ. Not only did she do a magnificent job of fund-raising and getting me in the newspapers and on the radio, she also looked after the kids pretty much every weekend during the swimming season whilst I was in Dover. I know who had the harder task!! Thanks SJ -- I could never have done any of this without you! xxx.