The story of my Channel relay

Sunday 16th August 2015, 2 am.  The Channel, just off Dover, escort boat Suva, Channel relay team CCAT**, two hours into their swim.  Kathrine’s friend texts her: “How’s it going?”  She texts back “It’s carnage.  Everyone’s vomiting.  I don’t think we’re going to make it…..”

The first clue that everything would not go smoothly came on Friday night, when three members of the team decided that the best preparation for the swim would be to go and see the premiere of a film about Captain Webb (the first person to swim the Channel and the originator of the saying “Nothing great is easy”), and then to go on to the after-party and stay out drinking until 2.30 in the morning.  Excellent!  The six of us finally left Tooting Lido around lunchtime on Saturday, headed for Dover.  The mood of suppressed hysteria wasn’t helped when we hit traffic and Pip, channelling (do you see what I did there?) Liam Neeson in Love, Actually, blurted out “It’s ok, I know a short cut!” and lurched off the motorway.  As we careered around the back streets of Rainham, Mrs Google becoming increasingly strident in her demands that we turn around immediately, we wondered aloud if we’d actually make our start time of midnight. 

Getting to Dover, checking into the Premier Inn on the seafront and going down to see the Channel soloists completing their seven hour training swims in the harbour calmed us down a bit.  It was all starting to seem awfully real.  And then, all too soon, we were down at the marina waiting for Suva.  Whilst there we were able to congratulate Fred Irons, just about to start the second phase of his Arch to Arc on Gallivant, and marvel at his endurance, having just run down from London, and headed for a Channel solo, albeit in a wetsuit.  He completed his Arch to Arc after the bike ride from Calais to Paris on Monday night.  Unbelievable, and I can’t say how much respect I have for him.

The first shock about the actual swim was getting on the boat, and discovering just how poorly equipped Channel escort boats are. They’re mostly converted fishing trawlers, and they don’t necessarily even have anywhere to sit.  On Suva, there’s a small back deck from which the swimmers get off and on, a miniscule cabin with a toilet which, believe me, you don’t want to have to use when you’re seasick if you can possibly avoid it, and a top deck equipped with a couple of metal boxes which serve as benches, one covered with a bit of ratty and ill-fitting foam.  When you’re at sea the whole thing lurches around like a fairground ride and if you lie down, you either have to lie on the (hard, metal) deck or on the (hard, metal) boxes, where you slide around and run the risk of literally shooting off into the sea if you don’t hold on.  Two of our team had gone shopping the day before and we had half of Sainsbury’s in carrier bags.  There was nowhere to stow anything, and it ended up just dumped on the top deck, where it slid around and got in the way.  What were we thinking?  Note to self: next time, use crates.

And there probably will be a next time, although at 2 am, around the time Kathrine was receiving the text from her friend, I was curled up on the back deck because it lurched less lower down, trying to keep out of the way, miserably wondering how soon I would next be sick and thinking “I have no choice, I have to get through this, but I am never, never, never doing this again.  How on earth am I going to tell Kathrine?”  And that was before I’d even swum.  The prospect of doing so was terrifying.  It was dark, for a start, and I’d never swum in the dark.  I was swimming fifth, so I’d be going into the water at four am, an inhospitable sort of time by anyone’s standards.  It was choppy and there was a swell, and I’m not an experienced sea swimmer.  And I was cold, and sick.  But I’d seen Alfie, fifteen, and our strongest swimmer, doing it, even though he was throwing up almost before we’d got out of the harbour, and I’d watched Ian, swimming third, and Chris, swimming fourth and also horribly sick, going in without complaint, and I knew I didn’t have a choice.  One of the things about Channel relays is that there are rules.  You pick your swim order before you leave the quayside, and then you have to stick to it.  Each swimmer must go in for an hour, in turn, until you get to the other side, and when you’re in, you mustn’t touch the swimmer before you or after you, or the boat.  You may not actually have to swim, but you have to go in, and stay in.

And then it was my turn, and I was changing, and sitting on the top deck waiting.  It was cold in the wind and even with my quilted jacket on and my Dryrobe over it, I was shivering.  Kathrine clipped lights onto the back of my suit and my hat so that the boat could see me in the dark.  With five minutes to go I climbed down to the back deck and took off the robe so she could grease me up to avoid chafing, then put it back on, desperate for the last minute or so of warmth.  I said to Kathrine “It’s just a Dan session, and I can do a Dan session easily”, the hour long training sessions we have at the Lido with lovely Dan Abel of Fit and Abel.  She replied “It’s just a Dan session” and hugged me.  Kate, our wonderful observer from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (the official who confirms that swimmers have followed the rules, keeps the times, and writes a report so that everyone knows it’s a proper, official swim) kindly said to me “The air’s cold, so it’ll feel warm in the water”.  And then she was pulling back the gate, calling through to the pilot “Changeover”, and saying to me “When you’re ready…”.

Anecdotally, some relayers have to be pushed off the boat when their time comes.  I’m proud to say that cold, sick and frightened as I was, I jumped straight in.  The instructions are to swim to your chosen side of the boat (the pilot has to know which side to look for you) and keep going.  The first few minutes of my swim were terrifying.  I headed up the side of the boat and Suva loomed over, huge and dark, lurching towards me.  I tried to swim away but it felt as though I was being sucked back towards her and however much I tried I couldn’t get further out.  After a few attempts Pip bellowed “Barbara! Get away from the boat!”  I shouted back “I’m trying!” but it gave me the impetus I needed to take action.  I swam at ninety degrees until I was a decent distance away and then tried again.  I normally breathe bilaterally, but breathing away from the boat was hopeless, I just kept getting slapped by waves and swallowing mouthfuls of seawater.  Ok, I would breathe only towards the boat, then.  And that worked.  And then I just had to swim.  For an hour. 

The worst thing about swimming in the dark is that you can’t see anything.   Because we were doing so much of the swim at night the boat had a spotlight on us, and looking up at her all I could see was the dazzle of the light, and hooded figures on deck, hunched in their Dryrobes like malevolent monks.  You can’t see signs from the boat, so you have no idea of how long you’ve been in, or how long you’ve got to go.  You just have to swim.  I wasn’t enjoying the chop, but I knew from doing my qualifier*** when the last hour was choppy and unpleasant that it doesn’t help to swim breaststroke, so I set myself to follow Freda Streeter’s advice**** “Just keep your head down and your arms turning over until your tits scrape the sand”.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait until my tits scraped the sand, but I’m proud to say that I did keep my head down and my arms turning over; I didn’t miss a stroke.  In my memory the time passed in a flash, because there is nothing to distinguish one moment from the next; there was just the green haze of the water below, the dark loom of the boat, the dazzle of the spotlight.  In reality that hour seemed to last forever.  Once I thought I saw the white blob of a jellyfish below me in the spotlight.  Sometimes I dropped behind the boat as he went ahead of me to turn and I could see to my right the dawn beginning to glow in the sky.  Once I thought “That’s twenty minutes”, and then, later, “That’s forty minutes”, based purely on my own sense of time, but otherwise, I just kept swimming, and fighting the monkey mind.  Adam Peaty, the British breaststroke gold medallist at the World Swimming Championships has recounted how, as a little boy, he hated the water so much that he tried to climb up the arm of his mother’s friend to get onto her shoulders the first time he was taken swimming.  Dan Abel has a saying “The mind sets limits the body knows nothing about”, and my monkey mind spent the whole of that hour trying to climb up my metaphorical arm to get out of the water.  Knowing that I could not, would not, let my teammates down kept me in there. 

And then, thank you, oh thank you God, Pip was bellowing from the deck “FIIIIVE MINUTES!”, the signal that changeover was coming up.  I could see activity on the back deck, the yellow flash of Kathrine’s swim cap as Pip greased her up, the lime green of her costume.  And then, oh thank god, the back gate opening, Kathrine jumping off and Kate, Pip and Ian beckoning me in.  At changeover time the boat has to stop to let the swimmers off and on, and the next swimmer has to go in first and swim around the back of their teammate, so you do actually swim the whole way. But this means that the swimmer getting on has to be quick, as otherwise the new swimmer will be swimming away from the boat. They didn’t have to tell me twice, and I suddenly discovered that I could swim much, much better than I’d thought as I sprinted for the ladder.  And then I was on deck and Ian wrapping my towel around me, and it felt so lovely and warm.  The boat lurched and Pip threw a kind arm around me “Oh, no, no, no, mate!” and I barfed all over us both.  “Oh, mate, all over your Dryrobe”.  Pip, the kindest man in the world, made little of it: “Don’t be stupid, it don’t matter”.  That’s the wonderful thing about Channel swims.  Even when they’re at their worst, they’re magic, because you find out what you’re made of, and what others are made of too.  And every single one of our team is made of solid gold, right through to the core. 


Getting out after the first swim

And after that things improved.  Kathrine was in the water, swimming beautifully like a metronomic mermaid.  The sun came up and that made all the difference; we all started to sit up and feel more human.  Chris had stopped being sick and was asleep upstairs.  Alfie, bless him, our little lion, got ready for his second swim, had some coke and jelly babies, promptly threw them up (“That was ok; they tasted like coke and jelly babies coming up as well as going down”), and then got straight into the water to swim a storming second leg.  When he came out he had two seasickness pills and fell so deeply asleep that he slid off the bench when the boat lurched, fortunately onto the floor where we left him, sleeping like a baby in a pile of swim bags.  I slept curled up like a foetus in a corner on the back deck, until Kate, doing her job, enquired if I was ok.  I was, and went upstairs, where I had two slices of bread and butter and some water and felt a lot better.  We were doing ok; Kathrine, Pip and Alfie, our strongest swimmers, had got us across the British shipping lane and into the separation zone, and daylight made everything so much better.  It was light, for starters, so you could see the horizon, very helpful for not vomiting, the chop had got significantly less, and it was warmer.   I went in for my second swim and almost enjoyed it, swimming better than I ever have before in a calmer sea, breathing bilaterally and making every stroke count.  When I came out we were almost through the French shipping lane and could actually see France. 


Sleeping beauty

But here comes the next Channel swim challenge, and one of the reasons why it’s one of the toughest swims in the world: the tides.  The tides in the Channel are a total mindf*ck.  Because of the way they work, most swims arrive off France, say a mile or so, more than close enough to see the houses and the beaches and the fields, just as the tide turns, and starts to sweep northwards up the Channel.  No swimmer, no matter how strong, can make much progress against a Channel tide.  If you’re not far enough in, it’ll take you up the coast, parallel with it, but unable to get closer, for six solid hours.  You just have to keep swimming, able to see France but unable to get to it, until the tide turns again and takes you back.  We were coming into the coast just south of Cap Gris Nez, or Cape Grey Nose, which sticks out into the Channel at the top left corner of France. It looked as though all we had to do was swim straight to it, but in reality we were going to be swept back past it.  Then we had one more chance to get in, if we could make enough progress against the tide to be able to land south of Cap Blanc Nez, Cape White Nose at Sangatte.  To quote Pip, “We’re going to land between Grey Nose and White Nose.” “Where’s that then?” “F*ck Knows.”  Having spoken to Kate the observer, Kathrine was less sanguine.  “We have to put some really good swims in, or we’re going to Belgium”.  In Channel terms, going to Belgium is not good news – it would mean we’d all swim again, at least once.  I can’t tell you how much I wanted not to have to swim again. 


Mind that tanker!

And here the team really showed their mettle.  Kathrine and Pip both put in huge swims, before Alfie, our fastest swimmer, went in for his third time and totally smashed it, working his socks off, may the Lord bless and keep him forever.  Kathrine, watching as Gris Nez edged towards us and inexorably past the bow, said “I think he’s doing it; he’s inching us in”.  Ian was next and Kate came up from the bridge to say “You really have to swim here; there’s a sandbar between Gris Nez and Blanc Nez and if you can get over that, you’re out of the tide and you’ll get in.  But if you can’t get over it, you’re going up past Calais and it’s six more hours at least.”  So no pressure then….. And the chop had suddenly got back up; we could even see white caps out there.  Had we known, this was a good sign, as it meant we were coming to the sandbar, but we didn’t know.  Ian debated with Pip which side to swim; Ian wanted to swim to the left of the boat, as he breathes better to the right and would be faster, but that was the direction the wind and waves were coming from, so Pip wanted him to swim to the right of the boat.  Ian was against it, because of the loss of speed.  As he got ready to go in I’ve never seen him look so grim.  But still he went in without a pause and once out there, following his own instincts and swimming to the left, he swam like a hero; I’ve never seen him swim so well.  I can’t tell you how much I admire him for that swim.  The sea looked horrible, and with the pressure on him as well; I would have been terrified, but when it mattered he stepped up.  After thirty eight minutes of his hour Kate came up and had a serious conversation with Kathrine; I don’t hear well and without my hearing aids I couldn’t hear a word. “What? What did she say?”  “She said he’s done it.  We’re over the sandbar.  Chris will land it on the next leg.”  I honestly had tears in my eyes, I was so grateful that I didn’t have to swim again. Ian had carried the day.  When he came in after swimming his socks off for an hour we tried to tell him that he was a hero and he just stared blankly at us, almost too tired to take it in. 

Once Chris was in and swimming strongly Kate came up and told us that we could all swim in together if we wanted, and then it was a scramble to get ready.  Alfie had conked out again and Pip woke him and insisted he get changed; he sat half dressed in his Dryrobe methodically munching his way through an entire carton of sausage rolls until Kate chivvied us: “The land comes up really quickly at the end”. Chris said afterwards that he could see us all scrambling round in our costumes on the back deck and his heart leapt.  We were firmly instructed that we must NOT get ahead of him or touch him until he had landed and was above the high water mark. And then we were jumping in and swimming in behind Pip, following Chris onto the beach.  As the slowest swimmer I thought I’d be tail end Charlie but in fact I was keeping station with Ian, so tired was he after his epic leg.  As I swam I thought “Actually I could have done another hour easily”; the water felt warm and I was swimming well within myself. 


Waiting to swim in with Chris, Gallivant in the background

When I landed everyone else was in a group huddled around Chris, who was having an urbane conversation in French with two locals who had popped out to walk the dog and found themselves welcoming a party of mad English people, although to be honest Channel swimmers are probably two a penny in that neck of the woods; they’d already seen Fred Irons land from Gallivant, which must have been much more exciting.  One of our new-found continental chums kindly took a picture on Pip’s camera, and they both congratulated us before we ran around looking for our traditional pebbles to take back (it was a sandy beach, but fortunately there were some pebbles not too far away). And then we were swimming back to Suva and it was hugs and well dones and “You’re a star!” “No, you’re a star!” “We’re ALL stars!!” as we started the three hour trip back, before everyone conked out in a heap on the top deck.  My abiding memory of that journey is of Pip sitting on the back bench in the sunshine, Kathrine curled up next to him with his arm round her and her head in his lap, and a huge, huge grin on her face.


Journey back - Alfie in foreground and Ian, with me behind him

So would I do it again?  Well, knowledge is gold, and if I do it again, I’ll know so much more.  I’ll be better prepared, for a start; I was a substitute for this swim, for Richard Chatterjee who organised it and couldn’t swim because he had an operation in April and couldn’t train, and if I’d known I was doing it I’d have trained much more.  I’d have done more sea swimming to be more confident in chop, and I’d have done much more cold acclimatisation, and practised swimming at night as well.  I’d know that Stugeron works for me to cure seasickness, I’d know what food I want to eat on the boat when I’m tired and nauseous (and I’d know to put it in plastic crates and not Sainsbury’s bags).  I’d work more on the monkey mind and practice being able to swim long swims without knowing when I’m going to be able to get out so that I can still its clamour.  I’d know to have it in my mind that I’m going to swim four times, so I won’t be anxious if it looks as though the swim is going to be a long one.  I’d know how challenging it would be, and that I’m equal to it.  And I’d know that although it may be one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had, it’s also, by a country mile, one of the best.  So would I do it again?  HELL, yes!!  And I will.


Our swim track

CCAT Channel Relay team (in order of swimming): Pip Barry, Alfie Cunnington, Ian Clark, Chris Alexander, Barbara Jennings, Kathrine O’Brien. England-France 16th August 2015 in fifteen hours and thirty four minutes. 


Ian, Alfie, Kathrine, Pip, Chris and me

*With the deepest respect to those who  sailed and fought on 6th June 1944. Our struggle was miniscule compared to theirs.

**Croydon Community Against Trafficking, one of the charities we swam for. 

***To qualify for a Channel relay, you have to swim for two hours without a wetsuit in water of 16° or below. 

***Mother of Alison Streeter the Queen of the Channel, and legendary trainer of Channel soloists.

Photos courtesy of Pip Barry