Why do people swim the Channel?
This is closely tied in to the above (see frequently asked questions) where I have considered what got me into the idea of swimming the Channel but it is also probably one of those million dollar questions that are rather hard to answer as it touches on so many aspects of life. Having said that, I think it is interesting to have a go at fathoming our motivation for these endeavours and particularly hearing other people’s take on this (so if you are reading this then all comments are welcome).
One answer that seems to have entered the folklore as to why people climb mountains or swim oceans is ‘well because they are there’. That is all very well but perhaps does not help explain what pushes people towards these activities. Perhaps much of it is individual and cannot be put into words: A deep inner urge or compelling feeling that you have to do something, rather like the feeling that I described in the earlier section.
There is no doubt that for me there is a tremendous thrill in embarking on a new challenge. It is energising and adds a little spark to all the mundane things one is having to do each day. Going to work Monday to Friday may be a little bit pedestrian and start you wondering what the point of it all might be but if you are training on the weekends to climb Mount Everest or swim the Channel then it gives life a bit of a direction. The training also makes you strong and fit which is great for our sense of well-being and having an unusual larger than life type of goal is a great spur to getting going with our training.
Sometimes I’ve been through a lot of nerves and tremendous physical difficulties prior to and during long-distance runs, walks and swims but having completed them have found a new perspective on life and matters that were bothering me or seemed insoluble beforehand suddenly seemed manageable or even non-existent afterwards. Sometimes problems would just seem to have disappeared once you returned to normality after these events or else you would return with such renewed vigour and a sense of well-being able that you could take things on and deal with them fairly quickly.
So after doing a few swims I realised that the Channel was never an end in itself and in fact was really nothing much to do with the swimming! It was more a way of preparing for and gaining a perspective on life. In the months following a swim I’d find that challenging things would come up to deal with in day to day life and somehow the strength gained from doing the Channel enabled me to address them. I have no idea if these matters were there all along and I had reached the stage where I could deal with them, or if somehow the slightly changed mental and physical state drew them towards me. That is more the realm of popular psychology and speculation where there is little chance to ‘prove’ things for sure. Subjective experiences, though, I think count for quite a lot and if you have really put yourself through the paces then perhaps your opinions have a little clout too!
More and more over the years I’ve started to see it as less of a personal thing but rather something that draws others together and perhaps inspires them. It’s funny as, swimming on your own in cold water with fairly limited vision and ability to hear what anyone who happens to be near you on a boat may be saying, would lead you to think it was a very individual isolated activity. Yet as soon I as started the longer distance training I noticed how it seemed to open up relations and connections that you would never normally make. Once you had completed some of the longer swims there would seem to be hours of conversation that would open up with anyone else who had been in a similar situation. Sometimes friendships would develop that would last for many years. It reminded me of the kind of atmosphere that you might find starting at a new school when you are younger. Everything is so new and daunting and you forge strong bonds with others around you. There was also a feeling of being about to enter into battle together and a falling away of all sorts of differences. This was strengthened by the fact that there is so much Second World War history surrounding Dover. The hidden control rooms and hospitals in the tunnels in the cliffs, the proximity to France and an idea of what it must have felt like to head off towards the Normandy beaches. Being out in the cold salty sea all day, with little at the end of each loop apart from rusty old iron girders in the water, made it easier to relate to some of the physical deprivations that soldiers might have gone through.
On top of that there would be a tremendous camaraderie between you and your helpers and you could see all sorts of connections developing between them and anyone else involved with the swim. There might also be large numbers of people involved at every level who would start to know about what you were planning and show an interest. It might start, for example, with the person managing the B&B or campsite where you were staying, other people staying there on holiday, people in shops, other swimmers and their families and helpers and indeed, on other swims where you are more involved and not going through an association, a whole range of different people that help you facilitate it. When I did my swim across the Forth I had to speak to at least twenty individuals before I even found a support boat and then there were four separate maritime agencies I had to go through, just as a start. That was before finding helpers and before local media started to show an interest.
Anyway my point is that a lot of people become involved on one level or another and the energy and enthusiasm that you naturally have from doing the swim somehow seems to rub off on some of them. I think this is where it moves from being about an individual trying to ‘prove’ something to being more of a service to others.
On a more mystical level and related to the above, it is interesting to note how writers have commented that pioneers in a field or indeed anyone challenging themselves can affect people in other places. I have no idea how this may work and it may sound like action at a distance or quantum mechanics but again there is something refreshing in the idea that your solitary swimming of lengths or laps of a harbour may be creating some positive energy somewhere for the world around you.
This leads us to another related area which can be a powerful motivation for these activities and by this I refer to swimming for a charity. In fact I’d imagine that most swims are connected to some kind of fund raising for a worthy charity. This is something that I wholly support but have never found the time to engage in, finding just the training and organisation of the swim time consuming enough for me. For the reasons given above I don’t feel this makes it a selfish activity on my part but I have a lot of admiration for people who go on to raise money for good causes.
Sometimes someone close may have been lost to cancer or something similar and the loss can be a very powerful trigger for trying to do something positive to find ways to stop this happening to others. Perhaps the sheer effort involved helps to reconnect with the lost person and help strengthen ones emotions and spirit for dealing with it. Maybe it is these kinds of life and death matters that galvanise the spirit to achieve great physical feats.
I think we need to feel this higher purpose to our swims as no matter how much training we have done and how determined we may have been for months on end to complete the swim, when we start out on the day, sometimes all that can evaporate. After an hour or two we may just want to stop and pack everything in just to be warm and comfortable again. If we don’t have some kind of higher aim or visualisation it can be hard to find a way to continue. This may seem surprising, especially since you may have trained for two years or more and paid over two thousand pounds to hire a boat, but the deviousness of the mind seems to know no bounds. My teacher Sri Chinmoy spoke of the English Channel as ‘powerfully separating’ the two nations but the process of swimming across it as creating a ‘rare oneness’.
Again the feeling that you may be helping improve relations between peoples and countries can act as enough of a motivation to continue. Therein also may lie the satisfaction in looking for stretches of water the separate countries or communities – the English Channel, the Bosphorous between Europe and Asia, the straits of Gibraltar and the Bering strait between Russia and the US. Lynne Cox spent years battling with the authorities in trying to arrange a three mile swim from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede to Big Diomede off Soviet Siberia in 1987, where people had been banned from setting foot for many years. President Gorbachev even referred to this swim when discussing the changes in diplomatic relations between the two superpowers.
In the documentary Crossing Hell’s Mouth, at one point Frank Chalmers talks about his motivations for wanting to swim across the Pentland Firth. He speaks eloquently about a tremendous love for that area of Scotland and how the swim in some sense links two different cultures and places with a different history.
Coming back to the idea of the swim not being an end in itself but perhaps being the means to other ends, it is of course a great outer symbol for all the inner battles. There is the distance that has to be covered, the foul weather, the tides that take the aspirant off course, the monsters of the deep and all the other difficulties the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ has to face.
For me the meditation has been an inspiration to do the swim and also a tremendous force for acquiring the strength and confidence to carry it out, but there is perhaps a deeper aspect to this too in the sense that meditation is traditionally seen as a merging with something higher than the limited human ego. Seeing a stretch of water, particularly if it is in beautiful surroundings, seems to trigger this urge to grapple with it in some way. Perhaps the urge to swim across it is similar to the emotion triggered in the poet who tries to express deeper feelings in words, the composer who writes music or the painter.
These are just some random musings on why more and more people seem to be doing these things. I look forward to hearing more on this from others.