Back on the boat, back to Samphire Hoe. 3.48 am.
To start the swim, the first swimmer jumps into the water, swims to shore. Clears the water, hand ups waving to indicate they are ready. A claxon sounds and they re-enter the water and start swimming. At night, a crew member shines a headlight on the surface of the water to guide the swimmer. Now, I have swum in the dark, I have swum in rough water, I have swum next to a boat. I had never swum with all three circumstances combined and I must say, I was terrified and excited. I felt so desperately sea sick that swimming in pitch black, rough water was a welcome relief from the movement on deck. Sophie nailed her hour and soon it was time for me to leap into the unknown to do my best as swimmer two. Now, I know what I’m good at and I’m really good at getting into cold water. I don’t faff about, get in, get on, get it done.
Heavens to Betsy, I jumped and felt a surge of surprise as the darkness and cold enveloped me. I rose to the surface, disorientated and thought what the ruddy hell am I doing, this is madness. Luckily my pig headedness surged at this point and I started to swim to the light. The water was unstable with so much movement I found it difficult to get rhythm going with my stroke. Swimming at night is a different technique to day swimming, you have to ‘sight’ more to work out where you are going as you don’t see as much when you are breathing. At some points, the swell seemed to push me into the crux of the boat and I was brought up short thinking I was going to get squashed so I would change direction to get away from the hull of the boat. Open water swimming is combination of mental fortitude and good swimming technique, in my humble opinion. One’s basic instincts can take over; fear of the dark, fear of the deep, fear of the swell, wanting to avoid swallowing water, wanting to avoid drowning, the conflict of swimming too close to a boat and being frightened of getting crushed or swimming away from the safety boat which is your life line. A whole heap of strong emotions which all tell you to get the hell OUT OF THE WATER and stop all this nonsense. Nah, I didn’t get out. I flipped it. I thought to myself I am actually swimming in the English Channel. I AM SWIMMING TO FRANCE. I am strong, I am capable, I am a team player. I can do this. I carried on. The dawn started to break and slivers of grey and indigo started to appear in the sky. The ink like atmosphere started to lift and a sense of order with my stroke replaced, what I thought to be, the flailing front crawl of the first 30 minutes of my swim. I settled and then, before I knew it, my team mates were beckoning me to come in, my first hour was up. Next on the platform, for her leap of faith was Lorna, a little power rocket of positivity and resilience with a smile that could smash crystal glasses.
Our team took it in turns to support each other so there was always someone watching you swim, help you get dressed, bring you a snack or drink or just look out for you. Once I had changed, I had an overwhelming sense of nausea and exhaustion. I couldn’t say I was numb but I seemed to have lost my ability to communicate. I was sent to bed and shook with shock like I have never experienced before in my life. Despite thermal base layer, long sleeve t-shirt, jumper, sports robe, a duvet and a sleeping bag I still had uncontrollable tremors and then sleep took over. I was woken some time later as it was my turn to look after my swimmer. It’s amusing to think how territorial we all became about who ‘our’ swimmer was and that we, nobody else, had a duty of care to them. From a team perspective it was a brilliant idea to allocate ourselves to each other. Thinking about somebody else stops you from worrying about oneself. Now, there are three more members of the team to talk about, Claire, Jonny and Sarah. The respect I have for these team members cannot be overstated.
Jonny joined the team very late, about 2 months before we were due to go. Another team member had pulled out. The charity normally has teams of 6. With very little open water experience and an extremely busy work/home life Jonny stepped up to the mark. No moaning, no grimacing, just quiet commitment to the task in hand. The only time I heard him get anywhere near to complaining was when we gifted him some budgie smuggler trunks featuring rubber ducks to wear on the swim – he chose to not wear them as he wanted to stick to his standard jammers – fair enough.
Claire was swimmer 5. I was so impressed with Claire’s tenacity to deal with the cold. As an experienced pool swimmer and able to train irregularly in sea conditions, she had to really overcome, quickly, the challenges of open water swimming and ‘refreshing’ water temperatures and my goodness did she do that in spades. Claire had an interaction with a container ship on our channel swim that would make the most resilient person quake at the knees. She didn’t stop and barely broke her stroke as the container ship loomed. She just focussed on the task in hand despite some ruddy great big swells caused by the ship passing a wee bit too close for comfort. Now, I mentioned that most teams have 6 and we did have 6 folk. The lovely Sarah was unable to swim. A long awaited knee operation clashed with our delayed swim. It was devastating for the team to lose this valuable member who had worked, I would suggest, harder than any of us on developing her fitness and cold water acclimatisation. I know that whatever team Sarah swims with in 2022 she will be an asset. Especially as she is now bionic!
So that’s the team. Whilst I was sleeping Lorna and Jonny swam, strong and consistently. By the time I resurfaced the dawn had fully broken and the water had settled. A golden path of sunlight shone on the water, ethereal and stunning. The majesty of the morning lifted and boosted us. We were doing so well, we had made really good progress. Soon my turn to swim came again and this time it couldn’t have been more different. I felt strong, calm and in control. The conditions in the water were super with a favourable push from the tide and the sun shining on our backs. Out I came after my hour of joyful swimming and once again I slept well with the added bonus of waking without feeling sea sick. I even managed to eat 3 jelly babies and have a cup of tea! The whole team were swimming their hearts out. There was much merrymaking on deck with dancing, joking and cheering. We knew we were swimming as well as we could. The French coast seemed to be so close, but, I cannot emphasise how misleading this can be. Eddie was only willing to say we were doing well and needed to carry on. The French inshore waters are notorious for carrying swimmers away within a few 100 metres of the shore. The swim simply isn’t landed until the swimmer clears the water. Sophie swam her 3rd hour like a sea goddess, beautiful to watch, her long strong eating up the metres. There was some talk that I might be landing the swim. In my heart I knew it was unlikely, but what an incentive to get as close as possible. I LOVED my third hour of swimming. I felt like I had never swum so well in my life. Full of pride and joy for my team, for the epic day we were having, grateful for the skill and support of our crew and lovely Observer (kind of like a swim judge from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. Bel was there to make sure we all followed the rules and stayed safe). It was time for Lorna to swim and we knew she was going to land it. She got a real wriggle on and after 32 minutes she stood up on the shore. As a vet we thought it was so appropriate that she got greeted by a French dog and lovely family. Lorna then did a cartwheel on the shore then waded back into the water. Michael, one of the super crew members picked her up in the rib and brought her back to the boat. What on earth was she clutching? It’s traditional for Channel swimmers to pick up a pebble or shell to commemorate their swim. Lorna landed on a very sandy beach and couldn’t find a pebble so she picked up a piece of driftwood which bared an uncanny resemblance to a large dog turd. Like Kate Winslet on the front of Titanic (well in terms of position as I can’t recall Kate Winslet holding faeces), Lorna held her turd aloft, grinning from ear to ear before jumping back into the water and swimming to the boat.
We had completed our swim in 12 hours and 37 minutes. We raised more than £12.5 k.
If you ever doubt your capabilities, remind yourself that you are more capable than you know and stronger than you think. I am proof of that, as the rest of our team. Swimming the English Channel, as part of a relay team, afforded me one of the most glorious experiences of my life. I have learnt that I am strong, I am fit, I have fortitude, I am a team player and that the swimming community is stuffed to the brim with the most gloriously warm hearted, fearless people you could ever wish to meet.
Special thanks to
Tim Bowden, or ‘Mr Tim’ my husband and family
Swim Tayka for giving me this opportunity and for putting me in touch with the most incredible bunch of people, this opportunity has been life changing and I thank you https://swimtayka.org/
Dover Channel Training and, especially Paul’s Pod for never ending support and encouragement https://www.doverchanneltraining.com/
Felixstowe Swimscapes – friends that swim together stick together https://www.facebook.com/FelixstoweSwimscapes/
Louise Stratford – the swimmer that believed in me in the first place https://www.pierprojects.org/
Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation http://cspf.co.uk/
Eddie Spelling, Rob and Michael with Anastasia http://cspf.co.uk/pilot-eddie-spelling
Durely Sea Swimmers https://durleyseaswims.co.uk/
Swim Tayka Team Brazil; Sophie, Amanda, Lorna, Jonny, Claire and Sarah.
I would like to thank every single person who donated to my swim, for enquiring how I got on, for supporting me with your kind words.