Distance and Rules
The English Channel is approximately 21 miles wide at its shortest distance, between Dover and Cap Gris-Nez. In this picture, Cap Gris-Nez is the small point just to the left of Calais.
Channel Swimming rules stipulate, without going into the specifics, that the swimmer can wear one bathing suit, one uninsulated swimming cap, goggles, ear plugs, and grease. Most swimmers these days don't lather themselves in grease like they used to, although some is necessary to prevent chaffing. (The white stuff on my back below is sunblock; I'm putting lube on my arms and neck.) In addition, the swimmer is not allowed to touch the boat during the swim, which is why the water bottles for my feeds were attached to a rope.
The cast of characters
- Leslie Thomas - Leslie was my official crew for the swim - although you might get an idea of her enthusiasm from the log she wrote (below), it doesn't come close to explaining how critical her support was. After all her cheering and doing everything else to keep me going, I think she was more tired than I was.
- Mike Rossner - Mike thought that he was coming to England to spend a week traveling around with Leslie. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't great, which meant that the swim didn't start until later than we all hoped it would. Mike stepped up to crew, and was a huge help.
- Andy - The observer for the swim. He was responsible for keeping an official log of the swim, keeping the official time, and making sure that I didn't break any rules.
- Peter Conchie - Peter is a reporter with The Independent on Sunday. He wrote an article on the swim for the travel section of the paper - unfortunately, I don't think my experience is going to encourage anyone to choose this as a 'relaxing' vacation experience.
- Reg and Ray Brickell - The boat captains. They were responsible for getting me to France, and making sure that we avoided all the freighters and ferries, among lots of other things.
- Bob Roper - Bob is the heart and soul of the South End swimming program. He has a habit of hooting and hollering for joy during our morning swims.
- Johnnie the Welshman - Johnnie and a few others from Wales (the Sticklebacks) stayed at the B&B for a few days, and did a relay swim across the Channel a few days after me. Rumor has it that Johnnie and Paul are training for a solo swim in 2006.
Leslie and crew threw me two water bottles attached to a rope after 45 minutes, 1.5 hours, and then every 30 minutes. After eight hours, I requested that we change to 20 minute feeds for the rest of the swim. I drank Spiz (which could be the worst named beverage ever, and is sort of like Ensure for athletes), Accelerade (sort of like Gatorade with protein), and water. GUs (energy gel) were attached to the rope using a safety pin between the two water bottles, and Advil Liqui-gels were in a film canister that had been duct-taped onto the water bottles. I also had some Promax bars on board, but don't think I ever ate them. My crew also gave me some flat Coke towards the end of the swim.
And I think that all of the pictures are in the correct order, although no guarantees.
Leslie's log of the swim - October 3, 2005
No, today is your day!!! I got it wrong before. And what a day it is - gorgeous sun, perfect blue sky. Not a breath of wind. WOW! This day was worth waiting for. We're heading out to Samphire Hoe where you'll jump from the beach at Abbott's Cove. I can't wait for you to finally have the chance to swim. You have so much energy.
You do a cannonball off the boat and give a good Bob Roper holler. You are so excited. I can tell you are ready to do this! You swim to the beach, and we can see you walking up the sand. I can't believe you are finally here. It's so wonderful to see you standing there on the beach at the start (or perhaps conclusion) of this great journey.
You're off! What a day. I still can't believe how beautiful it is. Bright sun. Not a cloud in the sky. The water is perfect! Calm and warm.
Fifteen minutes in and your stroke count is 66 (the high end of your range). Must have some adrenaline going, but I know you'll settle down an hour or so into the swim. This is so exciting. You are looking good.
"You are on your way" we write on the white board. You smile and give thumbs up. Awesome. You are so ready. Your head is in it and you look so strong. I can't believe how well you've held yourself together. You've waited 2 weeks to swim, but you still want it so badly. You didn't let the waiting get to you. Amazing.
We're trying to feed you now (45 minutes into the swim), but the rope is all twisted up like a flipping Rubik's cube. It takes 4 men to untangle it, so we get you your drink a little late. Sorry. I should have gotten the bottle ready long ago, just in case. Just learned lesson #1. You don't seem bothered by this glitch, though. Thank god.
Still going great. The boat is starting to rock (maybe piloting in the zodiac was easier after all), and I can see that the seas are picking up a bit. It was so flat when you started. We were sure you'd have great water today. Hopefully it won't stay like this, and hopefully it's not too bad for you. You've taken a few mouthfuls of water but otherwise seem to be riding the swell just great.
Stroke count 63. Awesome; your stroke count is coming down a bit. You are settling into a good rhythm. You're also smiling a lot! You look great. I'm so proud of you.
The seas are picking up a bit again. Now you've got swell and some chop, but you are still going strong. Go JP!
"You are smokin'" we write. So is Andy, the observer. He rolls a cigarette every time you feed. We'll be doing a bit of second-hand smoking today it looks like. Oh well. It's worth it to be a part of this experience!
Another feed! I let you know that I'm not going to give you the "umbrella sprints". You are holding such a good pace that you don't need it! I also let you know that I'll bring out the umbrella at the end, if and only if you need to fight the tide to get to shore.
Wonder what's going through your head after 2 hours and 40 minutes. You look steady. Water is rolling. You're having awesome feeds - very fast!! It's great! I just mixed a big supply of Accelerade - not too big, though, as I think you'll have a quick swim. You are moving so well I'm certain you will make it in under 12 hours unless something goes really wrong.
"Here come the boats!" That P&O ferry almost got you! The passengers on board are waving at you - you do some backstroke to look, wave back at them, and laugh! You are in such great spirits. You even make a joke: "$10 bucks says I beat the ferry." Our boat has stopped rocking so much, and the seas have calmed down a bit. Andy's still smoking. So are you!
Four and a half hours in and you look like you just started. Well done. A few people have phoned in. That seems to be giving you a little boost each time we tell you. Andy's having another smoke.
Peter (the Independent reporter) starts a game with us on the boat: if we were to jump off the boat, which way would we swim? Right now it's a tough call. We are just about half way it looks like. Both England and France are so clear right now. I wonder when you'll start looking at the French cliffs. Boat traffic is light today, too.
Five hours. I'm screwing up a bit. Sorry. Forgot your Advil on that feed. You're a good sport about it, though I'm sure you're cursing me in your head. We'll get it to you the next time. Can't find the spare camera at the moment and I get nauseated every time I try to look through the bag, so no more pictures for a while. From our perspective it seems like you're on world record pace. France is right in front of us. Brilliant swimming.
Andy comments that you haven't even whined! He says that most people start whining after 3 hours. You've only been smiling and giving thumbs up. Awesome! I think he has another smoke after that.
Oh no, I forgot your GU this time. Shit! I'm really screwing up. Sorry. I hope you aren't losing your trust in your crew. That is the worst! I know how frustrating that can be. You take more Accelerade to compensate, which is good because you haven't had much of that so far and it should be more calories than the GU. Calories are good!
I notice that you're having a little trouble staying with the boat now, so I get the sense that you are starting to fatigue a tiny bit. You're still swimming in about Force 2, so it's no wonder. Still look strong. 63 stroke count. Go go go!
At the feed you tell me you are feeling it. I said "nothing great is easy" and you agree. If you are feeling it, it means you are giving it everything you've got. You put your head in and keep going. Amazing.
You are cramping at the feeds now. I can't tell if it's your leg or groin. Ouch. You are in pain and frustrated a bit with this new obstacle, but you stretch out and keep cracking on.
Every now and then we catch you looking at France. I hope this is encouraging to see how close you are getting and how you are covering so much distance!
"Next feed, beans and tequila". You respond "YUCK!" No, just more chocolate Spiz. Got your GU on the line this time, and the Advil. Looks like you've come out of your rough spot. You are smiling at our whiteboard messages. What a rockstar! We can see the cliffs of France SO clearly, and they just keep getting closer and closer. At this point we all agree we'd definitely swim to France if we jumped.
Sun is getting lower in the sky now. You said at your last feed that you feel tired, but we are all amazed at the energy you still have. You still give thumbs up every time we write you a message. Awesome! Just keep doing what you're doing.
More cramping. You stretch out and then do some breaststroke to help relax the muscles. Even though you are going through a rough patch, you are doing everything you need to to feel better. Amazing physical and mental composure.
You say you're still feeling it and ask to switch feeds to every 20 minutes, Accelerade and GU, no Spiz. I can't believe how compos mentis you are to make that call for yourself. We hope the new feeding program gives you a little more energy. I know it's hard work now.
Light sticks come out and we get ready to throw them to you at your next feed. There's still lots of daylight (maybe another 40 minutes), but it will be easier to put the sticks on in the light. Reg gives us two for the back of your suit and one for your cap, and we pin them to the rope attached to your feed bottles.
You look great, and I keep telling you this. Totally amazing. You really still look like you just started your swim!! I know you're feeling it and are getting into the doldrums part of the swim, where you've come so far but still have a ways to go. Just keep it going. We all know you can do this! You get the light sticks pinned on just great. The green one went in your goggle strap and two reds are lighting up your butt.
Oops, lost the green lightstick. It slipped out of your goggles. You just said "next feed: change to clear goggles; pin light stick to strap." Oh my god you're thinking so clearly at this point. Fantastic. You're a superstar! We get the new goggles and new light stick ready for the next feed. Found the spare camera just in time - we can get a few more shots of you before the daylight fades.
You switch goggles. You're looking great. You're still feeling it though, I can tell. You're pretty quiet at this point when you stop to drink. But, it's good. You're putting all of your energy into moving your arms and legs.
These feeds are going fast, and we have to work quickly in between to get things ready. Hope the feeds are going as quickly for you. We're alternating fruit punch with lemon lime and stringing 2 GUs on the line for you to have your pick. You refused Advil a couple feeds ago, so Mike and I made an executive decision to put liquid motrin in your drink. We're hoping you don't notice, or if you do, that it doesn't make you worried or frustrated.
9 hours in. You present us with three questions:
1. Are we there yet?
2. How much farther?
3. If land is that way (you point to your right), why are we swimming this way (pointing straight ahead)?
Though I think it's so great that you are still finding the energy for humor, we realize that you are getting to the point of being ready to be done. These questions put us on the spot. I know I have to give you some information to satisfy your curiosity and to help you feel encouraged in the face of your exhaustion. BUT I can't promise you anything. Basically I avoid all of the questions and try to convey that you are making forward progress at a rapid pace. We are swimming straight because that is land, you just can't see it because there are no lights on it. We have a little talk about how it's going to be tough now because you can't see your goal (i.e., the end) because it's dark. Just keep doing what you are doing and you'll get there. Reg won't tell us anything about distances, and it's increasingly hard to guess in the darkness. I know you so badly need a general idea about how much longer, but I just can't give it to you. I keep thinking it will be another 2 hours, but I don't want you to get that number in your head. This is where the swim is hard for both of us, and I know I need to say the right things from now until the end to keep you encouraged but not frustrated. I hope I can do that.
I really want to explain that you are heading straight into the coast while the tide pushes you down toward the lighthouse. The crew can tell that's what's happening because we are getting closer and closer to the light (moving farther and farther south). It's exactly the same situation as an Alcatraz swim. You just can't tell from your vantage point. Andy says I shouldn't explain this to you, so I don't. I just keep trying to tell you that you're making forward progress, you're doing what you need to do, and that you're getting there!
It's dark. We try to make sure someone is on deck and under the light at all times. I finally have to use the bathroom, and I'm a little nervous to leave for what ends up being almost 20 minutes. But, when I return you're still swimming and I suppose everything is just fine!
Just keep swimming from feed to feed, JP. You're getting there! You can't see it, but we can. Sometimes you drift out of the light of the boat and it makes me a little nervous. Reg comes on deck now, which I think is a great sign. He tells you that you are 3 miles from France. You swear for the first time - "oh shit three miles?" I think it was. I know you're tired and three miles seems like forever now. You have a bit of a down moment. Reg says some encouraging things, and you head off into the darkness again. You must feel so alone right now - such hard work ahead. Keep thinking only positive thoughts!
We talk about your energy level on deck (Andy is out for another smoke - I've totally lost count of them now). We all agree that you need more calories. That might perk you up. So for the next feed we put some flat Coke in one of your bottles and pin a Promax bar to the string along with the GUs. You're having a buffet. Hopefully you'll eat some of this and it will taste good.
I keep asking Reg if your pace is alright, where we are, and if everything is going ok. He says everything is going great. You're making it into shore, and if you keep it up you should hit the beach just northeast of the lighthouse. I'm starting to get excited!!!
We explain that we think you'll be happier if you have some more food. You immediately throw back the Promax bar and say that you'll feel happier when you are "warm, dry, and on solid ground." Hah! I can't believe you still have enough energy to make jokes!! Flippin brilliant. You are cracking us up. I hope you eat - you've had a few feeds where you hardly drank anything. You do have a GU and some Accelerade, though, which is good. We've put some more ibuprofen in the drink, so at least you're getting pain killers, if not sugar.
The lights on the lighthouse get closer and closer. You keep swimming from feed to feed. You're quiet and I know you want to get there. We tell you that Johnnie the Welshman called to say "DIG IN!" Johnnie was so excited to hear the good news that you have made so much progress and are so close. You give a smile when we tell you. Amazing that you are still enjoying this experience. The waves have not let up all day, and I know you're tired of being tossed around by the sea. You'll get there, though, I know it. Just a little more hard work in front of you.
Reg tells us you are about one mile away. I go nuts. This is it!!! You are so close.
You're friends are calling in like crazy now. We're trying to tell you about as many of the calls as possible, but we haven't been able to use the whiteboard for an hour or so now because it's too dark. You are doing it!
I am so excited that I'm jumping up and down. You keep asking if you're making forward progress, and I tell you to start practicing your French. I also tell you that you're close and then wonder later if I should have done that. Close is all relative, especially at this stage of the game.
Reg tells us he'll bring the dinghy out soon but won't commit to when. He says that you are just under one mile. Andy starts getting the gas for the dinghy ready, and I can tell that you are so close. We don't know if this will be your last feed, though, so we can't tell you anything.
Reg comes out on deck again to tell you that you're close - 1/2 mile off! You seem tired, and I tell you "it's just a round trip buoy lap now!" I think you have some Coke and some more ibuprofen. You still look so strong! Your stroke hasn't faltered one bit, and your cramps seem to have subsided, either that or you are just putting up with them like a champ.
The boys get in the dinghy. You're mom calls, and I tell her you're not there yet but that you are SO CLOSE! She is just so thrilled. She asks "so he's going to make it?", and I say YES! We giggle a little bit like teenagers - we are both so proud of you and so overwhelmed and excited about your accomplishment. I see you stop (the first time you've stopped in between feeds), and you look like you've seen a ghost! Shit. I'm guessing you hit a jellyfish, so I tell you to keep swimming. I tell your mom that she should call back in about an hour - you will be back on the boat by then. There is no way you won't make it at this point!
The boys are still sitting in the dinghy; feels like forever.
Everything is happening so fast now! I think we give you one last feed. You see that the guys are in the dinghy. They try to be discreet about it, to not put ideas in your head about how close you are, but you are close!
OK now things are really going fast! The boys come out from the dinghy and I hear Reg say "JP, follow us." THIS IS IT! Oh my god. I don't think I've ever been so excited. It is so amazing to watch you do this. You are swimming to France! In the dark! We hang back in the big boat and watch the dinghy move toward shore (which we can just make out from the headlights on the little boat). Occasionally we see the light sticks and can tell that you're swimming away. I just can't believe it. You're doing it!
You keep swimming, swimming.
Ray (who has taken control of the big boat while Reg is in the dinghy) honks the horn, and we know that you must be standing on French soil. YOU DID IT. I am so thrilled and so proud of you. And I'm so happy to have been a part of this journey.
The dinghy is back now, and you are climbing out on to the big boat. I'm jumping up and down and screaming. You look so tired and swollen, and relieved to be done. We congratulate you. All the boys shake your hand, and you head downstairs to rest (well, to vomit and then fall asleep in the fetal position). Andy gives us the official time: 11 hours 49 minutes! You did it AND are under 12 hours! This is thrilling. What an amazing swim. What a terrific day.
Congratulations, JP, on your successful crossing of the English Channel.