NealRayner.com English Channel Swim 2005
NEAL'S CHANNEL JOURNAL

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Well, Angie said to write down my memories from my swim, so here goes. She’s right that I should do this as I’m already forgetting.

Before I started was an adventure in itself. I’d only been in England for a day adjusting to the time change from the San Francisco Bay Area. I called Angela Oram during the intermission of The Producers in London to ask about my chances of going early. I’d almost forgotten to even bring my mobile and I wasn’t really expecting to be getting a time slot, so I was overwhelmed when she said, “Wednesday, 1:00 am, two other guys are here but they’re not ready to go, do you want the slot”. Taking a moment to find my voice again, I emphatically answered “Yes, Wednesday 1 AM!”

When I got off the phone I was so overwhelmed I rushed back inside the theater with tears in my eyes knowing that I had a shot at my dream and told Angie, “I’m going Wednesday, 1:00 AM”. It was starting!

Of course, it’s never that easy is it? First, I had to sleep and eat, get to Dover and well there seemed to be a million little bits of preparation to take care of before I would go. The anxiety was already consuming and yet, it could easily be days or weeks before I go despite the time slot.

The next day in London, I was to call Michael at noon and confirm that the weather was still good. I just was so nervous trying not to get excited I slept edgily. At 11:00 AM Angie suggested I call so we could get on our way to Dover, as it would take much of the day. Michael said, “The weather is good, but check in this evening and come on down if its good”. I said I was coming to Dover regardless and so we went on our way.

The night before was all nerves. I’d run into Suzie Dods in Dover, fresh off a plane from Turkey and she’d insisted I get to sleep early and I did at 6:00ish (PM), but I awoke about 15 minutes later. So I rested in bed and just relaxed until 11:30 that night when I was to get up. I managed only about another 40 minutes of sleep, thanks to Angie indulging me in some quickie lovemaking – she knew it would help.

We headed on our way at 12:15 am and I was terrified. The flag on the castle was blowing fairly hard, the trees were blowing about. The calm of the evening was gone and replaced by a steady breeze, but it was a gale in my mind. A gale that was going to cancel my swim I was sure.

When we reached the sleepy crew of the Sea Satin, Lance, Deano and Chris they were googly eyed and rough-hewn. I’d woken Lance, the lead pilot, with a phone call and he sounded like he ought to go back to sleep and he assured me he would. Was that good or worrisome, I didn’t know what to think.

The blessing was meeting Kevin Murphy, my observer. He was friendly and enthusiastic and let me know he’d done 32 crossings. There on the dock I was also greeted by two women, Kevin’s wife and a woman named Alison who wished me good luck. She also said, “Don’t stop swimming until you get to France.” I thought this was rather nice as it was nearly 1 AM. Only after our boat departed did Kevin tell me that was THE Alison Streeter, “The Queen of the Channel” who had done a world record 43 crossings including triple crossings – yes that’s three consecutive times across the English Channel in a row. I was very honored to say the least and felt like I was off to a great start.

The next few minutes may have been my worst the whole way. We moved out of port in near total darkness. Inside the boat it was very dark. I couldn’t understand what the goddamned instructions were that I was being given by the crew. They puffed smoke at me as they gave unclear instructions in an accent I struggled to understand.

Angie safety pinned a green light stick to the back of my Speedo, I pulled my new white Dolphin Club cap over my earplugs (as I wondered if they were legal). As I started to put on my Albolene to keep from chafing. Kevin sent me to the outside back deck and I applied it to my underarms and the front and back of my neck. I was all nerves and stood there with my greasy hands not knowing what to do. Kevin suggested I clean my hands on the towel. “Good idea” I said. “I wouldn’t want to swim the Channel with greasy hands”. What I didn’t do was clean my hands on my inner thighs like usual, something I would regret later.

SURREAL, I thought. Were the boat’s diesel fumes getting to me? We were at Shakespeare Beach already and all I could see of the shoreline was a very dark beach with a massive cliff hanging over it. We were away from the bright lights of Dover Harbor. Suddenly, one of the crew shone a massive light onto the beach about 100 meters away. I made sure to kiss Angie – she’s good luck! And said my see you soon’s in France to everyone.

I could barely feel myself and knew I was in some stage of shock. Did one’s nerves really hit this hard? I was ready wasn’t I? They said these were good conditions right? But they were seafaring lads raised on the seas, not swimmers. Were they leading me on?

I started down the ladder without opening the rope gate – a rookie maneuver. I felt embarrassed. Kevin stopped me and opened it and I was suddenly ready to step off the boat and into the biggest adventure of my life.

“Surreal”. This time I said it aloud as I stepped down the ladder. It was! I stepped down and away from my crew and the worries and the self-pressure seemed to float away with it. Onto the back platform, and then I leaped into the water. Chilly, but not cold.

I swam the yards to shore and onto the one-inch pebbles that shone in the spotlight. I stumbled ashore.

Baaarh! The boat horn sounded and I was to start with so little time to think about it. I stepped into the water, dolphined through a wave and swam up alongside the left of the boat.

We were off together now in a dance, me swimming in the boat’s light, the boat following my pace and waiting for me. I might slide from 2 yards to 12 yards from its side and up or back a few yards but we were always close.

I slowed and loosened up my stroke fearing adrenaline would take me out too fast. I knew I’d need everything at the end and preferred to warm-up slowly.

The chill of the water quickly dissipated, it was warmer than home.

The first half hour seemed pretty long. I was getting edgy waiting for my crew to signal me for my first feeding. Just as I was wondering if I couldn’t hear or see my signals, I heard shouts of “feeding time!”. I swam over to the boat carefully so as not to touch it. Angie swung the Nalgene bottle out to me on the string and then let it go. It nearly clocked me in the noggin. I drank which seemed a bit difficult in the wave action. I listened to them as they called out stroke counts and ??? but really struggled to hear it all. Swimming in the dark – what I hadn’t practiced – thank god I was starting with it.

I swam back into my solitude under the spotlight. I would work on my stroke, really focusing on my alternate breathing and over extending my hips and body such that my face pointed nearly vertically out of the water on both sides and my body powered my speed, not my arms.

The side benefit of this was that it allowed me a spectacular view of the dark sky. Dark except for stars between the clouds, Dover’s brightly lit harbor, massive ships lit like Christmas trees. The glow of the lights on the limestone cliffs I had just departed from was gorgeous. My eyes had adjusted to the dark and I was seeing detail all around in the 2 AM sky: clouds, shapes, waves.

The most spectacular thing was the sight under water. My hands were aglow with little dots of light. I thought they were flagellates like I’d seen in Puerto Rico. I wanted to call out to the boat and ask about them but I decided against that. Instead I just watched my glowing hands. The little lights would trail off my hands. After a few minutes I realized this was probably just the boats light catching the tiny bubbles at just the right angle to make them shine like glow worms in a dark cave. Watching them actually helped my stroke as I would stretch and reach patiently forward for an extended period.

The hour feeding caught me a bit by surprise. A huge floodlight suddenly blinded me. I guess I wasn’t hearing them yelling at me. Apparently I didn’t hear the air horn either. About all I found to say during the first few feedings was “It’s beautiful out here” because it just was.

As I got along past the first hour my usual “one hour down – nine to go” mindset was useless. I had no idea how long I’d be out here. Until France was all there was and I knew I’d make it today.

I swam further from the boat, which I enjoyed a bit so I wouldn’t worry about accidentally bumping it. Occasionally I would be out in front of the boat and could see lights off of the bow from an English town just starting to appear from the other side of a large point. Lights all around. The boats in the shipping channel seemed close, but were still well off. Was that France, Calais lighting the clouds in the distanced?

As I swam through my second hour the water got warmer. I felt better and better. The waves started picking up a bit and I was reminded that Kevin had told me the roughest spot would be 3 or 4 miles out where the currents hit each other. I would see waves peaking and cresting in the floodlight and occasionally bouncing off the boat.

At 2 hours Kevin and Eric said it was 66 degrees and I wasn’t surprised. “It’s like bath water out here,” I yelled back, while backstroking and enjoying my moments of contact. Angie had the feedings perfected already. I was still adjusting to the boat’s forward movement while I fed though. I kept the feedings short partially because it was hard to feed with a moving boat, partially because I couldn’t hear my crew well enough to have a good conversation and partially because I was already getting eager to reach France fast. I settled back into my rhythm.

Ziiiing! “Ow, fuck!” Jellyfish.

Two minutes into my 3rd hour I’d been hit and hit hard. The jelly struck the left front of my neck just as I was breathing to my right. It slid across my chest to my right nipple. Then my stroke motion pushed it back across my tummy down my left thigh and then with a powerful kick I smacked it with the top of my left foot. This kick was not my revenge for good measure. I was simply going fast enough that by the time I felt the sting, I was already past the jelly. I figured I was going 5-6 feet per second so even if I’d seen the jelly I probably couldn’t react quick enough. In the dark I was past before the pain registered into a cohesive thought.

A quick inventory of the path of the jelly across me revealed that it definitely stung all over. I could feel my movement causing the tentacles stuck to me to release their toxins. I reduced my motion a bit and eased up for a few minutes hoping unreleased toxins would float away with their tentacles. After 10 or 15 minutes in which I learned very painfully to not let my legs cross, the pain centers were reduced mainly to my neck, nipple and foot. Thank god I hadn’t swallowed the thing– that could end a swim.

I was now swimming scared wondering if the warm waters would bring out swarms of jellies and I would get blasted by multiple stings. Suppose I was allergic? Of the many things I brought, antihistamine was the one I had knowingly never secured. Oh well – swim.

After swimming a bit bowlegged for 1/2 an hour I came to my feeding. I still hurt a bunch and told my crew I’d been jellied. Kevin told Eric this was a jelly area.

Back into my stroke, my perfectly beautiful swim returned. The pain began to fade as if telling my crew had begun the healing. Soon just my nipple and foot hurt. Within the next hour my body would be back to normal except for when I kicked the top of my left foot with my right foot. OUCH! Each time was like getting stung all over again…and that lasted 6 more hours!

It happened a lot in hours 3 and 4. The waves got worse which surprised me. I was getting bounced around quite a bit, swallowing bits of water. It was like a typical day off the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, bouncy, except it lasted for hours. Because it was dark it was also disorienting. I had some trouble keeping going straight and was concentrating so hard on using my stroke to smooth out the swells that I would lose track of the boat. I would swallow water now and then but never much as I was doing my water polo stroke. The beautiful night lights were only visible when I breathed right on the wave crests. Otherwise I was in a dark world. When I caught glimpses of a new ship or a new view I would take a few strokes just to check it out. I envied the folks on the boat who could see easily from their high perch. Dover faded in the distance moving around the other side of me as much as it moved behind me.

Just after 3 hour feeding I seriously wrenched my right shoulder on a wave. Sometimes the swells were rhythmic but most of the time they were unpredictable which was rough on my well therapied shoulders. I might fall off a wave crest and feel a twinge. But now this was serious.

In all my long swims I had never had a shoulder pain like this – so sharp so painful and just brutal in the wavy wash of the channel. I spent the next half hour backing off and playing with my stroke. I called out for Advil at my next feeding. After a very painful few minutes in which I realized 10 more hours of this pain just wasn’t an option despite my telling myself “Pain is temporary, glory is forever”. (Angie had picked this off the walls of the White Horse Tavern). I did the smart thing and slowed my stroke, virtually eliminated the finish of my stroke with my right hand and also stopped reaching out as far with my right arm in front of me. I knew this slowed me down and that pissed me off, but I had but one goal today – swim to France no matter how long it took.

Angie got me my Cytomax and Eric handed me a Styrofoam cup with 2 Advil. It was sketchier taking the cup as our fingers were 2 or 3 inches apart – a touch is a quick disqualification aka total disaster. This seemed all too easy a mistake to make with swells rocking the boat and me around, but our hand off was smooth and I was off again feeling better.

It seemed to me that ships were now passing behind me and at first I thought I must already be in the separation zone in super quick time (the separation zone splits the two lanes of boat traffic. The north side had all the ships going west, the south has all the ships going east – 600 a day). It’s the world’s busiest ship freeway. I soon realized though that I was just in the middle of the westbound side of the freeway. After that, I was just enjoying being in the midst of these quiet giants that lit up the dark waters.

Not a minute too soon the sky began to lighten. As much as I enjoyed the beauty of the dark I was ready to see the world, my girlfriend, my crew, the boat, the waves, the shore of France – ok – that last one would be awhile coming.

Sunrise on the water is one of the most beautiful things I know. Sunrise for me on the English Channel was spiritual and mythical. To me there is nothing more beautiful that swimming during the night to earn a perfect sunrise.

The sky was a pink hue with scattered clouds. The water began to calm and wind was virtually non-existent. I could finally see Angie in her ski jacket and my Dolphin Club ski hat. Eric was bundled up in my thick long fuzzy jacket. Ok, so it’s cold out. Thank god it’s not windy. We all watched the sunrise. I saw Angie shooting photos and reminded her of the video on the digital camera. It was so beautiful I wanted to make sure they captured it. I could now see the ships: tankers, container ships, ferries and strange looking behemoths with multiple masts and shapes. I’d never realized such big ships came in so many shapes, colors and configurations.

Everyone was a bit giddy with the morning. The white cliffs of Dover sparkled behind us – a lot closer than I would have liked hadn’t I swam further than that already? Eric was calling out that he could see France – I definitely couldn’t.

Angie and Eric spent a while entertaining me by flashing me all sorts of things on the whiteboard. Angie asked if I’d have her baby, Eric drew pictures and wrote that he’d ordered me a beer in France. Angie wrote that I was a “badass motherfucker”. We were definitely having a good time and the time passed quickly.

I felt better – my shoulder pain had subsided, the jelly sting kept me almost laughing. I now for better or worse could see the jellies in the clear water and they made me jump outta my skin. In general however, I just stroked along having a great time in this awesome swim. I didn’t need Angie’s reminder that I need to remember to just enjoy it because I couldn’t do anything but enjoy.

In fact I felt so good I picked up my stroke technique a bit, kicked harder and thought I’ll make this a fast crossing too. 10 hours? 11 hours? Who knows I’m cranking now. I’ve never been going this fast in a long swim. I’ve never had my stroke this on, I’ve never had energy like this, I’ve never felt this good ever in any long swim, triathlon or anything.

I zipped along dreaming of my smokin’ quick crossing time. It’ll impress the hell out of people, but it’s simply hitting on all cylinders. Maybe the spring tides are faster too – maybe I’ll break 10 hours flying in on the tide!

I kept my feedings short. Angie had it down perfect. The bottle dropped perfectly out to me. I unscrewed the cap of it and the pre-opened powergel came loose. I downed it in one or two gulps washed it down with 8-10 oz of Cytomax and was gone back into my stroke like a pro going for a great time. Cristophe had set the world record doing 2-6 second feedings – so what the heck I’d try to keep mine under 15 seconds or so.

Eric and Angie yelled to me that they had just mentioned my name on the radio. I had passed the other 2 swimmers in the Channel today and one had started an hour ahead of me and the other was a relay. I was “kicking their asses”. This only reinforced my feeling that I was in fact cranking.

Eric kept yelling out “France” and pointing. Angie and Eric gave me encouragement. Angie’s mom called and said “Hi”. I could see Angie smiling and talking on the phone for a few minutes. This was way cool! I loved it – good vibes.

I saw plenty of Jellies and marveled at them. There was a redish orange one with thick tentacles that looked dangerous. Do they have Portuguese Man-O-War here? I wondered fearfully. I narrowly missed some small opaque ones that literally passed within 2 inches of me as I rotated though my stroke. Almost more scary were the little almost invisible ones where you wouldn’t see anything but a slight luminescence off their outermost edges. I had been stung by ones like this in the Carribean and it had hurt for days, so they scared me a little more. I was lucky though, even though I saw at least 30 and even managed to put my hand into the topside of a couple where the stinging tentacles don’t get you, I never was stung again. Occasionally, my crew would be pointing to something in the water and I’d often then see a jelly coming at me. I even sort of enjoyed the unique looking one that looked like two cereal bowls with the openings pushed together and a stream of tentacles hanging down below.

I figured I was well past halfway when during my 6 hours feeding Eric said, “When you pass that big buoy you’ll be halfway”. “What?” I thought, “really, ok, so maybe I’m not going all that fast but I’ll still be in in 11.5 or 12 hours.” It was rather disheartening. I had great energy though and picked up my pace again. However the goddamned buoy didn’t come towards me quickly. I realized first it was a huge buoy, second I was going sideways both in the direction I was swimming and on the current. Though I’d thought I was only 2-300 yards from the buoy it took me most of the half hour to pass it.

Halfway down though. The water kept getting smoother and I was a bit tired but I worked my strokes for distance and kept a strong pace. 10 1/2 miles to go.

France came into view. Yeeha! That felt great. I could actually recognize the coast and towns and see what I thought was Cap Blanc-Nez though it was still far off.

Lance said I’d be getting a 3 mph push sideways. I felt like I was swimming sideways when I wanted to be going towards shore. This annoyed me. The Sea Satin kept pointing right towards Spain when I wanted to go straight to France.

Two hours after my pre-halfway feeding, France loomed large on the horizon. I thought I could see Cap Gris Nez. I was now into smooth near glassy waters and feeling fast. I figured I was back on track for 11 hours so I asked “How far out am I”? 10 miles was the answer I got. I wanted to shoot someone. “You mean, I’ve only gone 1/2 a mile in two hours?” Whatever they replied was difficult to understand, but something about the currents blah, blah, blah.

While I dejectedly reset my mind on a 16 hour swim I began to wonder what fucking swim path my pilots had me on. Then I remembered these were just the things you deal with swimming the Channel. I realized Lance wanted me in as quickly as possible and…he was the expert not I. Maybe the current would push me towards the Cap and my time would still be quick. He knew what he was doing and has been across hundreds of times with swims and this was my first….enjoy right!

I knew I wasn’t yet ready for Eric to get in the water as I was still too fast for him. He didn’t look ready for the water anyway as he was still in my heavy jacket looking cold. I had previously suggested that he’d probably get in around seven hours to give me a support swim. However, I had discovered just a few days before in San Francisco that he was in terrible swimming shape despite having recently done a triathlon. Maybe when we got a little closer.

Soon a welcome diversion occurred. I was well into the easterly shipping channel and saw a huge container ship bearing down on where we’d be in a few minutes. Ok this was not the first time I’d thought this. Whether coming in from Alcatraz or swimming the channel, I’d learned that these gargantuans sped deceptively quickly while I moved relatively slowly. They typically passed far in front of me while I rode their wake.

As I kept swimming the tanker kept bearing down. I wondered how the Coast Guard was calling this one – they let all the ships know where the swimmers were in the Channel. The tanker got closer very quickly. I was about to talk to my boat when I realized they had stopped behind me. I quickly turned around and breaststroked back along its side. It was my only real break of the entire channel swim, maybe 30-45 seconds to chat with my peeps as the massive boat passed in front of us. I had a moment to look around and really see that I was in the middle of the English Channel. I enjoyed where I was, cool stuff, smiled, admired my crew. Then, just like that, I jumped back into my strokes, rode the swells and swam my way into the ship’s backwash. I had gotten there quickly enough to feel the water churning and was actually pushed around in the water that its propellers had just cut up, like bobbing about in a super strong Jacuzzi.

Along the way I’d noticed a few seagulls just floating near me as I swam past them. I figured they didn’t know what to think of a swimmer in the middle of the channel, something they’d probably never seen before. I swam within a few feet of one and it didn’t even budge, totally unafraid of me. Well the next time I came upon a seagull I decided to have some fun. Even though it wasn’t in my path, I angled left and chased it for a few quick strokes until it realized I was going to catch it and then it flew off. I could hear the laughter of my crew, this was fun.

At 9.5 hours I was starting to get pooped, I told Eric to join me at 10 and requested more Advil. The Cap, my intended finish was now visible though still distant. I knew the currents swirled around it. This was a perfect time for Eric to get in and help, not later when I might have to sprint and Eric could be a liability if he couldn’t keep up. Now, I’d be ready for Eric and knew he’d help me get my stroke together. I remembered how I’d felt during my 10 hour training swim and at this point I’d been way past pooped, I’d been totally exhausted, this would be fun.

The Advil exchange was sketchy as the boat lurched just as Angie handed the cup down to me. We both jumped back not to touch. Then on the second try we got it right. I got my power gel and Cytomax and signaled to Eric where to go. He jumped in with rabid enthusiasm, yelled something moronic about him being the one to beat or something that just pissed me off and took off swimming backstroke.

To explain, my brother has a way of being super competitive with me as well as being super supportive of me. Twelve years my senior, he enjoyed superiority over me in everything while I was a kid and taught me to enjoy sports. As I grew and became stronger and started beating his swim times, he closely guarded his sports that he excelled in, tennis, golf, table tennis. When I started getting better than him at certain sports, he would take up others that I didn’t have interest in or become an expert in what he still was superior at. I wondered to what lengths he would go, would he soon be doing Jai-Alai and Austrailian Rules Football? I was never really concerned with beating him, but I did enjoy watching him scramble to defend his turf. Over the past few years, he’d occasionally go overboard, bragging to people we didn’t know that he was going to “teach (me) to ski” even though I was a far superior skier or telling strangers that we’d both played college water polo when he’d actually played intermural and I’d been on a Division 1 powerhouse. My style was never braggado, but I also didn’t like feeling like my accomplishments had been diminished.

Swimming was my domain though. Even though he had been quite an excellent swimmer himself, he just wasn’t close to my level, especially now at nearly 50, after two heart attacks and on drugs that keep your heart going nice and relaxed.

Hence, I was a little testy hearing him yell something about me not being able to catch him, typical him, I would just have to shut him up! So, you could say I was a little shocked that I all of sudden realized that I wasn’t catching up to him. The painful part was that he was still swimming backstroke damnit! He turned over to swim freestyle and I wondered for a second if he’d already shot his wad bursting for the first minute in the water just like he’d done last week in SF, but goddamnit! he was now pulling away.

This was actually quite good. Trying to catch him I concentrated hard and found my stroke again and started to catch him. We were a little too close together and fearing disqualification for touching, I spread way out, maybe 40 yards from the boat with him inbetween. After a few minutes, I caught him and then just kept this nice faster pace for a while.

When I guessed that I had about 5 minutes left I decided to pick up the pace a notch. I simply didn’t want to go through the rest of my life hearing how my brother was faster than me when “we swam the English Channel”. The very thought had me miffed. I started pulling away. I would get about 10 yards up then let him catch a little. By the time the feeding came around I could easily pull away.

As I fed, Kevin asked if Eric was going to stay in for another 1/2 hour and I asked how he felt and he looked pretty pooped, that vacant look. However, he was in total support of me, he would probably kill himself to keep pacing me for another half hour if I wanted. Though he’d done well for half an hour, much better than in SF, he wasn’t going to last much longer and I saw that both of us knew that. I told him to get on the boat and there was a bit of relief in his face.

As I resumed swimming, I realized that in competing with my brother, my faster pace had left me a little exhausted and I decided to slow my pace and rebuild my energy. Just then, Angie started flashing me signs on the whiteboard.

From the view, I figured I was 2-3 miles out. Angie flashed “4 nautical miles”. “Shit”, I thought as I worked out that to be nearly 5 land miles. Ok, 2 1/2 hours to swim I thought.

Then Angie flashed “Can you get your stroke count to 60?” I shouted “Is that faster or slower?” All day long I’d been between 62 and 67 so I thought momentarily I was being told to slow down and save myself for the finish. But Noooo! I was being told to pick it up. She then flashed something ugly, “You might miss the Cap, go faster if you can”. I noticed the cheery enthusiasm on the boat had shifted to caution and concern.

I found that the threat of missing the Cap was a great motivator. I found a gear I’d never had past the fourth hour of any swim I’d ever done. I was working to perfection my alternate breathing and stroking powerfully for maximum distance. Ironically, my pains were suddenly disappearing allowing me to put even more into every stroke. My stroke count kept up around 70 plus for my next 1/2 hour and nearly the same for the 1/2 hour after that. I was on fire! I briefly figured I was cranking in, riding this crazy spring tide I knew so little about and I would in fact be on a French beach sipping a beer quite shortly.

I super sped my feedings cutting them to 8-10 seconds. My crew was now shouting like crazed fans when I’d gulp down my cytomax and hurl the bottle away after a few seconds. My formerly sleepy disinterested seeming pilots were now cheering enthusiastically pushing me to greater speeds. It was fantastic – for the first time in my life I experienced a true runner’s high. I felt no pain!

The Cap came into close relief and the glassy water started to get a bit choppy. A new jellyfish type about 5 inches across and very clear appeared a couple of times and was just another confirmation that we were getting close to France.

From the boat Angie fed me constant updates. “3 nautical miles” what the hell? I thought how am I still that far away? … “2.5 miles – Go Baby!” – jeez that half mile was awfully long! I knew I was now battling the infamous currents and I was game.

One hour, two hours more how long could I keep up this insane pace? I knew from reading and fighting currents in the SF bay that every few yards I won against the tide would make a much larger difference later on. Even though I started to fatigue I fought and fought, the pace, the technique. I knew I wasn’t bonking so I just went as hard as I could never backing off for a second. Worst comes to worst I figured I’d eventually get tired, slow down and end up grabbing that beer a few miles down the coast in Wissant or Sangatte. Nothing was keeping me from France today!

The boat was bringing me around the west side of the Cap. . I actually seemed to have passed its shores and its lighthouse and it seemed to me I was now swimming down the coast towards Spain. I struggled for every yard and followed my boat captain diligently trusting their knowledge. I worked my ass off swimming up this river of a current closing the actual distance to shore only .6 miles in one insane hour.

Suddenly I felt the water temperature go up and I knew I’d just broken through one current into another. More rapidly now I started really closing the gap to the Cap which thrilled me. Oh Fuck me!!! I realized I was also suddenly shooting in an eastward arc riding a current much faster than I around the Cap. My crew was shouting at me, feedings got shorter and I gave it everything I had. At 13 hours – longer than I expected to go, I was still .6 miles off shore. The fairly smooth water suddenly got very rough.

I practically lurched forward. I was in yet another messy current moving towards shore at…a normal pace, nothing was actually pushing me away from the shoreline anymore, back to my 2 miles an hour pace I thought with so little to go. I watched my boat rocking hard side to side and wondered if I’d see Angie or Eric getting sick and told myself not to worry about them.

It was all me now. Two hours before when I’d thought I was within 40 minutes of finishing, I’d almost told Angie “no more feedings” Even though I knew I was close I didn’t say anything and fed pouring Cytomax down the hatch in one 2 second gulp and trying not to lose any yards. It was clear anything could happen out here.

I put my head down to get extra speed, but noticed how quickly I was being swept around the Cap, its lighthouse going from being far to my left to being in front of me and then to my right. The sharp edged boulders of the shoreline were clear to me and I could see people on shore. I was within 400 yards! As the lighthouse went to my right, we kept pointing at it, All of a sudden when I looked we were 500 yards out, then 600. I was sweeping out and had missed the Cap. For every few yards East of the Cap, the shoreline angled away, but not too steeply.

I realized the current was faster than I and I didn’t want to fight a losing battle and just get further from shore while trying to get to the Cap. I’d rather swim directly across the current and end up having to swim the extra mile of length to Wissant. I was exasperated and shouted, “what’s going on?” Eric flashed a sign that “the eddy will take you in”. Yeah I thought but I’m in an outward current not an eddy. I knew the difference.

A boat full of what looked like swimmers came out from the shore and cheered me on. While I appreciated the enthusiasm I was sort of bummed when I figured out this was the relay and they’d somehow passed me back even though I’d never seen the boat til just now. But I saw how much they were yelling for me and what the hell I soaked in their smiles.

I kept stroking crazy fast like a man being attacked by bees and while the boat directed me more westerly, I hedged a bit and pointed myself a bit more easterly. I was past the Cap now and about three quarters of a mile from shore. I saw Eric getting ready to get in and about 10 things ran through my mind, starting with “not fucking now!” I didn’t want us to get separated and endanger my finish or my brothers’ life. Then I realized if he was getting in…things must be about to get better!

Sure enough just as he got in, the water calmed down and the currents were gone! We started moving toward shore about a half a mile east of a white colored restaurant I had scouted the previous summer. I relaxed a bunch and swam in enjoying every stroke lifting my head to check out the shore, the Cap, the big rocks and to look for a few feet of beach where I could step onto a beach rather than boulder my way onto France. Eric cruised near me and the only concern was not touching Eric.

What in god’s name is the boat doing now? The boat instead of pointing me straight to shore was angling about 20 degrees east. Did they want to make me enjoy my swim for a little while longer? Scared of touching Eric, I was being forced east and this really pissed me off. How long were we going to extend this swim for?

Eric backed behind me so as not to interfere and I turned straight towards shore finally able to go my own way. Insult to injury! The boat sped up, pulled in front of me and then turned sideways essentially blocking my way into shore. Fuck them!!! I thought. Rebelling, I swam around the boat and pointed straight in. It was then that I realized the boat had turned sideways because it had to. It was getting too shallow. The beach was directly ahead. Eric and I swam the last 200 yards to shore.

We were coming to shore near some very big nasty boulders with little bits of empty rocky beach between them. A 30 foot cliff rose above. My last few yards I negotiated a number of large under water rocks and the surf was crashing over them.

I walked ashore. Awesome!

Eric raised his arms to signal to my observer that I was clear of the water. I felt absolutely great, not very tired and enjoyed basking in the sun. I let out a hoot of delight to my boat with my arms raised.

A lone sixtiesh man was reading not 10 yards from where I came to shore. His face was an expression filled map, his nose had more ridges and shapes than the Matterhorn “Bonjour”, I said. He said a few things back in a thick French I couldn’t understand. Eric started shouting in English. “He just swam from Dover, England”. “Douvres, Angleterre” I translated and then did a swimming motion. The man was amazed, he thought I’d swum in from the boat!

He got up to shake my hand very excitedly. We chatted with this man in English for a few minutes and discovered he was a German tourist. A French beachgoer from 30 yards down the beach must have overheard as he got up and came down the beach to shake my hand too. The first man’s wife came back from her walk and she congratulated me animatedly with Euro kisses.

I eyed the white restaurant and thought of how for the past year I’d fantasized about landing and getting a free beer in France while I stood there in a speedo. I’d even practiced this in Wissant the previous summer and gotten the owner of a beachside bar to promise me a free beer if I landed there. However between me and the restaurant was a boulderfield and I wasn’t in a mood for intense bouldering in a speedo. Moreover, there was no way I was swimming over there, Besides, I’d used up much of my 15 minute limit on shore already. I realized there was a beer waiting for me at the White Horse Tavern in Dover!

We waded back into the water and swam lazily to the boat. I was ecstatic. I realized now my thighs were severely chaffed and they stung incredibly. My shoulders were pretty worked but none of that mattered anymore. If I couldn’t swim for a month who gave a damn, I did what I came for.

I was an English Channel swimmer for all eternity.

I climbed victoriously onto the boat. Angie was thrilled. My crew of swarthy sailors suddenly looked like my best friends at the pub. Kevin told me all about what was going down on the boat while I was in the water; about how strong the currents were and how I just kept going, never faltering, never looking fazed at all.

I got my kisses from Angie and soaked up the sun till I started getting cold. Then, I took a blanket and enjoyed the boat ride, marveled at the shores, pointed out the jellies from the decks. Chris, one of the pilots, showed me on two maps exactly the course I’d taken across the channel. I had definitely had much bigger tides than I had expected. I had been swept miles east initially and then double that back west. To the uneducated, my giant reverse ‘S’ course looked like I’d been been led by a drunk across the channel. I sat with Angie and enjoyed our beautiful 3 hour boat ride back to England.

Dane greeted us at the harbor. So close – so far, what a bummer he’d missed it. My only true disappointment this day. He’d done so much to be here and yet I’d had to leave mere hours before he could join us—that was the channel!

Once back on shore, I realized my arms and hands were a mess, I could barely hold anything. As I walked into our rented flat I exclaimed “My thighs are bleeding!”

Soon, my right shoulder and arm was in incredible pain, but my smile was huge and I was in a mood for celebration and going out on the town. I tried to take a short nap and woke up half an hour later feeling nearly paralyzed. I was in agonizing pain and couldn’t get myself out of bed. I couldn’t use my arms, my bleeding thighs hurt to move and I had to go pee out all that Cytomax Now!#$%#! Angie helped me get upright. I could barely keep from passing out. I was not in good shape, a total wreck. The White Horse and my beer would have to wait for tomorrow. I couldn’t hold a pen anyways.

My crew was out cold. Totally zonked from being awake for nearly 24 hours. We slept! Or at least they did while I kept waking in dazed partially paralyzed delerium needing to pee again and again. Once I woke with my upper body hanging off the bed and barely got myself back on and was reminded of how my training buddy Nigel had literally destroyed his shoulder to the point of needing reconstructive surgery because he fell out of bed following his Tahoe swim. I had wondered how in the world that happened, I had just barely avoided the same fate myself. I couldn’t even wake my snoring crew they were so deep in slumber. I was both having the worst twelve most physically painful hours of my life and yet buzzing from the fact I had just swam the English channel. In my pain, my eyes would well up with tears of joy. After a few cold showers, a slight overdose of Advil and some homeopathic trauma drugs, I finally slept for a few hours. I woke like a stiff and happy zombie already starting to feel better. From here on it was all glory!

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Copyright © 2005 by Neal Rayner. All Rights Reserved.