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.

Comments
  1. Judith Sentz says:

    thanks for sharing! Can’t wait for the next post on how it all started!

  2. Farah says:

    Thank you Kate for sharing your inner conversations and outer courage and struggles! You are an amazing person and I am in awe!

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