An email arrives at Wednesday lunchtime from my pilot – “We can offer you a place on either Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Tuesday which would you prefer? The weather predictions are good…”. I can’t reply now, and that evening I give the speech at my old school about fear. I tell them that the swim will be next week as planned not, as it would turn out, in three days’ time.
I clear my weekend schedule, cancelling a band gig, a stand-up gig and a family party. I am completely gutted to be missing out but there will be more gigs, there will be more parties. But I’m only doing this once.
By Thursday lunchtime the time is set – we leave at 9pm on Saturday night. I was expecting to start in the early hours and do a short stretch of night swimming, but not to swim into the sunset, swim all night, and then swim out the other side into Sunday. This worries me because I am not the all-nighter type. At university I’d never leave assignments til the last minute and I’ve never stayed up all night partying. I’m basically the funnest person you’ve ever met.
Like a true millennial, I google ‘channel swimming at night’ for advice. Come on, internet, don’t fail me now. I get lost down a rabbit hole of FAQs on the Channel Swimming Association’s website, including:
“Q: Are there sharks in the Channel?” Ha! Stupid question, of course there aren’t any sharks in the English Channel.
“A: …sightings are so rare that you won’t need a cage”. Thanks, internet, thanks a lot.
I don’t tell many people about the change of date, just those who need to know – firstly my crew, then my family, work colleagues and a couple of close friends. The weather could still change, right?
Those I do tell send me messages of support and encouragement, which make me teary. My Dad sends me some quotes; “The best view comes after the hardest climb” – I’ll be thinking of that when I can’t see a thing because it’s the middle of the night in the sea.
Because of the change of date Emma can’t make it and neither can Chris, something something doing an Iron Man, I don’t know. Emma and I meet for a double donut breakfast early on Friday and I try to keep a brave face. I can’t concentrate at work.
The day comes. I wake early, and finally send out the message that I’m swimming tonight. I am deluged by messages of support but I try not to let them distract me from the important task of napping. I manage to snooze intermittently until around 1.30pm when I get up and make the final preparations.
My parents come round for tea before the party which I’m missing and we sit in the garden. They bring me a top-notch variety of cakes to add to my already handsome collection. Sally arrives and we’re soon loaded up and on the familiar road to Dover.
We meet Ash at the harbour by Swimmers’ Beach and sit and have some food. I have my usual soaked muesli, and it almost feels like breakfast on a Dover weekend! Almost. Ash says she’s feeling nervous, but whilst I’ve felt like that all week, now I feel utterly calm. Is this what beyond scared feels like?
We go round to the marina, meet the pilot (it’s Mike Oram, not his son Lance who was my original pilot, but conveniently they share a list), load up the boat and we’re off. Co-piloting is Mike Ball, my regular Dover swim buddy, which I’m thrilled about. As support crew go, this has got to be up there with the greatest of all time.
Everything’s happening so quickly. It’s a short journey round to the start at Shakespeare Beach, and I spend it putting sun cream on while the sun is setting (weirdo) and getting Vaselined up.
Except this isn’t really the start. According to my Garmin, since mid-2014 I’ve swum over 1,400 miles, more than Land’s End to John O’Groats. I’ve already come that far, so whatever happens now is just the next bit of that same journey.
There are no steps down from the boat, so they expect me to just jump in. Jump in! You know what I’m like about getting in. I sit on the side as close to the water as I can get and stick my feet in. It feels really warm. “Get in!” Mike Oram shouts from the cabin.
I swim to the beach and my colleague Zoe is there with her whole family, taking photos with her drone. Thank you for the photos Zoe!
“How are you feeling?” they ask. “Yep, bit nervous!” I reply, then the boat’s siren suddenly goes. I wade in over the familiarly painful pebbles, aim for the horizon and start putting one arm in front of the other.
The first half an hour or so is rough. I thought they said it was perfect conditions! This had better not be what it’s bloody like for the whole thing. There are huge blooms of bulbous white moon jellyfish – I don’t get stung (I think they’re not the stinging type?) but I do touch several and they are really firm.
The first feed rolls around quickly – Ash is on energy drink and Sally is on solids, a routine which continues throughout the swim. Sally is feeding me with a long stick with a cup on the end, which accidentally gets dunked. Luckily it’s a chocolate-coated Jaffa Cake bar, so it’s unaffected, #ProTip.
Ash is feeding me Maxim carbohydrate drink from a milk bottle on the end of a dog lead for quick retraction, it’s not what you think. I’m feeding every hour which is quite infrequent for many swimmers, but for me the less you break it up, the quicker it goes, and as we’ve established my capacity for taking in calories is unrivalled. Also, the less time you spend stopping, the sooner you get there. The sky is rapidly losing light and by the third feed it’s almost pitch-black. I look behind but I can’t see any white cliffs, just some orange town lights – looking on the tracker later, this was probably Folkestone.
My mood darkens with the sky. All of a sudden, it’s totally black and the stars are out. I feel a sense of relief that this is as dark as it’s going to get. The boat is blasting huge floodlights onto most of the water I’m swimming in, so it’s not as scary as I expected. I say most of the water, because I must be swimming too slowly for the boat’s engines to be in throttle constantly, so the pilots give it a blast and then cruise, wait for me to get to the front, and then blast, and repeat. It’s nice because I get to see my crew at the back and then the pilots in their cabin at the front. They don’t take their eyes off me for a second, it’s just like one of my stand-up performances, because nobody’s laughing at my jokes then either.
I get stung by a few more invisible jellies. At midnight the crew decorate their bit of the boat with glowsticks which makes me really happy. I’m keeping track of time by counting the feeds.
By hour 6 the black sky is turning dark grey over my left shoulder. We’re now swapping to 45 minute feeds, and although this might slow us down in the long run, it’s important to keep swimmers fuelled, though I don’t feel cold at all. I know you’re going to miss this feeding chat when it’s all over, so enjoy it while you still can.
More and more light is creeping into the sky and I switch to counting groups of 4x 45 minutes to make up 3 hour chunks. After one of these 45 minute feeds, I set off but suddenly the sea is moving. It’s gushing past me and I feel like it’s pushing me backwards, further away from the back of the boat. This continues for some time, but eventually I’ve had enough.
At the next feed I shout “Guys, what’s going on? Why the fuck am I swimming on a treadmill?” This Sense Of Humour Failure ™ is just met with words of encouragement from the crew and pilots. “You’re doing really well Anna!”.
Mike Ball says nothing, just points past me. I turn round to see a red hot ball of sun on the horizon. It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I was so busy being stuck in my own head that I forgot to look up and enjoy the journey. The best view comes after the hardest climb.
It turns out that swimming on a treadmill is what it feels like when a huge Spring tide is turning. And just like that, as soon as it came, it went again, and we proceed. With increasing light, spirits are raising all round, particularly mine after a feed of hot porridge and sweet tea.
Lights up means I can see more ships out and about, although they don’t cause too many FBCs. At one point I see everybody rush over to the other side of the boat, which I later find out is an inquisitive seal who is checking out what the mad humans are up to. Now that it’s light, I can see quite how spectacularly calm it is out here – no salty slappers, no FBCs. We’re doing it!
The feeds keep coming round one after the other, and waiting for them is agonising. Speaking of agony, my left shoulder is getting increasingly painful, and I ask for painkillers at my next feed. I know roughly how far through I am because of which way the boats are going – if they’re one way you’re nearer to England than you are to France, and if they’re going the other you’re nearer to France than you are to England. If there’s no big boats you’re out of the shipping lanes and into the final stretch!
Feed after feed I look around me and there are still shipping boats in front. By now I’ve counted down 12 hours – surely we must be getting close?
At the next feed Ash shouts “Anna look behind you – that’s Cap Gris Nez. You’re going to miss it if you don’t sprint for the next 10 minutes”.
I look – I see it. It’s hazy but I can make out the lighthouse on the hill. She hands me a coffee-flavoured potion of pure energy.
Then Ash gives me a message from the outside world – “Cliff says smash down those doors”. This is what I’ve been missing. I wish I’d known that people had stayed up all night to watch my tracker, and about the family toasting to me in London. I wish I’d been able to see the scale at which people were sending encouragement.
But without those micro-updates, this message from Cliff is all the more powerful. I stick my head down, and I start to sprint.
But as soon as I start swimming, I feel the grip of the treadmill again. I am giving it my all, screaming into the water. It keeps pushing me back but I don’t let it sweep me away – we are in a stand-off. I am smashing down those doors in my head. Find one – SMASH. Next door – SMASH. How many doors are there left? I hope I don’t have to find out.
I see Sally at the front of the boat with the observer – sunbathing and waving at passing sailboats. I am raging. Here I am giving it my all after more than 13 hours in the water and now I’m being ignored! But Sally knows me. She knows this will anger me and she knows that rage can motivate me to swim faster than ever – well played, Sally, well-played.
Either that or they’ve all given up on me. But I won’t give up on me.
What must be about an hour later, I see Ash holding out another magic potion. I am sobbing through exhaustion and frustration.
“You’ve got about a mile to go! Just 1 Dover Harbour to go!” shouts Ash.
“Imagine you’re swimming round the harbour with me, touching all the buoys” says Mike Ball. This sets me off into sobs. Oh to be back in the Harbour with all my friends, toasting to the afternoon and swimming round together, finding buried treasure without a care in the world.
“Anna – tell me why you are swimming” says Mike Oram.
I sob and shake my head.
“Anna – why are you swimming?”
I can’t answer him. Why am I doing this? I don’t have the words, my head is chaos and even if I did have a succinct answer, it would have been too much to carry on.
So I don’t answer, just put my face back in the water and swim. To the pole, along the yellow duckies, to the red buoy, to the green bouy, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, to the harbour wall, along past the white cliffs, past the Premier Inn, by the end of the Slopey Groyne, along the row of flats…
I can see France now in high-definition. The cliffs are red and I can see a strip of pale beach. The temptation to sight ahead is too high, but I try to resist because every time I do it never seems to be getting any closer.
As we draw in, I see that Ash has her costume on, ready to swim with me for the final section. There are moon jellies now, like my friends at the start. Bonjour, boys. I keep thinking I see the seabed, but it’s actually just silt moving underneath me from the lateral force of the tide.
Finally, the boat slides behind me, and I approach the shore alone. With the reference point of the rocks up ahead, I’m suddenly able to gain perspective of how strong the tide is. I am being pushed sideways much faster than I’m swimming forwards but eventually I see big boulders raising up underneath me.
I reach for one and half stand-up, but it’s fully submerged so I swim on to the next one. It’s gently sloping and soft with seaweed so I stagger up it. The second the waves clear my feet the boat’s siren goes off. I’ve done it.
I sit on the rock with my head in my hands and cry into my goggles. The others are whooping and cheering on the boat, and I raise a half-hearted fist with my good arm. I try to look triumphant for their sake but I don’t feel it at all, I just feel broken.
I breaststroke back to the boat, teeth chattering, up the secret steps at the back with help from Mike Ball and into a double DryRobe hug from Ash and Sally. The floodgates are open. The treadmill of tears has begun.
Every synapse, every tendon, every inch of me is pain. As the Mikes push full throttle back to England, I hear that Célestine from my first SwimTrek camp has driven from Belgium to greet us in France, but I was pushed so far sideways she wasn’t able to scramble over the rocks in time.
Célestine and Ashleigh were on the trip where this all began. I never wanted to swim the Channel, but I had Lake Zurich booked and I needed to find out how to avoid hallucinating penguins again. Sally had mentioned Channel swimming a few times to me before that but I always brushed it off, it sounded rubbish.
But on SwimTrek I met ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things. And I thought if they can do it, why can’t I?
I get dressed with a lot of help and check out my new cauliflower tongue. I curl up in the sunny, comfy spot I have been dreaming about for the past 15 hours and 37 minutes.
When I wake up we’re nearly back, and I start to read through all the messages on my phone. There are literally hundreds and only now do I see that people have stayed awake all night to watch the tracker and the crew’s social media updates. It is a reminder that we might be the only ones in the water but we never truly swim alone.
When we land back at the Marina I am welcomed by Emma, Mikey, Fiona and Charlie from the Dover group, and have big hugs, fighting back the tears. I know I’ve moaned about the expense and the early mornings over the weeks, but I never would have trained this hard or had this much fun doing it without this bunch of legends. I never would have been a Channel swimmer without them.
I say thanks to the double Mike dream team for keeping me safe and keeping me going. Mike Ball was a guide on that first SwimTrek trip where this seed got planted, so he’s been there start to finish too.
I shower – painstakingly as I can’t raise my left arm at all now – and say a sad goodbye to Ash. I feel like I’ve barely seen her though I imagine she feels she’s seen rather too much of me this weekend. Weekend? What day is it? I don’t even know any more.
Sally drives us back to London, and I hear more about what the swim was like for her on the dry side. So much goes on behind the scenes which I was totally oblivious to in the water – feeding strategies, accurate predictions of swimmer meltdowns, quick power naps. Apparently as we were setting off on Saturday night the whole of the French coastline was lit up with fireworks for Bastille Day. We like to think it was also for our little nautical adventure.
When we get back we darkly joke how much of an anti-climax it would have been if we’d crashed the car through sleep-depravation. I still think that would have hurt less than I hurt right now. Even changing from being upright to being horizontal in bed makes me out of breath and wheezy. I still feel like I’m on a boat but I close my eyes and dream of nothing. It’s over. I’m a Channel swimmer.
Thank you for joining me on this crazy journey. Without a doubt it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it would not have been possible without Ash, Sally, Mike Ball and Mike Oram, Emma France and the whole of the Dover Harbour Beach Crew and all the crazy and wonderful swimmers I have met on the beach, Cliffy, Fiona and Mark from SwimTrek, all of the swimmers on the 2018 and 2017 Mallorca camps, Mark, André and the BLDSA, my parents, my family and friends, my colleagues, the wider swimming community and you, dear readers, who have stuck this out until the end. I don’t know what it is about taking all your clothes off and jumping in to cold water for extended periods of time that makes swimmers so great, but I’m proud as hell to be a part of this bonkers sport. Although I won’t be in a hurry to get back in the water any time soon, I will eventually. This is not the end.
“Nothing great is ever easy” was said by Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the Channel, and has become somewhat of a Channel swimming mantra. But I can’t give a man the last word on this blog. So instead I’ll leave you with this from Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the Channel:
“I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it”.