Under the Stars: My Journey Swimming the English Channel

There comes a point in time during a marathon swim where you mind goes blank. There isn’t a single thought running through your mind, everything is clear, more clear than it has ever been. Your body is on autopilot, you don’t think about what you are doing, you don’t even realize you are in the water or that you are swimming, because you are a part of it. Nothing separates your physical body or being from the body of water that you are swimming in. The sea accepts you and decides the fate of your swim. She chooses safe passage, who succeeds and who returns for another day. This moment, the moment when you can feel her blessing upon you and know that you have faded into one with the sea is why I swim. It is a feeling that is indescribable, a friend by your side in every trench, on every crest, through the day and into the cloak of night. My relationship with the sea is why I swim, that longing to build on our existing relationship each day for as long as she will grant me safe passage.

The English Channel, Le Manche, is beautiful, it is hard, it is wonderful, it is miserable, it brings tears to my eyes for the good and for the bad. It had a hold on me in a way I didn’t expect it to. It taught me patience, love, kindness, trust and respect. There are no words for it other than one must experience it for themselves to truly understand the power of not being in control of what lies ahead.  Jacques Cousteau may have put it best, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

This journey to swim the English Channel started nearly three years ago when someone posed the question, “So when are you swimming the English Channel?” That question changed my life. The thought was planted in my head. Three years later I’ve come to realize I think it was my path written in the stars all along, I just didn’t know it at the time.

I arrived in Dover, England two weeks ago with the sole goal of swimming the English Channel. I was ready, I was prepared, I had the support and love of my coach, Ben Bigglestone, my crew, Paul Lee, Paul Raknes and Steve Hobson, my mom Rebecca Kegler and my aunt Rhonda Meyers. I had the support of countless teammates, fellow marathon swimmers, friends, family, coworkers, clients, sponsors. I had been planning for over a year with my pilot Eddie Spelling and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was blue, a light wind blowing and then I saw it, Dover Harbour, the entry point into the English Channel. The water was still, the most beautiful milky aqua I had ever seen and my heart fluttered like I had met the love of my life. I had and it was the sea.

My swim window was set, the swim as confirmed for August 16th. Unfortunately, due to weather and other complications with a low pressure system coming in, the swim was postponed to the 19th. I rearranged hotel reservations for my crew, then a couple days later received the word the Channel would be closed for a while and that the swim would be rescheduled to the 23rd. Countless hours of phone calls, text messages, and re-planning, reservation cancellations and re-bookings took up a lot of my energy the next few days. The worry started to creep in, am I tapering too long? Ben refigured my swim plan and we had a chat on my birthday and mental reset over lunch at St. Margaret’s Beach, nestled in the White Cliffs of Dover. I continued my pool and sea sessions waiting with uncertainty of when or even if I would get to swim.

The IF was the big question as I had to be prepared that I may not even get the opportunity after all the training, preparation and planning. It was my worst-case scenario that seemed to be coming true. With the schedule change, Paul and my aunt’s travel plans conflicted and they weren’t able to stay. This was more difficult for them than me as I was very aware of the possibility and even though they were too, I don’t think it was something we really thought would happen. I started putting into place backup plan after backup plan that I had prepared in the off chance this scenario happened, then the call came in the swim would get moved up to the 22nd. It was confirmed and on the books as there was only a single day to fit it in, something I had been praying to the sea about for months. Just give me an opportunity to swim and whatever the outcome is that you decide for me, I will respectfully take.

The 21st rolled in, my crew arrived, and it got real! The swim would happen without a doubt. We had a team dinner, reviewed my go-bags for feeds, supplies, reviewed the rules, backup plans best and worst-case scenarios. We got a good night sleep, ate a good pre-swim breakfast after the boys went for a barely-there speedo dip in the harbor, grabbed coffee that tasted like rubbish and we were set! We met in the hotel lobby at 8:15am on the 22nd of August to walk over to the marina. Once we arrived, the butterflies started to set in, we met our CS&PF observer Jeff, and he took us down to Eddie’s boat, Anastasia. We met Eddie and the crew, Robert and Mike, who I have to admit I thought was really cute and doesn’t a cute guy always provide extra motivation to swim? The answer is yes if you didn’t know!

We got settled in, said our goodbyes where Paul got the good old blue latex glove out and Vaseline for the world’s best sunscreen and anti-chafe application. We got the sunscreen and Vaseline on during the way over to Samphire Hoe beach to start the swim. We arrived, Mike showed me where to jump off the boat and swim into shore in order to clear the water and raise my hands, which signifies the start of the swim. It was sunny, the beach surrounded by white chalk cliffs, low wind and as I jumped into this water, I felt like it was welcoming me into what would be the most miserably wonderful experience of my life. We started our journey together on the morning of August 22nd.

Starting the swim, above the surface it looked beautiful, but under the water there was more going on than met the eye. You could feel the pull of the current, the tide. You could see the compass jellyfish glistening then stinging you as if you laid your hand on a hot stove, but they were a beautiful sting I wouldn’t have taken back. The crew saw a harbor porpoise and a seal too! As the morning rolled on my stroke felt strong, then as we crossed the England inshore boundary the trenches of what is the English Channel started to mount. It was hour 4 or 5 and I was already feeling fatigued. The wake from the freighters started to mount, the wind knots picked up and I started having those thoughts creep in. Feeds were going well, but I started to want less water and food. I had a chat with the sea for the next hour reciting a Samoan sea prayer I had learned and the sea subsided.

Paul got in with me for an hour and the company felt nice, then the weather started to pick up again. I was tracking time by the sun’s position in the sky, which I felt had not changed places for hours. Calculating my estimated time by the sun, reality set in that I still had at least 8-10 hours to go. A mental reset needed, the first and only time the “I can’t do it” words came out of my mouth followed by a grumpy curse word or two during a feed with Ben, he held his hand up to his heart and I knew exactly what he meant. He was there, you were there, everyone who had supported me. I’m going to make it, I’m not coming back, I came here to finish, to bond with the sea and that’s what I’m going to do.

I saw a boat in the distance, another swimmer and out of nowhere the competitor came out in me. We’re going to pass this boat, we’re going to race against it. Little did I know, it was a swimmer and crew from Australia who was going through the exact same down moment as me. We met at The White Horse pub later and he told me he was having doubts when he saw my boat and our minds unknowingly melded together, motivating each other. “If they’re staying in, I’m staying in. I’m not going to be the one to get out first.” That was the turning point for me and to be honest, there weren’t a lot of dark moments after that.

I got in this groove as we crossed the center of the channel heading south and that feeling when your mind goes blank that I described above happened. I felt like I was a wave in the sea that was moving at the speed of the water. Each glimpse of my crew and my heart was full. I could see Eddie’s crew in the window checking in on me and finally the sun started to set, this kaleidoscope of orange and yellow over the rolling sea’s waves. Things got quiet and there was only me and the water.

After the sun set, the wind picked up a little and I saw the flickering light of the light house! So close, but so far, I remember someone saying you will see France, you will think you are close and then it will disappear only to come back in 2 to 3 hours. Reality hit and the cloak of night descended over the sea with only the glimmering light of my boat and crew as a focal point. Another moonless marathon swim, like Catalina, I stayed patient and watched for the shooting stars to glimmer across the sky. They never came, but it gave me something to do and keep my mind off the fact I was starting to get cold, which a few hot feeds fixed.

The thing about marathon swimming is you really never know how much time or distance you have to go, especially during a swim like the English Channel. The cross-Channel currents and tides play a game with you, speeding you up, slowing you down, thrusting you forward and then pushing you backwards. Two minutes slower or faster could change the swim by 3 hours.  Going into France I knew was the toughest part of the swim to break through the tide. It was 3 hours of hard swimming, CSS pace, trying to get into shore. The lighthouse coming nearer then disappearing into the night. I had no idea if I was getting closer or not, was I going to land on cliffs or a beach, how much longer did I have to swim? I promised myself I wouldn’t ask that question, but I did and Ben said I had 40 more minutes. I had previously memorized all the lighthouses on shore and knew immediately that wasn’t accurate. It was a minimum of 2 hours and I was right.

Then there was a flash of light I thought initially came from a camera flash and realized on the second flash it was lightning.  No way, I’m this close, the wind picked up considerably as we got to the French inshore boundary, the waves picked up, my swim will not be called because of a storm. I’ve come so far, I’m not quitting, I’m not getting out, I’ll fight it if they say no, show Eddie I can stay close to the boat, show him and I’ll be okay.

FINALLY Ben said it was my last feed and that was it, an hour tops in my mind. I saw Mike getting the dingey (no clue how to spell that, it’s the little motor boat), which was the real sign I was near shore as the larger boat can’t go in. My arms were tired, the crushed ibuprophen and flat Coke wasn’t cutting the pain anymore and I had been swimming hard, really hard for hours. Finally Anastasia stopped and I followed Mike into the bay of Wissant, France.

It was black and I mean really black, pitch black! He went around a couple things I didn’t know if were rocks or not and we chatted about where shore was. I couldn’t separate shore from the water and only swam about 15 strokes at a time, stopped did a few breaststrokes to regain my sight to shore before starting again. It took FOREVER, but I just couldn’t visually make out shore. Turns out it was flat as a French crepe in the bay, the tide was in and there was no beach. I had to aim for this tiny staircase in a seawall to climb up on in order to clear the water, raise my arms to signify I had hit land and the swim finished. As I went into shore, Mike went along side me as far as he could and then I just had to swim in and finish myself with no guide. I started seeing bioluminescence in dark of night, but even as bright and neon green as the bubbles were, it wasn’t lighting up anything in the water. Then ripples. Was it sand? Yes, I stood up and saw the staircase about 50 yards away. I started walking happy to have finally reached land then the sand bottomed out from under me. It was a sandbar and more swimming needed to be done.

That 50 yards took even longer, I could feel my muscles tightening. I finally got the staircase, climbed out holding onto the stair rail for dear life, turned around once I cleared the water and got to the third step, raised my arms and heard Mike call in the swim finish. I was done! I went back down the stairs, dove underwater, grabbed a handful of rocks and shoved them in the butt of my suit for me and the crew (a tradition to grab a pebble from the arriving land). I swam out to Mike and of course, couldn’t get up on the boat with my arms that tired and had to have him grab wherever to pull me in which was not an easy task because I was covered in greasy Vaseline. I flopped in the boat and he made a comment about it not being the most climactic arrival in France I may have hoped for, but in that moment it was perfect.

What people don’t know about me is how much I love the silence, how I prefer night swimming over day. I sat in the bow of his boat, starred up at the sky and watched the milky way grace the dark purple and black sky, so bright on a night with no moon. It was so quiet, so peaceful, so beautiful floating in the middle of the sea enjoying the silence, accomplishment that had just been had, under a sea of stars reflecting off the water’s surface. I could have sat there all night with Mike talking about how beautiful the sea and the stars were. This swim end was my swim end. It was the end that was meant for me and even though I finished seemingly alone at night, I finished with all the love in the world behind me and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

The two of us in that boat under the stars heading back to greet my crew and begin the celebration was ironically I felt written in the stars for me. I swam the English Channel, a very large 41.92 mile (67.472K) s-curve in 16 hours and 52 minutes. I had finished under my own will and power, respecting and trusting that the sea would not give me anything I couldn’t handle. I finished the exact way it was meant to be, in a sea, under the stars, in a deafening silence that screamed a heart full of love.

7 thoughts on “Under the Stars: My Journey Swimming the English Channel

      1. I think what you did is incredible. I have only read about people swimming the Channel, but only thought it was olympic caliber folks who did it. Perhaps you are. Daughter Anne says you kept up with your swimming. 16 plus hours in the water is unbelievable to me. Any aquatic wild life visit you, like jelly fish or sharks? Gonna go for Cuba next? Greg

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      2. No wildlife other than a few jellyfish. My crew saw some porpoises and a huge seal, but none for me. No Cuba to Florida swim, too many sharks for me and I’m not a huge fan of warm water. I’ll keep everyone posted on the next adventure!

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