Review: Swim the Channel by Crispin Thorold

The swimmers who gather every summer on a pebbly beach in Dover harbour share a dream that they will achieve a Herculean feat.  It’s the stuff of legends - armed only with a swimming costume, a pair of goggles and a swim cap they hope to conquer the 21 miles (34km) stretch of sea that separates England and France.  On their way across the busiest shipping lanes in the world they are likely to encounter cold waters, ‘lumpy’ seas, variable weather, jellyfish and perhaps experience acute sea-sickness.  

The preparation for a solo attempt should be rigorous and it is often lonely, but in Dover the channel community comes together to train.  The pilgrimage to Dover beach is a quintessentially English gathering that attracts all manner of characters and misfits who are united by their shared endeavour.  Together the swimmers and the volunteers who support and cajole them are the heart of English Channel swimming.

Swim the Channel

The General (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

The General (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

The beach is also at the core of this documentary, which brilliantly captures the spirit of Channel swimming.  Running throughout are the stories of three Channel aspirants.  Al Gale, a father, husband and IT consultant who is relatively new to swimming and has embarked on a Channel solo in memory of his son Harry who died in his arms.  Then there is schoolgirl and diabetic, Georgie Halford, who is graduating from her swim squad with a Channel attempt, inspiring her giggly teenage friends in the process.  And finally Mike Cross, the cheeky Essex lad and serious talent, who has swum solos three times before with its seems minimal training - there's no sign of him starting now.

As their stories unfold over the 2014 season we meet some of the regulars of the Channel scene.  For anyone who has spent time in Dover they will be familiar.  Freda “The General” Streeter who trained her daughter Alison, the most successful Channel swimmer in history, before taking residence on the beach all weekend, every weekend of the season to oversee the Dover training crew.  By her side are her two principal lieutenants, Barry and Irene Wakeham who keep the swimmers fed, chaff-free and safe.

Mike Oram, pilot (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

Mike Oram, pilot (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

Also featured is Kevin Murphy, the hirsute “King of the Channel” and elder statesman of Channel swimming who appears on the beach wearing trunks that proclaim “King Kevin”, with a regal cap to match. Michael Oram, one of the premier pilots, holds court at home and while at work at sea.  We also hear from the long-suffering spouses and parents of the swimmers, as well as their somewhat bemused mates.   

Swim the Channel elegantly weaves archive with the original footage. The soundtrack - music by the Damon Albarn led Electric Wave Bureau - works in perfect harmony with the bleak skyline of Dover and it lifts the tedium of the Channel.

This is a story that is told with a gentle touch and affectionate humour is never far away, whether it’s Barry Wakeham scrambling up the rocks in his yellow fisherman’s waterproofs trying to round up errant swimmers in the fog, or Kevin Murphy training at a nudist colony in nothing but his goggles and cap.  If you are seeking a how-to guide to Channel swimming then look elsewhere but as an introduction to the scale, oddities, and charm of this pursuit then look no further than Swim the Channel.

Swim the Channel will be broadcast on BBC4 in the UK at 9PM on 18 July 2016, and will be available for 30 days afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

Swimming with sharks - the story of Ranie Pearce’s Molokai attempt by Crispin Thorold

Ranie Pearce's Molokai swim. (Video: Aaron Begle)

After her dramatic encounter with tiger sharks on a solo attempt across the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the marathon swimmer Ranie Pearce has called for a more open conversation in the channel swimming community about what can be expected during this and other Oceans Seven channel swims.  Aerial footage of the incident, which was captured with a drone-mounted camera by a videographer on board her support craft, has been widely viewed on social media.  

“This is an unusual occurrence but it is a possibility so I don’t want to shy away from it either”, said Ranie Pearce speaking from her home in Orinda, California a week after her Molokai solo was aborted.   “I feel like we don’t talk about it enough.  Obviously I am not the first person that this has happened to, but yet I cannot tell you who this has happened to.  […] How many times has the Molokai swim, and indeed the other Oceans Seven swims been stopped by sharks? That information is not out there.”

The 42km swim from Molokai island to Oahu island across the Kaiwi Channel is the longest of the Oceans Seven channels and is regarded by swimmers as a brutal prospect.  Swimmers face strong winds, high swell and waves during this warm-water crossing in addition to potentially aggressive marine life.  Pearce compares the lack of information about Molokai with the directness of the Cook Strait website, which states clearly that one in six swims encounter sharks.

“[The Cook Strait encounters are] not death or dismemberment but people get out of the water because of sharks”, the swimmer said.  “That’s good to know going into it.  You need to be mentally prepared.  You need to be physically prepared, perhaps with having a shark shield.  I didn’t get that information from Molokai.”

One of the tiger sharks swims between swimmer and paddler (Photo: Aaron Begle)

One of the tiger sharks swims between swimmer and paddler (Photo: Aaron Begle)

Ranie Pearce added that her pilot has taken fifteen swims across the channel - on three of those crossings sharks have been spotted with two of the swims aborted due to sharks (including her own). That said, the Triple-Crown swimmer was full of praise for the way that her crew handled the lead-up to the swim and the incident during it.  “It was just all well greased.  It was nice, I was confident that I was in good hands and I liked the people.  They were outdoorsy, sailers, paddlers, they were water people.”

Taking on Molokai

The first four and half hours of the crossing were very challenging.  The winds were a stiff 18-20 knots and the swell 4-5 feet high, with waves of a similar height on top of that.  In these conditions it was a struggle to find a regular rhythm. “You swim three or four strokes and then you surf for a minute, you just glide and you pick yourself up and then you start stroking, and something comes and hits you from the side and rolls you.  You lose your balance, you have to collect yourself and start swimming again.”

Although the water temperature started as a balmy 24ºC (76ºF) it dropped around 4ºC (8ºF) when Ranie Pearce swam beyond the continental shelf, above the depths of the open ocean.  This water temperature was still very manageable for a swimmer who trains in San Francisco Bay and has completed several cold-water channels, but the shock of the unexpected temperature change and periodic vomiting, was already taking a toll when the swim took a dramatic turn. 

An encounter with tiger sharks

Initially, she was blissfully unaware of what was going on.  Her paddler was the first to spot a shark and he immediately radioed the pilot.  

“He [the kayaker] just keeps his eye on it and then he circles me, in a big circle so that I did not really notice”, said Ranie Pearce.  “I guess he was trying to drive the shark away.  And then he circles me again and I think that is weird.  I pop my head up and I say ‘what’?   […] He said, ‘don’t panic, there is a shark in the water.  I am trying to scare hm away and the boat is coming and they are going to try to scare him away’.  As he was saying that the boat just zoomed by going full speed.”  

At first Ranie Pearce was more nervous about the boat’s apparently erratic behaviour than the nearby sharks, and she recalls that both her and the kayaker remained calm.  That changed when a surprise wave hit them both, knocking the kayaker and submerging Ranie.  When she resurfaced the kayaker asked, “Did it hit you?”.  By this time everyone’s adrenaline was running high. 

Trying to scare away one shark (Photo: Aaron Begle) 

Trying to scare away one shark (Photo: Aaron Begle) 

“The shark was between me and the kayak, which I had thought was pretty close to me.  And I thought I want out of here. I think that the kayak had bumped me but he thinks the shark had bumped me. […] I said really calmly ’I want out of the water’ and he radioed and said ‘she wants out of the water’.  As he is saying that I look at my feet and there is the shark.  He is literally one hundred percent squared off under my body, as close as I can touch if I put my feet down.  I am not treading water at this stage I am floating.  If I had put my feet down and tread water I would have kicked him.”

Ranie Pearce compares this moment to Hollywood reenactments of shark attacks.  “I felt him move the water - that’s so close but it was so big.  He was over ten feet and he was so menacing and his eyes were so black. […] I think it is the black eyes that don’t have irises or anything, that don’t follow you, that don’t move.  It was just a little bit more than I can handle.”

The crew joked later that Ranie’s swim to the boat was worthy of a place in the Olympic trials, although she recalls that her focus was on calm swimming without splashes rather than speed.  The kayaker was in her wake and after a somewhat poorly timed overboard he also made it to the boat safely.

Taking stock

Ranie Pearce is very clear that whatever the appearance of the footage the situation was tense, rather than panicked.  There was communication between the swimmer, the kayak and the support boat throughout and the swim was called when Ranie decided that the sharks were simply too persistent and too curious.  There was also a fear that by trying to chase the sharks off with the boat they could have been provoked. “It just didn’t seem like we should keep playing that game”, recalls Ranie Pearce.

An accomplished Channel swimmer

An accomplished Channel swimmer

Despite this she is frank that the pressure of the swim - the money, the time, the training - did have a bearing on her decision about when to call the swim.  She also defends the pilot’s decision not to abort the swim earlier. “I didn’t feel like he was endangering my life at all.  I felt that he was part of my team and that he let me make the decision.  But I think that ultimately because he is the captain, and would have been ultimately responsible, if we had dithered any longer he would have said done, get out.”

So what of the safety of the channel?  On the swim before this one the same pilot aborted a relay after a group of white-tip sharks showed a persistent interest in the swimmers.  Ranie Pearce was fully aware of this before she left Molokai and planned to wear shark bands at night, but decided that they would be too heavy to wear for the full 18-20 hours.  Before the swim her greatest fear was the Man o' War and Box jellyfish that inhabit the channel.

Now, speaking a week after the incident, Ranie Pearce is unsure that she could return to the channel - in part because of the prospect of returning to the same waters, but also because she fears her family would struggle to understand why she would want to attempt Molokai again.  However, she remains determined to get back in the water soon and is investigating organising a Lake Tahoe crossing, ideally in the coming months.  There is no way that a couple of sharks - albeit tiger sharks - is going to put this swimmer off her passion.  

“I see that I am bigger, richer, happier and more interesting because of what I do and who I have met.  […]  It’s magical and I am just not able to give this up just because there is a risk.”

Ranie Pearce at the S.C.A.R Swim Challenge in 2014

Ranie Pearce at the S.C.A.R Swim Challenge in 2014

Ranie Pearce Swimming highlights

Completed the Triple Crown (English Channel (2011), Catalina Channel (2013) and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (2014)), as well as the Straits of Gibraltar (2010) and many other marathon swimmers.  She is also an ice swimmer.

Ranie Pearce attempted to swim the Molokai Channel on Tuesday 28 June 2016.  She was interviewed a week later on 5 July 2016.

An alligator for swimming by Crispin Thorold

An early morning swim off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (April 2016) (Photo: Mark Preston)

An early morning swim off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (April 2016) (Photo: Mark Preston)

Since I started swimming seriously in 2012 I have been very hung up about the speed at which I swim. In part, this has been positive - by keeping copious records of all my training, including regular time trials, I have been able to chart my progress over the past few years. Yet, despite dramatic improvements the fact remains:  I am still really disappointed with how 'slowly' I swim.

This has been particularly acute in the past few months.  I was delighted to complete a Rottnest channel solo, but it still took more than an hour longer than I had hoped it would (in pretty much perfect conditions). And this week I found myself even more conscious of my speed than usual. I have been in email contact with a couple of swimmers to see if we can arrange a small relay team for an English Channel crossing.  This has led to lots of conversations about swim speeds.

Trash talking my swimming

During the course of the week it dawned on me that every time I talk about my open water successes I always start by saying something along the lines of, "I was really slow but I managed to finish".  While this is often factually correct it's also indicative of a limiting mindset, which means that I am often not relaxed when I swim (stressing about how slow I am) and I pretty much never pat myself on the back for the progress that I have made.

Given that Channel swimming is in large part a mental game I am determined to overcome this.  Without descending into psychoanalysis of my childhood I do think a large part of this may be down to a traditional and strict British education.  Where I went to school the first fifteen rugby team were demi-Gods. I was uncoordinated and pretty incompetent on the field, and would always rather be reading a book than dragging my feet in the fifth fifteen - where there were no plaudits to be had, only the thrice weekly humiliation of being at the bottom of the pecking order.

If you could survive this feral environment there were some long-term benefits. I grew up with a highly competitive streak, which has served me well in many aspects of my adult life. But given that I was not a natural born sportsman I have also brought some of those negative experiences of my early 'sporting' life into my mid-life swimming.

The French Fish

This weekend I returned to 'Noukhada' Island, which I swam for the first time a few months ago. Once again I was supported by Mark Freeman from Noukahda.  This time I was joined by a fellow member of my masters swim team, David Beau - who is a flying Frenchman in the water.  Sure enough it didn't take long for David to speed off ahead of me as he circled the island with no apparent effort.

Now you see him, now you ... - the five minutes where I was vaguely on David's heels (Photo: Mark Preston)

Now you see him, now you ... - the five minutes where I was vaguely on David's heels (Photo: Mark Preston)

During the course of the swim I dwelled upon my attitude towards speed.  It occurred to me that rather than focusing on being the fastest swimmer, which is a fool's errand when swimming with former competitive swimmers, I should instead concentrate on being the "fastest improving swimmer". At the end of the day my swimming ambitions are to complete channels and other marathon swims, not to set records or win races.

An Alligator for Swimming (Photo: Zazzle)

An Alligator for Swimming (Photo: Zazzle)

Which brings me to the alligator.  My wife and I have a long running joke about education systems where every child is given a reward (like an alligator sticker), regardless of their performance, instead of just focusing on the kids that excel. Our shorthand to describe this type of education is "giving a child an alligator for spelling".  Having been dismissive of the everyone deserves a reward approach I'm now starting to see the value of this kind of praise - and particularly self-praise - even when you have a long way to go to achieve your ambitions.

So in that spirit today I am awarding myself an alligator for swimming, and promise myself to focus more on improving my swimming, rather than obsessing about my times.

Rottnest Channel Solo swim by Crispin Thorold

Swimming the Rottnest Channel off Perth, WA

Swimming the Rottnest Channel off Perth, WA

The Rottnest Channel swim in Western Australia is one of the world’s great open water swims.  The Rotto, as everyone in Perth calls it, is a gem of a swim which is raced across 19.7K of the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean.  This is a significant challenge which attracts thousands of swimmers including hundreds of soloists, as well as two and four person teams.

Rottnest has also become an established landmark for many swimmers who are working towards a solo attempt on the English Channel.  At close to 20K it is a little over half the distance of the English Channel.  It is also held at a perfect time of year for wannabe EC soloists to assess the progress of their training.  My coach, Marcel van der Togt, and I agreed that given Perth’s relative proximity to Abu Dhabi, Rottnest would be a great challenge ahead of my Channel slot.

A channel with history

The first recorded crossing of Rottnest was by a German immigrant to Australia, Gerd von Dincklage, who in 1956 had a bar room bet with a journalist friend that he could swim from the Quokka Arms on the island to Cottesloe on the mainland.  Unlike most drunken challenges this was one that Gerd saw through - a few days later a boat had been arranged and after 9 hours 45 minutes of swimming von Dinklage completed the first recorded swim of the channel.  

Later that year nine swimmers raced across Rotto with four of them making it.  It wasn’t until 1991 that the first race sanctioned by the Rottnest Channel Swimming Association was held.  Since then the swim has grown into the largest mass participation channel swim in the world.  This year - 60 years after the first recorded crossing - more than three hundred soloists started as well as more than 2,500 swimmers in teams.

Rottnest Island (Photo: Google Maps)

Rottnest Island (Photo: Google Maps)

Swim report

My start was at the relatively respectable time of 6.15 in the morning as part of the fourth wave after the elite “Champions of the Channel” and two other groups of soloists. The conditions were as good as they get in the channel - sunshine and pretty much no wind, which meant that the sea was as flat as a pancake.  The start was calm mainly because I focused on avoiding the crowd, saving me the panic attacks that can come from getting caught up with the hustle and bustle of a hectic start.  

All Rotto swimmers must be accompanied by at least one paddler and a support boat.   You start the swim on your own and then find your paddler between 500m-1km.  The team then has from 1-1.5km to rendezvous with their support boat.  At 1.5km rising above the water is the Leeuwin tall ship, named after a seventeenth century Dutch galleon which ‘discovered’ parts of south-west Australia.

The Leeuwin icon vessel - 1.5KM into the Rottnest Channel swim (Photo: Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim) 

The Leeuwin icon vessel - 1.5KM into the Rottnest Channel swim (Photo: Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim

The modern Leeuwin serves as an icon vessel for the Rotto and it is the last marker for swimmers before a buoy more than half way across the channel (10KM).  

From the start I swam at the northern edge of the pack and stayed there for much of the swim.  Northerly winds were scheduled for later in the day and we wanted to ensure that I was pushed towards the centre of the pack, rather than away from them.

After a steady swim out it took a while to find the first of my fabulous paddlers, Jane Scott, who was distinguishable by the U.A.E. flags that were flying on her canoe.  Once we had met up with each other there was a fair bit of faffing about until we found the boat with husband and wife team, Scottie and Kath Pilcher.  (You can read much more about my wonderful paddlers Kath and Jane, as well as top class skipper Scottie in my next post).  

Kath flying the flag of the UAE

Kath flying the flag of the UAE

After the rendezvous we all settled into a good rhythm.  The water was beautiful - clear and clean - and the weeds on the bottom were visible for pretty much the whole swim.  The first half of the race was uneventful aside from some encounters with the local marine life. I was convinced at around the 7KM mark that I had swum over a small shark, which was thankfully heading in the opposite direction (by small I mean smaller than me, c. 2m).  There were also plenty of jellyfish although most were well below the water surface and I was only stung a couple of times during the swim.

By 9.5KM the wind had begun to rise a little (to 17 knots) and the fast swimmers who had set off later than me were passing on a regular basis. The increased wind and boat traffic led to a choppy spell for 3-4KM, which coincided with a muscle strain in my right arm.  This was the toughest stage of the swim and it took a couple of Nurofen, as well as a stint of breaststroke for me to break through this difficult patch.  

The Rotto course (Photo: Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim)

The Rotto course (Photo: Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim)

But the greatest challenge of the day was completely beyond my control.  Some 14KM into the swim I noticed that the support boat was missing.  After a chat with Jane it emerged that it had broken down a good kilometre beforehand and it was only thanks to some fast talking by the team and the backup of a couple of sea rescue folks on jet skis, that we were still going on with the swim.  In the meantime Kath and Scott were desperately trying to repair the boat.  We kept swimming with the support of sea rescue while a message was sent out on the radio appealing for nearby boats to allow me to swim with them.  

2016 was the first time that tandem solos were allowed in the Rotto meaning that two swimmers (each accompanied by a paddler) can now share a boat as long as they stay within 25m of each other for the entire swim.  This was a Godsend.   A boat supporting another soloist agreed to allow me to buddy up with them for the rest of the swim.  I had to tread water for around 20 minutes at the 15KM buoy but was then able to join the swimmer all the way to the final stretch of the swim.  The final quarter of the swim was at a slower pace set by my new companion.  This allowed me to enjoy the view of the sands of the sea bed, which emerged as we approached Rottnest Island complete with stingrays gracefully going about their business.

As we drew closer to the island the wind picked up again and this time it was a stronger 20 knots headwind.  This made for a choppy final stretch and both Kath & I had to work hard to push through to the finish.  But finish I did in a time that was considerably slower than my target but given the events of the day I was delighted to have become a Rottnest Channel soloist.

All in all a wonderful swim that I hope I have the privilege to take part in again.   

ROTTNEST CHANNEL SOLO VITAL STATS

Swimming Al Maryah Island by Crispin Thorold

Spot the swimmer - in front of the Galleria Mall (Photo: Noukhada Adventure Company)

Spot the swimmer - in front of the Galleria Mall (Photo: Noukhada Adventure Company)

The manmade Al Maryah Island is part of the changing face of Abu Dhabi - created in the last couple of decades, the island has been transformed in the past five years as it is developed into the city’s central business district. 

Construction continues but Maryah is already home to some distinctive landmarks including the Cleveland Clinic, a world-class hospital with a breathtaking, modern building, and the Galleria Mall, which in a city of chichi shopping sets a new standard for luxury and excess.

Maryah is also the first inner-city island of Abu Dhabi that I wanted to swim.  I chose to kick off with this island because it is one of the smallest and also since it has relatively quiet waterways.

The plan

Once again the good folk at the Noukhada Adventure Company, supported the swim. Our research started with a recce by kayak last week - when we concluded that the best starting point would be just before a construction bridge on the Abu Dhabi side of Maryah (the northernmost bridge on the west of the island).  

Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi (Photo: Google Maps)

Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi (Photo: Google Maps)

From there we would swim anticlockwise past the Galleria and the Cleveland Clinic to the southern tip of the island, turning for the long haul along the channel between Maryah and Reem islands.  This would leave a short swim around the top before turning for the final stretch of around a kilometre.  The theory was that this would mean a tough start against the tide, but a ripping swim down the eastern channel (with a 3-4 knots assist).

The reality

Like so many well-made plans it didn’t quite work out as intended.  We had carried out our recce a couple of hours after high tide, exactly the same time in the tidal cycle when we intended to swim.  However, strong winds last week meant it was too rough for the kayaks and we had to reschedule by a week.

So in the end we left 3.5 hours after low tide and as a result much of the swim was pretty hard going.  It started well enough and the initial kilometre or two was fun - the water was reasonably clean and I was lifted by the sunshine, as well as the architecture of the Galleria Mall and the Cleveland Clinic.  There was also a gentle tidal current that helped me along.  

The channel from hell - between Maryah and Reem islands (Photo: Noukhada Adventure Company)

The channel from hell - between Maryah and Reem islands (Photo: Noukhada Adventure Company)

However, once we turned the corner the swim became much tougher.  For the whole of the channel between Reem and Maryah islands I swam into a current - at times this was 0.5-1 knot strong, but by time we reached the north of the island it was anywhere from 1.5-2.5 knots (depending on which crew member you asked).  Once I had rounded the northern tip of the island I found the short swim back to the construction bridge straight-forward, with the slack water a welcome change. 

A hard slog

Team Maryah

Team Maryah

After the pleasure of swimming in the mangroves off Yas Island a few weeks ago I found this swim pretty tough.  Unsurprisingly the water was not as clean and the long swim into the tide meant a slow time for this distance, despite pretty strong swimming (albeit by my relatively poor standards).

A final word of thanks to a great crew - Mark kayaked the whole way around with me, with Cliff and Andy on a powerboat nearby.  Mark had thought it all through carefully and I appreciated the addition of the boat to assist in spotting other traffic, and also to act as a rescue boat if I got into trouble.  

A top team!

 

Al-Maryah Island circumnavigation vital stats

  • 6.1KM
  • 2 hours 11 minutes
  • 19-20°C
  • 6 February 2016, 07:45
  • Off Abu Dhabi Island, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Circumnavigating 'Noukhada' island, Abu Dhabi by Crispin Thorold

"Man or whale?", asks Spencer the dog. (Photo Noukhada Adventure Company)

"Man or whale?", asks Spencer the dog. (Photo Noukhada Adventure Company)

Abu Dhabi, which is home for my family and I, is not known as a hub for channel swimmers.  The exception that proves the rule is the accomplished Indian channel swimmer, Rohan More, who is currently making light work of the Oceans Seven (5 channels in two years).  Rohan was previously based here in the capital of the UAE but did most of his training in a pool, spending several weeks ahead of his English Channel solo acclimatising in Dover harbour.   

Now, as I prepare for my solo attempts on the Rottnest Channel next month and the English Channel in July, I have been on the hunt for promising locations to get some time in the open water.  Happily Abu Dhabi, which is an island, is surrounded by all sorts of interesting places to enjoy open water swimming - including mangroves, many of which have pristine water, as well as tens of islands.  At this time of year the water is a clement 20ºC (68ºF).     

It is not though the safest of places to swim with jet skis and other motorised craft a real threat to swimmers.  So, I have teamed up with the fantastic people at the Noukhada Adventure Company, an eco-tourism and adventure business, to ensure that I can incorporate some longer open water swims into my training.  Over the coming weeks we are scheduled to circumnavigate several of the islands off Abu Dhabi, as we continue to plan a more ambitious swim in 2017.

'Noukhada' island 

'Noukhada' Island, off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (Photo: Google Maps)

'Noukhada' Island, off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi (Photo: Google Maps)

This island is just off the shore of Yas Island, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit and a major tourist destination that is continually being developed.  

We set off in the early morning from Yas Beach as the sun began to rise.  Mark Freeman was at the helm multiskilling as kayaker, navigator, feeder and photographer (the last one, an unexpected bonus).  Keeping watch was Spencer his dog, who seemed bemused by the whale in the water that looked strangely like a man.  

The early stage of the swim was the long straight stretch up the far side of the island.  For me this was dominated by trying to find my stride in my first open water swim for more than six months.  My stroke was choppy and I found it tough to get a rhythm, but the surroundings more than made up for this.  I got a glimpse of some flamingos and the mangroves were blissfully peaceful.  After a feed and a bit, we turned the top corner of the island and started swimming down the shore of Yas Island.  

The swim home was far more comfortable and enjoyable, as I developed a good rhythm and pace. The scenery also changed more with Yas Links the first highlight on the left hand side, followed by the grandstands of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit.  Towards the end of the swim the wind picked up a little and I was swimming into a very slight current.  All in all though it was a straight forward swim, which was a good return to the open water.  

Our next adventure outside the pool will be very different - a circumnavigation of Al Maryah Island, which is home to Abu Dhabi's financial district, as well as one of the city's glitziest malls.

'Noukhada' Island circumnavigation vital stats

  • 6.4KM
  • 1 hour 53 minutes
  • 15 January 2016, 07:30
  • Off Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

A personal revolution (one stroke at a time) by Crispin Thorold

“It will change your life” is a phrase that I have heard several times from English Channel soloists.  The argument goes that by the moment you clamber onto the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, or stumble onto the sands of Wissant Beach, your life will have been fundamentally altered.

Given the reaction of several of my friends to my plan to attempt to swim the Channel, perhaps the shift comes when you make the decision to make an attempt - a sure fire sign of a malfunction in your mental state.  After all why would anyone in full control of their faculties decide that swimming the Channel is a good idea?  Or in the light-hearted words of a medic who recently checked my fitness to train, 'you don’t need a doctor, but if you want to swim the Channel you really should consider a psychologist'. (at least I think he was joking..)

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

That consultation had followed a few weeks of medical issues, which were casting doubt on the wisdom of my still relatively light training schedule (15K per week).  After two weeks of tests and an enforced abstinence from swimming I was given the all clear with a hearty pat on the back by a still mystified doctor.  The time away from swimming was incredibly frustrating but this ‘time off’ also allowed me to reflect on the ways that training for an English Channel solo attempt is already changing my life.

A process not an event

Marcel van der Togt, a Channel soloist and long-time open water coach who is helping to structure my training, always talks about a Channel solo swim as a process not an event.  He says that the satisfaction and achievement of a successful solo comes as much through the training, as the swim itself.  

The further into this process I get the more I agree with this. Three years ago I could barely swim a lap of freestyle but through systematic, steady training at first 3/4 times a week and now 5+ times a week, my swimming has been transformed.  The changes have not just been physical – they have also required self-discipline, as well as organisation.

Consistency is king

As a child and later at university I was a crammer who forced as much information into my head, in as short a time as possible.  This ingrained habit was compounded by my journalism training. After all the day-to-day life of a reporter is unpredictable and you can spend long periods of time waiting.  Waiting for a story or waiting for an interview before suddenly, generally without warning, there is a desperate scramble to deliver your report as soon as possible.  Whilst this develops many positive and useful skills, it does not encourage that key to Channel success: consistency.

Now three years in, as I start to intensify my training, consistency is king, and I am finding that this enforced steadiness from swimming is permeating into many other parts of my life, particularly at work.

A marathon not a sprint

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Of course cramming is all about achieving a lot in a short space of time – it’s about sprinting.  And that instinct to rush has characterised my swimming and much of my training.  All I want to do is to launch myself off the blocks full pelt throwing every ounce of energy I have into getting to the other end as quickly as possible.  This is of course fine if you’re swimming 50s, or 100s or 200s but for a wannabe marathon swimmer it’s a disaster in the making.  After a few hundred metres you are wiped out and a relatively modest set can suddenly seem an impossibility. 

In recent weeks I have made two major changes to my training to try to wean myself off this habit.  Firstly, I have replaced the heavy sprinting training (short, intense sets with long rest periods) with longer, paced endurance and threshold training.  And secondly, I have started using a tempo-timer to introduce some pacing into my swimming.  The changes have been rapid and rewarding – and are well learned for other aspects of life.

Getting back on the horse

And last of all, the most obvious of the lot. If at first you don't succeed then try, try again. 

After my enforced swimming hiatus I am now back into a solid routine of training most days.  This requires me to acknowledge and then reject those negative internal voices that say it would be so much easier to go home instead. 

I am also taking this attitude into individual training sessions.  During a recent ‘red mist’ session I was finished halfway through a relentless 10x400 set and ready to leave on the spot, but rather than give up I allowed myself an extra 30s break, ate a banana and pushed on with the grueling training session.  It lived up to its red mist billing, but I got there in the end and was particularly pleased by overcoming my demons in training - something I will certainly need on the day.  Here’s hoping I have the same spirit in the 80x100 workout tomorrow.

So there you have it a ramble through some of the ways that the lessons that I am learning during my process of training for an English Channel solo are changing other aspects of my life.

Let me know what you have learned through your training and just keep swimming!

Lake Geneva – an epic swim with literary credentials by Crispin Thorold

One of the most notable marathon swims of this year’s season, was also one of the most evocative. It took accomplished American swimmer, Jaimie Monahan, close to 33 hours to swim Lake Geneva from tip-to-tip.  

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Starting from the historic Château de Chillon in the East, Monahan swam more than 69kms (43 miles) to the city of Geneva where she landed in the shadow of the world-famous Jet d'Eau fountain.  En route she passed through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, swimming in freshwater that is crystal clear, indeed it is so clean that Monahan says “you can drink it”.

She was only the third recorded person to swim the lake and the first American woman to do so.  This was also the inaugural solo swim for the newly formed Lake Geneva Swimming Association (LGSA), a governing body which intends to put Lake Geneva on the wish-list of all ultramarathon swimmers.  This may prove an easy sell. 

A CHALLENGE OF UNIQUE GLAMOUR & BEAUTY

There are few swims that combine the magic and majesty of the setting, with the sheer physical and mental toughness that is required to complete a crossing of Lake Geneva.

In part it is the history of the landmarks along the way that make this swim so special.  Take the starting point – Château de Chillon – a medieval fortress that was the summer home of the Counts of Savoy and a one-time prison. It also has a unique place in French and English literature.  

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

In the inclement summer of 1816 Lord Byron, the poet and grandfather of open water swimming, as well as the writer Mary Shelley, and several others, visited the château.  During their time by the lake Shelley started writing Frankenstein and Byron completed The Prisoner of Chillon. The château also inspired the writing of Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo.

In the shadow of Chillon is a small beach from which the swim begins. “We tried to split the swim up mentally into three parts”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “During the first part, the early days, […] the water was really blue and we kept passing these little towns and gorgeous houses.” 

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

On the Swiss side of the lake, to the right of the swimmer, are the 11th century UNESCO listed Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, which stretch for about 30 km. On either side the peaks of the Alps “rise up in varying inconsistencies”, said Ben Barham, the founder of the LGSA. “When the sun sets in the mountains it causes any cloud cover to light up in different shades, casting lights on the mountain as if there is a search for Frankenstein.”

For Jaimie Monahan’s swim most of the second chapter was overnight and was lit by “an enormous beautiful full moon”.  “The water was pretty comfortable all the way, about 22 degrees [Celsius]", said Jaimie Monahan, "but just being in the water for that length of time did feel pretty cold, especially in the night.”  In the final hours of the night, after the moon had set and before the sun started to rise, the sky filled with “zillions of stars and no light pollution”.  

By morning Jaimie Monahan was approaching the final part of the swim – along the pointed finger of the lake that stretches south west all the way to the city of Geneva.  However this final stretch is a cruel one with the mighty Jet d’Eau visible for miles on the horizon.

“It’s like the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca on Odysseus’ journey teasing you”, said Ben Barham continuing the literary theme.  “It doesn’t get any closer for another 10 hours.  It’s quite a remarkable thing to see.” Jaimie Monahan also had to battle through a headwind.  “It made the water a bit wavier”, she said.  “Not crazy waves compared to what I usually swim in but after thirty hours out it just felt like being in a washing machine.” 

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

After close to 70km the swim comes to an end at the Bains des Pâquis, a communal beach where hundreds gather in the summer months.  For Monahan the boat crew called ahead to prompt an announcement on the PA system, which ensured that she was given a rousing reception when she reached land.

ESTABLISHING THE LGSA

Before the establishment of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association only two swimmers had successfully swum the length of the lake – Alain Charmey in 1986 (in just 22 hrs 43 mins) and Vedika Bolliger (42 hrs 45 mins).  So when a friend said he wanted to swim the lake Ben Barham thought, “why not set-up the regulatory, official governing body of swimming it.”

Barham was only 21 at the time but he had been interested in channel swimming for several years, having completed an English Channel relay when he was at school and then through mentoring/overseeing other relay teams from his old school.

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

Over the past three years Barham has built the LGSA from scratch, modeling it on the hugely successful Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF).  The LGSA requires swimmers to complete the standard long-distance swim paperwork including an application form, a medical and certified qualifying swims.  The association also introduces swimmers to the two pilots who are currently operating on the lake.

In the 2015 season the fees for a solo swim were £3,300 ($5,000), but this will increase to £3,600 ($5,500) in 2016 to ensure that overheads are met – this year Ben Barham lived in a tent for weeks and had to ask his Mum to buy him a flight home.  Although the cost is high Barham argues that the fees represent value for money: “It is a huge amount of money but if you think about the resources that go into it and the time it takes - it’s actually a bit of a bargain if you compare it to other swims.”

After one solo and one 2-person relay in 2015, next season promises to be busy – it is already close to fully booked and the Association hopes to put out one swimmer a week.  This should allow for the sometimes unpredictable weather, and also give the pilots and observers recovery time.   If the swim’s popularity continues to grow the LGSA plans to add more pilots and observers in 2017.

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

For anyone who is lured by the romance, or sheer physicality of this challenge, then it’s well worth listening to the advice of this year’s successful soloist.  “I think you can always do twice as long as you have previously done”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “So I think having something around 20 miles under your belt in freshwater like a Windermere double would be perfect preparation for this swim.” Also critical, according to Monahan, is mastering your feeds which must include electrolytes, as well as cold water acclimatisation to cope with the water temperatures over such an extended period.

You can register your interest to swim Lake Geneva on the Lake Geneva Swimming Association website.

Lake Geneva key facts (courtesy of the LGSA):

Length (Swim Route) – 69 km (shortest possible distance)

Water Temperature – 19 - 25 °C

Air Temperature – 26 - 35 °C

Jurisdiction – 60% Swiss 40% French

"Swim to swim. Don't swim to shine" by Crispin Thorold

Nick Adams is a great of English Channel swimming - he has completed some ten successful solo crossings (including the youngest double), he is the President of the CS&PF, one of the two governing bodies of English Channel swimming, and he is incredibly generous with his experience, acting as a mentor to hundreds of swimmers.

So his criticism of the "emergence of the ego swimmer" is one that deserves careful examination. Reading these remarks about swimmers (of mixed abilities) who seek the limelight on social media in the run-up to starting my own blog, has certainly made me stop and think about my motivations for publishing my experiences in such a public way. 

In part I absolutely agree with Nick's argument.  There is clearly a disconnect between the publicity surrounding the achievements of many leading channel swimmers - think of the King of the Channel, Kevin Murphy, or the world-record holder for the longest unassisted marathon swim, Chloe McCardel - and their public profile.  In many sports they would be household names, yet in marathon swimming it seems that only those who promote themselves through smart social media campaigns or slick PR agencies become darlings of the press (to name no names).

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

However, a good part of the mystique of the English Channel stems from the fact that it is swum by people with a huge range of abilities, from almost every age (11-73 at the time of writing).  Where else would you find a community that celebrates the record holder for fastest swim, as much as the record holder for slowest swim?  

I for one am equally inspired by the story of "Kent mother-of-two", Jackie Cobell, who took 28 hours to get across, as I am by Trent Grimsey's sub-7 hours miracle swim (however great his athletic feat).

It is the stories of the ordinary Joes who for whatever reason decide one day that the time has come to swim the English Channel that engage me most. And over the past few years I have read scores of blogs, which have helped me to understand different aspects of the physical and mental training that is required to even earn the right to stand on Shakespeare Beach in Dover, shove a stone down your speedos, and start an attempt to swim to France.

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote: Cliff Golding) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote: Cliff Golding) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

When I started this journey towards an English Channel attempt I was a chain-smoking, unfit, 38-year old who could barely swim a length of freestyle.  Three years down the line I can swim a bit and I am still not smoking.  I dream one day of writing about completing a solo crossing of the English Channel, but whatever the outcome I hope that documenting some of my experiences along the way will be of use to other foolhardy souls who embark on this adventure.  

There are a couple of other reasons to "go public".

JOURNALISM ABOUT CHANNEL AND MARATHON SWIMMING

People who are interested in marathon and channel swimming can turn to the definitive Marathon Swimmers Federation site or to blogs or social media channels for technical information and opinions, yet there are few if any places where they can find high-quality features and interviews about the sport.  Donal Buckley's Lone Swimmer is a standout exception but I believe there's still room for good quality journalism about the heroic feats that marathon swimmers embark upon (mostly away from the public eye). 

So I plan to use this blog to tell the stories of some of the swimmers and their swims, as well new developments and the history of this sport.

Raising money for a wonderful cause  

Finally my English Channel attempt will be in aid of breast cancer research.  You can read more about this elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say that if you are reading this website I hope that you will be able to spare some pennies for this great cause.  In the internet-era free content is the norm, but should you enjoy a piece you read here please consider making a donation to charity - however small.  I will include details of how to contribute in due course.

Get in touch

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