As we move closer to the start of the challenge, Paramount’s Mark Kingston updates us on the team’s continued preparations for The English Channel Relay Swim 2022, in aid of The Light Fund.
So, with just over three months left to go until we receive the call to action to get ourselves down to Dover, the team are starting to ramp up their preparations for this mammoth challenge, both physically and mentally.
All team members have been pounding the water throughout March – most of us indoors – although the brave few have started to venture outside once again and take on rivers and lakes and, in the case of our esteemed leader (Wee Hof), even lochs came into play last month… while wearing suitable ‘turkey’ themed head-gear I hasten to add!
While I have been fortunate enough to take part in many charity challenges over the years – including successfully completing both the 3 & 5 Peaks Challenge, cycling from London to Utrecht and from Bristol to Dublin – this challenge is by far the most daunting I have ever embarked upon.
It’s not so much the physical aspect of this challenge, as I’m a fairly competent swimmer and with the miles of swim training I’ve done, along with my fellow team mates, and the dozens of miles we’ll all be swimming over the coming months, I’m confident that we will all be at a fitness and capability level physically to successfully attempt this challenge.
It’s the mental aspect of what we’re trying to attempt that is going to be the hardest component to overcome. While climbing peaks or cycling you have fellow team mates to confide in during the tougher parts and to offer words of encouragement and support. Or simply you’re able to take time out, admire the views, catch your breath or push your bike if you’re feeling like a climb has gotten the better of you. In the case of this swim, once you’re in the water you’re very much on your own for the next 60-75 minutes and trust me there is no stopping and no time to admire any views. This is where the mind will wander and the fear of both the known and unknown will come into play. I grew up watching the classic Saturday afternoon movies such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Jason and the Argonauts… I just hope my mind doesn’t wander to some of those mythical creatures from the deep!
So let’s focus on this mental element of the challenge and what we’re actually entering into and attempting to race across – The English Channel (once referred to as the ‘British Sea’) and what wonderful things we may, or may not, encounter along the way.
The English Channel covers an area of roughly 29,000 square miles and has an average depth of 207 feet (at its deepest it is 570 feet deep – that’s the equivalent of over 40 double decker buses stacked on top of each other). The direct distance across from Dover (Strait of Dover) is 21 miles, although in reality we will swim between 38-42 miles due the tidal currents, swimming in an ‘S’ shaped course.
The English Channel is brown in colour – this is due to sediment suspended in the water at all times and the huge amount of shipping mobbing through it and stirring it up constantly (the channel is still the busiest shipping lane in the world with over 600 tankers and 200 ferries passing through daily). It is also home to all the world’s oceanic bacteria (or at least the vast majority of them).
The English Channel is home to seals, whales, dolphins, squids, seabirds, jellyfish and over 300 different species of fish, including 21 different species of sharks – these include porbeagles, blue sharks, thresher sharks, shortfin makos and oceanic whitetips.
Also, human activity over the years has created all number of hazards – from sewage and floating debris, to discarded plastic and unexploded ordnance risk from WW2 to radioactive waste (in the 50s and 60s over 28k containers of radioactive waste were dropped into the English Channel).
So as you can appreciate, the ‘mind’ and ‘fear’ factor is going to be a huge element of this challenge. Fear of the open ocean is actually one of several ‘prepared’ fears in the human mind and grounded in our basic survival instincts. It’s pretty justifiable to be shit-scared of swimming in the open ocean when you can’t see or know what lies beneath you and at times when we’re swimming at night we won’t be able to see beyond a few feet in front of us.
Thalassophobia (or fear of the ocean) is a common fear that the likes of Rafael Nadal, Jessica Biel and Michael Jordan have in common and to a certain extent none of us doing this challenge (including myself) will know until we have our Deep Sea swim immersion training just four weeks before our attempt.
So what are the key ‘fear’ elements of the swim that we’re going to need to overcome?
Fear of sharks
Okay, so it’s going to be extremely unlikely that we will encounter a shark, let alone have one bite us, but again this is where the mind will play games on us and just the thought or fear can bring on temporary paralysis. With water temperatures around the British coastline rising there have been more and more sightings of sharks off British waters in the last few years. It is also quite possible that we will encounter other large marine life, such as seals and dolphins – fortunately humans aren’t on their menu.
Fear of seaweed
Walking through seaweed, it can feel like you’re being surrounded by slimy stuff that attaches to your legs or arms – creepy. Now imagine having to swim through 200 metres of seaweed. We won’t be able to swim around it or under it… we will have to swim through it. It will also contain bugs, small fish and crustaceans, so it’s pretty yucky and will probably result in bites and sores. This is a fear that we cannot afford – we have to overcome and grin and bear it.
Fear of rubbish
Sadly as we all know only too well, the ocean has become a giant dumping ground for waste and, just like seaweed, it’s inevitable that at some point during the challenge one or more of the swimmers will have to swim through floating detritus. Key here will be the spotters on the boats to ensure we avoid any large flotsam that might cause serious injury or harm. The rest of the time it will be close your mouth and swim through the debris.
Fear of waves
This is one that is going to be unavoidable at certain points of our swim. If you’ve ever been knocked down or dragged into shore by a wave (and who hasn’t?), you know the experience can be frightening and a cause of deep concern for those with or without thalassophobia. Inevitably there will be times where we will each encounter waves of various sizes and ferocity. The key for all of us will be syncing our breathing, strokes and when necessary, swimming under the waves, as it will be calmest place in the choppy channel.
Fear of rip tides/currents
Rip tides and currents are strong, narrow channels of fast-moving water that can pull even the strongest of swimmers away and far off course. When we encounter these it is going to be extremely difficult for any of us to swim against these currents. Inevitably we will be swimming with these currents until we can break through and get back on track.
Fear of jellyfish
These creatures are made up of 95% water and are often transparent, which makes them scarier because they are harder to see. While not all jellyfish in British waters are dangerous, the stings of various species are painful, especially those of the Portuguese Man of War which have recently been spotted off the South Coast of England… clearly avoidance is going to be our best strategy if possible.
Fear of octopus/giant squids
Even if we like hugs, imagining getting squeezed by an eight-armed octopus is pretty terrifying. Or encountering a 20 foot squid. This is where the stories of Jules Verne will really be playing on my mind!
So assuming we are all able to conquer our fears of the unknown depths of the English Channel, we will enter the unique club of those that have successfully swum the English Channel. As of the end of 2021, there have been 4,133 completed English Channel swims versus 5,788 completed climbs to the summit of Mount Everest … this is not a challenge for either the faint hearted or the ill-prepared.
And a reminder that for our swim to be officially recognised, we must not be assisted by any kind of artificial aid. We will only be permitted to use goggles, one cap, a nose clip, ear plugs and one basic swimming costume, that must be sleeveless and legless… let’s hope by the end of this challenge one of us isn’t legless due to a creature from the unknown depths of the channel!
The English Channel Relay Swim in aid of The Light Fund is due to take place between 30 June and 3 July, 2022. For full details on the sponsorship opportunities, you can contact Stephen Gould, Mark Kingston, Simon Gresswell or Anne Bradford by clicking on their respective names. Everything you need to know about the swim can also be found by clicking here.