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Crosswords: The English Channel Relay Swim Blog

In the first of a new monthly blog series, Stephen Gould sets the scene on what the group of industry swimmers will be facing for their challenge in aid of The Light Fund.

Asking the global licensing community if they would like to swim the English Channel is like asking someone who can just about run to the post office before it closes whether they’d consider the London Marathon.

Not only that, but, running it in freezing temperatures in the aquatic version of the M25 while spectators lob jellyfish, saturated planks, bilge residue and the odd shipping container at them.

Licensing folk are by nature glass half full characters and challenge is an everyday by-word. However, the strength of any individual is to know their limitations and with no pun intended, no one can beat an incoming tide.

Ever since Captain Matthew Webb swam across the English Channel in 1875, it has held a fascination for many that is without compare. The people who cross the English Channel purely by the power of their own limbs are a special breed. Particularly so when you consider the regulations which they have to abide for their swim to count as officially recognised with the Channel Swimming Association or the Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation – the latter being the governing authority of choice for The Light Fund.

Part of the squad during a recent training session (L-R): Anna Hewitt, Anne Bradford, Stephen Gould, Mark Kingston and Simon Gresswell.
Part of the squad during a recent training session (L-R): Anna Hewitt, Anne Bradford, Stephen Gould, Mark Kingston and Simon Gresswell.

Swimmers are not permitted to wear wetsuits, for example. They can wear a regulation swimming costume, single skin silicone swimming cap and goggles, but that’s it. They are not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone and nor can they at any time touch their support vessel except when getting in and out of the water for their swim leg.

Then there’s the distance to think about. Swimming 21 miles would be enough of a challenge in a heated pool, but, the fast moving Channel tides are washing constantly across the swimmers’ paths pushing and pulling them considerable distances from the straight and narrow. A successful crossing involves swimming in a broad ’S’ shape of 40 miles or more as the tide pushes you first one way then the other, and you spend many hours in the frigid water. The current record for the shortest crossing is 6 hours 55 minutes, while the longest single crossing on record took a shade under 29 hours.

Mark Bezodis from Perry Ellis International warms up with a coffee.
Mark Bezodis from Perry Ellis International warms up with a coffee.

Combine this with the unpredictable weather, the equally unpredictable marine life and most notably jellyfish, as well as the inevitability of night swimming and this is clearly not a challenge for the fainthearted and one where any inadequate preparation will be publicly laid bare for all to see. Even with the best planning and all the hard training done, nothing is guaranteed such is the capricious nature of the English Channel.

While undoubtedly a team event, an English Channel relay swim is an aggregate of individual physical effort where there is nowhere to hide during your one-hour swim slot. For 60 minutes every five hours, the success or failure of getting across resides with the swimmer in the water.

Swimmers swim in one-hour rotation and repeat until they get to France. Once the first sequence has been swum, there can be no changes to this order otherwise it is instant disqualification. It is not uncommon for swimmers to enter the water while being seasick and to continue to be seasick while swimming. That said, for many the five hours on the boat between swims will be more of a challenge than the actual swim itself… just imagine a large yogurt pot chugging along at a swimmer’s pace in the middle of the notorious English Channel.

Jellyfish are just one of the challenges that the swimmers will face.
Jellyfish are just one of the challenges that the swimmers will face.

Just as our squad of swimmers came together to start training for next year’s swim, the country was plunged into another lockdown which unfortunately included swimming pools and even the lidos. You can run, cycle, row, lift weights etc and all of these will help with cardiovascular fitness and strength for swimming, however, with the best will in the world there is no substitute for actual swimming. Even with pools now re-opened they remain very busy, difficult to book and they are still limited to one-hour sessions which usually includes changing time. This is not enough to prepare for a swim of this scale and magnitude. In short, we are collectively 11 months behind schedule and the pressure is most definitely on.

While we may have just over a year before we attempt to swim across the English Channel, we also need to do a pre-qualifying swim before the water temperature drops too far as we approach winter – so by September or October this year latest. This is a one and a half hour swim in water of 16.0C or less, out for an hour and then back in again for another hour. Even for a seasoned cold water swimmer this is tough, as we will likely already still have mild hypothermia as we go back into the water for the second hour. We also have a stringent medical to pass too, but, more on that in a later blog.

Overly protective parenting swans really aren't a swimmers friend!
Overly protective parenting swans really aren't a swimmers friend!

For now we continue to meet on Zoom and the cold water acclimatisation and swim training (where and when we can) continues in lidos, rivers, lakes and the odd visitation to the seaside. The lakes and rivers already have duck lice which itch like hell and overly protective parenting swans… and the jellyfish have also arrived at in-shore coastal waters.

As English Channel pioneer Captain Matthew Webb once said: “Nothing great is easy.”

If you are near any of the following venues you may see licensing friends and colleagues punching out the aquatic meterage for the greater good that is The Light Fund: Taplow Lake, Jubilee River (Taplow); River Thames (Aston, Medmenham and Hampton Court); Hillingdon Lido (Uxbridge); Hampstead Ponds; Cottonmill Lido (St Albans); Woburn Lido (Milton Keynes); Bristol Channel; Merchant Taylors’ School Lake; Durley Chine (Bournemouth); Parliament Hill Lido; The Blue Lagoon (Womersley); Brogborough Lake; Great Barford River; River Frome (Farleigh Hungerford); Heron Lake (Heathrow); Denham Lake; River Nidd (Knaresborough); Sale Water Park (Manchester); St Aidens RSPB Reserve; and Caversham Lakes (Reading).

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

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