Aquanuts do the double
On Friday 20 June I went for a little swim with three of my friends: we swam across the English Channel from Dover to France, and then we swam back again. Our team, called the Aquanuts, consisted of Simon Jacob, Marc Newman, Gary Butcher and me, Lisa North. We trained hard over the winter and it was all worth it when we arrived back on English soil at Samphire Hoe beach just after the sunrise solstice on Saturday 21 June.
The Aquanuts all come from Dorset and Hampshire and swim together at various locations along the Poole and Bournemouth Bay. The relay was Simon’s idea and together with Gary they took part in one-way relays in 2013 but they wanted to go further. They managed to recruit local swimming legend Marc Newman into the team, who has five solo crossings under his belt all quicker than 9.5 hours! But that was 25 years ago and he gave up swimming after that. However, circumstances change and this relay got him interested in swimming again and together with me, the only lady in the team, we formed the Aquanuts.
Our slot was booked for 20-26 June and we were all set for a weekend crossing when our pilot Stuart Gleeson gave us the call that we were going Friday morning, early. Very early. With all of us at work we had to get ready quickly and head down to Dover, where we met Stuart at 4:30, along with his crew, one of which was also called Stuart and the other Gary, so plenty of name confusion to contend with. Also on board the sea Leopard were two observers. We left Samphire Hoe at 5.20am.
Fortunately, the weather was warm and sunny with a fair easterly wind. Simon had the honour of starting us off and his first swim headed out past the harbour walls into the sunshine. Then rocket man Marc Newman took over and you can see from the tracker how it stretched out. Then Gary took over and we made further good progress into the Channel and the separation zones. By this time, the sea was rolling, to say the least, and suddenly it was my turn and my first experience of Channel swimming.
I have done many sporting events including running marathons and an Ironman triathlon but this was something else. For my first swim I had five foot swells, which made it “interesting” swimming next to the boat. Luckily the crew were fantastic and looked after me well and it helped choosing the right side of the boat so they could keep a watchful eye on me. The hour flew by and then the whole process started again. We each swam three times to record a time of 12 hours and 16 minutes to land just south of Cap Griz Nez. We were overjoyed with this time and it was several hours quicker than we expected.
We had company at times with a porpoise joining us for a short while in the second hour and several inquisitive fulmars either landing on the boat trying to steal our food or even sitting on the water next to us whilst we swam. We expected debris and rubbish, especially in the middle of the Channel, and we came across the usual massive clumps of seaweed, planks of wood and fish boxes. We even encountered a fridge near the French coast. Luckily though we didn’t see many jellyfish nor any of the massive barrel jelly fish that are currently being washed up on our Poole and Bournemouth beaches.
Generally our swim went very smoothly with no fuss and no drama and the only problems we encountered were with French fishing boats. On my third swim into French waters, I went too close to some lobster pot markers and instantly we saw two fishing boats heading straight towards us at speed because they thought we were interfering with their catch. Apparently the Sea Leopard crew and rest of my team and supporters were watching and getting worried at the closeness to me in the water. They tried communicating with the fishing boats and the French coastguard but to no avail. We think they wanted to scare us off and at the last moment they changed course away from me. As I was swimming I was completely unaware of all the drama and was only told about it when we landed back in England.
I didn’t quite make the landing in France and it was left to Simon to swim for the last 16 minutes before landing on the beach at Audresselles. It was strange not to finish there and then, and we had no time to even pick up some pebbles from the shore before Simon got back in to start the swim to Dover. The tide had turned and was with us as we headed back past from Cap so when Marc had his forth swim he was cruising at a speed of 4.5 knots.
Turning round was hard and all four of us had poor swims after this. Maybe we were all tired and thinking what a long way we had to go. I know I did. On top of that, night was falling and I personally was dreading swimming in the dark. But as a team we picked ourselves up, had a laugh about it and then realised we were so close to getting home our spirits lifted. Actually swimming in the night was fine and I had the midnight to 1:00 shift. The water was totally black and all I could see was our boat and the Channel ferries lit up in the complete darkness. The other members of the team and our support crew, Judith Martin and Sarah Pascoe, were invaluable at this time to help keep us calm and motivate us to push on. Another few hours later and we could see the walls of Dover Harbour and the lights of Folkestone.
As the sun came up on the summer solstice it was time for my sixth swim. This was my best swim and was accompanied by a seal for a few minutes, which was probably wondering what on earth I was doing. I thought I was going to be the one to land back in England but despite swimming as hard as I could for the whole hour the tide was turning and pushing me back. I was so close to the beach I could see the pebbles on the shore but the observers said i had to change over to my team mate Simon so he had the privilege of starting, finishing in France and then back in England. As the who escapade was his idea to start with, that somehow seemed fitting and we were all really pleased for him.
Our return trip took 12 hours and 3 minutes. We were all allowed to swim the last 50 metres together and the joy of completing our swimming adventure was overwhelming. Many of the double crossings fail due to tiredness or bad weather so to successfully complete our swim in 24 hours and 19 minutes was amazing. We all worked so hard over the winter and everything was perfect on the day. I was the only member of the team that had not done any Channel swimming before so at times I was nervous as I didn’t know what to expect but support from the rest of the team and loads of practice and preparation meant it all went swimmingly.
Right, so what am I going to do next? I think I’ll probably take my grandchildren down the beach for a little paddle!