Never say never again!
I first swam the English Channel in 2007, aged 46 years. A time of 15 hours 28 minutes wasn’t particularly fast nor slow, but my name made it on to that exclusive list of successful EC swimmers. The details of the swim don’t give anything away about the desperation in the latter part of the swim and how, when arms failed to provide any semblance of forward propulsion, I switched to breaststroke and made it quite swiftly to the beach. Write-ups afterwards were, obviously, full of celebration, but also declared that I wouldn’t be doing that again, especially as I only had arms that could take 12 hours.
So what on earth changed, that caused me to be sitting on the top deck of Sea Satin, on a sunny afternoon on 31st August 2011, emailing and texting my friends, and acknowledging their congratulations as we returned from my second successful solo swim?
I guess the first noteworthy difference between the first and second swims was that after the first swim I was snoring in Sea Satin’s cabin a matter of minutes after being dried and dressed. Second time around I was dressed, sitting chattering to my support team and getting celebratory bear-hugs from the pilot Lance Oram and his fantastic crew.
Going into the second swim none of this should have been seen as highly likely. After all, I’d not been able to train as much, I am older, my swim speed more or less evaporated after the last swim in 2007. So how on earth could I have swum for longer, put up with a great big 7m spring tide and yet come out of it knowing more or less what time I’d swum and having been completely compos mentis for the duration of the swim?
Preparation and, as Al Murray calls it, “Thinking it through” made such a difference this time around. I thought I had thought it through well in 2007, having failed a month before – for not thinking anything through! This time around I knew where things had gone less than well on the 2007 attempts – and what had worked well. If any of this helps any newcomers then I’m delighted to pass them on:
1. I elected to swim from night into day, starting around 9pm, as last time.Clearly you’re not able to choose exactly when, but I was clear in my mind that if there were to be histrionics, and toys thrown out of prams, then that would be a lot less stressful on a warm sunny day rather than a moonless night.
2. Weather – I knew what I wanted. Any fool can say “mirror calm please, no wind”, but if you want that try a Lido. I knew I wouldn’t get that, but I knew that starting in mildly bumpy conditions wouldn’t be sensible for my dreaded left arm which only clears the water on a flat day. I wanted to see conditions flatten out and look like they were holding.
If 1 and 2 sound very “me me me” then I apologise, it wasnt meant to sound like that. I discussed the swim on several occasions with Mike Oram and we had a really clear understanding of how the swim would work. My worries, his views on them, and ultimately his great advice on what might be the merits and demerits of a Spring Tide. He always had time to talk, and explain what was going on.
3. Choose your boat – know your boat. I was successful with Lance in 2007, I have swum relays with him and Mike. Lance never fails to recall the dark moments of the 2007 swim when we talk and Mike has already given me my own title as “Channel Swimmer with world’s worst front crawl”. With all respect intended to other pilots, there wasnt really much choice.
It wouldnt be fair to compare Mike and Lance to, for example, one’s lucky, pair of underpants but the relationship has to be seen along those lines. Lance’s trademark phrase, aside from the one that goes “Jim, we’ve missed the lighthouse” is in fact “I don’t like swimming but I know where I’m going. You follow me, I’ll get you there!” Simple.
With wanting to declare undying love in a very unmanly sort of way, it is a reassuring sight to meet Lance, Sea Satin and the crew, and be met with the customary handshake and a few lines of abuse. At that moment, I calmed down and was mentally ready for anything the sea could throw at me.
4. Following on from 3 is visualisation. I am sure there are proper books on it but I have some scenes that I can “go to” for comfort. From 2007, seeing Sea Satin, lit up and ready for action, more like a rocket on a launch pad than a boat. Visualising standing up being introduced at the annual CS&PF dinner as a successful soloer. Visualising the dawn rising. Visualing what the end feels like when the sea becomes calmer, sandier and warmer. Visualising what swimmers go through in the darker hours of their swims. Remembering when you shivered, stuck at it and all came good. Some of these you don’t even need a solo swim to put in the memory banks
5. Have a crew that knows YOU and what to do with you. A crew that is confident to take responsibility for diverting from the plan because they can see you are faltering. Ellery and Rory were magnificent, the former had experienced me feeding her in Lake Zurich, the latter had been with me through thick and thin on earlier trips. We even took my younger son Michael, press-ganged into active service to serve tea and food to the two experts. He even progressed to feeding me, albeit after a demotion for a direct hit with the feeding bottle on my head when he thought I had raised a hand to receive it.
6. Know how to feed. First failed attempt was awful, I simply ran out of gas. On my first successful swim I thought I had worked it out, but with hindsight only enough to make it on empty at the end. Second time around I had three more years of experience of feeding and being fed. Successful feeding enabling me to swim all day was the cornerstone of the swim plan and so it proved. The team insisted I necked every drop – you have to, especially when it’s cold. Freda Streeter, guru of Channel training, had snarled a last text “keep the feeds simple” and of course, she is right, and always right. “Got a problem with cold or lack of energy? Another scoop or two [of Maxim], think of the physics, its simple”.
We started the standard three hours of hourly Maxim then half-hourly Maxim/ Fruit Tea sequence but after a few hours in the dark I realised the benefit of the tea was negligible and we agreed, calmly, to add one scoop of Maxim in from then on.
So what of the swim itself? Despite vowing to start slow and keep slow and focus on good feeding, it seems I started as if someone called “Happy Hour” at the Varne Lightship. I was having a great time, the water was warm and we had cloud cover. With a 9pm start I wasn’t going to have any natural light for 9 hours so there wasn’t anything to do except “just swim”…is there anything else anyway? I swam over sleeping fish and one ner-do-well French jellyfish (they are all French in my view, sorry) greeted me in its customary way. A pain killer for a dodgy shoulder and we swam on. I knew how long we’d been going but had no idea where I was. With a 7m tide working its way up the EC, it’s a good job they didn’t tell me. But what’s the point in knowing what you don’t need cluttering up your head?
I had a bit of a clue we had a big North-Eastward drift when Ellery mentioned we were drifting a bit far up and could I put my foot down a bit. I don’t think I sped up, but I did try.
Dawn came up much as the first swim – promise of sun into a previously starry sky but with clouds obscuring it so I stayed cold – not miserably, but enough to realise we had to keep the feeds rich and no hanging around while feeding.
I reckoned on about 4 hours to cross the French (NE) shipping lane and that’s what happened. Very uneventful with very few ships except one that appeared around the bow of Sea Satin, so close I could have been fed from it. No panic, just a laugh and further proof that English isn’t yet a wholly universal language for sailors.
I did eventually see a couple of ferries – again hadn’t seen many – and immediately I had a brief mental crisis. No wonder I hadn’t seen any, we were miles beyond the Dover-Calais lanes. Or so it seemed. But then the thinking it through cut in – what goes up….yep, it did. And before we knew it the sun was out and familiar sights were coming into view.
I thought I was heading for a swim into Wissant Bay in about 13.5 hours and swam on very happily until the next feed when Lance uttered his usual greeting from such parts. “Jim, you’ve missed the [Cap Gris Nez] lighthouse!”. My response isn’t printable, but it wasn’t a panic. What are you going to do, when you’ve swum well for 14 hours and are feeding well? “Just neck your feed and do some hard swimming for the next hour”. Instructions were taken without a grumble. This was Happy Jim’s year.
At the time I thought we were well off the Cap, but again the crew and Lance kept me sane. I was sufficiently close to the coast to be able to get in, just a matter of time. And as the old song goes, “We’ve got all the time in the world (if we’re feeding well)”. Even if I concluded that maybe 2-3 more feeds were needed. So what? Yes, the previous time of 15 hr 28 had passed, did I care? No way! I was going to enjoy this swim. We had ridden a 7m tide up and down, and now its successor was going to push me into the bay. Tides – I love ’em: been around longer than you and I. Predictable – mainly. Get used to them!
Then, for us Irish, it always gets emotional at the end. However tired you may be, you know you’re swimming in. By the time Rory had finished preening himself the remaining 1200m had become 600m – that’s 12 laps of my home Lido. Danny Boy was the song in my head for the arrival on the beach. Those of you from outside of Ireland will maybe know it better as the theme tune to the film “The Memphis Belle”. You remember the final scenes as it comes in to land, with the two buddies from school, clutching their crewmate trying to staunch his wounds at the end? I was that aircraft. One “wing” shot to bits (painkillers did a great job) and a dodgy undercarriage that collapsed upon landing. But I was there: 16 hours and 51 minutes (unofficially until ratified) after starting out from Shakespeare Beach, Dover. Being able to feel the sand in your feet and wave one’s arms is the best feeling ever.
I was never able to answer the question from many “why do it again?” I said I’d beat my previous time – I didn’t and don’t care in the slightest, it gives me something to go for again….
In the end I came to the conclusion I wanted to be there again and enjoy it this time. Not to come out in a state of near collapse, but to do it properly. Sure I took longer, but I doubt I will ever experience a more happy moment than the culmination of planning, teamwork, a boat and crew that would be the way Carlsberg would do Channel crossings, and a smidgen of focussed training.
I can’t say when the next swim might be, but I can say “Never say never again!”
• Ellery, Rory and Michael, my wonderful support team
• Lance, Chris and Gary, and that most elegant of boats the good lady Sea Satin
• Mike and Angela Oram, and Kevin Murphy, for managing the administration superbly, especially Mike for his superb advice in the run-up to the swim.
• Everyone who sent messages of support on the night – and disbelief the week before.
• And finally, because she is the greatest, Freda Streeter. You might think that a second-timer gets a précis version of her pre-solo advice. You don’t, because you probably didn’t heed it first time, and you know it. Top tip for all – listen to her and do accordingly!