It’ll just take a few days to let it all sink in, I thought.
English Channel Solo on Saturday, 9th September 2023, 15 hours and 53 minutes.
Boat Anastasia, Pilot Eddie Spelling, Crew Michael and Rob, CS&PF Observer Toni, swimmer’s crew; Fishface (Louise Stratford), Deborah Bailey, Sophie Franks.
A Channel swimming friend sent me a message a few days after my swim asking if ‘it (being a Channel swimmer) had sunk in?’. She swam the Channel five years ago, I asked her how long it took her……..she answered, it hasn’t yet! I can understand that. Be prepared, this is going to be a long old post, buckle up my friends.
At 3.00 am, 9/9/23 we met the Observer and Pilot crew at Dover Marina and loaded the boat with feeds, clothes, swim paraphernalia. We were going to go to Shakespeare beach for the start of the swim. The precious moments on the way round are for final application of Vaseline for anti-chaffing, the waterproof guardian lights turned on and put on the back of the swimmer’s goggles and back of their cozzie, a form is completed and given to the Observer to check the details of the swimmer. Passports are collected, final balance paid, off we go.
My swim observer, Toni, asked me just before I started my swim why I was doing it? On reflection, I think he was making sure I had my ‘reason’ in the front of my head to motivate me on what was going to be a challenging time. I looked up, reflected and answered.
I recall Channel swimmers landing swims and it making the news in the 1970’s. I distinctly remember, as a little girl, being in awe of these rugged, strong, goose fat smothered warriors exiting the waters having achieved the most incredible feat. I didn’t feel the same about anything else I saw on the news, not quite.
I digress, so when Toni asked me ‘why’ I had a moment of clarity, as up until that point I had always answered this question with a fairly nonchalant ‘to see if I can’. This wasn’t the full story.
I explained to him that Channel Swimmers, to me, represent resilience, strength, fortitude, bravery, swimming prowess and bloody mindedness. These are qualities that I hold dear and I wanted to be in that club. The ‘I am a solo English Channel club’.
To the swim. The ‘Dovercoaster ride’ is a phrase used to describe the waiting, standing down, are we going are we not going, what’s the weather like, has the boat left without me pre-swim. Instead of going the week of the 22nd June, I ended waiting until the 9th September 2023 for my opportunity. We arrived at Shakespeare Beach, I drew my last dry breath and jumped in. A sharp exhalation, a check of the goggles and 2 heads-up breast-strokes before getting my head down for a short front crawl swim to the shore. A scrabble, stand-up, turn around, arms in the air. The claxton sounded at 03.49 am and with cheers of encouragement from the crew, I strode in with purpose and calmness. I started to swim back to the well-lit boat. The next few hours were spent swimming in absolute darkness and concentrating on my position in relation to the boat. I have always found the first few hours of a swim challenging. I have to settle into my stroke, make peace with the task ahead, work out how to swim to keep close and parallel to the boat. Keep checking in with my body; shoulders, back, arms, neck. The opportunity for self-analysis when you are alone and swimming in the pitch black is both a wonderful chance as well as a curse as the brain is available for over-thinking, physical vigilance and gremlin welcoming.
Before I started the swim I had visualised many different versions of how the crossing was going to play out. I thought about swimming to shore, in daylight and dusk, darkness and sunrise. I already had a plan and was going to break down the swim into greeting the dawn. Then, enjoying the sun on my back whilst I completed an 11 hour swim. Why? It had taken 10 hours and 59 minutes to swim from the Channel Island of Jersey to France the previous year. This was my longest swim, at this point, so anything after that would mean a PB for distance swimming. I also had an additional idea that I could reframe the swim into 3 x 6 hour training swims, This would mean I was hitting the middle of my estimated crossing time of between 16 and 20 hours. Keeping track of how many hours one has been swimming comes easily to some folk who memorise their feed plan and can remember the hours passed. I was feeding every hour, not too difficult to keep track of but, my goodness, the reality is the hour comes round amazingly quickly and feeds merge into one so soon enough the number of hours is lost. I had devised a plan which was to play ‘I went to market and I bought’ to get me up to 10 hours then start again.
It went like this.
I went to market and I bought……..
Two jelly babies
Some tinned peaches
I put the banana and peaches in a bag
A jelly baby
Mint aero chocolate (king of feeds IMO)
A small ham sandwich – crusts off
10 hours achieved
Restart. At this point I felt very comfortable swimming, I had found my rhythm and settled into my cruising pace. The water was an elegant environment to be in, smooth, calm, enveloping. I had expected to see a lot of marine traffic in the English shipping lane and saw very few distant tankers and a couple of ferries – one creating a playful swell. The separation zone, a bit like the central reservation on a motorway, is known for being a gathering place for clumps of seaweed and rubbish, discarded plastic, pallets etc. I saw none of these items, there was a fragment of seaweed I picked up with my stroke and quickly discarded. Now, on the one hand this was brilliant as I didn’t have to navigate through rubbish but also discombobulating as it meant I was questioning my progress. I had asked at the 5 hour feed if I was making forward progress and was given a categorical ‘you are making excellent progress’. I had entered the French Shipping Lane at 12.24 a wee bit short of 9 hour into the swim. I had arranged with my crew that I would be told when I entered French waters – they made a messenger board with a sign telling me where I was and the direction of croissants! I asked for a custard cream at my next feed, as a treat.
The messenger board was absolutely brilliant as a means of communicating with me, only at feed times as I didn’t want to be distracted whilst swimming. The crew were very creative with the board pens and I had a delightful mixture of sentimental messages and downright hilarious and saucy missives which amused me greatly. The fact that there was ALWAYS eyes on me from the crew meant I never felt lonely or disconnected from the boat and my beautiful crew. Toni, the Observer, had also demonstrated a few signs he would use to communicate. The most meaningful one was the sign showing ‘he was with me’. My goodness, that meant a lot.
A very common question posed is what do you think about on a long swim? I have employed many different tactics in training to help pass the time or get me over a difficult patch including; the alphabet game – choosing a subject say items of clothing and going through the alphabet naming an item for each letter. I once got stuck on ‘L’ for some reason (this game is terribly easy on dry land with a clear head) on an 8 hour training swim in Dover harbour. It wasn’t until I came in for a feed at 6 hours that Lederhosen sprang to mind – I announced it to the beach crew and swam off, turning fleetingly to yell ‘Mackintosh’, much to their bemusement. I also sing to myself and my two songs for the English Channel were ‘I’ll never fall in love’ by Sir Tom Jones and ‘How deep is your love’ by PJ Morton feat. YEBBA. I found the tempo perfect for swimming to and the melodies calming. The words in the PJ cover can be applied to oneself to enrich and remind the sole of your own value. There can be dark times on a long swim and I have found these songs really help. If things get really desperate my emergency song is by Helen Reddy ‘I am woman’, I love the lyrics. My parents had the ‘Best of Helen Reddy’ on a cassette which they used to play in the car and I loved it then.
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
And no one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I’ve gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul
(Credit Helen Reddy, 1972)
Did I use my emergency song on this swim? Yes, I did. At 13 hours and 30 minutes I had a strawberry and a banana feed with maltodextrin and squash and heard the words I really didn’t want to hear. Fishface, my lead crew member and mentor, called for my attention. ‘Amanda, IF you you give us a power hour, it looks like we can land this sub 16 hours. It’s all looking good and you are doing brilliantly’. I took a deep breath, checked my cap and goggles, put my head down and went for it. My stroke rate, I found out afterwards, increased from a consistent 55 to 63 that hour. I felt my lungs were going to come out of my nostrils and all I kept thinking was ‘it’s one hour in my life, it’s just one hour, keep going, you can do this, you are strong, you are woman’. I cannot explain the exquisite relief of seeing the ‘5’ whiteboard telling me I had 5 more minutes to the next feed. Unbeknown to me though, my feed times had dropped to 45 mins and on this occasion they brought me in at 40 mins to finish my ‘not hour of power’. The advantages of having such a glorious day for swimming the Channel are numerous. However, one disadvantage on my day, was there was a low lying mist which obscured the French coast line. I had no frame of reference for trying ascertain my position in relation to the land nor the distance from it. Making assumptions on a long swim is a dangerous habit. I had decided my hour of power was to enable me to land on Cap Gris-Nez, which is the closest land to England and, therefore, a desirable place to finish a swim to get the shortest distance. However, I was already in French in-shore waters and my track showed quite an abrupt turn to the left towards Wissant, a Town with a beautiful sandy beach and pretty aspect further along the coast from the Cap. To tell you the truth I had been super worried about landing at the Cap as I was convinced I would be swimming for 18-20 hours and calculating the start time meant I would be finishing the swim in the dark. I didn’t fancy scrabbling up onto rocks in the dark in order that land was between me and the boat and therefore signifying the swim was successful and finished. Coupled with the fact that I had no reference points due to the mist I decided that I was going to have to look for other clues to show whether I was going to be landing soon or not. I had asked my crew to tell me when it was my last feed – which would mean I would have a maximum of an hour to swim from that point. My last feed came at 14 hrs and 50 mins, two jelly babies and a warm maltodextrin/squash. At that point I noticed Michael, one of the lovely crew members, getting the rib out. As the pilot approaches the shallows, a rib is often launched to escort the swimmer into shore and back out to the boat. The safety measures taken on a swim like this are phenomenal and I felt so well cared for at all points. What was even more exciting was that Fishface had put her cozzie, cap and goggles on, she was swim ready.
France was becoming tantalisingly close although I couldn’t quite believe it. The pretty profile of Wissant sea front was slowly emerging from the haze. Roof top shapes, a band of grey (stones?), a sky line, a shore. At this point Michael had the rib next to me and was directing me to the shore, he was a vision of cheerfulness with gentle encouragement, aided by a splendid silver shark hat and rendition of baby shark he was making me giggle in the water. When fishface joined me I started to believe that maybe I was going to be a Channel Swimmer. At the same time the French jellies started to make their presence known. With their rotund caps and benign texture any swimmer knows that making contact with dangling tendrils can mean an unpleasant surge of prickles of pain that can reoccur long after the jelly fish has floated away. At this point I really wouldn’t have cared if the Kraken had popped upto say hello. I was going to land it and become a Channel Swimmer. As we approached Michael asked me if I could see a man in the water wearing a white tshirt. He was next to some steps. I could and asked who it was. ‘It’s Patrice Chassery’.
I had a vision that I wanted to be able to walk out of the water, on soft sand, say hello to a few folk, pick up a pebble, hug Fishface, get back in the water and return to the boat. I had also prepared a very special Channel Swimmer’s onesie that I had banned myself from wearing until I had landed the Channel. The deluxe version of my landing would also include French children cartwheeling on the sand, a few ‘well done’s’ from beach users and to meet Patrice Chassery – legend and scrumptious man. Patrice runs a Channel Swimmers group on Facebook and is very knowledgeable about the sport. He is extremely supportive and active in the community and tries to meet as many swimmers as possible when they land in France. The idea that I was going to be greeted by Patrice was simply incredible. As I approached him Fishface said that it was shallow enough to stand up. I had been a bit worried that I would be wobbly and unsteady on my feet but I just stood right up, no problem and started to march towards the steps. I needed to exit the water and listen for the Claxton from the boat to signify that the swim was landed and I had completed it. I waved at Patrice, asked him how he was and introduced myself in my best French. I then continued and asked Fishface why there were so many people there. I subsequently learnt there were about 200 folk on the pavement above the boulder fortifications all of whom were cheering, clapping, whistling to congratulate my landing. I found this to be utterly incredible and such a treat. I stood on the dry land, turned around, held my arms aloft and waited for the claxton – the clapping from the crowd was so loud I couldn’t hear the boat horn but Michael reassured me all was well and that I had swum the Channel. At that point I turned to see Patrice approaching. ‘Wait, Patrice, I need to do something’. I asked Fishface to pass my waterproof bag she had carried for me to shore containing two very special items; a lipstick (MAC all fired up) and a bronze shell.
Let’s go back to the Jersey to France swim in August 2022. It’s traditional for swimmers to pick up a memento from the shore and these keepsakes are often much treasured items. I picked up a pretty shell on the shore of France. We had very limited time on the shore and the pilot wanted us back on the boat pdq. When I returned to Blighty I asked my friend Lawrence Edwards if he could do something with my shell to preserve it. He is a bronze sculptor and a dear friend. Some months later, we were having supper and he handed over a small brown box containing my original shell and two bronze versions he had cast. He told me one was to keep and the other was to leave in France when I landed my solo English Channel swim.
Back to Wissant. I applied my lipstick and Patrice warmly congratulated me on my swim, laughing that I had managed to apply my lipstick and leave a kiss mark on his forehead. I also handed over the bronze shell, explaining the story and saying it was a thank you for all his support of us swimmers. He could do with it what he wanted. At that point I noticed two ladies on the steps grinning at me and looking simply amazed. They asked me how old I was, I told them, they said I was incredible and just applauded me. At that point I was able to go and get my hug from Fishface. Congratulations Channel Swimmer, you did it!!
Right. The prospect of hauling myself onto a small rib to get a ride back to the boat was too much for me to bear. I didn’t have the strength in my arms to lift myself out of the water and there wasn’t a ladder. I was horrified to think that 200 people were going to watch me flail around in the water. As I approached the rib, Fishface, with some assistance from Michael got into the boat. As I became near I explained that I wasn’t going to climb in and would prefer to swim back. I then noticed what looked like a stirrup handing over the side of the boat. Can I hang onto this and get dragged? Michael considered the safety implications. He had to go backwards so I wasn’t near the engine and off we went. Do you recall the scene from the film, The Incredibles, when Dash, the middle son, is able to turn himself into a propeller whilst his mother creates a boat for his sister to sit in so they can get to shore? This is what I was thinking as I got towed along with millions of bubbles being generated by the speed of the boat and tickling my front as we sped along. It took moments to get back to Anastasia but it was a great ride. Slowly and carefully I climbed up to the first platform and up the ladder to the deck. Cheers, applaud, well done, smiles from Toni, Rob, Fishface, Sophie and Debs. Eddie was below deck preparing to take off back to England. I sat down and heard one of the nicest things ever. Michael offered me a cup of tea. It was fabulous too.
Out of my cozzie, into warm dry clothes and my onesie. Trying to sip my cup of tea I realised my throat felt like the surface of a cheese grater, so tender having been in salt water so long. Then the wurgles started….without meaning to be indelicate, being horizontal for that long in salt water and being fed on malto dextrin and squash can cause a bit of stomach discomfort. I needed the loo and I needed it fast. I crept downstairs, wrestled out of my onesie, and triumphantly managed to empty my bowel. I cannot tell you how relieved I was as I had experienced poonamis’ after marathon swims before and my onesie was pale pink……
Return to deck for chit chat with my crew and the lads. It’s roughly a two hour journey back to Dover Marina and then I started to feel nauseous. Find me a bucket, dry heaving and a bit of puke but nothing to worry about. Luckily a Kwells soon sorted me out and all was well. We were due to be back in Dover around 10.30 pm and I had no expectation that anybody would be there to greet me. My lovely husband, Mr Tim, wasn’t able to come down for various reasons which I knew. So, when we pulled up alongside the jetty I looked up to see the most beautiful selection of smiling swimmers cheering my arrival. Friends from Dover Channel Training had arrived to see me in; Emma France holding a bouquet of curlywurlys for me, Lucky the dog, Kevin Magnay, Victoria Roughley, Kristen Smith, Hayley Brant and Sarah Philpott. I was obviously far too excited by seeing them all I was used the jetty as a catwalk to show off my Channel Swimmer onesie and was greeted with massive hugs and beautiful smiles.
As if it couldn’t get any better, Toni the lovely, gentle, supportive observer came up to say goodbye and presented me with a wooden plaque he had made with my swim name, time, date and crew details as a memento.
Mrs Bowden is a Channel Swimmer – boom!
Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough to express the gratitude and support I have received on this epic and life enhancing journey. In no particular order here goes and apologies if I left anybody out xxx.
Mr Tim, my husband who simply supports me to the best version of myself. I love him.
Fishface, my rock, mentor, guru, friend, swim buddy, crafter in crime and all round brilliant human being and the reason I got myself involved in this crazy sport.
Sophie Franks, crew, smiler, friend, relay team buddy, generous and supportive, accommodation provide (thanks also to young Sam)
Deborah Bailey, crew, training buddy, supporter, cheerful beyond measure and kind with a very naughty laugh indeed.
Eddie Spelling and crew of Anastasia, Rob and Michael. At no point did I feel anything other than beautifully looked after and cared for. Thank you for your incredible expertise and for being with me and enabling me to have one of the best days of my life.
Toni the Observer from CS&PF, quiet, caring, thorough and generous with advanced plaque making skills.
DCT – Dover Channel Training. Where would I be without my DCT swim family? Supportive beyond measure. They believed in me when I didn’t and trained me to have the capacity for mighty achievements.
Ray Gibbs – Canary Wharf swimming. He sorted my stroke out and built my confidence. He told me I was a great swimmer and I am slowly starting to believe him.
Paul Fowler – 100% swimming. Encouraging, technically astute, not demonstrative with his support and kindness but it’s there is buckets in the background.
Felixstowe Swimscapers – where would I be without my tier 1 swim buddies. So supportive and kind, fun to be with, good to cry with, always happy to laugh with.
Maggie Franks for making the best coffee, like ever, and keeping my body in order with the best aromatherapy massages. Not to mention her steadfast and constant friendship throughout my swim journey.
My brothers, wives and our kids for never once questioning why I was doing it or doubting that I could.
Felixstowe Leisure Centre for providing me with a monthly 4 hour ‘princess’ lane for my endurance training off season. You may not realise how delightful and important this was.
Durley Sea Swimmers – who supported me on my first 6 hour sea swim and whose belief in me never wavered.
U-Swim putting on a fabulous sea training camp and to bash out lots of hours in the water in a well-supported, cheerful and fantastically fun environment.
Swimtrek and SwimQuest holidays for supporting me in completing my first 10k sea marathon and allowing me to boss a mega training week in Croatia.
Every single person that donated to my charity Water Aid. Your generosity has been astounding.
Further write-ups coming soon including….
Motivation and crew
The tiny green light you can see is me!