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Swimming the English Channel 

 

"Nothing Great is Easy" 

It happened one Christmas as I sleepily sat in my favoured armchair, looking at the boys with their presents. I remembered being their young age and I remembered the dreams I had of the adventures I would undertake when I grew up. I realised I had done little in the intervening years to make any of them happen. Determined with the resolve that impresses itself around that time of year, to make a difference, I took out a pencil and started to write a list of all the things I ever wanted to do. Many things Mum had often said ‘No’. Things like going to the beach even though it was raining. I never 
understood why I wasn’t allowed to do certain things just because someone else said no. My list grew and it wasn’t difficult to decide to end the list when it reached 100 things. 
 
Of course, climbing Everest was in the list along with walking to the South Pole. Swimming for England, learning to fly, reading the Bible, delivering a baby. For the sake of building the list to 100, some items were obviously less important, but others seemed 
to have been recorded in my heart. Swimming the Channel was somewhere around number ten, but was immediately calling to my soul. It was clearly number one. I determined there and then to make it happen. 
 
Thank goodness I had no idea how I would commence training to swim the Channel and more importantly how tough the training would be. I simply made the choice on the understanding that because people have swum the Channel, why shouldn’t I be able to 
do the same. I remembered a newspaper article earlier that year of a successful Channel swim and spent some time going through the old newspapers in our local Gazette office to find the report. There it was, Paul Millett.. It didn’t take long to find his phone number and an hour later I was speaking to his coach Tom Watch. These names meant nothing to me at the time, but it turned out I was speaking with giants. Just two phone calls and I was armed with a twelve week pool training schedule and a target date to be ready for open water training by April. 
 
All competitive pool swimmers have thoughts to ‘swim the Channel one day’. For some, the idea becomes engraved into those special times of comfort that we call childhood dreams. A place where as a four, five or six year old, we can do anything we like. A place where limits do not exist and permissions are never refused. A place where heroes live. 
 
Perhaps for most, a place which fades with age and is lost amongst the clutter of life. Only to be found again during fanciful days of fond remembrance during the quiet moments of grown up reflection. To all those who remember their dreams as unreal 
illusions, I would suggest an experiment.. 
 
Allow your mind to reflect and think back to those days, to feel the desire to have your time all over again and with that time, the moments to make your childhood dreams come true. Your vision will soar, your pulse will race. The reality of opportunities will course through your soul. Your spine will tingle. Can you really make your dreams come true? Yes you can. 
 
I will never forget the feeling as I first felt the sands of a French beach, whilst I climb out of the Channel. Just a few more yards and one more boy made his dreams come true. Twelve months later and I was again standing on Shakespeare beach. Moments later, the first few strokes pulling towards an unseen and dark horizon. You cant see France , while swimming on your back. Seventeen hours and two minutes later, a short scramble ashore and another dream comes true. The first person in history to swim the Channel using backstroke. 
 
Amongst the many questions that I have been asked, the most popular seems to be why? There are numerous answers, yet none can convey the message using words alone. Perhaps the best reply that I have heard, is that of Wally Herbert, the first person to cross the frozen wastes of the Arctic Ocean. He said, ‘Those who need to ask, will never understand the answer, while others who feel the answer, will never need to ask.’. We cannot fail to understand the fullness of his response, as we recognise the message so accurately, by feeling. 
 
As for my reply, perhaps the words contained within these pages will provide some clues. If there are answers, they may not be found amongst the words but might emerge from your thoughts as you recognise a kindred feeling of adventure. Not a stay home in the 
garden adventure but an adventure discovered in the back yard of life. 
 
I was never told that the hours and hours of training off Weymouth would freeze my body to the cor. Nor, when open water training started, my wife would have to put up with my cold damp body acting like an ice box in bed. Leaving the water by 8pm, driving 90 minutes to get home, it still took hours lying in bed before I warmed up sufficiently for a cosy nightime cuddle. Its funny, Tom would say that driving home with the heater on would waste efforts expended in conditioning to the cold. There was no point in suffering the torture of cold water training and wasting it during the drive home by using the heater. We were to get used to being cold for hours and still go to bed naked. During the nights, I would suddenly thrash my arms or legs, waking Nick up. My muscles seemed to forget that I had left the water hours earlier. I would sleep throughout. 
 
Training was tough. My companions were Paul Millet and Bob Holman. Paul had no thoughts for another Channel swim, but Bob and I aspired. It gave purpose to our efforts. We would travel to Weymouth where our coach Tom would have us swim in the freezing aters off the main beach, in April for thirty minutes. Soon the swims became an hour, then two hours. Always it was freezing and the immersion times were gruelling so early in the season. 
 
Eventually, Tom and his friend John would prepare Tom's boat Windsong and we would meet up at Phill Gollop's beach in Castle Cove. Tom had coached Phill to swim and he became the worlds youngest swimmer at the time aged 16. Swims alongside Windsong would last a few hours. On the 11 th June we were up for a six hour swim. Ever since that day, I have never been able to repeat such a swim in UK waters so early in the year. The same again on 24th June. This was memorable swim, after five hours, Paul had got out leaving Bob and I swimming together. Although we were both tired and still not used to swimming for such extended periods, we gradually increased our pace, as we swam side by side. After a few minutes we were racing each other. Each trying to gain a yard on the other. Everything else no longer mattered, we paid no attention to the effort, the cold or the direction, we simply raced. Neither one of us could gain a single inch of ground and after half a mile or so, we slowed down together. We got told off for not swimming straight.  
 
4th July. What a day. Time for a ten hour swim. Again a date I have never been able to replicate for such a swim. It was a tough swim. Hailstones included. Windsong would trail a line catching dinner, mackerell, bass it didn't matter. Sometimes Bob would weaken, then Paul and I would suffer, only to regroup and struggle on together. 
 
Once a week we would do a long swim and once a week we would meet up for a shorter two or three hour evening swim. Often we would swim in The Fleet alongside an Army bridging camp. These sessions were always tough, as the Fleet was very tidal in the narrow waters. We would swim alongside a landing stage at the edge of the current, and try to swim upstream. It was usually straight forward at the edges, but once clear of the stage, we would try to swim nearer to the centre of the tide. There came a point where the current was too strong and ever so slowly (despite the hard effort) you would drift backwards below the landing stage. Then, once more swimming at the edge, you could , inch by ince, move back upstream and repeat the cycle. 
 
The jelly fish were numerous. Thety would drift with the tide and attack you exactly like Space Invaders. As a swimmer, you simply had to keep your wits about you and swim in a slightly eyes forward position. If you were lucky you would see the jelly just before it hit you, and you could rotate away from it, and watch it drift past your body, missing you by inches. Some were real monsters with domes the shape of dustbin lids and bodies that would barely fit inside . It's no mean feat to swim the waters of The Fleet. 
 
On 16th July I decided to cycle the 50 odd miles to Weymouth prior to a four hour swim. I got there an hour late. Suffered with cramp. Never tried that again. Another time Paul suffered with a damaged eye. He must have scratched it with some sand, he complained bitterly and we drove off to A&E. Some time later, I did the same. It really was painful. Far worse than a jelly sting. 
 
Training turned strangers into friends forever. 
 
Bob had his Channel swim and suffered in over 18 hours. 
 
Soon it was my turn and the obligatory wait for the weather. After seven days at Folkestone, it was clear the weather was not happening. We returned home for a better opportunity. 
 
19th September and its all systems go. 
 
0500 at Shakespeare Beach, all greased up and raring to go. I suppose the adrenaline of the moment was the cause for a higher than normal stroke rate, and after three hours I had swam into the shipping lanes. It was a great start, but now I was treading water waiting for a tanker to pass in front. At least we could see the ships. At one point I swim into a semi submerged length of timber, it makes me jump. Then paper, plastic , an old carpet and a fish box. 
 
After six hours, the call on the radio tells us Anna, a swimmer ahead of us had pulled out. Shortly they motor alongside. It is a sad tale, but one we all are familiar with. The Channel takes no prisoners. 
 
It is exciting swimming The Channel, I get close alongside the rolling boat. Somehow the closeness exhilarates me. I can study the rust patterns and get real close. I am mesmerised. Suddenly my hand thumps the trawl (a huge metal sheet) hung over the side. It hurts. I am far too close to the boat and swim away. 
 
The hours take their toll. but I continue swimming through the aches and pains. It really is too far, but a couple more hours and gradually the distance melts away. The pain is placed somewhere else and in a semi daze the swim continues. Suddenly as if going downhill, the thought comes to mind that its been hours and soon, the coast must be there, and it is. Only a training swim left to do,two or three hours and with each feed, I look ahead and yes, the cliffs are closer. Then the beach and even people on the beach. 
 
Then that magical feeling as your fingertips feel sand as they pull through the gentle surf. I curl into a ball, bringing my kness under me and try to stand. I wobble and stumble. I am clear of water. I will never forget bthe feel of French sand under my fingertips. 
 
Children are on the beach cheering, I raise my arms, smiling from ear to ear. If I were a dog, I would have been wagging my tail. 
 
A childhood dream comes true. 
 
The English Channel swam in 13 hours 42 minutes. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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