Monday 27th September 2021
(I’ll keep editing this over the next couple of weeks as more media becomes available but here’s your ‘Starter for ten’)
On Saturday 25th September Team Cosmic Rays 3 “Last but not Least” of the 2021 season, convened in the Marina car park in Dover my second Cross Channel Relay in two weeks. The increasingly unbelievable pile of kit grew as each person arrived; swimmers need a lot more than just the regulation swimsuit, hat, earplugs and goggles. I planned for at least three swims and we had each brought dry robes, multiple changes of clothes for heat, cold, wet etc, towels, food, drinks, swim grease, phone chargers, anti-seasickness pills etc. Graham Hill, our COSMIC organiser, coach, general encourager and motivator had the largest bag of all, and he wasn’t even swimming. He did, however have the COSMIC banner, whiteboard, thermos flasks and makings for hot drinks.
While waiting we chatted to the three-man ‘Team K’ with a similar quantity of kit, which was about to start a relay swim from the boat West Winds piloted by Mike Oram. We were due to leave on Gallivant at the same time – I’m told the boats have to leave at high tide, and we were about to meet our pilot Lance Oram. Yes, they are father and son. The West Winds team left around twenty minutes before us.
With the boat loaded, identity and passport details completed, and the safety briefings completed, we met our observer, Lesley. Her job was to make sure the swim was conducted according to the Channel Swimming and Pilot’s Federation rules. You can hear her clarifying her expectations on a couple of the videos.
I wilted a little as the rest of the team gave their dates of birth and I realised that, unlike the previous swim, I was the oldest swimmer by a significant margin. My youngest child is older than half the team members.
As we left the barbour the briefings continued. I particularly liked the background comment here, “When you can see France, don’t swim towards it”
This was a Spring tide* so we motored out of the harbour and down to Abbots Cliff, south of Samphire Hoe. I discovered earlier this month that Samphire Hoe was created from spoil taken out of the Channel Tunnel when it was drilled. It is now a nature reserve.
We arrived at Abbots Cliff where our opening swimmer, Paul Meredith (Phelps Ray) voluntarily left a serviceable boat and swam to shore. Dog walkers watched unconcerned as if this is an everyday experience, which it might be for them, but not for us.
Saturday 25th September 2021
11.11am The start
Abbots Cliff is an unofficial nudist beach but Paul remained fully dressed in his jammers as he waved his arms from the shore to signal his readiness to start. The boat turned around, then there was a slight delay to wait for the complete minute before the hooter sounded to start the swim at exactly 11.11am. The team on board shouted, “Look out France, COSMIC Rays are coming” as Paul re-entered the water.
The boat then headed off towards France, leaving Paul to swim alongside.
Paul was followed by Jennie Cook (Chilly Ray), Samantha Day (Butterfly Ray), Magali Pellisier (Synchro Ray), Chris Bolton (Budgie Ray), and finally, me (Elder Ray). Explanation below 🙂
Exactly one hour of swimming per person, marked by a hooter to change over (a maximum of five minutes is allowed for this) , and the swimmers must stay in the same order. If one fails, all fail. If all succeed then the team succeeds.
Paul, Jen, Magali and Sam swam three times each. Chris and I each swam twice. All six of us finished together 14 hours and 30 minutes after we started (unofficial time)
Social media benefitted from a series of live-stream video feeds. Our nicknames were bestowed by CB, Chris Bolton, whose humour was evident on many of the commentaries:
Phelps Ray – Paul is tall with long arms and is a powerful swimmer. He set us off to a good start and straightened our track across the tides, only really visible to us on the boat when we looked at the comparative position of West Winds.
Chilly Ray – Jennie is also has a long reach and is another fast swimmer. She finds the cold water difficult, but it doesn’t seem to affect her performance. It does, however, mean she has to apply an extra layer of mental ‘stickability’ to keep her in the cold sea for the full hour each time.
Butterfly Ray – Samantha has the strength of a dancer, which translates well to her strong and efficient swimming. She is the only on who could be heard asking for the boat to go faster. Sam had been asked by a family member to swim butterfly in the English Channel. She did and it’s preserved on video.
Synchro Ray – Magali, our youngest team member, is reputed to be a member of synchronised swimming team and started one swim with an elegant water entry that included a beautiful backstroke to front crawl transition. I thought her yell as she landed in the water was in her native French but apparently it was fluent English. Her swimming is elegant and effective and her fluent French was unexpectedly useful at the end of our swim.
Budgie Ray – Chris, had less of a swimming background than the first three but had stuck with the programme during training, and qualification, and showed willpower and determination to complete his swims in good style and ensure team success. His humour was an asset to the team and his swimming, like mine, improved dramatically the second time in as we all got past the adrenaline rush and started to swim in a more relaxed and efficient stroke. He named himself in honour of his Union Jack ‘budgie smuggler’ trunks that conformed perfectly with the requirements for Channel swimmers and French swimming pools.
Elder Ray – that’s me. The oldest team member, who had swum with Team Elders last week. “Just call me Granny”.
The next series of videos shows the swimmers and handovers – there are a lot on a relay, and I thank my various team members for permitting me to use their media.
12.11am Handover 1 from Paul to Jen
The first media glitch is that this live video won’t embed. I’ve made it public so if you have a Facebook account you should be able to link to it.
Swimmer 2 – Jen
Jennie was visibly very cold after her first swim. Fortunately the tarped cabin on the upper deck of Gallivant where all our bags were piled up acted rather like a mini greenhouse and Jennie was able to wrap up warmly and spend some time in there. She was joined at different times later by other chilly/tired swimmers.
1.11pm Handover 2 from Jen to Sam
Swimmer 3 – Sam
Sam had been asked by a family mmber to swim butterfly in the Channel.
I had been very concerned about the weather forecast during the week leading up to the swim, and the forecast of high winds for the next day. Several teams turned back last week and I was dreading the idea of having to turn back due to bad weather. Fortunately I decided not to mention that to the team until after we had finished, and, as it happened, it was a needless concern because the sun shone for the early part of the day. There was a light breeze, and, apart from an hour of rewarming after each swim, we needed sunblock more than thermals during the day.
Four boats left on our tide and in the beautiful clear weather we could see that we were catching and then overtaking West Winds quite early in the swim. Pathfinder was in front of us and we could see it getting bigger. Anastasia was out to our left but it was hard to judge our comparative progress.
During the course of the day Pathfinder and Anastasia turned back (we don’t know the reasons in this case, but around 1 in 5 relay teams turn back), and as we finally approached Cap Gris Nez around midnight the team on West Winds was around a mile behind us.
2.11pm Handover 3 from Sam to Magali
Swimmer 4 – Magali
3.11pm Handover 4 from Magali to Chris
Swimmer 5 – Chris
C’mon folks, send me your media 🙂 I was getting ready to swim and generally faffing about trying to get swim grease on me and not on my goggles or the boat.
4.11pm Handover 5 from Chris to me.
Obviously I couldn’t record this as I was getting into the water.
Swimmer 6 – me (Helen aka Helegant aka ‘Elder Ray’)
Six hours was a long time to wait before my first swim, and we had already crossed the first of the shipping lanes before it was my turn to jump into the water.
Swimming close-enough to the boat is reassuring for the observer, pilot and team-mates. I managed to get a bit too close to the boat at times last week, which makes it harder for the pilot to see, so corrected that this week.
The sea had been almost flat throughout the first half of the swim, but even ‘flat’ isn’t. I was lucky enough to see Graham’s video (above) of my swimming and can see how the slight bounce affected my stroke – there is one point where my arm goes forwards into air not water. It’s like that for everyone, and the key is to become ‘one with the water’ (advice from Lesley, our observer), which was easier for the more experienced swimmers than for me. We had all achieved that by our second swims which were in the dark.
5.11pm Handover 6 – Helen to Paul
At the end of my first swim Paul took over again and we achieved a fast transition from one swimmer to the next. More by luck than judgement though. Or maybe it was Paul’s go-faster hat.
Swimmer 1 – Paul (second swim – last daylight swim)
One of the many videos recorded by Chris (Budgie Ray) refers to us being the ‘fastest team currently swimming in the English Channel’ which, by then was true and a good motivator for the team. Paul was the last to swim without lights as the sun was sinking fast.
6.11pm Handover 7 – Paul to Jen
Swimmer 2 – Jen (second swim – night swim)
There are two aspects to night swimming that are added to the normal challenges. The first is that the swimmer needs to be able to see the boat. I may have mentioned before that the boat is on auto-pilot, so the swimmer follows the boat, not the other way around. The boat pilot adjusts to the speed of each person in the water.
The second aspect is that the pilot needs to be able to see the swimmer. A floodlight illuminates a circle of water and it helps everyone if the swimmer stays in that general area. The swimmer also has wears two lights, on swimsuit and hat, one solid and flashing, which helps to spot them in the inky darkness that is night at sea.
7.11pm Handover 8 – Jen to Sam
Swimmer 3 – Sam (second swim – night swim)
This video won’t load properly – I blame the variable roaming signal in the middle of the Channel.
8.11pm Handover 9 – Sam to Magali
Swimmer 4 – Magali (second swim – night swim)
9.11pm Handover 10 – Magali to Chris
Swimmer 5 – Chris (second swim – night time)
10.11pm Handover 11 – Chris to Helen
Swimmer 6 – Helen (second swim – night time)
The water in the English Channel is often quite cool, but we were swimming in an unseasonably warm 17-19 degrees Celsius. Most people would describe that as ‘cold’, and it’s the reason why so many cold-water swimmers are significantly heaver than pool swimmers. The extra layer of fat insulates the body’s core. That became important later in the swim when we were all tired.
Somewhere in the middle of the English Channel the roaming signals switched betwen England and France (and back again a few times), which also meant that watches and mobile phones switched their time display to French time, which was one hour ahead. Chris’ video reference to me swimming after midnight actually refers to French time (although it was past my bedtime in England too.)
11.11pm Handover 12 – Helen to Paul
Swimmer 1 – Paul (third swim – night time)
Sunday 26th September
00.11am – Handover 13 – Paul to Jen
Lance, the pilot came up to the top deck to tell Jen, preparing for her third swim, that the tide was turning and she could work hard to break through and ensure we landed near Cap Gris Nez, or be swept sideways to result in another two to three hours of swimming for the team.
Swimmer 2 – Jen (third swim – night time)
1.11am – Handover 14 – Jen to Sam
Jen is strong, and swam so well that Lance came back up to let Sam know she could finish the swim if she did the same, “around 30-45 minutes”. Sam didn’t need telling twice, “I’m going in” and to singing of “What have you done today to feel proud?” the changeover took place and Sam was soon swimming alongside the pilot’s window saying, “I want the boat to go faster.”
Swimmer 3 – Sam (third swim – night time)
A couple of us at the front of the boat watched the lights dancing on the surface as the ruffled water flattened out and little eddies of leaves appeared in the lea of Cap Gris Nez. Barrel jellyfish floated past, and on enquiry we discovered that several team members had bounced off jellyfish of different varieties during the night but no-one was stung badly enough to make a fuss about it. I’d managed to miss them all.
Around fifteen minutes after Sam got into the water we were all given the nod that now would be a good time to get hats, lights and goggles on if we wanted to follow her into shore. This also came with stern warnings from our observer not to void the swim by overtaking Sam or breaking any other rules. In our haste to obey to the letter we forgot the tow float.
1.41am – Sam lands in France
Just north of Cap Gris Nez, followed by the remaining swimmers.
We swam towards the darkness following Sam’s lights and landed on a sandy beach. We heard the hooter sound to signify the end of the swim, and as we were cheering and hugging, two young men in camouflage fatigues appeared out of the darkness. I assumed they were gendarmes, and after Magali had explained that we had just swum the Channel, were celebrating and then immediately returning to the boat, they walked away without so much as a shrug. Certainly no smiling (I assumed we had woken them up which might be why they looked a bit grumpy.)
We were all wet, it was the early hours of Sunday morning, and there was a breeze blowing so we spent as little time as possible on the beach. In the absence of a tow float to carry them, we stuffed our souvenir pebbles into our swimming costumes before returning to the boat for the journey back to Dover.
All swimmers and support crew were asleep for most of the return trip.
5am – Arrival back at Dover
Our COSMIC Rays Team 3 unofficial finishing time was 14 hours and 30 minutes.
The K team on West Winds missed Cap and carried on to land near Sangatte in an unofficial time of 17 hours and 31 minutes.
The relay swim was an opportunity for us to realise a dream of swimming the English Channel and completing a challenge that was hard work and rewarding. ‘Tired and happy’ was a good description of the six swimmers who returned from France to the boat.
Overall though, the lasting value will be in the help that the fundraising will bring to the children and families who find themselves being cared for in intensive care in Queen Charlotte and Queen Mary Hospitals. COSMIC helps to support families directly, to fund research and training, and the money raised by our swim will all help to ease nightmares for someone else.
My fundraising page is here.Thank you to all who have already contributed. You really are making a difference.
*According to Julian Critchlow, analyst and number cruncher of all things channel swimming,“… In Dover, the definition of a spring tide is a high water of 6.1m or more. On a high spring tide, you will typically move up to 14 miles up the channel and then back again; whilst on a low neap tide you might only go 7 miles up and back. Since you swim perpendicular to the tidal flow, it does not impact the swimmer’s progress – in effect your movement up and down the channel is for “free”.
Some speculate that it does matter because a big (or unpredictable) flow might make it harder for the boat pilot to guarantee hitting Cap Gris Nez and if your timing coincides with a large ebb or flow then you can be swept away from the Cap (and thereby away from France as the Cap is the closest point). However the data tells a different story: 37% hit Cap Gris Nez on Neaps and 32% on Springs… basically the same…” from the coldwater swimming blog of Julian Critchlow