A short jaunt to France
Thursday - The day before
I got the call around 11am to tell me that we were likely to be going on the high tide at midnight or 3 hours before the high tide at 0900 on Friday morning. Then my phone packed up for an hour so I was getting frantic as I couldn’t contact the rest of the team! Eventually it started working again (I have no idea what was happening with it). Once the rest of the team had been contacted Helen and I headed down to Dover where we met up with John and his wife Sheila (who was our support crew) who were already there.
The afternoon was spent trying to calm nerves by reading and then meeting up with Helen in the bar for lots of non-alcoholic drinks. The pilot called at 1930 to tell us that the weather wasn’t clearing up as quickly as expected so we wouldn’t be heading off until the next morning. We all decided to have a couple of glasses of wine (for medicinal purposes to help us relax ) and then all headed off for an early night.
We all met at breakfast at 0630 where everyone seemed to be in high spirits and ate a good sized meal. Travel sickness tablets were consumed and at 0730 we headed off around the harbour to find the boat.
There was plenty of time to get sorted and we met Paul the pilot, Ray the crew and Matt the independent observer as we boarded Pace Arrow. Several other boats were waiting to go too and their teams were also getting ready.
We headed out of the harbour in plenty of time. Usually the boats start off down the coast a little way to minimise the distance backwards up the coast that the tide pulls you, but as we were starting before high tide we landed just West of Dover Harbour and started from there. The boat took us in a close as it could and then I swam ashore. The event doesn’t start until I am clear of the water and then step back into the sea. We officially started at 0835.
The first leg was easy as I swam up the outside of the harbour wall where there was no current or waves. I could feel the water change as I came out from behind the wall but it still wasn’t too bad. The water temperature the whole way across fluctuated around 16 degrees which is the warmest I have swum in this year so it didn’t feel too cold. The sun was shining although there were clouds in the sky so it was obvious that it wasn’t going to stay that way.
Before long I saw John getting ready to jump in the water behind me so I knew my time was nearly up and got in close to the boat ready to get out.
John's leg didn’t go well to start with. He seemed to struggle to get going and we fretted a bit but eventually he settled and completed his leg without any further problems.
Helen did a fantastic leg. She is a slower swimmer than me but she is wonderfully consistant and maintained her pace throughout the whole event.
While they were in the water I was refuelling on ginger cake and coffee, and frantically trying to reply to everyone’s texts. Two hours passed very quickly.
As I got in it started to rain. Not much, but a light spitting which was enough to make the surface of the water choppier and remove the sunshine. Although obviously the sun doesn’t make any difference, it does give you a huge psychological boost and it was sad to see it go.
I completed my leg without any problems and passed over to John who swam better and Helen who was consistently as good as her first leg.
More coffee and ginger cake and a few more texts and before I knew it I was in again.
The water had got a lot rougher. The rain was now coming down harder, although in the water the only different is the texture of the top of the waves. They tend to be more aerated so you feel as if you are pulling more air than water. It became quite difficult to get the breathing into a rhythm as the waves were not all coming from the same direction and there was a definite washing machine effect. I can’t say that I enjoyed this leg at all and I felt that all my efforts were achieving an up and down effect rather than making any forward progress. I came out of the water feeling quite low. We weren’t making as much progress as I would have liked and we were heading for a 20 hour plus swim at this rate. Thoughts of not finishing began to go through my head, but I keep them from the rest of the team.
I took my first dose of ibuprofen, topped up on the sea sickness tablets, had more coffee and cake and sent the last few texts before I lost mobile reception.
I didn’t want to get in the water. Ironic as it sounds, I have a fear of going underwater and for me the hardest part of the event is pushing away from the boat and sinking below the surface. I really had to give myself a good talking to before I was able to jump off the side, but once I was in and had surfaced I was ok.
Conditions had improved. The sea had settled down to big rolling waves which are much easier to swim in. I was enjoying myself again even though the skies were still cloudy but the rain had settled down to a drizzle again. Finished the leg to discover that we were making progress again and if we could keep that up then we might be able to make a 16 hour crossing, but we needed to get past a certain point before the tide pulled us too far South West, and past the Cap.
Unfortunately John had an awful leg. Sea conditions were worsening again and he had been suffering with sea sickness from the end of his first leg. He came out of the water in a bad state where the cold and lack of nutrition had got to him. The decision was made that he was not in a fit state to swim again and it was at that point that we knew we weren’t going to make it.
When Helen finished her leg the pilot allowed me back in the water again as it was good practice for my solo attempt next year, but unless I did a stonking leg we were going to miss the Cap and then we were looking at a long, long swim before landing. There was the possibility of continuing with just Helen and myself, but it would not be classed as an official crossing, so I felt obligated to give it my best shot so that Helen could reach land if possible.
Once again I had to give myself a good talking to before I could get in. Each leg it was getting harder, which I know is stupid because experience should tell me that nothing bad happened on each of the other entries so I had no reason to believe that anything bad would happen on this one.
I entered the water and gave it all I had. The conditions were not too bad but it was getting very dark due to dense cloud cover and night beginning to draw in. Not much to report other than it was hard work and my shoulders were screaming at me. When I saw Ray lowering the steps without Helen being on the side ready to get in, I knew that it was all over.
We had got within 3 miles of land, but we were going to miss the Cap and it would have been another 5 hours before we would land. Helen hadn’t trained for an event that long, and I’m not fit enough yet to be able to do that on my own, so we had no choice but to head for home.
John seemed to take it badly, Helen seemed tired but content and I was pleased that I had completed my target of 5 legs, and had gained a lot of knowledge and experience. I now know where I need to concentrate my training for the next year before I tackle the solo and I am very proud of my team, and Sheila for doing the best she could to look after us all even though she was still recovering from a hip operation and suffered continuously and badly with sea sickness.
What went wrong
I've had to keep a bit quiet about this bit on Facebook becasue I don't want it to seem like a blame game, or to make anyone feel bad, but I know that neither of the other swimmers know about my blog so I can be honest here.
John should have been our fastest swimmer. I have done swims with him where I couldn't keep up and he does a lot of 10k or longer events. But he lives in Germany where there is very little sea and does all his training in lakes. Lakes warm up a lot quicker than the sea at the beginning of the year so he hadn't done as much cold water aclimitisation as Helen and I. He also had a habit of not getting enough clothes on between his swims so he wasn't warming up before having to go back in again. It wasn't any surprise to me that he struggled with the cold and was close to hypothermic when he finished his last leg.
John's other problem was a lack of sea water experience. He wasn't used to the waves and swell and he took on a lot of water during each of his legs. Each time he came back on board the boat he was sick to get rid of the water that he had swallowed and then it made it hard for him to keep food down. The conditions on the boat weren't great and he may also have been suffering from a bit of sea sickness, which wouldn't have helped. The lack of food and hot drinks would have also contributed to him feeling colder.
A relay is only as good as the weakest link and on the day John suffered. As we had been relying on him to be our strongest swimmer and he was unable to swim to the best of his ability, we didn't make the progress that we should have and the tides changed when we were too far away from the coast. If he had been able to swim better on his last two legs then there is a possibility that we would ahve been able to cover those last 3 miles in less than 2 hours and been able to land, but it was going to be a long hard slog that none of us were capable of doing.
Helen was the one I was concerned with before we got on the boat. As the slowest swimmer and the one with the least open water experience I thought she might hold us back. But she was aware of her limitations and had done the best that she could to train in the sea with me as much as she could, despite her living a long way from the coast.
On the day Helen performed beautifully. She was a consistant swimmer who could just keep going and she had the mental determination to push herself when she was getting tired. She probably doesn't have enough speed at the moment to do the solo, but I think she has the consistency and determnation to get her through if she chose to go down that route.
As for me, I was happy with my performance on the day but it did highlight areas for improvement. Swimming for 1 hour in the washing machine conditions was tough but I am not sure that I would be able to keep it up for several hours if that was the conditions I was dealt on the day of the solo. So I will no longer be cutting my swims a bit short when the conditions are bad, but forcing myself to keep going for even longer. I also need to work on my endurance, but to be honest I knew that before I got in the water.
A little more speed would be good too. Seeing how much John held us back with one or two slower legs, I now fully understand the importance of pushing hard when the pilot tells you too. There are key landmarks you need to make by certain times if you want to get across in a reasonable time and I somehow need to find the strength to be able to up the pace if necessary. I think I might be adding speed sessions on to the end of some of my longer swims.
One thing that I am very pleased about is that it hasn’t put me off going for the solo next year. My pilot was also confident that if I put the training in then I should be able to do a good crossing. It's always nice when you get a bit of positive feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about.
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