Archive for August, 2018

 

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
                                                                                                    – Babe Ruth

No question… We’re in the game.

Okay, I used a baseball quote and a futbol title. We’re Americans swimming the English Channel and it will all make sense in a few paragraphs.  Let’s just roll with it, shall we?

Curtis and I both knew we needed to go back to Dover and try again for France.  But there’s a danger in doing something so epic again.  Although our unfinished business (our strike out) was a constant reminder to get back in the game, we both knew it was going to be different and, on some level, I think that scared us a little.

There’s a whole field of neuroscience behind how we recall our positive & negative experiences and how those memories impact our decisions.  Our attempt 2 years ago was both disappointing and extraordinary all at once.  “Let’s just relive the extraordinary bits!” we would say, half serious.

It’s in our nature to want to re-experience what was fabulous, but there’s an emotional risk to that.  Memories can be selective; Our minds retrieve bits and pieces from before, and we create a narrative for next time that is often unattainable.

If you’ve read my last post, then you know we were thinking we’d go back to Dover and win a bunch of money in the casino again, we’d go back to the same pub, meet more friends, eat dinner in that little Italian restaurant with the really good wine list… etc., etc.

But “again” is different, and it’s taken me awhile to realize that “different” is exactly how it needed to be this time.

Puke and Swim:

Picking team members for a Channel relay is serious business.  If one team member goes down (either physically or mentally) they bring the whole team down.  There are no second chances.  You get one shot at crossing the Channel and that’s it.  This was a big deal for me.  It’s a huge investment of time and money, and years of training, and you get one swim window, one day to go, and one chance to make it across.  Choose wisely!

My recommendation is to find people with a strong constitution who will persevere under pressure.  If you know people who will cancel plans over a hangnail & a headache, those are not your people.

Fortunately, we found each other.  Looking back, I have to laugh, because how many people do you know who would think “Puke & Swim” is a perfectly acceptable motto and wouldn’t mind having that shouted at them from the boat as they were battling ocean swells and jellies? I love these guys!  They were all completely on-board with the madness and willing to do what it takes to get the job done.  I am so grateful for this team of Puget Sound Swimmers!

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From left to right: Randy, Curtis, Heidi and me photographed at our final training swim on Vashon Island before heading to Dover.

 

4 Days in Folkestone

Our swim window opened on the Spring Tide from July 11th-19th.  We had a “slot 1”, meaning that we’d be the first to go when the weather shaped up, so we were all optimistic that we could go quickly.  However, it was also possible that we could be waiting around for 10 days looking for ways to entertain ourselves like last time.  But this time was different.

We arrived in London on Monday morning, July 9th, and by noon that day I had already received an email from Michael Oram, our pilot.  He said the weather predictions were looking good in the Channel and was wondering if my team and I had arrived in Dover yet.  I started to realize that this might not be a repeat of “10 days in Dover”.  I sat down and read his message again and my heart leapt a little.  The weather in the Channel was looking GOOD!

With no time for fancy lunches in Chelsea, we hopped a train out of London and headed for the coast.  We decided to stay just south of Dover in a small town called Folkestone.  (okay, new train stop too!) This whole trip was off to a very different start and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  We could be looking at “4 days in Folkestone” and then we’re done. This is what I mean about expectations and trying to recreate a previous experience.  Everything was feeling very different right from the start.  No shopping in Chelsea, no trips to France for dinner, no storms at sea, no “10 days in Dover” … What’s going on here??

Long story short, we only had time for 2 cloudy-morning swims by the Folkestone Harbour Arm.

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The photo above was taken just in front of the famous Folkestone Triennial Bell,
shown here:

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Just a cool bit of info on this bell… It’s a very large 16th-century tenor bell that used to hang in the Scraptoft Church in Leicestershire.  It was evidently removed for not being in tune with the others. (naughty bell.)

Currently, it is suspended from a steel cable strung between two 20m high steel beams, placed 30m apart.  A fine place to meet for a swim!

Anyhow, I digress!  We got… THE PHONE CALL!

The weather looked good, we’re going out Thursday morning, July 12th. Be at the Dover Marina by 5:30am and “we’ll have a nice daylight swim!” (to quote Michael).

And now to quote Heidi: “Squeeeeeee” !

Our little house in Folkestone was full of anticipation and excitement.  Curtis cooked spaghetti Bolognese. (This man has never let me down when it comes to food!)  We’re all old school, so we carbo-loaded to our heart’s content the night before our swim.

The World Cup

Before I fast-forward to 5:30am, I need to tell you about a little soccer game.

Wednesday night was the World Cup Semi-Final, England vs. Croatia, which brought a fortuitous serendipity to our Channel relay.  (I can write that now, looking back… but let me assure you, we did not think that at the time!)

Looking out from the windows of the house we rented, we could watch as the town prepared for a massive outdoor party.  “What the hell is going on??”  This place was about to erupt the night before our swim!  Don’t they know??  We’re swimming the English Channel tomorrow!

They were setting up an enormous TV screen and speakers down by the harbour and the crowds were already starting to gather.  Honestly, all I was thinking was “How the hell am I going to sleep through all this craziness?”

Our 4am wake-up call meant that I needed to go to bed around 9pm, and this party was going to be in full force by then.  Win or lose, we were in England, and this town was about to go nuts.

I made a plan.

I rarely do this, but I’m going to give a big shout-out to Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones.

Best. Ever. Invention.

Just pop in a fresh battery, flip the switch, and then… “whoosh” … I was launched into near-silence.  I couldn’t even hear the seagulls (and that’s saying something).  Sleep was assured!

July 12th, 2018

The taxis arrived at 5am to take us to the Dover Marina.  In a death-defying, no-speed-limits-here, why-didn’t-I-fasten-my-seat-belt, super-fast drive, we arrived early and waited for our pilot, Michael Oram to bring around his boat Gallivant.  Curtis searched for a Starbucks, but sadly, the marina did not have a single coffee shop.  (Someone could make a ton of money with a little coffee cart during swim season… just sayin’).

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A Quiet Marina: 5:15am, July 12, 2018

After an unsuccessful coffee-hunt, we discovered that we were actually going out with Michael’s son, Lance, on his boat Sea Satin (Lance, I suspect, might have drawn the short straw after the game the night before).

After quickly alerting our friends and family to the boat change to get the trackers straight, we met our pilot and crew.  The serendipity I mentioned earlier was about to become crystal clear.  We met our observer on the dock, who was the sweetest woman you’ve ever met.  Then we met our pilot Lance and his crew of Jon, Paul, and Jason.  It didn’t take long to appreciate the combined years of expertise on the boat.  They were all professional, on-point, and serious about the task ahead.  Yet, they balanced all that with a charming and personable familiarity.  There wasn’t a shred of doubt that we were in the best of hands.

After a recap of the rules, we motored out of the Dover marina towards the beach that would be our official starting point.

Shakespeare Beach

Sea Satin made it’s way to Shakespeare Beach just before 7am for the start of the relay.  Lance brought his boat around as close to the shore as he could, and then as the rules state, the first swimmer (me!) has to jump off the boat:

(there I go, no fancy dive or anything, just a plunge!)

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Next, I have to swim to shore:

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Then, I have to walk up on the beach so that “my big toe is not touching the water” (per the rules) and wave my arms around like a nutter. (okay, nobody told me to do that.  Just excited, I guess!)

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At this point, Lance blows the horn on the boat and that’s the signal to start swimming!  I’m off…

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Our swim began at exactly 6:56am and my first hour had begun.

Attention spans are short.  I’m going to leave this here and figure out how to make the next 17 ½ hours interesting!  (and hopefully dig up some more photos in the meantime.)

Peace,

Kate

I promised I would start by recounting July 12th, 2018 on Shakespeare Beach in this post, but that’s proving to be somewhat difficult.  There’s way too much backstory, and nothing will make much sense until I can provide more details from 2016.  (and honestly, this is the funny part… so you won’t want to miss this!)

I first need to introduce my partner in crime… my sidekick…my wingman… Mr. Swimmer Extraordinaire… Curtis Vredenburg!!

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Curtis is my best friend and teammate who shares my last name as his first name, so I guess it’s understandable that everyone we meet is super confused about our relationship. Most people see us and think that we could be married, but somehow we laugh way too much when we’re together, so then they’re left wondering what’s up.  Fact is, we travel extremely well together and fortunately our husbands don’t seem to mind.

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Curtis is the one who got me into this whole mess to begin with, so it’s important that I explain a few things.  We met ages ago when our kids were in a little half-day preschool together.  I spotted Curtis (new dad) standing alone across the playground as I was busy trying to navigate my way through groups of chatty new moms talking about breast feeding.  People have a way of finding each other in this life, and so you could say that we found each other that day.

In fact, you could say we saved each other that day.  We’ve been best friends ever since.

One evening, somewhere in 2014, Curtis and I were discussing the impending approach of his 50th birthday over a very nice bottle of Bordeaux.  He said he wanted to do something BIG.  Several glasses of wine later (or was that bottles?) we landed on swimming the English Channel.  “Why not? That’s BIG!”  “No reason. Let’s do it!”

It was as simple as that. Curtis turned 50 the summer of 2016, so that was the year we needed to make this happen.

Long story short, we found Trent Grimsey.  A tall, handsome Australian swimmer who holds the world record for the fastest channel swim at 6 hours and 55 minutes, completed on September 8th, 2012. (unheard of, and still unbroken!!) Turns out, after a bit of research, Trent had a gig where he would take one relay team across the English Channel every year.  Not only that, but he would swim with the team. (Um… Epic!!)  And not only that, but the team would get 6 months of customized training drills from Trent leading up to the relay.  And, if that weren’t enough, he provides personal coaching in the Dover harbour whilst in England awaiting your swim.

Dream. Come. True.

Condensing an even longer story, Curtis and I both managed to get on Trent’s team. We got serious about our swimming, trained year-round in the chilly Puget Sound for the next 24 months, and finally made our way to London in July 2016.  We wandered around with our suitcases and decided to spend our first night in the very fancy neighbourhood of Chelsea (as one does).  We recovered from our jet lag by drinking wine for lunch, going shopping and eating in the finest restaurants. (in that order).

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Whilst in Chelsea

The next morning, after eating a “Big English Breakfast”, we took the train to Dover and it was time to get down to business.  We met Trent on the beach for an evening swim before dinner.  This was our first introduction to the Dover Harbour.  “Crikey!”  Trent would say… “It’s COLD!”  We had a few laughs, met some other Channel swimmers on the beach, and Curtis and I tried to keep up with the legend himself.

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Meeting Trent Grimsey at the Dover Harbour

Afterwards, over dinner, we decided we would meet every morning at 7am in the pissing rain for swim drills in the harbour. (whose idea was that??)  But it was time to get tough and get serious.  (BTW, no wetsuits allowed in Dover.  1 swimsuit, 1 cap, and 1 pair of goggles. That’s it.)  Leave a towel on the beach and hope that it’s not completely soaked by the time you’re done.  Okay, we’re ready for this!

However, that evening Trent got a call from our pilot, and the news was not good.  The weather forecast called for high winds and rain for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the forecast was so bad that our pilot could say with 100% certainty that no boats would be going out for the next 2-3 days, so we needed to find a way to entertain ourselves.

Okay.  Deep breath.

This was a “good news/bad news” situation for us.  On one hand, our 8-day window was ticking away, but on the other hand we had the luxury of time to relive our fun in Chelsea!

“Really??” you’re thinking, “That’s where you’re going with this story?”

Here’s the deal: we kept to our 7am swims drills every morning, but Curtis would often remind me with an elbow nudge that “a lovely French meal is only 21 miles away!”  So one night we popped over to France for dinner.  Yup, just popped over to France (as one does).

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Dinner in France

On other days we roamed around Dover, got our nails done, went shopping, and cooked amazing lunches in our apartment, and then took leisurely afternoon naps.  Life was good.

One evening we got lucky and won a ton of money in a casino and then promptly met a bunch of new friends, including a homeless man and his dog.  That ended well for everyone, including the dog. (The butcher down the street got a handful of our casino winnings in exchange for a sack full of freshly cut dog bones.)

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We won big!

Some nights after dinner we would join our new mates for a pint or two at the local pub. (Okay, full disclosure… our new mates were the bartenders.)

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Our new friends in Dover

On another night we cheered on a local channel swimmer who was singing songs he wrote in a quaint little venue.  By the way, update on Tony:  He just “smashed it”, as they say, and completed his solo swim across the Channel (just yesterday!) in 17 hours and 13 minutes.  Talk about a Rock Star!!!

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Our new friend Tony

Fact is, Dover was growing on us.  We amused ourselves as the days ticked by, waiting for a break in the weather.

If you’ve already read my previous blog post, then you know how it all ended.  We swam the Channel at the tail end of our window, but not to France.  In the end, I would say that we both remained positive and upbeat, and we had a great experience swimming north and south in the Channel with Trent and our other teammates.

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On the “Optimist” with pilot Paul Foreman

The White Cliffs of Dover are truly stunning when seen from the water at sunrise.  I have memories of the sun glistening off the rocky coast and lighting up the cliffs, as if they were on fire. The timeless beauty of the scene will take your breath away.

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Sunrise on the Channel

I remember leaning over the rail of the boat as Trent flashes us a smile from the water.  I capture that moment on camera.

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Trent Grimsey, enjoying life!

Our 10 days in Dover had been good to us.  Of course, the weather wasn’t what we had hoped for, and we definitely struggled with feelings of disappointment from time to time, but overall we were in good spirits.

The hardest day was the day I left Dover.  It was the day after our swim window closed.  I’d picked up a few pebbles from the harbour earlier in the day and put them in my pocket, and then my family and I boarded the ferry to France to make our way to Normandy.  While on the ferry I walked outside to look at the water.  It was the first beautiful, calm day I’d seen all week, and the water was like glass.

I reached for the small pebbles in my pocket and this was the first day I cried.  I mean really cried.  I realized that I had been playing the cheerleader role for 10 days, trying to keep the team positive, and it finally caught up with me.  This was my tough day.  I felt like diving in and swimming to France right off that ferry.

The disappointment of not making it to France would creep into my thoughts when I least expected it.  Unfinished business has a way of keeping you up at night.  My family and I had traveled to Normandy for a relaxing vacation, but after several nights of tossing and turning, I knew I had a decision to make.  Securing a boat and a pilot is typically 2 years out and time was wasting.

Often when trying to decide on something important, I use the Jeff Bezos method of decision making called “Regret Minimization”.  (you can Google it)

Simply ask yourself 2 questions:

“Will I regret doing it?” or “Will I regret not doing it?”

And there’s your answer.

I also had Warren Miller in my head: “If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do!”  At this rate, I thought, I was looking down the road at being 2 years older, so I felt multiple pressures of time, aging and regret minimization.

The answer was clear.  I needed to make another go for France.  Not knowing where to start, I looked up Trent Grimesy’s pilot, Michael Oram with the CS&PF (Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation).  Trent set his world record with Mike, and I needed some good juju for my second attempt, so I decided that Mike was my juju.

That night, just less than a week after our Channel swim, I sent Mike an email inquiring about open slots for the 2018 season.  (I did not know yet if this was going to be a solo attempt or another relay, but my main goal was to reserve a boat.)

The good news is, I locked in dates securing a 9-day swim window on a Spring Tide, slot 1, from July 11-19th, 2018.

I was thrilled, but it was still 2 years away, which seemed like an eternity.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

“Train and Save” said Mike. “Train and Save.”

 

More to come…

Peace,

Kate

 

English Channel, Take 2!

Posted: August 1, 2018 in Uncategorized

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Whatever I thought I knew about swimming the English Channel, I was wrong.

I’ve been looking at a piece of paper for the last 2 years that says I’m a bad ass.  Okay, I’m lying, it doesn’t say that.  It’s an official certificate from the Channel Swimming Academy that certifies my English Channel relay from 2 years ago.  My team of 5 went from St. Margarets Bay to Broadstairs and back to St. Margarets Bay.  We swam north and south, following the beautiful white cliffs of Dover the whole time.

26 miles in 9 hours on August 7th 2016.

I hung this certificate over my computer in my office so I could catch a glimpse, retrieve a memory, or think about one challenge as I tackle another.  I love this piece of paper, it has motivated me many times to ‘keep on keeping on’.

Certificate

Storms in the mid-channel that year prevented us from swimming across to France.  We spent 10 days in Dover waiting around for the weather to change, but our pilot was hesitant.  With no foreseeable break in the weather, our only option was to go home with nothing, or swim up the coast to Broadstairs and back.  The team was from Australia and the US, and we had all traveled a long way not to swim.  We chose Broadstairs.  At 1:33am Dover time, the first swimmer jumped into dark waters of the Channel and we were off.

The rest of the story is my second book, coming soon.  But the moral is: Stay positive and never, ever give up!

Flash forward to July 2018, I found myself on an airplane headed for Dover again.  Yes, swimming the Channel is addicting.  Okay, I’m lying again.  (Not about the addiction part. Swimming the Channel is highly addicting, just ask anyone who’s done it.)  But I did not just “happen” to find myself on an airplane.  No, I have been planning this since I woke up from my long 18-hour sleep after my first relay 2 years ago!

I took all my experience from my first relay with me this year on the boat, along with 24 more months of year-round open-water training and drills, but it could not have prepared me for what was about to happen.  As challenging as my first relay was, looking back, it was a walk in the park compared to crossing the Channel.  I can honestly say that nothing compares to swimming across the busiest shipping channel in the world and trying to find solid ground on the other side just after midnight.

It’s hard to know where to start, so perhaps I’ll start at the end.  WE MADE IT!!

It’s unbelievable, really.

42 miles and 17 ½ hours later, we landed.

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Our gift from our pilot, Lance Oram

Let me first say that it’s not like landing on your favourite beach in the US.  (you see what I did there with the “u”?)  Anyhow, the French don’t leave the light on for you.  This is the Cap Griz-Nez.  (translation: Cape Grey Nose).  It’s rocky and rural, and evidently uninhabited by anyone with electricity.  After consulting with everyone on the boat that night, we suspect that the entire French coastline had a single 40-watt bulb flickering in the distance.  It’s pitch black, there’s one tiny lighthouse on the cape, and maybe a lone house somewhere south of the Cap Griz-Nez with a small candle in the window… oh wait, it just blew out.  Where the hell is France???  No really… I mean “Where the hell is France??”  I was told to swim strong for 30 minutes and I’d be touching French rocks.  Well, that didn’t happen.

My fifth leg of the swim was my hardest leg.  I jumped in the water at exactly 10:56pm and sprinted hard, but the in-shore waters of France are unforgiving.  They smack you in the face from the right, so you try and breathe left. Then they smack you in face on your left, so you’re doomed either way and end up swallowing a bunch of salt water.  But you’re sprinting, so there’s no stopping to cough.  “Puke & Swim” was our motto… and so it goes.  I was told to exert every last ounce of energy within me to battle the swift and changing tide.  “Dig deep, swim strong, give it your all and sprint hard for 30 minutes!  You can do this!”

“Yes, I can do this” I thought. “I’ve got this.”

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Game Face.  (part quiet meditation and part panic)

But this tide will sweep you off the coast so fast, just when you think you’re nearly there, a swimmer can get pushed past the Cap to somewhere up north.  Somewhere where it gets increasingly more difficult to recover and get to shore.  This was our moment right now, and I had 30 minutes.

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I’m going in: 10:56pm

I battled the waves in a full-on sprint mode, my mind racing with a million thoughts: “Surely it’s been 30 minutes by now?  Where is everyone? Why am I not feeling little grains of sand under my fingernails yet? I’m sure I’m close to shore? Is it shallow yet?  Am I on the sandbar? These feel like breakers crashing over my head… I can’t see anything, where am I? Was that a jellyfish?  Shit, yes it was.  Wait, how many jellies are out here? Why am I not on shore yet?  How long has it been?  I should be scraping my knees on the rocks.  Did I pack Band-Aids? I should have eaten more food. I’m so confused. Am I going to die out here?  Did I pay my life insurance bill last month? What if my glow stick falls off in the waves, would they ever find me in these dark waters? Why did I only wear one glow stick? That was stupid, this is no time to be thrifty.  Why am I not getting any hand signals?  Oh right, I can’t see anything out here!!  …and where the HELL is France?”

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Somewhere near Cap Griz-Nez

Ahh, this was quite unlike the first 16 hours of our swim.  Occasionally I would think to myself, “Who’s idea was this anyway?” Oh yes, it was mine.

Finally the horn on the boat sounded.  People were yelling stuff at me.  “Did I make it?? Had I arrived in France??  Where’s the champagne?”

“Get on the boat!!” they yelled.  “The little boat?  Why would I get on the little boat?” I was so confused and disoriented.  The waves had knocked my brain around for an hour, I had no idea what was happening.  “No, get on the big boat, Randy’s in!!”  Randy’s in?  What happened to 30 minutes and you’ll be in France?  Wait, what?

“Hurry!!” they all yelled.  And then it clicked.   I had swum my hour.  I was done.  Channel relay rules give you only 5 minutes to transition.  I needed to get to the boat, and fast!  One final push, one final climb up the ladder and my part was over.  My fifth leg was the most exhilarating swim of my life.  It was also the most challenging, the most fun, the most jellies, the most painful, the most confusing, and the wildest ride of my life!  And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Randy getting in for his 5th leg to take us to France!

Randy got in just before midnight, and took us to shore sometime around 12:25am, for an official time of 17 hours and 29 minutes.  While on French soil, Randy grabbed a few rocks from the shore for all of us to bring home.  (Pockets? He shoved them in his budgy smuggler!)

I look at those French rocks every day, as I plan our return trip to Dover in 2020.  Yes, it’s addicting.

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging thing I have ever done, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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From left to right: Randy, Curtis, Heidi and me photographed at our final training swim on Vashon Island before heading to Dover.

I had the best team and will love these guys forever.  Without Randy, Curtis and Heidi, there is no way I would have made it to France.  They are all dedicated open-water/cold-water swimmers who will get the job done every time.  I have the utmost respect for them, and I am so fortunate to have had them on my team.

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Sea Satin.  (affectionately referred to as Sea Satan!)

We also got lucky to have the best pilot and crew.  Besides expertly navigating a Spring tide on a grey day in a busy Channel, Lance Oram and his crew on the Sea Satin encouraged us, took photos, reminded us to put the kettle on, and they even let me scavenge dinner leftovers off their plates.  (Yup, you could say that makes us all friends now!)

Looking back, there are a number of things I would do differently next time, but that’s a post for another day.  There’s much more to say.  In fact, I’m sure there’s a book here somewhere!  But because I’ve started at the end, I will have to go back to the beginning where it all started on Shakespeare Beach in my next post.

Thanks for following our journey!

Peace out,

Kate

p.s. Thanks to Jon Miell for all the excellent photos!  Very much appreciated.