"Hello, my name is Stephen and I’m attempting a relay English Channel swim this summer to raise funds for Aspire."
It would be fair to say that isn’t a sentence I ever expected to be writing. From the looks on the faces of those I have told, it is equally surprising to my friends and family.
Less than two years ago, I’d never swum face-down front crawl and was more comfortable working on my laptop rather than planning to brave jellyfish and the icy depths. So how does a middle-aged, non-sporty type end up prepping for the “Everest of open water swimming”?
I can’t recall the exact book, but when I was small I had a hardback book of adventurers and amazing feats that had a section on swimming. I recall people that had swum across Niagara Falls and a crazy few had done the ultimate swim across the English Channel. I think it was from this that the seed of crossing the channel was planted, but it lay dormant for a long time.
Every year our family holiday was in Roseland, Cornwall from when I was just a bump until I went to university. I would spend entire days splashing about in the waves, building complex dams out of the sand and snorkelling off the back of an inflatable dingy. Given this was the summer in the UK it was often grey and overcast but I was happy to turn blue with the cold as long as there was a Cornish pasty at lunch to warm me up between swims. This gave me a very comfortable relationship with open water, I was always very relaxed bobbing about.
As well as these two weeks once a year in the sea, my parents took me to a weekly swimming lesson at the local pool. I worked my way up to life-saving certificates. Even decades later, I have very clear memories of:
- straddle jumping in to the pool (avoiding breaking legs on unseen obstacles!)
- swimming under pretend oil stick fires wearing my pyjamas over my swimsuit and then taking them off to tie knots in the ankles to inflate them to make a big ‘V’ impromptu life vest.
- treading water with an arm in the air for extended periods.
- flailing my arms around pretending to drown to help others approach us from behind to pull us to safety.
This was all in a heated pool so I’m not sure how practical these skills really were for life saving and I still find it hard to conceive of a circumstance where I would be swimming in my jimjams – sleepwalking on a cruise ship? However, they were a lot of fun and resulted in no fear of even weird and unusual situations involving the water. But my swimming stroke settled to be limited to heads-up rescue breast stroke – very stable and safe but also very slow and inefficient.
While studying for my A levels I sailed dinghies at a local reservoir, this involved capsize drills: jumping into very cold and dark water, coming up under the hull to grab a breath before ducking back under to escape. I may not have necessarily enjoyed the spluttering wetness and shivering at the time but it gave me a very clear appreciation of the hot showers at the end of each session and a lack of concern for dark water.
I progressed through life, marrying, moving to London, having two wonderful boys untroubled by dreams of salt spray and adventure. I did come to realise how fortunate I was and how I had a desire to give something back to help others. My first big challenge was six years ago – I spent a year doing a million metres of training and then completed the London Marathon for the NSPCC. The April day was very sunny and I was unprepared for the heat suffering from heatstroke but I made it. A few years later I climbed Kilimanjaro in aid of Shelter and I made it to a summit but had terrible altitude sickness.
My next challenge needed to be something cold and low down. The seed that was planted all those years ago blossomed and the idea to swim the English Channel came back to the front of my mind. However, the road to qualify for the Aspire team wasn’t straightforward for me. The step in between me and the English Channel was the Solent, and that is the subject of my next article.