Frequently asked questions about long-distance swimming.
There is really only one question that people seem to ask when they hear that you have swum the channel. This is of course whether you cover yourself in ‘that duck grease’ or ‘lardy stuff’.
Despite the vast amount of things that might be of interest concerning the channel, for some reason it is this that has captured people’s imaginations. For years I have smiled and stifled a yawn at the same time before explaining that nobody puts grease on anymore as it doesn’t really help you keep warm and if anything blocks up the pores causing more problems than it is intended to solve. Having said that, up until fairly recently you used to be able to special order a tub of ‘channel grease’ from Boots in Dover, so it was not really so long ago that the ritual daubing of the body in white lard finally faded out. Duck grease notwithstanding, here are some questions (section one) of a very general nature that people sometimes ask that may be of interest to anyone and then some more specific questions (in section two)that may be useful for someone embarking on a longer swim. I’ve focused here on the Channel but exactly the same principles apply to any longer swim.
Do you have a boat accompanying you?
The answer to this is of course yes as the channel is 21 miles across and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. There are a number of associations that organise specialised pilot boats with people very experienced in navigating the Dover strait. These typically need to be booked up a year or more in advance and can cost over £2,500. Your helpers then accompany you on the boat and offer you moral support along with food and drink to keep your energies up.
Do you wear a wet suit?
No. The Channel Swimming authorities came up with a set of rules many years ago that have to be adhered to if you want your swim to be officially ratified. Essentially these are that it is just man or woman against the elements, so no wet suit. You are allowed to wear a swimming cap and goggles along with trunks or swimming costume. Recently the authorities have created a special category of swims for people who want to do it in a wet suit.
Do you stop at all?
The main rule is that you are not allowed to touch the support boat (presumably to stop people from actually holding on to it and being pulled along!). So you can go at any speed you want and do any stroke you want. However, the reality is that due to the tides you cannot afford to stop for too long, so generally you just stop every hour for some kind of drink and probably for no more than a minute.
Do you eat anything?
Since you will be in cold water swimming hard for anything from 12 to 18 hours you need to keep taking on plenty of liquid and food. It’s quite hard to eat normal food whilst swimming and whilst in the water so the best things are the energy drinks and gels that marathon runners use. For more solid food everyone has their own preferences but favourites are things like bananas, chocolate and biscuits.
How long does it take?
Well the world record is under 7 hours and the longest recorded swim is around 28 hours but the average time taken is between 13 and 14 hours though in many cases this can lengthen to closer to 16 hours. There are many factors that account for this including the weather conditions, the strong tides and the physical fitness and speed of the swimmer.
Are there strong currents?
There is a big tidal flow in the Dover strait as effectively the whole of the North Sea tries to empty itself out into the Atlantic and then fill up again all through this narrow 21 mile stretch of water. Off the French coast the tide can actually move along at over 5 mph parallel to the land. This is not dangerous for a swimmer but means that your swim resembles a large ‘S’ shape as you are taken up and down by the six hourly tides. It also means that you can be within a few miles of France but end up having to swim for 2 or 3 hours longer and then finish much further up the coast from where you were.
What about the shipping?
This is where the pilot boat comes in to the picture. They navigate a safe passage through the shipping lanes and are in constant contact with the coastguards and other boats in the area. The big tankers travel along specific lines marked on the chart called shipping lanes. Rather like a motorway, there are two lanes in the Channel, one for the ships travelling south and the other for the ones going north, with a stretch in between called the ‘separation zone’.
Isn’t it very cold?
This is of course one of the major factors. Summer temperatures can vary between around 14 and 17 degrees. In order to be able to do the swim you have to train for a long time in water of this temperature and slowly acclimatise and build up resistance to the cold. Swimmers will typically have completed a number of 6 or 7 hour swims under similar conditions to the Channel.
Don’t you get bored?
Not really. It is much more a feeling of continually fighting or wrestling something so there is really no time to get bored.
What do you think about?
This really brings us into the whole realm of mind, body and spirit which is so much at the heart of all these endurance activities. This is a key question and since personally I approach these activities very much from the angle of meditation it is of particular interest to me. It’s also very much an individual thing with everyone having their own individual take on it and probably something rather hard for to rationalise and put into words. It would be rather like asking someone in the evening what they had been thinking about during the course of the day. During an arduous swim there are probably thousands of thoughts, impressions and emotions that we process as well as a continual effort to reject certain more troubling thoughts that might deplete our energy.
When you start off there is generally a burst of enthusiasm but very quickly your mind starts calculating the distance and time remaining and you get very disheartened. In fact even if I have spent a year building up for the swim, sometimes after an hour I just want to stop and pack the whole thing in. So at the beginning you really have to wrestle with a lot of negative and destructive thoughts, but the good news is that they generally seem to disappear after a couple of hours.
What about sea sickness?
People are often surprised to hear that you get sea sick on longer swims. This can be very uncomfortable for a short while as you really have nowhere to go and just have to keep swimming! You are perhaps more disoriented in the water as you have less things to focus on and the effects of the salt water and perhaps diesel fumes from the boat can be very nauseating. The main thing is just to battle through it because it always passes and rarely lasts for more than a few hours. It can also completely throw off any kind of feeding schedule that you may have planned as when you are feeling sea sick in the water you really don’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Sometimes just a little ginger tea or something like miso soup can help settle the stomach a bit but it may be a few hours before you can get back into your schedule. On one sixteen swim I found that I could only drink water and was saved by a pack of glucose tablets that my pilot’s wife had in a drawer in the galley (that would definitely not be recommended by a sports nutritionist but somehow worked for me).
What training do you do for a Channel swim?
There is a more detailed discussion of this under the training section. The key is to build up to doing a six hour open water swim and then to try and do two six hour swims on consecutive days to try and mirror what it might be like to swim for twelve hours, albeit with a night’s rest in between. Prior to the six hour swim you will have done a number of three and four hour swims and a lot of two hour swims. Some of this might be in the pool and some in the open water depending on how easy it is to find open water for training.
What first got you interested in swimming the Channel?
As a family we always used to have a small sailing boat and every summer would sail up and down the south coast of England, sometimes even as far as Cherbourg and St.Malo in France. I think I was taken out on the boat from just a few months old so have always been very at home with all things nautical and connected with the sea. I’ve also always been a fairly strong swimmer and loved swimming in the sea. I do have a memory of my father telling me, once when were out sailing, that people sometimes swam across to France. So the seed was probably planted at a very young age.
When I took up meditation I read some accounts of students of Sri Chinmoy who he had encouraged to have a go at swimming the Channel back in the eighties. Most of these people were not particularly good swimmers at all and I seem to remember one of them recounting that he had never swum more than two lengths of a pool before embarking on his Channel training. Shortly after reading some of these accounts, and finding myself with some free time and a little money saved up after some summer tour guiding work, I remember being completely overwhelmed one day with the urge to do the swim. It was such a powerful feeling that I resolved not to do anything else until I had done it. Nothing in the world could come between me and this goal or stop me doing it. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the feeling and I’ve rarely had such a conviction about anything in the same way since. It was the kind of resolve that I imagine someone might feel if being pushed to divulge information under torture. Even if their captors end up killing them there is a feeling that the spirit can still not be broken. Whatever life threw at me I would not move on until I had swum across to France!
So a couple of days later I drove to Dover and just went straight to the harbour, where I started swimming roughly where it looked like the people in the accounts had done their training. I had seen some out of focus black and white photographs of what looked like some steps leading down from the harbour wall. I remember a rescue boat coming out and telling that I couldn’t swim there and pointing out the correct area for swimming training. From there everything slowly fell into place and I started to meet all the right people who helped me find out exactly what to do. I even made an attempt about three weeks later but after twelve hours had to abort the swim as we were still hopelessly far from the French coast.
The year after my first attempt I spent a month training properly down in Dover but my swim was cancelled one or two hours before the planned departure due to the weather conditions. The following summer it was not possible for me to train in Dover. However, the odyssey had started and three years after the first attempt I finally made it across in a time of just under twelve hours.
Why do you do it?
What motivates people to take on these challenges is certainly an interesting question and probably the hardest to answer. It’s easy just to agree with people’s conclusion that you must be a bit ‘crazy’ but I think it is probably far from the truth and although there are many unconscious motivations that it is hard to quantify, it is perhaps a more rational process than we are apt to let on. Anyway I’ve tried to look into it in more detail under the training section.
Having done it once why would you go back and do it again?
Another very good question that people often ask once you have painstakingly tried to explain why you did it the first time. It is closely related to the above so again I’ve talked more about this in the training section.