written by David Barra
photos by Fiona Laughlin
The previous neap tide was a complete blow out, as was the following spring tide. I fell into a little funk as swimmers scheduled for this window came to the reality one by one that they would not have the opportunity to swim. With much training and treasure spent, obviously disappointed, they all left Dover with grace and the understanding that chance is still a large factor of any channel attempt. The best wishes from Jordan and Liz and Bryan before their departures strengthened my resolve to give it all I could if/when I got the call.
On Saturday, 9/28 six boats went out with relays competing in a London to Paris triathlon. The conditions were not ideal, but it was the first activity since my arrival a week ago and there was suddenly a buzz in the air. Word on the street was Monday or Tuesday were looking likely for solos in the #1 slot. Since my pilot, Paul Foreman, was able to get a few of his bookings in for their swims earlier in the season, I had been bumped up to #2... lucky me! I was now looking at a Wednesday morning start, though at 2 AM, it really felt like a Tuesday night.
Captain Paul took out a San Francisco swimmer, Joe Locke, at 1:00 AM Monday morning. Since Joe was also staying at Varne Ridge, I had the pleasure to chat with him a bit and compare notes on the schedule, etc. Joe had an excellent swim, and I imagine conditions were pretty good as at least 3 swimmers broke 10 hours this day. I got a call from Paul Foreman after Joe had landed, and though the connection was spotty, I understood the gist of it.... I'd be meeting him some time Tuesday night/ Wednesday morning for an early splash on Sept 1. There were 4 flags flying at Varne Ridge... UK, USA, Ireland and Australia. Four of my five neighbors were successful, and as far as i could tell from the forecasts; tomorrow was going to be even better.
As per the tide changes, starting times generally shift about an hour per day, so, on 8/31, Joe's splash time was +/- 1 AM; 9/1, my splash time would be +/- 2 AM. Sharroz, John, and I met Fiona and Betsy at the marina at 1:30, loaded up the boat and were on our way to Shakespeare Beach which took no time at all.
I was anxious to get started, so stripped down, inserted ear plugs, applied a bit of channel grease to my pits, shoulders, jaw, neck, upper back, groin, etc. wiped my hands, put on my cap, turned on the green strobe that was attached to my goggle strap, clipped on a belt (and tucked it into my suit) with a couple of glow lights, and jumped in. It was only a short swim to the beach, and after just a few seconds, I was on my way to France. Though I'm a much stronger left breather, Paul requested that I swim on the left side of the boat. This was a position that made it easy for him to keep his eye on me, and I complied without complaint. My plan was to breathe every 3 strokes and keep my stroke rate between 65 and 70. The adrenaline kicked in, and I felt like I was moving at a good clip though kicking a bit too much. I wanted to get warm fast (though the 62 degree water never felt cold) and after 2.5 hours, got a major cramp in my left hamstring.... the same thing that forced my resignation from the 2006 MIMS. Four years wiser, I was able to massage out the cramp and continue along with minimal leg movement (for the next 12 hours). Dodged a bullet!
The first mate would blind me with a spotlight to indicate feed time. (should have worked out a better signal) I would be alternating between 1st Endurance EFS and ginger tea with agave nectar every 20 minutes. The feeds were coming to me warm; not as hot as I expected them to be but since the temperature of the water didn't seem to be an issue, I didn't request them to be any hotter. The string I packed for this trip was a thin lacing cord that tangled up terribly, sometimes causing my feed stops to be a bit awkward. Additionally, my sinus was a bit irritated from the salty irrigations of harbor water for the past 10 days, so breathing through my nose was not happening; this prevented me from chugging my 11 oz feeds as quickly as I would have liked to. Oh well, I wasn't going to break any records anyway.
Swimming on the port side of the Pace Arrow gave me an unobstructed view of the horizon. I have never experienced a clear sunrise from a fish eye view before. It was nothing short of magnificent. I thought standing on french sand (or pebbles) would be the emotional climax, but tears of joy were filling up my goggles as the sky lit up red and orange. I saw Roz and Fiona had the cameras going but know that photographs could never convey this feeling of swimming through the darkness. The fresh morning suggested warmth, though I don't think the temperature changed at all.
The channel is rather shallow <180 feet (compare to Catalina +/- 3000 ft!) and there aren't a lot of things to look at except white cliffs at either coast and the passing ships and ferries. Now in the daylight, I could see the cliffs of Dover when I would roll on my back to feed though its impossible to gauge the distance covered. Still, I quickly remind myself not to look toward France. Though the shipping lanes are wide, the direction of traffic indicates when we are in English or French waters. I lost count of how many ships crossed our path, but it was more than a dozen. It surprised me that their wakes were barely perceivable although they seemed to pass quickly and closely.
I broke my first rule (DON"T LOOK TOWARD THE FINISH) and looked at France. It seemed so close.... for so long; the lighthouse atop Cap Gris Nez a welcome sight. At my next feed Fiona shouted a few words of encouragement "you're almost there!", which prompted me to ask "how many more feeds?". This was not part of my communication plan and I think also qualifies as breaking rule #2... (JUST SHUT UP AND SWIM), but I wanted to know if I could start consuming fewer calories as we seemed to be in the home stretch. John was caught off guard by my inquiry; "two more" he shouted. So now in my mind, I'm thinking I've got another 40 minutes to an hour of swimming left. I could cruise in on what I've consumed so far and let the next two feeds go back to the boat after just a few sips. The hour has passed, and the view of the lighthouse hasn't changed at all. There would be another ten feeds coming my way, and I went back to drinking it all down. During this futile siege I noticed Capt. Paul changing the position of the boat relative to the Cap... trying to find a break in the currents that would allow us passage. At one point, he pulled around to my left, and I saw for the first time the giant woven nylon parachute that he was dragging behind the boat. This was preventing the boat from turning into the wind and current.
We missed hitting the Cap, (I don't think anyone hit it directly that day), and the wind was picking up. I thought of the possibility that I might have to hold this position for up to six hours and wait for the tide to change (based on stories of swims past) and laughed to myself as I watched the boat bouncing up and down in the six to eight foot swells... it must suck being on that boat... wasn't I the lucky one!
Finally, we got through the currents and entered into a shallow cove just north of Cap Gris Nez. I saw John suiting up to escort me to the finish and in front of us, a street that ended in a boat ramp with a few houses on the right and, a restaurant (La Sirene) on the left. I kept sighting on the boat ramp, and was rewarded with a sandy/pebbly beach to walk up. There were a few people standing at the top of the ramp, and from their gestures, I thought they were inviting us to come have a drink.... John says this was purely my imagination, and anyway, Paul was already sounding the horn for us to swim the hundred or so yards back to the boat. We grabbed a few rocks and started swimming.
THE RIDE BACK
The Pace Arrow is one of the fastest boats of all the channel pilots, and Paul was in a hurry to get back. We were getting bounced around pretty good, but still, after a trip to the head and wiping the grease off me, I was out like a light. Sharoz and Fiona took lots of video and stills and along with John and Betsy were tremendous support. I've said it before, but it can't be overstated: I could have never completed any of these swims without the enthusiastic support of so many friends and family. I am humbled in the presence of such love and generosity.
I'm not sure who came up with the "Triple Crown", http://www.triplecrownofopenwaterswimming.com/ but it seems to have become a motivating force for marathon swimmers. Catalina has seen large increases in the number of swimmers scheduling attempts, MIMS fills up in an hour or so, and the EC is booked up for a couple of years in advance. I was inspired by Antonio Arguelles who I met at MIMS last year whose goal was to swim the three in one year. This seemed to make sense to me, and since I had aN EC booking, all I had to do was get into MIMS and find a Catalina date somewhere in the middle. It was 82 days from MIMS to my EC crossing. Steve Munatones did a nice write up... thanks Steve! http://www.dailynewsofopenwaterswimm...et-enough.html
Colorado swimmer Craig Lenning completed the TC in less than a year as well. http://www.dailynewsofopenwaterswimm...rown-club.html
I had the pleasure of swimming with him at MIMS and Tampa Bay this year.
...... up next; La Sirene, the Serp, the Thames, etc