Dover Darlings Channel Relay – 8th August

Swim 1 - Helegant

Posted Friday 13th August 2022

This was an event that I’d kept fairly quiet about. My qualification swim from 2021 was still valid for 2022, and I only needed another medical and to renew my CSPF membership in order to be allowed on the boat. It sounds simple doesn’t it?

My thinking had been that I might want to train for solo Channel Swim, and this would be the test of that idea. The training commitment required for Ullswater convinced me that I would rather spend time on other hobbies than spend every weekend and holiday for the next two years dedicating my life to building salt-water endurance.

Having made that decision, the relay was on, but only for fun. And it was.

It was a daylight swim that started from Shakespeare Beach at 6.43am on 8th August on a calm sunny day, and a neap tide.

14 hours and 55 minutes later the siren sounded to end the swim.

My first swim was simple and delightful, slightly bouncy with an occasional face full of water, and the only swell was from the wash of other shipping. I was pleased with the progress that I had made on that swim, came out feeling that I’d put in a good effort but with enough reserves to have carried on for longer.

The weather started calm and sunny and gradually changed. By the time of the second tide change the wind had picked up to around Force 3 then worked up to Force 5 blowing across a 10 knot running tide. It was only a stationary lobster-pot that we passed at speed as the tide dragged the boat sideways that demonstrated the reality of 10 knots.

My second swim was in the lee of the boat for very good reasons. It started within sight of Cap Gris Nez and I knew it needed to be the ‘hour of power’ to break through the tide to turn to shore. I did my best and my aching shoulders and empty muscles afterwards bore witness to that. In my mind I was turning back towards Cap. When I got out of the water the land was as far away as when I got in. So frustrating!

Fortunately this is a team event and the others were able to finish the swim as the tide changed to slack as darkness fell, and then turned to run north. The swim was tough for everyone but the team succeeded.

It was hard work to break through the tide and we told the two international swimming gods in our team that the team were 5k (three miles) from shore, “That way” and asked if they could complete the swim in their 2 hours? The super-swimmer said to his sidekick, “you do 2k” and sidekick set off and maintained a stroke rate of 74 for a whole hour (just writing that made me feel tired). Then super-speedy got in and… wow… I didn’t count the stroke rate but the Brownlees would have been impressed. He swam like a dolphin. No splash, just speed. And most importantly, forwards towards land.

He made it, accompanied by the RIB. With 5 minutes to spare. We could only see the tiny green light on his hat flashing at the finish, and then we heard the siren. What a delightful noise.

The journey back was in even stronger winds and probably the roughest sea journey I’ve ever been on. Luckily I was not one of those with their head in a bucket.

Thank you to pilot Eddie Spelling and his crew on Anastasia, Tony the CSPF observer and the Dover Darlings team for making this possible.

Would I do it again? Yes, there is one more relay that I’d like to do, but that depends on other people. Don’t hold your breath just yet.

Bedford River Festival Swim Race – 23rd July

Posted Friday 13th August 2022

On the Friday night I found myself reading the publicity information for the Bedford River Festival and wondering what had happened to my application to join the River Great Ouse swim race from months previously. And I noticed that there, in the programme, was the swim race.

It took me a while to find out who was running it, and to to enter – the race was on the Saturday, and despite deciding not to any more events for a while and take a proper rest… etc, etc… I entered. The River Festival is only every two years and had already been delayed due to Covid, so who knew when the next opportunity might be offered.

The race was billed as one mile through the centre of Bedford, and when I finally fought my way through the crowds to the briefing point it was to discover that there were only eight entrants, that there were prizes for the first five, and that I was by far the shortest and oldest, and the only one not wearing a wetsuit.

The organisation was less than ideal but I’m used to swimming in the river and didn’t think I’d come to much harm as long as the boats were all stationary. They were.

The swim was from a temporary pontoon bridge up to the town bridge and back. My Garmin measured 1550 metres and my time was much faster than Ullswater” It was another 100% effort, again from a tired body, and I came sixth. I could see family members on the bank and enjoyed hearing their shouts of encouragement.

The lack of proper rest and recovery time had a fairly dramatic effect on my run training, and I found myself having to cut all sessions short over the following week; there comes a point where the body says ‘no’ and at 66 years old it has been saying it quite loudly in recent weeks.

OK, so my brain and common sense has finally caught up. This time I gave myself a proper rest because I had an event coming up that had been planned for the previous six months.

Doug Anderson 5k – 20th July

Posted Friday 13th August 2022

It hasn’t been my practice to post about run events in the past but I’ll mention this event in passing as it was only a few days after the Ullswater swim and I wasn’t recovered enough to attempt another 100% event.

However, this is the one 5k in each year that I would really miss. It is a key event organised by Bedford Harriers and I was already booked to help with the set-up and would be there anyway, so I might as well start and see what happened next.

In truth it was ‘too difficult’ to run – I had no feeling of strength at all – so I employed an old technique of run/walk, and finished in the pouring rain with a time that was within a few seconds of my two previous times, and an increased WAVA (World Association of Veteran Athletes) score – that’s the bit that matters. None of the figures are impressive but I was pleased to be able to finish.

Having decided that two 100% efforts in a week was too much for old bones I decided to take a proper break and rest the assorted over-use/age-related twinges.

That was the idea anyway…

Ullswater swim – 16th July 2022

Posted Friday 13th August 2022

Last year a small group of us entered and finished a long freshwater swim – we all successfully swam the 5.25 miles of Lake Coniston south to north. With the confidence of completion in our blood we entered the Ullswater swim for 2022. A distance of 7.5 miles.

My confidence that I could complete this was low but I entered and started training anyway, swam through the winter in cold water and skins (swimsuit only, no wetsuit), then started to increase distance as the water warmed up. At the same time I trained with Bedford Harriers swim groups in the pool to improve my stroke and, hopefully, speed and endurance.

This is landlocked Bedfordshire and it was hard to find local outdoor venues that would enable us to train for the distance. As a group we had to hire the local lake for an additional hour to add to the two-hour available hire slots. One Saturday I swam for the whole of the morning session – two hours, then slept in the car park until lunchtime and got back in for three hours in the afternoon.

I started to get niggles in my shoulders and neck which was helped by sports massage but not eliminated.

Roll on to July and the mass start. Lots of good-luck wishes and equipment faffage and finally we were off.

At the moment of getting into the water I still didn’t believe that I could complete this event. My mind would simply not accept that I could swim for 7.5 miles. And as I got into the water something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t place it, but the official video released afterwards show less than a second of me where I can see that my stroke was all wrong.

This is an edited version of a private blog that I wrote a couple of days later,

“So, Ullswater on Saturday.

Over 200 miles of swim training in the last year. (I think)
Longest swim day – 5 hours
Physical condition at start – tired.
Confidence level at start – low.

If endurance swimming is 80% mental and 20% physical then I know what needs the most work!

The swimming was much harder than at Coniston – I think the many inlets streams pouring in bring their own currents.

The water was alternating warm and cold/very cold and there was a drift against us that I noticed at feed stations. My towfloat filled with water and it was like towing a brick, but I didn’t notice that until I got out and poured out the water, my mobile phone and a soggy car key wallet.

The miles seemed (were!) very long and I let that mess with my head and every ache, pain and nausea was magnified to ridiculously whiney proportions.

I’d been squashing the many ‘reasons to quit’ with the mantra, ‘I’ve paid for this and trained for this and even if (reason, reason, reason to quit) I know that if I can get to mile 5 I will finish…” “You only need to find the one reason to continue…”

After 6 hours, some leg cramp that was treated by the safety kayakers (many thanks for your prompt assistance), I finally reached the 5* mile buoy. (6 hours for 5 miles!!!! What on earth was going wrong?) With 2.5 miles to swim and 1.5 hours to do it the reality had to be faced. I couldn’t finish within the cut-off time. It was an evacuation point so I (gladly) got out** and took the bus back to the start.

The thing about challenges is, sometimes the dragon wins. Well done to all who beat their own dragons yesterday – for many of you it took a lot of work to achieve that and I salute you.

*My Garmin was reading 8.7 miles at that point which seems like an exaggeration to me so I’m going to ignore that, but if that was genuinely only 5 miles of swimming I’d be quite surprised.

** Actually I was ‘rescued’ by a couple of men in a rather nifty plastic-shell boat with a drop ramp at the front. They gave me a lift back to the jetty and the other ‘evacs’, and the waiting ambulance. I don’t normal suffer from cold after swimming but I was wet and there was a breeze blowing which chilled me. The kind but misinformed paramedic wrapped me in a foil blanket – absolutely the wrong treatment for a wet skins swimmer shivering from conducted cold – but very well meant. As soon as I was able to swap the foil for a proper blanket and get dry I warmed up quickly.

I will almost certainly write more as I analyze what went right and wrong, but for this year it’s Dragon 1, Helegant 0. Rematch to be decided. I’ve gone from ‘not on your life’ to ‘maybe’ in a couple of days so… never say never…

Since writing that I’ve analysed the stats and it looks as if I was travelling at one mile per hour (significantly slower than normal) and that the five mile buoy was actually at six miles. A woman swimming at the same pace as me went on to finish the remaining distance in ninety minutes which would be one and a half miles in one and a half hours. (Seven and a half miles in seven and a half hours.) That means that I ‘could’ have finished within the cut-off time, but was working on incorrect facts, Whether I would have continued if I had known that is another matter, but it has now reset my mental picture of the Ullswater Chillswim to ‘possible’.

Possible doesn’t mean pleasurable or desirable so the jury is still out on the rematch.

I wasn’t the only person I know that didn’t finish, and those that did complete the course remarked that it was a much harder swim than Coniston. None of us can really say why.

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.