Realising dreams and easing nightmares

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.

https://www.facebook.com/563748568/videos/1330712560677096/

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.

Realising Dreams

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.

Easing Nightmares

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

The unexpected adventure

Friday 17th September 2021

We knew we would be sailing as Boat 2 on the 14th to 18th tide with Eddie Spelling as our pilot on board his boat Anastasia. I packed on Monday, filled the car with fuel and prepared to wait. The weather forecast looked reasonable after a difficult few weeks, and we were expecting to swim on Wednesday or Thursday.

The message was waiting for me when I awoke at 6.30am on Tuesday 14th September,

“IMPORTANT: Eddie says meet at 1530 in Marina car park.
He will confirm in the morning.
Remember PASSPORTS…
It’s going to be an all-nighter…”

Right. That’s nine hours to get to Dover and find the car park. I can do that.

Almost four hours of a slow congested trek around the M25 saw me arrive at Dover and sort out the hotel and car parking in time to meet the team at 1pm, record my passport details, then go and get some lunch, ready to reconvene at 3pm.

In the hotel we met the team that would be swimming after us. They were also from Fort Collins, the home of our team organiser, George Thornton. Not only were they infectiously cheerful and excited to be swimming but they also acted as packhorses and cheerleaders (in the British sense of the word – no pom-poms) for us as we loaded the boat and prepared to go. Thank you all.

Once on the boat, we were briefed on how to get on and off the boat from the water, where to change and sleep, how to use the toilet (“Nellie – give it some wellie”), a few safety notes, then took a quick team photo and set off. The difference between the water inside the harbour and outside took me by surprise. Suddenly we were being buffeted all over the place. It was a good introduction to the hours to come, and I was glad of the Stugeron which reduced some of the unwanted side-effects of the inevitable motion sickness.

The introduction to the journey was a short boat ride to Samphire Hoe, one of the two beaches that swimmers usually start from (the other is Shakespeare Beach). Dirk Gewert, our first swimmer, left the boat and swam to shore, then turned and waved at the boat. When the observer gave the signal he got into the water and started swimming. We were off.

An hour later Dirk’s place was taken by Val Greenwood, then, an hour later, it was my turn. I was followed by George Thornton, then Jacky Portingale, with Roger Allsopp as our sixth and final swimmer. Our team, ‘The Elders’ had a total age of over 433 years. We are waiting for confirmation that this is the oldest mixed 6 person relay team to swim the English Channel. You can ‘Google’ the names of the team members and be as impressed as me.

The rules require each swimmer to get into the water behind the previous swimmer then swim for an hour and only get out of the water after the next swimmer has entered the water. Swimmers have to continue in the same order, and if a swimmer doesn’t complete their section at the appropriate time in the right order then the swim is void. An official observer is present to ensure that no-one touches the boat at the wrong time or wears the wrong kind of swimsuit etc – the rules are strict about these things!

As a team we gelled quickly and were of one mind and determination. Everyone worked hard and offered their best; we were out to do a job and to do it in as good a style as possible. The result was that after 15 hours and nine minutes (unofficial time) our oldest swimmer, George, stepped the required three paces onto the sandy beach north-east of Wissant to complete the swim. We had done it and I couldn’t have felt more proud of my team-mates. Such commitment was a joy to witness, and I’m thankful to have been a part of it.

With everyone safely back on board we shared the Jaffa cakes, opened the ‘Celebrations’ chocolates and hung on for all we were worth as Anastasia powered back to Dover in just a couple of hours, arriving to cheers from the seven members of Team ‘Howl’, who again acted as our porters to get the kit back to the car. They then went out on their swim which they completed in just over 11hours.

That’s the bones of it.

I recorded several Facebook live videos, most of which vanished into the ether when my mobile roaming signal disappeared at random points in the Channel. The surviving videos are here:

https://www.facebook.com/563748568/videos/404931804674755/

https://www.facebook.com/563748568/videos/305444024681053/

https://www.facebook.com/563748568/videos/932830673976714/

The team before the swim started.

The team after the swim. Happy but maybe just a little tired.

I’m delighted, honoured and proud to have met these wonderful people and to have been part of this team and its achievement. This will live on in my memory for many years.

Random reflections

This next section reflects my own experience of the swim (I’ll let the others tell what they choose of their own story):

Weather – this is the make-or-break for so many attempts to cross the Channel. More so, sometimes, than swimming ability. We were very fortunate to be swimming in relatively flat seas and gentle currents for the first half of the swim. There was no rain and the night was clear and starry. In the early evening we could see the cross-channel ferries looking huge, with deck after deck of brightly lit windows. I wondered whether the passengers could see our lights. Did they think we were fishing boats?

Our swim track was relatively straight for the first few hours. As we passed the halfway point the wind and tide changed and we were warned that the conditions were going to get ‘lumpy’. They did. The wee small hours included some challenging swimming with variable wave directions, a slightly stronger current, and a boat that felt as if it was corkscrewing as well as bouncing. This is what the French call ‘La Barriere’. As dawn broke we could see France much closer; the colours became more dense; we could also see that the bay that we were aiming for had much calmer water. As I got in for my third swim, we had just broken through the strongest current (Edit: I’ve been informed that currants are in cakes and tides are in the sea. I will assume for now that currents are in rivers), the sun was up and I no longer needed lights. The choppy stuff started to settle and I was able to make progress in ever-smoother water.

Traffic – the Channel is very busy. Ferries travel between the two shores in straight lines because they power through the current. Swimmers, pulled by the same currents, do the same journey in curved lines. Our tracks sometimes overlap. There are also two shipping lanes; one goes southwest to northeast, then there is a clear separation zone, then the next lane goes northeast to southwest. The coastguards monitor all the shipping and it was reassuring to overhear, “… boat has a swimmer alongside. Please give it a wide berth” over the radio. I also heard the requests from British coastguards to look out for migrant vessels. When we returned to Dover there was a collection of confiscated inflatables in the harbour and I wondered again how desperate someone must be to risk their life in such flimsy craft, especially when the waves start to develop.

Sleep – this was probably the hardest element to manage. Those that know me well will attest that I don’t cope well with sleep deprivation, and that sleep is my go-to-cure for everything. This meant that swimming overnight increased the challenge exponentially for me. I managed to doze for 40 minutes after one swim and then an hour after another swim, which was just enough to power me through the third swim. Most of the homeward journey was spent snoozing in a corner of the top deck being occasionally sprayed with water. Thank goodness for my dryrobe.

Swimming – my first swim felt like a game of ‘chase the boat’ as the sun set. For an hour I swam from the back of the boat to the front, only to watch it pass me again, and seeming each time, to turn slightly right. I presume this was the effect of the current pulling me off a straight line and having to correct each time. The swimmer follows the boat, not the other way round. Staying close to the boat reduces the stress (British understatement 😉 ) for the observer, and the ever watchful teammates.

I found it strange to be swimming without any indications of distance or time and resorted to counting strokes to give me an idea of progress. The five (minutes to go) sign is unreasonably welcome (have they forgotten I’m out here?), and if you have the presence of mind, gives time to ‘wee in the sea’ before the boat stops to change swimmers.

The water was warmer than I expected at around 18 degrees, and the air temperature stayed high as well, which was amazing for mid-September.

Breathing – My normal ‘long distance’ swim rate in fresh water is long-glide five stroke bilateral breathing. This was harder than ‘normal’. My stroke rate was faster than I’ve ever managed before for any distance and each swim was rather like a tempo run – uncomfortably fast but not quite fast enough to break anything. I felt breathless for quite a while at the end of each swim (thanks, Covid). One swim was four stroke breathing to the right, the next was three stroke bilateral breathing. The final swim was a mish mash of anything to find the gap between the waves and avoid swallowing water. It was scrappy because I knew it would be my last swim, so I decided to use whatever energy was left to make as much progress was left in me. When I tried to climb out of the water I was so drained that it was difficult to even get onto the ladder. The final video shows me still a little out of breath 15 minutes after I’d finished. Every other team member had put in similar effort.

Night swimming – during my first swim the sun set; my second swim was totally in the dark. The ferries had all but vanished and, apart from the distant lights of container ships, it was very, very dark. Did I mention it was dark? I had practiced swimming at night once during training, in a ‘washing machine’ swim where the surf was tumbling us around and ‘spotting’ the direction of travel required concentration. That experience meant I didn’t find the second swim as challenging as I’d expected. The boat has floodlights on each side to illuminate the swimmers. Each swimmer wears lights on the back of the costume and their swim hat so they can be seen in the water. I found it helpful to follow the red ‘port’ light and swim towards the front of the boat where I could see the pilot and observer through the window (and knew they could see me), and wasn’t dazzled by the glare of the floodlight. By swimming close to the boat I could also see the flashing light from my hat reflecting in the paint of the hull which I found quite reassuring.

We watched each other swim, and there were occasions during the night that mackerel came to the surface, attracted by the boat lights. They jumped in small groups alongside the swimmer, unexpectedly flashing silver in the darkness. We also saw a small number of jellyfish float past without touching the swimmers. At one point in the water I felt ‘something’ on my leg and waited to feel the sting, but there was none so I chose to interpret it as seaweed. It doesn’t pay to think too much!

Submarines, sharks and sea monsters were noticeable by their absence.

Practical thoughts

Food – I took far too much. I had imagined I would need food for 24 hours (three meals, plus I’d need to replenish around 500 calories per hour of swimming.) I didn’t reckon on the nausea that would accompany the entire trip and meant that even the thought of eating was best avoided. Stugeron helped but I didn’t want to take the full dose in case I fell asleep while swimming (yes, I have done that before – I woke up when I hit a water-ski jump). In the event I forced myself to eat one sandwich, a couple of ginger biscuits and a Jaffa Cake and drank hot blackcurrant and coffee. I also managed to make up some of the missing carbs and calories by drinking Yazoo (sweetened flavoured milk.) I wasn’t the only one to feel queasy but we had an unspoken agreement not to mention sea-sickness. Tip: Make sure you have plenty to drink and if you are going to vomit, do it while you’re in the water.

Swim grease – I remembered to apply it for the first swim, decided I was still greasy enough for the second swim, then forgot for the last swim. I now have two lines of chafed skin where the straps of my swimsuit and the salt acted as abrasive. A lesson for next time.

Ear plugs – I’d experimented with mouldable wax earplugs during my Coniston swim and they worked really well so I repeated this and didn’t end up with the headache that accompanies the plastic plugs. The only issue was that I couldn’t hear a thing except the electric motor of the rudder as the sound conducted through the water. I spent the first swim thinking it was the sound of Nellie’s motor and wondered who it was that was so very ill.

Sea beard – the final video shows a very dirty face. I’m told (and prefer to believe) that this is mainly algae and silt. If it isn’t then I don’t wish to know thank you.

… and now… I’m waiting for the telephone call for my next swim; the planned for and long-awaited COSMIC Rays charity swim, which is what started all of this.

My justgiving page is here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/helen-gardner19

(Fun-scale 1 out of the water, 2 in the water 🙂 )

The unexpected opportunity

Friday 10th September 2021

Today I’ve sent my passport details to two groups.

The second group is the Cosmic Rays Channel Relay team. I am raising money for the wonderful COSMIC charity by swimming in a relay from England to France, hopefully on the 19th to 26th September tide. I’ve already paid the costs of the trip so all of your contribution goes to the charity. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/helen-gardner19 This has been planned for several months and most of my training this year has been aimed at being able to swim in cold sea water in September and dodge the sea traffic. So far I’ve avoided being stung by jellyish but apparently there are a few around now.

The first group though is the unexpected opportunity.

I’ve been hanging around various swim groups and getting to know some of the characters, and allowing myself to dream more adventurous dreams. So when I was tagged on a post asking if any older swimmers wanted to join a team at shortish notice, I replied immediately and was accepted.

According to the Guinness World Records site, “The oldest six-person relay team to swim the English Channel are The Septuagenarians, a team of British swimmers, – Michael Read, David Cumming, Robert Lloyd-Evans, Graham Ling, Tony Cherrington and Tony Espin, whose combined average age was 74 years 14 days when they successfully completed a swim of the English Channel from England to France in 11 hours 56 minutes on 7 September 2015. The record was set under the auspices of the Channel Swimming Association.”

The team I had joined was originally called ‘The Octogenarians’ but for various reasons some of the members had to drop out, and by the time I was accepted we still had an average age in excess of the world record, and were now called ‘The Elders’. Sadly Covid regulations have prevented one of the older team members from travelling, so we are now a mixed team of slightly-too-young-to-beat-the-existing-record Elders. But we’re going anyway, and our tide window opens on Tuesday next week, 14th September.

The rest of the team tell me that their bags are packed and we’re just waiting for a phone call from the boat pilot to tell us that the weather is suitable.

I feel quite excited in a ‘hurry up and wait’ way.

P.S It only occured to me last night that the team that holds the record is all male. Our team is mixed men and women, so maybe that should be a different record? And then I and the other older women could go for an ‘oldest female relay team’ record after that? What do you think?

Coniston Chillswim 5.25miles

Tuesday 7th September 2021

Last Saturday 4th September 2021 I walked into the southern end of Coniston Water in the Lake District and started swimming. The temperature was warmer than last year, at around 17.5 degrees, and I was swimming without a wetsuit. Colloquially known as ‘skins’.

An official photograph is here https://www.facebook.com/Chillswim/photos/a.4112458692209362/4112442828877615

A little over four hours later I had left the lake at Monk Coniston, some 5.25 miles further north, and stood shivering on the shore, waiting to cross the finish line. The bottleneck for the finish meant I got very cold and spent some time in the medical tent warming up, but was eventually fine. Sadly there is no official finish photograph.

There is, however, an official film that includes drone shots of the lake. It gives an idea of the grandeur of the scenery. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuJa5fCDAms It also happens to include two of my swimming buddies waving their arms in the air before the start.

An endurance swim is like an endurance run or walk; there are ups and downs throughout. There are moments of joy – the view from the middle of the lake is spectacular, and the sense of achievement at finishing is satisfying. There are moments of struggle – it’s a long way and not easy.

The last few months have been spent training for this long-distance freshwater event, while at the same time training for two Channel relay swims, which are a series of 1 hour sea swims. For Coniston I needed to be able to ‘sight’ forwards; for the Channel I need to be able to follow a boat on my right. Swimming technique for a choppy sea is different to that for a mostly-flat lake.

So, Coniston completed, and some discussion about swimming Ullswater in 2022 – no decision made yet.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back in the pool tomorrow. The tide window for my first Channel Relay (The Elders) swim opens on 14th September – just one week away. More on that in my next post.

Finish position 682 of 757 finishers
Chip time (inaccurate due to the long shivering time queuing for the finish) 4:20:04.38
9/10 finishers in (F) 65-70, 3/3 in skins
Pace 3.04min/100m 49.32/mile

Turning dreams into reality

Monday 8th August 2021

This morning I found myself reflecting on different attitudes to risk and opportunity, and realised I haven’t updated this blog since March.

Since then I’ve run two 5k races at a pace that demonstrates running is not my forte, and completed a sprint distance triathlon. This week I’ll be taking my dog, Jet, to his last agility show at the Kennel Club International Agility Show. After that he will retire from agility to spend a lazy old age. Unlike me.

Swimming has been regular and consistent. My shoulders have carried a consistent ‘being used but not abused’ ache for months as I’ve gradually increased levels of training in readiness for swimming the length of Coniston Water, which is still planned to go ahead on 5th September. I’m hoping to complete the 5.25miles, without a wetsuit, in around four hours.

Just over two weeks after that is the tide window for my cross-Channel relay swim for COSMIC (Children of St Mary’s Intensive Care). I’ll be swimming in a team of six people. Each person swims for an hour before the next person takes over and everyone has to stay in the same order and complete their swim in turn. This means the team is genuinely as strong as the weakest swimmer. Most team members will swim two or three times and sometimes more depending on conditions.

A bit of info: The quickest route between England and France is around 21 miles from Dover to Cap Griz-Nez, but most swimmers are affected by wind/tide/weather conditions and swim for around 35 miles or more. The hardest part of the swim is described by a French colleague as “« la Barrière », cimetery swimmers”. It’s the strong tidal current, just off the coast of France, which swimmers have to break through to reach land, all while being swept sideways parallel to the shore. So, having swum for many hours, the greatest effort is needed just before the end.

I’ll post the details of the boat and time when I know it (probably within 24 hours of the swim.) Anyone who wants to track a particular boat can do so here: http://cspf.co.uk/tracking The position of all the boats can be seen on the main page, but you can also select a particular boat and watch the track for that. But be warned, it can be addictive 🙂

Inevitably most Channel swimmers are younger, fitter, and more experienced than me but I’m not the oldest person due to swim a relay this year. There is one team, due to swim in the week before me, that will have an average age higher than mine. I also hope to post more information about that team in due course.

This morning I’m struck that, regardless of age, some people will see opportunites as something to be welcomed and embraced, whereas others will simply see the risks and difficulties, and prefer to stay at home.

Daring to dream

Friday 26th March 2021

Covid restrictions had already put my Spring 2021 project on hold. Limited travel meant staying local so the project was postponed – maybe in 2022? And then another idea started to bubble up, and a chance encounter led to a conversation and an email enquiry, and well, this is what happens when you follow your dreams.

It felt so close. My swimming was in a good place, with regular outdoor visists to Woburn Lido – a beautiful place. So close… and then. My last official swim was at Woburn Lido on the afternoon of 5th January. The latest lockdown took effect a few hours later. It looked as Covid would continue to put all our dreams on hold.

Flooding in Bedfordshire meant that river swimming was out of the question – the flow, the mud, the effluent, the danger. Events 1, Helegant 0. For Spring 2021. But hope springs eternal (see what I did there?) and dreams die hard so with a bit of imagination, a bucket of optimism and a bit of tweaking I realised that the bubbling-up alternative might still be possible. And even, maybe, sooner than 2022.

And now? The dream feels so close again. Outdoor swimming restarts on Monday 29th March, and I’ve booked swimming slots from now until mid June at Woburn Lido and at Box End Lakes. And the bubbling-up plan?

I’m delighted to announce that I have secured a place to swim in the English Channel* as part of a relay team going from Dover to France in September. Boat 4 to be precise. So much is still unknown and tentative, but I’m going to train ‘as if’ it will go ahead. Because that’s the way to make stuff happen.

My fundraising this time is for a wonderful charity called COSMIC. COSMIC supports children’s and neonatal intensive care units at St Mary’s and Queen Charlotte’s Hospitals London, helping frontline intensive care staff deliver vital critical care, and supporting families with children on the units. It also supports research initiatives to improve intensive care.

No pressure, but if you would like to donate, this is the link https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/helen-gardner19

I’ll post occasional updates on training and preparation here. I need to join the CS&PF (Channel Swimmers and Pilots Federation), pass a medical, pass the swim test, do the training and then hope for good weather.

Those who have follwed this blog from the beginning will know that I had a long-held ambition to swim the English Channel. Jellyfish, oil slicks, tankers, bad weather, cold water, salt mouth, sea sickness, chafing – what could be more appealing?

Dreams don’t disappear just because our bodies get older. And while it may not now be possible to reach the standard required to achive a solo swim there are still opportunites to be claimed. By doing the challenge as a team I can have the experience, and raise some money for a good cause at the same time. Wish me luck.

That was fun

Monday 7th September 2020

Coniston Chillswim was on Saturday 5th September. I’d been looking forward to this swim and preparing for it since last year.

The day was breezy and overcast, and we were rained on, heavily, during the swim, several times. I’d been expecting the water temperature to be around 16 degrees, but local rumour said 15.3.

Basically it was cold, and I was swimming skins (no wetsuit).

The knowledge that I’d trained enough to complete three miles was tempered by awareness that this would be my lowest temperature swim since March and I was uncertain what impact the cold might have. It meant that when I walked off the road and into the water at the start it was with some anxiety about my decision to abandon the wetsuit. I needn’t have worried. Last winter’s acclimatisation was still in my body. Nine out of the forty-six women swimming the three mile (shorter) option were swimming skins and I was seventh finisher in that group (thirty-fourth overall). Which doesn’t really mean much except that it’s always a bonus not to be last.

Cold water and a dreek day set the scene, and the swim was very hard work, but I enjoyed it. It wasn’t long before the water and my arms felt the same temperature, although my feet felt cold all the way through – (maybe I should use them more while swimming!) The prevailing wind was from over my left shoulder which added a chill factor. The water surface was showing around Force 3-4 with frequent areas of additional bounce from the steamer ferry and various motor-powered boats creating waves and chop.

‘Waves and chop’ meant occasional face and mouthfuls of water instead of air. It was good experience for ‘something’ in the future, but not so pleasant at the time. Some of the motorised craft appeared to be running on two-stroke, if the fumes floating at water level were anything to go by. None of that made a huge difference though and most of the time the water and air were clear and clean.

The route instructions boiled down to ‘get into the water and swim north about 50 metres from the edge of the lake for three miles, missing the island, then get out and go over the finish mat smiling because there will be a photographer present’. So I did. I found it easy to spot the support kayakers and hundreds of other swimmers in multi-coloured hats, and mostly orange tow floats.

Unlike running events there was a noticable silence. Given that I was wearing earplugs and a swimhat that may not be surprising, but with no spectators, no cars, no footsteps, no sound of breathing, there were just silent arms in and out of the water, some splashier than others, and a sea of towfloats to follow.

I soon lost track of time and distance, and going in a straight line in an unfamiliar place with no landmarks was quite disorientating. The blood that would have served my brain had obviously been directed away from thinking, because I was wearing a watch and all I needed to do was look at it to get information! However, there were guide buoys with numbers on them, which led to a confusing experience when I approached one expecting to see a number five, only to see a number four. I had a mile further to swim than I’d expected. A mental ‘ho-hum’, and I carried on.

We had tyvek wrist bands with our swimmer number on them and at one point mine came off. I managed to retrieve it from the water and was busy treading water, pulling at the neck of my rash vest as I tried to stuff the number down the front of my swimsuit, when another swimmer stopped and asked if I was OK. I assured him I was fine, just readjusting my clothing, and he asked again. Eventually he was convinced that I didn’t need help, and we both swam on. Later it was explained to me that when someone gets hypothermia they feel hot and start taking their clothes off. The other swimmer must have known this and I thank him remotely for his concern.

Consiton, like Windermere is beautifully clean and clear and some of the swim was in very shallow water. I enjoyed watching the stones beneath me appearing to move backwards as I swam – sometimes the underwater view was the only clue that I was moving – it was always calm regardless of the surface. The Lake District is a spectacularly beautiful part of the country, and the views looking around from the water (when I could see because my goggles fogged up quite early) were wonderful.

The event provided fuel stops in the water, and although I can’t imagine being able to eat jelly babies, swim and breathe all at the same time I had decided I’d try to get one drink because I’m always very thirsty at the end of a swim. I stopped at the last boat and after quite a long wait, was handed a paper cup of watery sports drink. There is no way of knowing whether it had any positive effect, but at least I can now say I’ve tried refuelling in the water and it didn’t have any ill effects. Knowing I was only half a mile or so from the finish also made it feel like a bit of a treat.

At the finish the water was very shallow and we had to swim for as far as possible ‘like a whale beaching itself’ before standing up. I did as instructed and the photographs of me standing up are too like the instructions to be posted here. The joy of hot blackcurrant drink just after the finish was out of proportion to the sense of achievement at finishing – I now have an alternative to black coffee for my post-swim warm-up.

Overall I was pleased with my efforts. I’d managed a relatively steady pace and, when I got tired, focused on technique in the hope it would stop me getting too scrappy. My time was roughly two minutes a mile faster than usual so, once again, the adrenaline effect of an event kicked in. No wonder my shoulders ached afterwards!

Unlike last week’s training swim I didn’t experience any afterdrop and speedy refuelling with hot food meant that a lot of the usual tiredness was also missing. It was an enjoyable event and I’ll be looking closely at further adventures in the wet stuff. My aim over winter now is to keep the cold acclimatisation, and to speed up a bit (a lot actually). Wish me luck :-)

Position: 50 (out of 67 people starting the 3 mile swim)
Number: 517
Elapsed time: 2:21:24
Age Group: 60-64 (4th out of 4 women in my age group)
Start time: 11:48:50
Pace: 2:55 min/100m, 47:08 min/mile
Westuit or skins: Skins (7th out of 9 skins in the 3 miles)

Getting Colder

Sunday 30th August 2020

Today was my last full training session for next week’s adventure. The temperature has dropped a lot and today, although the lifeguard said the thermometer measured 15.6 degrees below his chair in the sheltered shallows, it felt colder in the deeper water. I’ve never had ice-cream-face in temperature that warm before(!) and watching my arms turn red and then white suggested it was a tad cooler than advertised.

After two and a quarter hours in skins (not the same as skinny dipping dear reader, it means ‘no wetsuit’) I’d completed my goal for the session, and was aware of the impact of my first cold-water swim since March. The wind blowing across the top end of the lake made the water very choppy and bouncy so all-in-all it was exactly what I needed to experience before entering the water of Lake Coniston next week.

Covid-19 has played it’s part this year, not just the lack of training because swimming pools were closed, but also three weeks with the illness and then even more weeks to recover fitness, so I took the option to drop down from the full 5.25 miles to the shorter 3 mile option when it was offered. Today that decision feels absolutely right, and I’m now looking forward confidently to whatever* the Lake District has to throw at me.

See you on the other side.

 

*Call me a wimp if you like but I draw the line at thunderstorms.

Getting wetter

Monday 13th July 2020

Last night I watched the tracker from a boat crossing the channel. It was accompanying a swimmer, Sarah Poll, who walked into the sea at Dover in the early hours of the morning and after swimming for a mere 16 hours, stepped onto a beach in France.  Well done Sarah.

Watching the tracker was an emotional experience, not just because Sarah swims locally to me so I felt a connection with her efforts, but because it touched my long-held dream of swimming the English Channel. I suspect I’ve left it too late to achieve that goal as a solo swimmer.  In practical terms I’m not fast enough and age is now against me.

Anyway, despite that little blip I’ve been enjoying doing what I can do; getting back into the water for some proper outdoor swimming after a lockdown experience that included a bout of Covid-19. The joys of working in the NHS are tempered by the risks, and the virus left me with has a ‘long tail’ of weakness that I’m working to overcome. My swimming  strength is taking a while to return but I’m on the way.

Lockdown and illness created a hiatus in my training for this event https://chillswim.com/chillswim-coniston-5-25-miles-end-to-end/ and I’m unsure whether I can get back up to full strength in time to swim 5.25 miles in cool water or whether it is best to postpone for a year.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, wish me luck.

Bantham Swoosh – Sat 6th July 2019

12th September 2019

6km, open water. Current assisted.

Amazingly, I didn’t even blog much here about this at the time, yet it was a most enjoyable event, in the most excellent company of some local fellow open-water swimmers.  My entry had been confirmed very late, and other activities meant that I only managed 12 miles of training, fortunately most of it in open water.

This is an edited version of a blog I wrote elsewhere – no extra photos I didn’t even wear a watch.

This year Mr, Jet and I took our tent ‘big blue’ and joined the other Fetchies camping in a field at Bantham in Devon. Unusually we took too much kit and had to lug it from the car park. I’ll know better if I do the event again.

864-ish swimmers today, and enough safety people on paddle-boards and surfboards to check that every one of us was safe and headed in the right direction. Superb organisation.

We had agreed not to try to keep together in the water as we swim at different speeds, and one yellow hat among hundreds looks much like another! We stood together for the inaudible safety briefing then wished each other a good swim, with many fishy puns from K, which helped to settle the nerves, and prepared to set off.

I watched K, E and N join the middle wave of starters. They said S had moved to the rear of the pack but I couldn’t find her. As a newbie I chose to start at the back.

There was one woman who had determined to be the last one into the water, so she and I, both in our wetsuits, stood on the jetty with four men ‘skins’ swimmers behind us. I think they might have been the equivalent of tailwalkers. The official photographer clicked with phone and SLR and then it was time to go.

I’d chosen to go barefoot rather than add another layer to the unnecessary (but mandatory) insulation provided by my wetsuit, which was a good decision. It was a very hot day, the water must have been in the high teens, and I’d been worried about getting overheated on the swim. The water was around 15 degrees, and I  was just OK, although on a couple of occasions I pulled the neck of the suit to get more water through it to cool down.

The tide was retreating fast so I had the benefit of the river current and the tide from quite early on. The water was very shallow and for much of the early part of the course it was possible to stand up, even for me! Lots of swimmers took advantage of this, as did I when my hat and goggles started to peel off and needed adjustment. It was in the muddy bit though and the squelch between my toes wasn’t something to savour or prolong. Who knows what lives in there! Weaver fish?

Starting at the back meant I passed quite a few slower swimmers and found myself targeting individuals to ‘pick off’ throughout the race. It was a deliberate tactic, and the right decision, because I wanted to start slowly and not race away then feel exhausted, and it boosted my confidence to be overtaking people.

The first tributary is muddy, murky and slightly salty, but we then joined the main part of the river, and I found myself swimming (breaststroke) through a lot of surface debris, mostly foliage and weed. It soon cleared and became much more interesting and comfortable. Back to front crawl.

We switched sides of the river a few times, swimming over sandbanks from one channel to another to stay with the faster current. As the water cleared I was able to see fish swimming across my path, crabs running along the sandy river bed, muscles/oysters(?) on some rocks and even a jellyfish float past underneath me – there are advantages to wearing a wetsuit! I even spotted the ‘oldest water skiing club’ sign and the samphire beds.

Much of the river bank was heavily wooded and I found it impossible to know how long I had been swimming, or how far I’d travelled, but I did notice that the scenery was passing faster than usual, thanks to help from the retreating tide. The occasional seaweed plants were trailing in the direction of the exiting water and whenever I looked up I could see the yellow hats ahead of me and the safety crew on each side so spotting was very easy and I never struggled to identify the route.

The water speeded up until I could see grains of sand being bowled along the bottom; I saw Bantham village, then the boats, and suddenly the swim was coming to a close. The pink boathouse, the swoosh and then there were marshalls standing on paddleboards directing us to the beach. Just like that it was over.

At this point I discovered that I couldn’t stand up for dizziness and spent some time on hands and knees in the water with a marshall holding my arm and telling me to take it slowly. When I said I was OK and tried to stand up he still held my arm and said he wouldn’t let go until I proved I could walk in a straight line. It was an effort!

I’d just convinced him that I could find the finish mat on my own when the shouts of the support group got through to me and I saw my fellow Fetchies and Mr waving to me, with Jet straining on his new lead to reach me. Pose for photo, stagger over the mat and then rejoin the group to wait for S who arrived a couple of minutes later. She had the biggest grin. :-)

… I’m home, sunburned, salty and tired. But fellow Fetchies, ‘I Swooshed’ :-)

Results:
Bib #90 , Female
Chip time 01:41:06
Finished 10.0 KM <— I think this is a mistake as my understanding is that the course is 6k-ish
Speed 5.93 km/h <— based on 10k?
Pace 10:07 min/km <— seriously current assisted!
Wetsuit Full length wetsuit
Position 525 of 747
277 of 444 women
5 out of 8 F61+

That’ll do.