Image: Aspire Channel Swimmers’ dinner with guest speaker Kevin Murphy
Starting eight years ago, Aspire, the spinal injuries charity, has been booking boats for English Channel relay swims and encouraging teams to raise funds to support its work. More recently, it also added swims across the Solent (the 5km wide channel that separates the Isle of Wight from Portsmouth) and night swims, this year in Manchester and Oxford. To date, all this open water swimming-related fundraising has generated almost £1 million that Aspire has used to help people who have sustained a spinal injury.
Earlier this year we published an article in the magazine by Richard Royal, who had just signed up for his first relay and was keen to talk about his experience – and that was before he’d even stepped on a boat. He was buzzing from his first training swim in Dover Harbour and wanted to tell the world.
Last Saturday I was invited to the Aspire Channel Swimmers celebration dinner in Watford, a place that seems as far removed from English Channel swimming as anywhere but is close to Aspire’s HQ. Richard, who recently moved to Hull, made the long journey down to enjoy another evening with his teammates. In fact, many of the swimmers had travelled considerable distances to celebrate their achievements, which surely says something about the camaraderie and commitment that had developed among the teams.
Of the six Aspire teams that set out to cross the Channel this summer, five made it to France while the sixth had to abort because of a sudden and unexpected change in the weather shortly before the French coast. All six were successful in raising funds for Aspire, with the top team collecting almost £25,000.
In most cases, team members didn’t know each other before they signed up and were put together by Aspire, with each team having a mixture of faster and slower swimmers. As an outsider at the dinner, it was clear that these strangers had built strong bonds amongst themselves through their shared experience and established friendly rivalries with the other teams. So much so in fact that two of the teams, perhaps fuelled by a little alcohol, have challenged each other to a relay race along the length of Loch Ness, another swim on Aspire’s books.
Other charities have dabbled with English Channel swimming as a fund-raising challenge, but in terms of organisation and experience, Aspire leads the way. This is mainly due to the work of Aspire’s Andrew Ogierman and Paul Parrish, who are both passionate about Channel swimming and raising funds to help people with spinal injuries. Their energy, support and enthusiasm is hugely infectious. One outcome of this is that many swimmers from previous teams return to help as volunteer boat leaders, sharing their hard-earned experience with new swimmers. Others come back and swim relays again and a few go on to complete a Channel solo, sometimes again raising funds for Aspire.
An English Channel relay is by no means easy. Teams can easily take 12 to 18 hours to cross, which definitely means two one-hour swims and possibly a third. Richard says he felt particularly cold on the second of his three swims. Another swimmer told me how she panicked when she jumped from the boat in the middle of the Channel. Although she’d done all the training and acclimatisation swims, she’d always got in the water slowly, so jumping straight into cold water was a shock. Others had trouble swimming straight, one person actually started swimming back towards England, many were seasick and quite a few got stung.
Am I selling this?
As far as I could tell there wasn’t a single person in the room who regretted taking part and didn’t see it as a wholly positive experience. One person told me how facing her fears and finding the mental fortitude to keep swimming when she really didn’t want to had helped in other areas of life, such as dealing with challenging situations at work.
If you’re curious about taking part in an English Channel relay, it’s definitely worth considering doing it for Aspire. You’ll be raising funds for a great charity and they support you all the way.
Find out more: https://www.aspire.org.uk/swimming
For a close-up look of how ‘Team Piranha’ got on this summer, check out Aspire’s new five minute video.