English Channel 1: Swimming and Waiting in Dover
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 15th, 2009

This is the first of  a series of blogs from Dover, England, about my first contact with the English Channel and the close community of Channel Swimmers. I’ve been in Dover since September 9, hoping to swim to France and back – about 46 miles — with Dave Barra, Willie Miller and Steve Shtab, the three people I most enjoy swimming with.  The weather, as is often the case near the English Channel, hasn’t cooperated.

The Channel has two tides – neap and spring. Neap tides are favored for crossing attempts because the tidal changes are relatively small, with a difference of 12 to 15 feet between high and low water. On spring tides, the difference can be 18 to 20 feet, which means a greater volume of water moving through the Channel’s narrowest spot, the 22-mile wide strait between Dover and Cap Gris Nez in France – and greater difficulty keeping to your intended route across.

So crossings are booked during neap tides with spring tides sometimes used for carryover swims. Because there are fewer days of good weather than swimmers hoping to go with the 14 available pilots, it’s not unusual for some of those booked on one tide to be unable to swim. Some of those who miss their chance on the neap tide may make an attempt on the spring tide if there is a day or two of low wind and possibly fair skies.

But this year, we’ve been told the “winds of October” seem to have come early. And when they come, they stay! On the last neap tide, the final week of August, no one attempted to swim because the wind never relented. There was one relatively calm day on the spring tide and several people did go, with some making it. Our tide window is between Sept 11 and 17. By Sept 14, no one had made an attempt because the wind has been Force 5 to 7 (25 to 35 mph) without letup. Last night it was supposed to rise to Force 10. Weather watchers have spoken hopefully each day of a possible letup. Right now we’re hearing of a brief window on Wed and possibly another on Saturday – after our tide ends. But Steve has to go home on Friday. One possibility, if we can even swim on Sat (we’re 4th in our queue with pilot Mike Oram but a relay ahead of us has already dropped out for schedule reasons), Dave, Willie and I may try a 1-way, 3-man relay.

The four of us came over to have a shared Channel experience, with Dave and I also thinking about a solo attempt next year. Two things about our thinking have changed since we arrived:

1)    Possible has become definite. After swimming in the harbor, meeting other Channel vets and aspirants, and soaking up Channel lore, we’re now fully committed to solo attempts. We understand that swimming the Channel – and committing to the necessary preparation – is one of the most profoundly life-changing events anyone can have, and, to my mind, the ultimate experience for any swimmer . . . even more life than swimming in an Olympics, inasmuch as so few have done it. More people have gone into outer space in 40 years than have been swum the Channel in 140 years.

2)    We’ll book for 2011. The only remaining slots for 2010 are a few #3 and #4 slots. With weather here as unpredictable and challenging as it is, we know we must be #1 or #2 in our queue to have a reasonable chance at swimming on a good day. Last night Dave and I booked #2 slots with Mike and Lance Oram for Sept 5-10, 2011. Booking my “date with destiny” was a defining moment, as I assume it is for many others. I doubt there will be many days over the next two years on which that appointment doesn’t occupy my thoughts. Dave has also booked a #3 slot with pilot Paul Foreman for August 28 to Sept 5 2010. He’ll have no trouble finding a taker for his 2011 slot if he gets to swim next year.

Though we may fly home this time without having swum our Channel relay, none of us will leave with regrets. More on my reasons why in my next blog.

One Response to “English Channel 1: Swimming and Waiting in Dover”

  1. […] Last year I swam an English Channel relay with training buddies Dave Barra and Willie Miller, mainly to enjoy a ’shared Channel experience’  and to know the Channel first-hand for an intended solo attempt this year.  (Read a series of blogs describing the Dover experience and my motivation for being there, starting with this entry.) […]

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