OW Swims the Channel
That’s the only word I can use to describe how it feels to be hanging off the back of a boat in the middle of the English channel in the middle of the night waiting for the shout to jump in to the pitch black, freezing cold water.
The shout came and I jumped, immediately submerged and thrashing frenziedly to the surface. My goggles were smeary so I could only just about make out the bright headlamp pointing to starboard which was to be my guide for the next hour. I’d done plenty of training, but that was all during the day.
Laps and laps of Dover harbour, waving at the ferries, with the reassuring sight of other bright swim caps all around. The five of us team mates swimming as a pod, stopping every kilometre to check how everyone was feeling, joking about the waves and the cold and how much cake we would eat when we got out. This was totally different; I was very aware that I was all alone, unable to see or hear the rest of the team on the boat. Vincit qui patitur indeed.
In the town of Dover you get to meet lots of channel swimmers and trainers, and the consensus is pretty clear that mental strength is what will get you across the 22 miles. There is a special atmosphere around the channel swimming community drawn towards this oddity of a challenge. Peculiar nicknames, alarming swimwear, camaraderie and cake.
I had been interested in swimming the channel for years, an idle daydream that wouldn’t go away. The more I scratched the itch with research, the more I got drawn into it until I found myself on the beach in April for our first training weekend about to walk into 12m C seawater. The team and I bonded over these training weekends in Dover, sharing jelly babies and mild hypothermia. You can see France from Dover, but it and the big swim seemed so far away.
Fast forward to mid July and the phone call comes in: it’s tonight! We made our way down to Dover harbour and puttered round the corner in our boat The Optimist. Denise started us off from Samphire Hoe at around 22:50, with an hour of powerful front crawl. The sea was calm and the skies were clear with a big bright moon giving our special evening a magical feeling. Next up was Bex who again is an incredibly strong swimmer. All the while as it got closer to my stint, I became more tight lipped and anxious.
When it came to my turn all thoughts of singing songs in my head to pass the time vanished as I just tried to keep the right distance from the boat, not so near it would crush me, not so far that I would get lost! Eventually I was able to settle into a rhythm and just push as hard as I could. The shout to come out brought on the next challenge: how to climb up a ladder with both hamstrings cramping. The relief I felt was huge and wrapped in a dry robe, hot chocolate in hand, I began to relax.
Jamie and Abi took their turns, then Denise and Bex again. Over those four hours I got to watch the sun rise over the channel, so flat the sea almost seemed solid. As the water became clearer, it became easier to spot the jellyfish, eerie creatures that bring pain. Although they often appeared in large clumps of hundreds, the captain wasn’t going to be steering around them, so it was head down and try not to think about it. The best head position when swimming is looking almost straight down so it isn’t until they are floating directly past your face that you are aware of each one, followed swiftly in my case by a jolt of adrenalin.
That dawn swim was pretty magical, yet even 8 hours in, the coast of France still looked like a very thin, very far off strip along the horizon. We were one of seven boats that went out from Dover that night and two had already turned back: the failure rate is pretty high.
I went to one of the cabins and crashed into an instant deep sleep, woken all too soon to be told I was up again. Because of my nap I had no idea how close we had suddenly got. Looking ahead and to the left I could see the lighthouse of the Cap Griz Nez, the closest point of France to Dover. This had been an incredible team effort but I can’t deny a bit of me wanted to be the one who got us to land.
I jumped in and swam for all I was worth. Every hundred strokes or so I would look up and the sight of the land so close by gave me more belief and strength to keep pushing. Suddenly the lighthouse was right ahead of me and I redoubled my efforts to torpedo on. When I next looked up the lighthouse appeared to have moved and was now to my right, which surely was cheating? Then I got the shout to get out, thwarted in my efforts to be the one who got to land first by the incredibly strong tides along this stretch of coast.
A few minutes after I got on the boat, we were deemed so close it was time for all of us to jump in and finish the job. The last few minutes were exhausting as the coast kicked up the waves, but the elation of hitting land and walking onto the beach was immense. We hugged and took photographs, hunting around for stones and shells to take back, then swam leisurely back to the boat where we toasted our success with Champagne.
Thinking back on this now I’m so grateful to everyone who sponsored me, and supported me through, but also for the health and opportunity to take on such a challenge. I did this to raise money for Aspire who support sufferers of spinal injuries. With the help of hundreds of people, (including OW Peter Rae who did the whole thing in 1985 – huge respect), I smashed my fundraising target of £3,000 and got to £4,219: money that will really change lives.
13 hours and 8 minutes! Really chuffed.
Oliver Little (1988-96)