Swimming the English Channel

My hands shook as I rubbed Desitin on my legs, waves of energy threatening to wash away all logical thought.

“All right, swim to the beach now,” Captain Stuart said.

“Can I get in?”

“Yes, get in”

I climbed awkwardly over the gunnel and jumped into the water, holding my breath as the English Channel enveloped me in a welcoming embrace. I’m finally here, I did it. I made it, I thought. Scenes of plane rides, train rides, phone calls, and compulsive weather checking flashed through my mind. Now, is the celebration of all the work, now I just get to swim.

I made my way slowly to Shakespeare’s Beach and climbed out of the water. I put both arms up, and the sound of the Sea Leopard’s horn called out into the gray dawn, announcing our adventure’s begin. I took in the moment, while carefully avoiding thoughts that could cause complete overwhelm.

Into the water I went, siting ahead to the boat, the soft orange glow of sunrise creeping into the eastern sky. A gust of diesel greeted me upon arrival, as the Sea Leopard took up pace beside me. Looking over onto the deck of the boat, I could make out the crew, settling in for the trip. Luke leaned on the railing, watching over me, while Suzanne videoed from her phone. Deborah observed from the stern, no doubt noting the details of the start.

Luke, Suzanne and I on the way to the start

I’d met them all within the past week, but it seemed so much longer. Suzanne had been diligently texting me all summer, checking in and asking if I needed anything locally. When I’d arrived in town, sick from jet lag and motion sickness, she’d ordered groceries delivered to my air bnb. Luke and I met over video conference and it was clear he had loads of experience with the channel. I met Deborah just before the swim, but she’d crewed with a friend of mine for another swimmer, so I knew I could count on her as well. By the time the swim had begun, I’d long since given up the idea that I was somehow alone in England. Here was a team of people, working flawlessly together. It was time to relinquish control, to hand over the wheel, and just swim.

Deb takes a selfie, with Luke in the background

I spent the first hour narrowing my focus to the movement of swimming itself, arm over arm, the gentle rhythm of my kick, each breath more steady and calm than the last. I’d practiced this meditative hour each day all summer, sometimes many hours in a row, the mental practice as important as the physical. The movement of swimming has been with me nearly my entire life. It was my first love as a child and a steady partner through this past year’s grief and heartache. Now, the familiar movements once again soothed me as I began my journey from one foreign land to another, just a speck in the vast ocean. I focused on the swimming itself, letting thoughts of success or failure sail into my mind and out again.

Stuart and Sean were keeping an eye on me from the cabin, foregoing autopilot navigation in favor of traditional steering with the wheel and compass. In the car on the way to the swim, Stuart told me his grandfather had piloted his family’s first channel swim in 1926, while Stuart had crewed his first at age six, accompanying his uncle who was piloting.

“I was a little cabin boy. I just wanted to be down here all the time,” he said as we pulled into the marina. His passion for the sport and care for the swimmers who do it was clear to me from our first meeting. Everything about him was reassuring. “You’ll swim better if you’re relaxed,” he told me over coffee. “Let me worry about the weather and have it turn my hair gray”. I had decided at that moment to just take his advice. “I’ll just do whatever you tell me to,” I said. “Whenever you say it’s time to swim, then I’ll swim.”

Stuart Gleeson and Sean Marsh

I’d told him my story too, about how I’d been a competitive swimmer as a kid. I wasn’t good at first, but I worked hard and got better. For some reason, I even told him about my broken dream to make a US National Team. “You have to be first or second at senior nationals,” I said. “But I was sixth or seventh.” Worse still, my love for the sport had been drowned in worry about outcomes. I went on to point out the contrast in channel swimming, where the time the swim takes is so influenced by conditions that it makes comparisons more or less pointless. “I love it because you don’t have to think about any of that, you can just go and swim for the joy of it. I hope you’ll get to see what I mean today,” I told him. Indeed, I’d set two goals for the swim:

1) Swim to France.

2) Swim with love, joy and appreciation.

It was important to me to approach the swim from this mindset, because I had failed both types of goals as a teen and young woman, when I’d put my desire to achieve an outcome over my love of the activity itself. I wouldn’t make the same mistake today.

The signal for the first feed interrupted my reverie. Luke was holding my hydroflask in the air. I swam to the boat, and snatched the bottle just after it hit the water. I had only a few sips, before I’d drifted too far and the feed line ran out. Dropping the bottle, I knew Suzanne and Luke would adjust and we’d try again, so I swam on. Sure enough, there was the signal again and this time, the line was much longer. I took a thorough drink, told them, “great job” and kept swimming. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to pee when I was on the feed and wanted to get into the habit of going each feed. I wanted to make this quick, because the currents in the channel are strong and every minute you spend peeing or feeding is multiplied due to the current pulling you off course. After about fifteen minutes, I finally decided to just go. Switching to double arm back and letting my legs go slack, I got a pee started and announced to the crew, “peeing!”. They all found this too hilarious to scold me for stopping and continued to chuckle when I did the same at each feed for the rest of the swim. In all seriousness, peeing is an important part of marathon swimming. Your crew wants to keep track of it since not peeing can be a sign of pretty major medical issues.

Peeing!

A few feeds in and I had completely relaxed into my bliss. The water was a silk sheet of blue, billowing gently in the slightest breeze, cradling me with salty buoyancy. Breathing to my right, I watched the Sea Leopard next to me, her bright white hull a striking contrast with the blue of the water. Breathing to my left, I could see the expanse of the ocean, mesmerizing me and drawing me toward it, away from the safety of the Sea Leopard and her crew. I’d then course correct while breathing to my right again. Occasionally, the Sea Leopard would pull in front of me, her stern slipping from my limited field of vision as I breathed. Cricking my neck slightly forward, I could just glimpse her from the corner of my eye and work to catch up again.

Flipping over onto my back and continuing to swim, I called out to Suzanne and Luke, “Is there any way I can swim further up toward the bow?” The sentence had no sooner left my mouth than it was carried into the cabin. The next thing I knew, I was swimming alongside the Sea Leopard’s bow, the beautiful curve of the bottom bobbing gently up and down as she cut through the water, leading the way to France.

I flipped over onto backstroke to call out a thank you to Stuart and Sean. “You guys are awesome!” A thumb pointing up emerged from the cabin window in reply, causing me to grin as I resumed free-styling, my face back in the water. And then it was hours of unbridled delight. I swam next to the Sea Leopard, who towered over me like a whale. She seemed somehow maternal, keeping my small body tucked close by her side, protecting me from the ocean’s vast uncertainty. The water was so uncharacteristically calm, I glided over it with ease. Another feed came and had me blurting out, “I LOVE this,” before dropping the bottle and swimming on.

I quickly lost track of time and what feed we were on. Sometimes, my mind would try to figure it out and I would shove those thoughts aside. Let time do time, I’d say to myself. I kept my mind still, even as my arms rotated around, Suzanne and Luke made drinks to throw to me, Deborah noted our progress and Stuart and Sean navigated our course. The earth rotated with all of us floating on the surface of one of her seas and the sun changed position in the sky.

Rare, glassy conditions

I didn’t see the first jellyfish, but felt it slide past my shoulder, its body smooth and slippery like a giant, peeled grape. Looking down there were more, Moon jellies, identifiable by their white-translucent bodies, floating alien-like beneath me as I swam by. One of the brown-striped Compass jellyfish hit my arm just before a feed. It burned like hot wax spreading over my bicep. I waited with curiosity to see how long it would last and it was over just in time for me to exclaim to the crew, “I just got stung by a jellyfish! But it didn’t hurt!”

Eventually, there were more jellyfish and my squirrelly mind wondered if maybe we could already be in the separation zone between the westbound and eastbound shipping lanes. More feeds passed and I swam backstroke for a few minutes after each one, plus another backstroke session mid-feed cycle. My shoulders thanked me and it gave me a chance to connect with my crew. “Hi Stuart,” I sang out toward the cabin window. Another thumbs up led to more smiling from me. As I watched the crew watching me, everyone was suddenly looking the opposite direction, off the starboard side of the boat. I later learned an unusually large pod of dolphins had appeared, playing nearby and jumping into the air. I wasn’t the only one reveling in the delights of the ocean that day.

More backstroke, and I was chuckling about something to myself when I caught Luke chuckling back. I laughed harder at him laughing at me laughing. “This is just too awesome,” I said and went back to freestyle.

Somewhere in there, I requested the ibuprofen, thinking it’d probably been long enough. Even now, the order of events has been hopelessly jumbled. The mechanism of a wristwatch had been replaced by the position of the sun in the sky, the building soreness in my tendons and now the change in direction of the passing ships. Can they really be going eastbound? I asked myself with confusion. But we’ve only just begun. At first, the ships had been traveling westbound, as we crossed the first shipping lane, then no ships in the separation zone, and now a large container ship was crossing in front of us heading east. The crew was using hand gestures to beckon me closer, as I had wandered a bit away from the boat again. I snuggled up to the Sea Leopard, reminding myself that Stuart knows exactly what he’s doing and that I was truly very safe. Still, the issue of where we were started to gnaw on me a little. How much time has passed, really? On one hand, I just wanted to pretend we were still on hour four, on the other hand, it was getting increasingly harder to ignore the sun, which had passed the top of the sky and begun to make it’s way westward.

Deb identified the ship above and took this screen shot of its information

I’d need to know eventually, because I’d need to know when I could stop holding back “the juice” I was saving for the sometimes gnarly currents off Cap Gris Nez. I backstroked and asked how many hours we’d been going. Suzanne held up eight fingers. Eight. It seemed impossible and startling. But it fit with the sun and the direction of the ships. At the next feed, I said to let me know when we had one to two hours left so I could pick up the pace. Stuart had come out of the cabin to cheer me on. “Good job, Jess,” he called out to me. “Really good job!”.

“You have one to two hours left,” they reported, on the very next feed. I was absorbed in mixed feelings. This meant I was having a pretty quick swim and the chance of success was growing larger. But also, it was almost over, this feeling of delight and celebration. I detected a trace of the future feeling of loss that I now have in abundance, as I sit here at London Heathrow, outside the glass walls of my departure gate, listening to the steady whir of the moving walkway.

I breathed in the direction of the crew, then back toward the ocean beyond. I picked my head up to glimpse France in the distance. I considered slowing down to draw it out longer, but I knew I needed to let go of this attempt at control as well. Putting my head down, I started to swim faster.

The wind picked up right around the same time, and I can remember focusing on vaulting over my hands as they sought to anchor themselves on the moving water. I snuggled closer to the Sea Leopard again, while she blocked most of the oncoming white caps from flying into my face when I’d turn my head to breath. I had asked to switch to my caffeinated feed drink, raspberry carborocket, and it was kicking in. I had come out of my cocoon of peace and was now worried I might need to go even faster. I heard Luke say something about currents when I stopped for a feed, and Stuart said something else I couldn’t hear, but assumed was important. I asked them to write things on the dry erase board and was relieved when I saw Suzanne start to write. She drew an arrow on the board, pointing toward France, and then later, two arrows, indicating it was time to pick it up. So onward I went, focusing on increasing my tempo and leaving behind the sense of comfort and relaxation I’d be cultivating all day.

I began to think of myself as an arrow, being fired over to France. My consistency and persistence in training were the arms of the bow and my longing for a successful crossing was the bowstring. I let go of myself and everything I was holding back as Stuart aimed us toward Cap Gris Nez, and we flew in slow motion toward our mark.

Suzanne was writing on the board again. “1 mile left, 1500 meters, Sprint,” it said. It was sooner than I’d expected and I wondered if we were going slower than two miles per hour. “How many minutes,” I asked, backstroking. “20 minutes,” she wrote on the board. Surprised, I focused on keeping my stroke rate up and tried not to think about it too much.

In a few more minutes, Sean came out on deck and pulled in the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) the Sea Leopard had been towing behind her. I watched him get in the rib and saw everyone pointing to him, telling me to follow him in to shore. I couldn’t believe it. This is really actually happening, I thought. I’m almost to France! Off I went with Sean, while the Sea Leopard stayed back in deeper water. I swam for awhile and snuck a peak up at the beach. It was sandy and I could make out people. Not far now, I told myself. I swam some more, trying not to get too excited too soon. I couldn’t believe I was really almost there. I hadn’t allowed myself to think about it during the crossing.

The splash is me, swimming next to Sean in the RIB.

After awhile, I snuck another peak, but to my frustration it seemed we weren’t any closer. In a quick exchange with Sean, we adjusted so I was swimming next to him rather than behind him and I settled back in, deciding I’d count three hundred stroke cycles, or ten minutes before looking up again. I knew I was getting closer when I swam past a series of wooden sticks poking out of the water. I later learned these were called, “The Mussel Stakes” and they are there so local people can forage for mussels during low tide.

Mussel Stakes

I kept counting strokes and when I’d finally reached three hundred, I looked up. Now we were really close and I could make out the bottom underneath me. Suddenly, Sean stopped and waved me on. The water was now too shallow for even the rib to continue, but yet there was a ways to go. My hands hit the sandy bottom, so I switched to backstroke, which is better for shallow water and continued until I was lying on my back in the sand in a few inches of water.

Turning around, I got up slowly and took my first steps onto French soil. The beach was deserted, except for a woman and her young daughter. The mother, glancing out at the Sea Leopard and England beyond, gave me a knowing look. The little girl gazed up at me wide eyed, as I hauled my Desitin covered body out of the sea. Looking down at her, I saw a piece of myself, the little girl with big dreams, who also just wanted to play in the sea. I allowed a wave of emotion to wash over me as I continued walking.

I was now on wet sand, but could see there was a large, tidal pool beyond me and I knew I’d have to cross it to honor the rule of continuing until “there is no sea water beyond”. I splashed through the pool and looked back at Sean, but there was still a tidal stream running into the ocean beyond me. So I walked forward some more, beginning to feel I was on a hike rather than a swim. Finally, crossing the stream, with no more sea water left beyond me, I raised my arms in victory. The swim was complete.

Arrived in France

Sean drove me back to the Sea Leopard in the rib. I thanked him and he congratulated me, but I appreciated that we were mostly quiet, letting the moment sink in with reverence.

I asked permission to come aboard. “Yes, you’ve done your job for the day,” Stuart replied.

Back on board the Sea Leopard, I was too warm to need the blanket Suzanne had brought me, but it helped to sit on it and avoid ruining Stuart’s boat. I changed into my post swim clothes, a set dedicated to getting smeared with Desitin. Stuart came out of the cabin, asking, “Do you want to know the time?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Ten hours, twenty-one minutes,” he said, a huge grin spreading across his face.

Top notch piloting 🙂

And then everyone marveled at how happy I had seemed throughout the crossing. I wasn’t sure what I was more proud of: the finish, the time or the number of smiles I’d displayed. Sean and Stuart asked what I would do with my time now that the swim was complete and I still had another ten days or so. “Well, do you know of anyone who needs someone to crew for their swim?” I asked.

“Deborah is the only crew for Paul Feltoe, who is coming in next from New Zealand, maybe you could crew for him,” Stuart said. And that is how I became lucky enough to go out on the Sea Leopard again a few nights later. More on that in the next post.

9 thoughts on “Swimming the English Channel”

  1. You are so smiley in all of these photos 🙂! You know you’ve trained right when you can relax and enjoy your swim. I love the bow and arrow imagery, and with that time you really did shoot yourself to France🏹🇫🇷💙

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully shared. You really exemplify the importance of attitude. Excellent training then your surrender to your support team is great. And then it’s pure joy that fuels the swim. So lovely to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this Jess! I think I was in Dover at roughly the same time, en route to my holiday in France! If I had known! I am so impressed. It as a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

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