Tall Ships in the Channel
On Friday 14th August I had just sat down for dinner when I got a text from my pilot Eddie saying ‘Can you swim this coming week’, this was the third time Eddie had asked if I had wanted to go early, the other two times I had been in Zurich and then was in the middle of moving house so it hadn’t been possible. I had spoken to Eddie the year before saying I would like to go early as I had been worried about the weather in September and the possibility of having to be carried over to next year. Eddie has said that the possible opportunity was to go Sunday night/Monday morning.
I had been ready to go but had a concern, would my crew be able to still come? I knew that Brian was at that very time sat on a plane waiting to take off to Tanzania and Abby might have to work so wanted to talk to them first before I made the decision. Brian had supported me on this journey since the beginning and so it was hard to speak to him to see if he would mind if I went without him, I felt pretty sad about it but knew that you have to take a weather window when you can. Abby said she was able to move something around and join me, great! I couldn’t let Abby crew on her own, although she had crewed for me for my two way Windermere swim the month before she hadn’t been around the open water swimming world so wanted to find some other support in case she needed it. My first text was to Emma who had crewed for my 1 way English Channel relay 2 years before, she was absolutely amazing then and would be great to have on the boat, my text said ‘how would you feel about crewing for a solo on Sunday/Monday’. All she came back saying was ‘if it is you then yes’, BRILLIANT. I text Manda to tell her there was a possibility that I was going on Sunday and that Brian was sat on a plane and to my complete surprise she asked if I wanted her to come along. HELL YEA! I couldn’t believe how easily it fell into place, I had been expecting a few hours of trying to find someone. Manda and I have swum together for about 5 years and had she had been the person who had set up the winter challenge and our dip and dines so knew me as a swimmer well. Perfect, crew complete… Eddie I will take the slot!
The next day I headed off to the supermarket with Abby to get all the supplies bought, food for crew and me and then had a comical hour drilling holes into plastic cups ready for reels to be able to feed me. I had been so busy that I hadn’t had time to think about the swim, which was probably a good thing, it was 3 weeks before my swim was due to go and I had been so emotional recently that I was starting to wonder if I had the early menopause. I’d decided not to tell anyone on social media and only a few friends for two reasons, one if the weather changed and I didn’t get to go in the end and secondly because I wanted a good night’s sleep. Everyone had been so supportive throughout my Channel journey that I knew the messages would come pouring in so I decided to leave it until I got a text from Eddie the next day to say that I was definitely going.
We were to meet Eddie at 11pm on Sunday at Dover Marina and with a plan to start swimming at 00.30 Monday morning. As most know I don’t like swimming at night so I tried to look at the positives in the situation, I wasn’t going to be having to swim into the night and it was only 4-5 hours at the beginning when I would be at my strongest.
We boarded Anastasia and Loretta my observer (from the Channel Swimming & Pilot Federation) went through the rules as we motored around to Samphire Hoe beach. Manda & Emma lathered me in Channel grease and suntan lotion (felt a strange thing to be doing at midnight) and I was given the instruction to swim ashore ready for my swim to start. It seemed weird after all this time that it was finally going to happen. So at 00.32 my swim started and I swam from the beach toward the boat. My team had lit up the boat with lots of coloured glow sticks and had them around their necks so I could see them moving around the boat or standing there watching me. It was evident that they were doing everything they could to make me feel as comfortable as possible in the water, all three of them had torches shining on me and if I moved forward one of them would move up the boat with me, I remember at the time thinking ‘I have the best crew on board, they are complete stars, what more could I ask for’. I remember the water being cold throughout the night and wishing the sun to come out.
My feeding strategy was to feed hourly for the first two hours to try and get going and then half hourly moving forward, it became evident that I was taking too long on my feeds as the crew stopped feeding me treats (jelly babies, chocolate, or peach slices/banana) and just gave me the carb drink, I found out later it reduced my feed time from over a minute down to 12-16 seconds. Funnily when they offered it to me later on I declined, it had been making me feel a little unwell and the carb powder with summer fruits squash was going down okay.
After about 5 hours the sun came up and I started to settle a bit more, throughout the night I had seen all the ferry lights going past around me so it was nice to be able to see things in daylight. I had an idea where in the Channel I was and went through 10/15 minutes or so of what I called ‘Jellyfish Alley’ I only saw compass jellyfish, they were brown and mean looking with long tentacles, there were lots below me and I pulled my head up a bit in the water so I could see any coming towards me and started swimming as if I was on the dodgems trying to avoid them. Amazingly I didn’t get stung and then next minute Loretta shouts out to me ‘swim out swim out’ I looked over and saw loads of seaweed… ‘Seaweed Lagoon’ avoided and on I go.
The crew had been busy showing me lots of messages from friends and family on a white board and it was lovely to see everyone’s messages coming through, the advice from my nephew to ‘swim backstroke it is easier’ made me smile, little did I know I was going to heed his advice later on. My head had started playing games with me and I had thought I had been swimming for about 14 hours and seemed miles away from France when Loretta shouted out to me, ‘you’ve only been swimming 10 hours it isn’t even a training swim’ it was amazing how I picked up my pace again because of those few words.
A little while longer I started feeling shooting pains under my shoulder blade in between my ribs, it started getting progressively worse and I could see Loretta trying to tell me to stretch out my arm, I tried but it was causing too much pain. Next feed I was told to give it a hard push for an hour, I knew what this meant, if I swam hard I could hit Cap Gris Nez (I found out that it would have been an under 12 hour swim if I had) but with the pain I could feel myself struggling. I started thinking of my friend Elaine who I was swimming in memory of, I dug deep and tried to blank out the pain and swam as hard as I could determined to hit the Cap. I looked up at the feed and it was so close, I was so happy. As I started swimming again though it seemed to disappear and at my next feed I asked if I had ‘missed it’. It appeared the wind and weather had turned and a few minutes later the tide turned and started pushing my back out again but Loretta told me Eddie was going to take me into just the other side as we had only just missed it.
In my head I knew I had hours left of swimming left now and for a few short moments I thought about throwing in the towel. I knew the pain wasn’t going to get any better and the swimming wasn’t going to get any easier, could I do this? In my next feed I asked the boat ‘am I going to be able to land at some point’ and Loretta shouted back ‘Eddie will land you’. That was all I needed and I swam on.
The pain in my ribs in my back kept getting worse and worse and I knew I had to do something to try to ease it so I started swimming backstroke and then one armed front crawl. I could see Wissant beach ahead of me and thought yes I am going in – I had landed here two years before for the one way relay. However, it never seemed to be getting closer, I really started to worry now. The pain was getting worse, I had been asked to give it 100% (which was tough to hear when I felt I had been already for the last few hours) and again knew that it meant the tide was doing something. I was having to dig really deep here and was telling myself that there was no way after 2 years that I wasn’t going to land, it wasn’t an option. If I could swim for this long then I could do much longer if I had to but would my injury let me carry on?
I couldn’t understand why the beach wasn’t getting closer, I found out later that I had got caught up in an eddy and was being pushed back to towards the Cap – when you are in the water you just swim, the crew don’t tell you where you are or what is happening but I did get very confused when I looked up and saw the Cap again – I had been so close to this point 5 hours previously.
The RIB was launched and I knew that was the cue that I was going in to land, I was going to do it, this was finally it, I still didn’t know where I was going to land but I was going to land. I could hear Eddie playing ‘Rule Britania’ over the loud speakers; the French must think we are barmy! They kept pointing towards the rocks so I swam in that direction and saw a double kayak pass by – was it a mirage or was this indeed human life?
After 17 hours and 19 minutes I finally touched the rocks on Cap Gris Nez, I had done it. I got hauled into the RIB back to Anastasia and burst into tears, the pain was over. Oh and I had become a Channel swimmer! I had never expected the swim to be this hard, I had enjoyed bits & hated bits and had many highs and lows and had been cold throughout but I had never given up believe that I was going to land. After all if you want something badly enough and you give absolutely everything then you can achieve it.
As I crawled up onto Anastasia my crew who had been amazing throughout wrapped me in towels and congratulated me – I was pretty emotional at this point and turned around to Manda and said ‘you and your bloomin story’. A few days before I had been telling Manda that I was hoping for a nice flat crossing under 13 hours and in beautiful sunshine to which she answered you need some drama – you need a story! I certainly had that…
It is still taking time to sink in that I have become a Channel swimmer but I have been overwhelmed by the amazing support I received throughout and after. My two reasons for doing the swim were firstly in memory of a wonderful friend Elaine who had lost her battle to cancer 2 years prior – I thought about her a lot during the swim and it helped me numerous times to dig deep and secondly was to inspire others to do something different with their life’s and realise you can achieve things you never thought were possible with a bit of hard work and determination.
I could never have dreamed when I started on this journey that I would have raised over £7,000 in memory of Elaine for the Royal Marsden, but she deserved nothing less so all the pain and hard work has been completely worth it and asked would I still have done it if I knew what I would go through – ‘hell yes I would’.
Thank you so much to Abby, Manda & Emma for being amazing throughout, it was funny listening to the stories from the boat afterwards and you can read a blog from a crew’s perspective here. I 100% had the right crew on board and know that with a different crew it might not have worked out – they were brilliant in every way and will always be the people whom without, I may have been telling a different story.
Also a big thanks to Eddie and the Anastasia gang & Loretta, they made this all possible and at no point chose to pull the swim despite seeing the pain I was in and how much longer I had to swim.
I also have to thank all the many people over the years from the Channel swimming community who have given me their time and advice many of which have become great friends.
As well as my Channel training partner Kerry who has been such great support when I had been going through huge lows and doubted my ability to swim the Channel and constantly reminded me about the things I had already achieved. I will be with you every stroke of the way for your own swim.
Big thanks to Franco, my lovely Osteo from Natural Health Chiro who has looked after my back and shoulders throughout the year and ensured that I have been able to train without injury for the whole year.
And lastly thank you to all of you who have supported me with numerous amounts of support and donations, you have no idea how much it helped me.
PS – I am now a Channel Swimmer! #sohappy