Swimming across the English Channel

I remember the exact moment I decided to swim across the English Channel. It was May of 2016, right after my 6th summit of Mount Everest, supporting The Live Love Laugh Foundation. One of the expedition members was Brian Freeman, a former Special Forces soldier from Australia who was climbing to honor fallen soldiers and their families. It was his third attempt on Everest. As part of his long-term mission, Brian planned to swim across the Channel that same year. During the expedition we had long chats about his project and I was fascinated by the swim from England to France. Despite suffering from serious frostbite, Brian travelled to Dover but was unable to swim because of the weather. He will try again in a few weeks.

I’ve never considered myself a swimmer. Still, I’ve competed in dozens of Olympic distance triathlons and two Ironman distance triathlons. Until last year, the longest distance I’d swum was 4 km. At its narrowest, the English Channel spans 33 km across the Strait of Dover but because of the tide currents, swimmers end up covering significantly longer distances. Sometimes close to 60 km. Every time I had to train for a triathlon, I really struggled to find the motivation to swim. Swimming was something I simply didn’t enjoy.  And that’s exactly the reason why it was so important for me to try to swim across the Channel. I hoped that in the end I would enjoy swimming.

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Brian shared a lot of information with me and I studied as much as I could to learn everything I needed to succeed. I learned that nearly all English Channel swimmers try to swim between June and October during the “neap tides”. These are smaller tides and the currents back and forth across the Channel are much weaker than during the “spring tides”. For many reasons, but mainly because of all the preparation and training involved, it was impossible for me to try the swim in 2016 and I focused on September of 2017. I knew that it was critical to have a good boat captain to guide me across and I decided to work with Andy King and his boat Louise Jane. He’s a busy guy and in spite of booking almost one year ahead, I was fifth in line with him during the neap tide of September 11 to 18, 2017. That meant four other people would have to swim during that neap tide before I got my chance. A neap tide is only 7 days long and any delay would decrease my chances.

I began training in September of 2016. I found that, as with marathon running, training to swim long distances is based on a constant workload during most of the week followed by a weekly “long swim”. Sometimes there are long swims on consecutive days. I began with a long swim of about 1.5 hours and planned to go all the way up to 7 hours with back-to-back swims. But just a few weeks into my training I got the news that I had been one of the athletes selected to compete in Red Bull X-Alps 2017. That was great since I’d put so much time and effort into being selected. But it also meant that I would have to spend most of the time concentrating on running and paragliding, sometimes for weeks at a time, and it would be impossible for me to swim as consistently as I needed. Add my regular job to the mix, and you can see my schedule has been crazy for the last year. But I love those challenges.

2017 arrived and I increased the swimming workload. Sometimes I spent weeks in paragliding competitions with very limited access to swimming pools, lakes or oceans so I did a lot of strength training on those days. I ran a few ultra distance races like the Marathon des Sables, Comrades Marathon and I participated in the Paragliding World Cup in France. Still, I was swimming on every opportunity I had. Red Bull X-Alps started on July 2nd. After I was eliminated I immediately switched my full focus to swimming. It came at the right time since I was suffering from a bad case of tibial tendinitis and swimming was like therapy, physically and emotionally. I began swimming in Menton, France, just to the east of Monaco. I would go out every day at sunrise and enjoyed pushing myself as hard as I could on the calm Mediterranean sea. Little by little, my swim sessions became something I looked forward to instead of something I had to put up with. With the help of Andrew Malinak of the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association I completed my 6-hour qualification swim in Seattle on August 20 (the sea temperature was about 13ºC). All the paperwork with the Channel Swimming Association was completed. Also, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to talk to swimmers that had already completed the crossing. They were very welcoming and open to share their experiences with me (thanks Paty and Melissa!). All that was left to do was swim from England to France

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I arrived in Dover on September 9 and was greeted with good and bad news. The good news: I was now 4th in line to swim with Andy King since the swimmer on the 1st slot had dropped out. The bad news: the weather forecast called for very high winds for most of the week making it impossible for anyone to head out. A couple of days later my family arrived and the wait became easier. Still, I knew every day was pushing us into to the stronger “spring tides”. On Friday, September 15 the winds finally abated and the channel swimmers got their chance. The water temperature was a comfortable 17ºC and many swimmers made it across. Saturday and Sunday had even calmer winds and Andy King’s 2nd and 3rd swimmers went out. But on Monday the winds picked up again. At that time I had been in Dover for 10 days, the neap tides were over and the spring tides had arrived. I had two choices: pack up and go home or swim in stronger currents and give it my best. I decided that going home without trying was not an option.

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On Tuesday, September 19 at 10:00am I boarded Louise Jane. Andy’s son James would be assisting him and my family would be my crew. They would be in charge of my feeds every 45 minutes. After a short boat ride out of Dover Harbor we arrived at a beach next to Samphire Hoe. I covered myself in sunscreen and anti-chafing cream and jumped into the water. It was just a 50-meter swim to the beach. I got out of the water and stood on the rocky beach. Some swimmers wished me good luck and after one last look around I walked back into the sea, dove and started swimming. It was around 11am

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From the swimmer’s perspective, the crossing is very simple: the boat will be pointing in the direction I need to go so I just swim next to the boat until I reach France. The captain is busier, in charge of maintaining the heading and speed, and communicating with the hundreds of commercial and passenger ships that cross the English Channel every day as well as monitoring the weather. My mission was to stay about 2 meters left of the boat, concentrating on my breathing, form and stroke rate. That was it. The first feed came very quickly. From the boat they threw a bottle with warm vegetable broth (I’ve been a vegetarian for 16 years), and a little stuff sack with a packet of Gu energy gel and a small piece of chocolate. The bottle and stuff sack were tied to a dog leash that was pulled back on the boat once I was done. The feed took less than 30 seconds and I was swimming again. I didn’t look around and just concentrated on swimming and staying close to the boat. I was again surprised when the second feed came. The sea was choppy with about 15 knot winds opposing the current and I could see the boat rocking back and forth a lot but I felt great in the water.

Just before the third feed the boat slowed down and the captain appeared. While I floated in the water, Andy told me that the spring tide was stronger than he had hoped for and that we were drifting too much to the northeast, only making about 21º of forward progress towards France. He also said the tide slack was still hours away. I know I’m not a fast swimmer but as with all the endurance sports I do I can keep going for hours and hours. Being slower than the average swimmer, I was prepared to swim 18 or even 20 hours through the night. I know my mind and my body were ready for that. But the captain said that with the strong currents I would not make it across.

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With mountaineering, paragliding or ultra-running, I believe I have the experience and information to make most decisions I face. Whether to continue or to turn around is usually my call. But with swimming across the English Channel I had to rely on the captain. He has the experience and local information. So when Andy King said the current was too strong and “we would only be delaying the inevitable”, I trusted his judgment and knew I would get back on the boat. We sailed back to Dover. My attempt to swim across the English Channel in 2017 was over.

I learned some valuable lessons. First, I thought that the cold water would be a much bigger challenge than the tides and currents. Now I think that 16º and 17º water temperature is perfectly manageable since I trained in much colder water. But, unless you are a very fast swimmer, going in the middle of the neap tides is extremely important. Therefore, it’s better to be first or second in line during the neap tides even if that means doing the crossing in July or October when the water is colder. Second, being a faster swimmer is more important than being able to go for 15 or 20 hours. Third, some boat captains are flexible and give better spots for solo swimmers (not relays) that travel from Australia or America. Relay swimmers can go faster and can tolerate swimming on days with stronger currents and winds. Because of the bad weather early on, I was pushed into the spring tides and there were two relays ahead of me that really wouldn’t have been affected if they went later.

Swimming across the English Channel is an extraordinary physical achievement. For me it’s also an adventure. And like any adventure, the outcome is uncertain. But I love big challenges and I love adventures. I have huge mountaineering plans for 2018 but I know that in 2019 I will head back in Dover and that time I will complete the swim from England to France.