Finally, after three cancellations, I can say that I was part of a successful Channel relay crossing. Here’s my account of when was literally one of the best days ever.
We arrived at the jetty at 5:30am and getting my priorities in order, immediately began quizzing our pilot Andy about the recent ‘alleged’ orca whale sighting in the Channel. To be honest I was expecting him to laugh it off and tell me it was rumour and scaremongering. I was not expecting him to offer to show me real footage of them… I realised that the scenario of actually coming face to face with an orca had not been considered in my ‘guidelines for a safe crossing’ list, and began making a mental note to swiftly conduct an emergency exit strategy as soon as I was able to, just in case it was on one of my swim legs that they decided to reappear. I also instructed swim buddy to be on orca watch when I was swimming and alert me immediately of any possible sighting and to jump in and sacrifice herself for me should the need arise.
The white board was provided by Richard for the swim. The purpose of which started off being to allow the folks on the boat (us) to easily get an urgent/must know/helpful/encouraging message such as the ‘seaweed ahead’ one, or ‘orca at starboard’ or ’30 minutes left’ to the swimmer. However, as the swim continued, it also became the primary source of entertainment (after Jonty’s singing), with Richard inventing the new, must play ‘over the side quiz’ quiz, a rather tense game of noughts and crosses and a French food and drink inspired word search, along with the ‘as the crow flies’ mileage to France. The swim buddy told me, after her second leg, she was delighted with the message I wrote complementing her on headbutting the blue jellyfish, as her one and only other headbutting incident prior to that involved a football and a trip to A&E! I was just hoping that any sting she received from the jellyfish would be minimal and we would not be requiring the services of A&E, as on this occasion this would also probably need include the lifeguard, their helicopter and possibly Border Force and we had a swim to finish…
As Richard was swimming, I decided to fully embrace the spirit of the swim and put on my beret – and tucked into a croissant ready for my first swim, although it is only right to point out that I had already devoured one of the Fat Rascals that (the most amazing café in my hometown) Betty’s had donated to us (they are fellow supporters of Saint Michael’s hospice, who I was raising money for) on the way to the harbour and probably didn’t actually need one. Richard’s first swim flew by, and before I knew it, I needed to start getting ready. As I did, Andy reminded me of the rules of the relay when getting in (no touching swimmer already in the water, or the boat. He also warned me that other swimmers had told him the water was quite ‘fresh’ at the moment, however I was more concerned about jumping in without a costume malfunction, losing my goggles or swallowing a nasty mouthful of salt water, however was able to confirm relatively quickly that the water was indeed as fresh as they had said. And also, salty when you accidentally do some kind of unexpected nasal flush.
I settled into the swim relatively quickly, although was always really aware that I was swimming in water that was home to some pretty large creatures, which if hungry, would not hesitate in attempting to eat me whole, and therefore stayed as near to the boat as I could… just in case. I was also aware that during Richard’s leg, along with the blanket of seaweed, we had also spotted a handful of lone jellyfish, and it wasn’t too long before I had also forgotten about any orcas and sharks and large stuff that could, if they so choose, eat me, because I had more important things to worry about, like for example the smack of jellyfish that I could see directly underneath me. By some stroke of luck rather than any technique, managed to avoid them all, and there was a lot… unfortunately, there was no way of letting Jonty know when he got in without me swallowing half of the sea through my nose, and as I had swallowed a lot already, left him to it. He would find our soon enough one way or the other…
My second swim was a completely different story. On one hand the water was definitely warmer, but on the other, rather a lot of jellyfish had appeared. I lost count of sightings after I got up to about eleventy billion, and instead turned my attention to the sting I acquired down my right arm after a collision with a blue jellyfish, and several nasty ones on the back of my left leg by some small white ones. I realised at that painful point that I had not followed the swim buddy’s advice which was to take an antihistamine before I got in, and spent the remainder of the swim regretting it. Much of the swim was then spent mentally running through the symptoms associated with a jellyfish sting that I had extensively researched on the internet, like: weakness, feeling lightheaded, bleeding and difficulty breathing (yes, I had spent A LOT of time on the NHS website), in fact because I was so busy looking for them that I missed the ’30 minutes to go’ notice, and only realised once I saw Jonty on the side of the boat ready to get in. After what had been an eventful swim dodging jellyfish, the swim buddy (thankfully fully trained nurse) did a quick once over and confirmed that I was indeed stung, told me off for not taking the medicine, and informed me that I would survive and to put on some cream. Richard also offered some practical advice, by way of suggesting the services of the whole team in a collective wee to ‘help reduce the sting.’ Thankfully, the swim buddy stepped in and informed him that she was 100% sure this was NOT recommended by the NHS as an effective way to treat symptoms, and as I had spent A LOT of time doing the research, was able to confirm that this was indeed the case.
Shortly after I had got out I needed to eat – yet more food – however, I began to feel a little queasy, which quite frankly was not great as I had my eyes on another Fat Rascal. THey were turning out to be very popular and I needed to grab another one before they all disappeared. I had bought some travel sickness tablets despite never suffering before, and was confident that I wouldn’t actually need them, and therefore hadn’t actually bothered to take one. Unfortunately, the Fat Rascal I had planned to eat at this point would need to wait, as according to the packet, it would take a couple of hours before I would feel any improvements. I turned to the swim buddy again looking for a recommendation for a faster alternative as was standard on all swims previously, she had covered all possible alternatives of scientifically and less scientifically proven effective preventative measures for motion sickness, which included a mixture of over the counter remedies combined with old wives’ tales. Unfortunately, – none of which appeared to be working for her as I found her too suffering. This didn’t fill me with confidence that my tablets would work all that well, as she had the good sense to have taken hers before we had even set off and yet was still looking very green around the gills, still, on the plus side, we had enough packets of ginger biscuits and mint tea bags on the boat that although I suspected could have sparked an international shortage, would have also kept us sufficiently covered if the swim were to take us to Christmas to complete… I must add that despite feeling ‘a bit sh*t’, she managed to battle on, whilst also proving two things: 1) you can successfully swim in a Channel relay on 2 Dextro tablets and half a ginger biscuit, and 2) the excessive carb loading, which basically continued without break since our last swim date in the previous October that she did, had stood her in very good stead after all. What an absolute legend!
It is customary in all good swim teams, ensuring that every team member in the water was safe and doing well was of paramount importance. This involved ensuring that a risk assessment be done should the swimmer appear to be in any kind of danger (or basically, in our case, a lengthy chat about said possible danger from the safety of the boat, before collectively deciding we should do nothing about it aside from wait for instruction/guidance from Andy)– whether imaginary, from a blanket of seaweed or indeed in this instance, from some unidentified sea creature that on Jonty’s leg had surfaced not far from him. After much discussion, deduction and guesswork (aka the aforementioned risk assessment), by process of elimination we collectively agreed from our observations that it was either dark grey or black, but that also it didn’t have any white on it, and that it was quite large making it definitely not a haddock or a jellyfish, a squid or a seahorse. It also ruled out orca, but not shark or narwhal, and whilst after a quick sweep of the immediate vicinity, Richard and the swim buddy quickly went back to the job in hand- watching Jonty, I did not. Instead, I began to google every possible combination of the phrase ‘how do I outswim a shark or a narwhal?’ just in case when I got back in in three hours time it was still lurking… As it turned out, afterwards, Jonty informed us that he was not oblivious to our ‘emergency team meeting,’ although had no idea what it was about, and told us that he assumed that we would let him know, via the white board, if there was any need to panic, and so continued unbothered. We didn’t bother to inform him that due to all of the whiteboarding we had been doing, the pen had actually run out which rendered the white board completely useless from then on in, and actually, the only way we would have been able to gain his attention using the whiteboard was if we threw it at him stopping him in his tracks, and anyway, by the time he was back on the boat the whole incident had been downgraded from high drama to low farce on the back of Andy calmly suggesting that it was probably a seal.
My third leg the water was slightly less calm, and thankfully only a smattering of jellyfish, although there were some frankly Baltic cold patches that went right through me, which Andy informed me afterwards was due to the change of tide churning up some of the lower colder water, and not because we had gone dramatically off course to the North Pole or Siberia, as I had initially suspected! In addition to this, whilst I was in the water, the crew on the boat suddenly appeared at the side of the boat with huge binoculars and a camera with equally huge lens on it, and my team mates were leaning over the side of the boat with equal interest. Now, I am not saying I began to panic – more like inner hysteria happened, when I remembered there was still some unidentified creature that we saw near Jonty earlier, and that our whiteboard was out of action, due to overuse, and whilst I waited in vain for the instruction to get back on the boat – and fast – I was about to plan my exit strategy when they all retreated back, leading me to think that that I was either not in any imminent danger, or they didn’t care…Turned out the they hadn’t seen a lost orca, but instead were watching the French Navy launch a drone towards a migrant boat.
A friend, Claire – also Channel relay swimmer, had told me that when you were around half way, if the weather was favourable, we would notice that the sea appeared to change colour to the most amazing shade of blue, and she was right. Noticing this prompted much excitement, and to celebrate we donned our 100% pure wool berets (courtesy of Jonty), despite the 27oc heatwave, and erupt into some rather tuneless long forgotten French songs (including Jo le taxi and the 1970’s classic Chanson d’amour) whilst tucking into some croissants. This also gave us false hope that we were nearer to France than we thought, and the second half of the swim was spent in various discussions as to whether we could actually see land, or whether it was some sort of trickery of the light or mirage, and as with most of our swims, the talk revolved back round to food and a heated debate over whether any French cheese could rival our beloved Wensleydale ensued, before we returned to singing yet more French inspired songs until eventually I needed to use the mouthwash I had brought for the salt, to help with the sore throat I had acquired from attempting some rather high notes that were well above my range.
By this time we had all swum three times, and Richard was due back into the water for (what we hoped was) the final leg, on the back of the fact that we could definitely see land – that we assumed to be France. I was so convinced he would be the one to make land, that I confidently began rooting round the bottom of my food bag for the small bottle of now tepid champagne that I had brought with me to celebrate. Andy, pilot and Channel crossing expert, was not as confident as me, and suggested that I didn’t open it as I would definitely be getting back in. As it turned out, this was excellent news, despite the worrisome recent large, still unidentified, aquatic livestock sighting and the multiple jellyfish, because although I was convinced it would be Richard, I had in our little sweepstake bet on me being the one to reach France, and if I did, I stood to win twenty of your British pounds (unless someone else had also bet on me too – all bets were placed in secret, so we wouldn’t find out until the end) for my charity. In addition to this, Jonty had informed me that he would prefer to not get back in again, and if I could land it he would shout me afternoon tea, as well as a Fortnum and Mason hamper, and so although Richard had picked up the pace and was ploughing towards our destination in some now choppier water, I was confident enough to begin my google search as to which hamper I liked the look of the most… (liked the look of/must expensive – same thing really!).
As I began to get ready for my next swim, Andy came for a chat. He told me that I would need to swim like I was being chased during this leg due to the tide. I informed him that I had been doing that the whole swim already, although when he laughed I was not all that convinced he believed me. To ‘help’ make this leg pass quickly, Jonty had offered to ‘add some much needed ambience and joie de vivre’ to the swim by singing yet more catchy iconic French songs to me over the side of the boat. Having heard him earlier, I was thankful to be wearing some ear plugs and therefore despite what he promised to be one of the greatest interpretations of the tunes, didn’t hear a word of it – unlike my fellow team mates and the crew, who later admitted it was a ‘rather unique experience’ with Richard also describing it as ‘somewhat moving’ with ‘not a dry eye on the boat.’ Now I was back in the water, I hadn’t appreciated how much the swell had got up, and although tiring trying to negotiate it whilst not swallow any more of the sea, it was all really thrilling - aside from the moment I thought I had seen a fin...
After what felt like the longest time being busy trying to swim to France, rather abruptly the boat stopped. Unsure of what to do next I turned around to find the rig making its way next to me. This meant several things 1) I would be landing the swim in France. 2) I had won the sweepstake. 3) I would need to go back online as soon as I was back on the boat to choose my F&M hamper – I would definitely be going in at the top of the price range as I had selflessly swum through a lot of chop for the last hour so Jonty didn’t have to. 4) I would cry the rest of the way to France.
Arriving in France I had heard that some Channel swimmers were lucky enough to be greeted with clapping and a glass of chanpagne at Cape Gris- Nez when they arrived. Something I was very much looking forward to. Unfortunately, I landed a little further north in what could only be described as a rather overly dramatic fall onto France's most pebbliest and quietest beach. Despite this, I decided that I would cheer and clap loudly by myself and even considered singing the national anthem - before remembering that it was six verses long (of which I was fairly confident I was word perfect at just one of them) and that new covid rules only allowed a swimmer on French ‘soil’ for a maximum of ten minutes, and I still had to find a souvenir pebble – each, as the swim buddy told me not to bother coming back to the boat empty handed… Not a problem on this beach, although trying to choose a pebble that you felt that your swim team would like turned out to be quite difficult. The only consideration was that they needed to be small enough to fit down my costume, although after much deliberation as to where I should actually put them, I came up with a genius idea, which was to take off my swim cap, put the pebbles in it before putting it safely down the front of my costume whilst I swam back to the rig for a ride back to the boat.
French pebbles safely down my costume, I discovered that getting back onto the rig to head back to the boat and my cheering team mates, was completely different experience that I had envisaged. I was informed, by Andy’s son who was piloting it, that getting onto it to get back onto it with already tired arms was often more difficult than swimmers realised and if I needed some help, just to let him know and he would (more politely put) haul me up by whichever means necessary. Undaunted, confident and feeling invincible after our successful crossing, my first (and only) attempt at climbing up the side of the rig - unaided- was successful, although I did manage somehow to rock the boat to the point of tipping it over, before a rather excellent faceplant of the bottom of the rig. Despite being aware of my unsteady feet, I disembarked from the rig with a level of carefulness that again almost caused it to roll onto its side. Richard broke off from his celebrations to offer an arm as I rather unsteadily set foot back onto the boat. In reality I should have been untroubled by the unstable footing, as prior to the swim I had taken the time to Google ‘emergency capsize and recovery drills’ and felt confident that should a ‘man overboard’ scenario happen, I knew the protocol, however, I suddenly felt woefully unprepared for such an event and grabbed onto Andy and Richard to steady myself. Once safely back on board, there was much merriment with my fellow team mates cheering loudly and also demonstrating some rather questionable dance moves that led me to suspect that they had opened some celebratory (alcoholic) beverages already.
Once I had got changed, I checked in on the swim buddy, who told me (thankfully not in any great detail) that she was still feeling very worse for wear and was going to try and sleep it off on the return leg. Richard informed me he was going to have a well- deserved snooze, which left only Jonty and I to continue celebrating, with warm champagne and a packet of my (reluctantly given) Jaffa Cakes, the fact that we had done it!
One final thing, I’d like to say to my family, friends, Saint Michael’s, Betty’s, Swim your Swim and the online community that have supported me on throughout this journey a huge thank you for being the best cheerleaders, motivators and encouraging bunch of people. You have all been amazing!