CHANNEL SWIMMING 5: Mission Accomplished – Mission Begun
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 20th, 2009

There is so much I could relate about our Channel relay, but I’ll save some for future installments, taking this opportunity mainly to say that Dave Barra, Willie Miller and I were successful in our attempt to cross the Channel as a relay on Sept 19 and to share the impressions that linger most strongly.

I proposed the relay to my friends because I’ve had a curiosity about Channel swimming resisting it as a goal for a long time because I prefer racing relatively briefly (20 to 90 min) to solo swims that last a long time – up to, say, 15 hrs.  My feelings are profoundly different through this experience. More on that later, below and in future blogs.

We’d planned a 4-person, 2-way relay, but our 4th, Steve Shtab had to return to NY on Thursday so it became a 3-person, 1-way. We were fortunate on Saturday to have the most favorable weather of any I’d seen in 12 days in Dover. That weather delayed us beyond our appointed “tidal window” of Sept 11-17. We spent most of our time swimming in Dover Harbor. I completed over 50,000km (30+ miles) which was invaluable for tuning up the “rough water program” in my neuromuscular system.

We reported to the dock at 0945, meeting Captain  Mike Oram, crew member James Willie and observer Del Carter.  We quickly stowed our gear onboard the good ship Gallivant and pulled away from the dock shortly after 10:00, cruising east toward Folkestone. The most storied departure point for Channel swims is Shakespeare Beach. We didn’t go that far, Capt Mike having chosen a smaller beach east of Folkestone as our starting point. I was to swim first, so I jumped in the water about 20 yds offshore, swam in and stood clear of the water line awaiting a signal from the boat to start.

At 10:44 the boat’s horn sounded and I waded in. I’m usually narrowly focused on stroke thoughts. Instead I found myself mulling over the range of things that could go wrong — early in my first leg — and potentially abort our relay before we’d even swum a mile. Will I cramp? Or swallow an errant wave? Which is exactly what did happen in the first few minutes. I coughed, sputtered, but swam on.

I was a bit confused about navigation. As we cruised to the starting point, Mike had instructed me that, early in the swim, we should keep the sun at around 1 or 2 o’clock for a bearing. Just before I left the boat, Del told me the sun should be around 11 o’clock. Somewhat conflicted, I halved the difference, aiming straight into the sun, sometimes going a bit left and sometimes a bit right out of sheer indecision. I’d been told to swim mainly within about 10 meters of the boat, but when I saw it steaming far off to my left — eventually as far as 200 meters away — I just assumed they were tacking to better match my swimming speed without going so slow as to expose everyone onboard to seasickness.

After a while though they came back to me and Willie shouted — most emphatically — “Follow the boat.” Which I did . . .  sort off . . . for the rest of my 2-hr leg — crossing behind the boat from port to starboard twice, each time inhaling diesel exhaust.  I also took a couple of rather leisurely stops, once to check my watch and chat with those on board, another time to suck down an energy gel. In the end, I covered a rather modest 2.8 nautical miles (approx 5600 yds) in my 2-hour stint, averaging about 60 strokes per minute — that is when I was swimming.

I was replaced in the water by Dave who proceeded to swim on the right side of the boat (is that port or starboard), stay within 10 meters nearly the entire time, and stroke 70 times per minute without pause for two hours, covering a full mile more than I had.

While Dave swam I learned a bit about navigation (too complicated to relate here, but I’ll try to explain in a later post, accompanied by a graphic of our route) from Mike Oram — and to receive  firm-but-gentle lecture on how successful Channel swimmers do it. He says they are ever aware of how many nautical miles (approx 2000 yards each) they have to cover and to relentlessly progress 20, 40, 60, 80 yards toward France. He revealed that when Petar Stoychev set the current Channel crossing record (just under 7 hours), his total non-swimming time (mainly for feeds) was 1 and a half minutes!

Mike said that when he guides slower or non-successful swimmers and watches them stop frequently and for long periods, he sometimes says, as the clock ticks away — that’s 20 yards, 40 yards . . . 160 yards! . . . you’re not covering while treading water here. Willie told me later Mike was doing exactly that during my gel-and-chat stop.

Willie followed Dave and kept up a strong, steady 68 strokes per minute — like Dave uninterrupted — for two hours. So as I jumped back in at about 2:40 pm to begin our 4th 2-hr leg I had several goals:

1) To narrow my focus to stroke thoughts and nothing else (Which is how I normally swim anyway.)

2) To swim only on the right side of the boat, keeping within 10 meters.

3) To stroke without pause for my entire 2-hour leg, and

4) To raise my rate closer to Dave’s and Willie’s. I was hoping for about 65 strokes per minute.

For the first 30 or 40 minutes, to break up the swim I did a semi-complicated breathing pattern, breathing 10 times to the left (toward the boat) and once to the right, then 12 left and one right, 14 left and one right, etc. up to 20 left and one right, then working my way back down to 10 left and one right, then back up, etc. That paled after a while, after which I breathed solely toward the boat for the rest of my swim, as had Dave and Willie — Dave on the right side of the boat, breathing left and Willie to the left of the boat, breathing right. This worked far better. I’ll come back to that thought in a bit.

Dave followed me for hours 9 and 10, repeating the impressively strong pace of his first leg, swimming approximately 90 minutes of it in the dark. He had glow sticks pinned to his suit and cap — a requirement for any Channel swimming in darkness. Mike told us that an Austrian swimmer was lost and drowned when he wandered 100m from the boat (Mike wasn’t his pilot) after dark during an attempt in 2000 for failing to wear a glow stick. At one point, the spotlight Mike had mounted on the rail and shone toward Dave as darkness fell lost power and Dave — though he was only 10 meters from the boat, indeed disappeared entirely. All we could see were his glow sticks moving eerily back and forth as he rotated while stroking.

Following Dave, Willie jumped in for what we expected would be the final leg, and the honor of touching shore in France — which he did after just 64 minutes. Willie outdid himself covering a lot of ground in that time, with a stroke rate that stayed near 70. I sat on the foredeck, staying where he could see me (as I had for most of Dave’s swim) because I remembered how much of a lift it provided for me when Willie sat there, where I could see him, during the last hour of my 2nd leg.

While I sat on the foredeck I marveled at what a beautiful night it was, the stars shining brilliantly above (there’s no “light pollution” in the Channel), the lighthouse atop Cap Gris Nez showing the way in, the cape itself growing steadily larger and more distinct as we approached. Each time the beacon swept our way over the water, I got a sense of the diminishing distance between us and the looming cape. Soon Mike announced that we had only 800 yards to go, then 200 yards and indeed the gap of water between us and the base of the cliff rising from the water’s edge, though shrouded in darkness, seemed incredibly insignificant. Mike pointed the floodlight at the shore and instructed Willie to follow its beam in.

It was an amazing moment when the beam picked up the rocks — right there — just 25 yards away. The thrill of suddenly seeing them, after striking out from England 11 hours earlier, and hardly glimpsing France at any time between (it was too haze-shrouded before nightfall and too dark after) was incredible. It also suggested to me what powerful emotions someone must feel who has swum the entire distance him or herself when the shore finally appears within reach.

Willie found it hard to follow the beam, at first following the boat out of habit, as it turned right and began moving parallel to shore so we wouldn’t run up on the rocks. But a moment later he turned toward shore and reached the nearest boulder that was large and flat enough to climb upon. As with the start of the swim, it’s not officially complete until the swinmer is standing fully clear of the water. After 30 seconds of careful clambering – at 11:04 elapsed time, –Willie was standing atop it with both arms thrust skyward, all of us on the Gallivant cheering and the boat’s horn announcing the successful completion of our relay.

For me the relay proved of even more value as an experience that will inform my 2011 solo attempt and all the training I do for it over the next two years. I understand it will take me longer — possibly much longer – than 11 hours to swim a solo crossing at age 60. But I don’t want to survive a Channel crossing; I want to swim strongly all the way and I appreciate, as never before, how exhaustively I will need to prepare to do that.

The difference between my 1st and 2nd swims was incredibly instructive for the swim I would like to have. The key insight was how helpful it was to narrow my focus to a pinpoint. As much as I pride myself on strength of focus and mental endurance, my thoughts were all over the place during my first swim. I know now that the enormity of the Channel does that to you. The most valuable thing I did in my 2nd leg was to swim close to the boat and look at it and nothing else throughout.

On the 1st swim, even when I was looking toward the boat, my attention was too diffuse, trying to figure out who was who on the deck and in the cabin, what they were doing. In particular, as I thought the end of my 2-hour stint was coming near — more accurately wanting it to be over — I kept scanning the deck for signs of Dave preparing to take my place. Finally I saw crewman James starting to set up the ladder. But then it seemed as if another 5 minutes passed and still no Dave in the water to take my place, nor anyone beckoning me back to the boat.

Mainly because my focus was so diffuse — and so unproductive — that 2 hours of swimming felt much longer than had 3 hours in the Harbor a week earlier. And that consumed energy I could have used to pick up my pace.

On the 2nd swim, I didn’t just look at the boat with each breath, I picked out a specific place on the boat at which to look — a stainless steel plate, just a couple of square inches, mounted on the hull halfway between the waterline and deck. I focused most of my attention on that plate and thought of it as my “pacing partner” putting all my energy into staying with it — while doing so with a brisk and steady, yet relaxed, rhythm. I  worked through a variety of stroke thoughts as well – for ten breaths focus on using a “foot flick” to drive the opposite hand forward to its catch, then for 10 breaths focused on keeping a lightly-but-firmly-braced hand and forearm in position to hold water on the stroke.

My concentration was broken numerous times — most often by a “rogue swell” that interrrupted my rhythm. It sometimes took six or eight strokes to get it back — and for me to get back in my “zone.” But the important thing was that I stayed with those focal points, or re-establishing them, for the entire two hours. It made the time pass somewhat faster, but more important gave me a clear sense of purpose throughout.

With two hours feeling so long, I have a sense of how long it might take for 14 or more hours to pass. But I also have a sense of ways to give more form to the passage of time and therefore help it go faster. Two came to mind in the hours since we finished. I expect more will as time passes.

1) Feed frequently. While it was important on a relay leg not to stop even once for a feeding, it’s essential to your maintenance of energy — and later in the swim your sense of sustaining warmth — to feed at regular, and, some say, very frequent intervals. Feeding at 15 minute intervals — but with a technique that allows you to gulp 6 ounces of liquid nutrition in about two seconds — should make the intervals between feel more manageable. Mike Solberg from Chicago, who finished a 13 hour solo shortly after we completed our relay, told us this morning that he fed every 400 breaths. That gave a finite quality to each of his swims.

2) Get information from a whiteboard. During the two hours I found myself craving some feedback on whether I was succeeding at the improvements I tried to make on my first leg. I think it would help to have one of my crew put info and inspiration on a whiteboard at regular intervals perhaps 30 minutes. The info could include stroke rate and pace. It could include focal point reminders. It could tell me I’d passed the 1st shipping lane, or was now in French waters. Or it could simply say – “Looking great, keep it up.”  Shane Gould did that for me throughout my 1st Manhattan Island Marathon in 2002 and I recall it as incredibly helpful.

3 Responses to “CHANNEL SWIMMING 5: Mission Accomplished – Mission Begun”

  1. Hello Terry,

    congratulations to your relay-swim accross the channel and thanks for your inpiring report. I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 12 and I can still remember very well how I was standing fearfully at the edge of deep water, regardless if it was a pool, lake or the ocean. When I finally started to swim I was very well aware of the momentousness of that moment: Considering that all the landmasses combined make up only 1/3 of the globe’s surface I realized that I had extended my reach by 200 % (3 times). When I was 30 I observed that I still had not reached my goal to swim 1 km under 20 minutes. On top of that I started to get neck problems, just “normal” symptoms of a civilization disease . When I was 34 I not only reached that goal but expanded it to 10km/=200laps under 200 minutes, actually slightly under 3:10. My neck had improved very much but now my shoulders started to hurt from my forceful swims. Since my goal to swim against the clock hadn’t changed and age was taking it’s toll I lost my joy and was swimming less frequently focussing more on Marathon and Ultra-Marathon runs. After my Vienna City Marathon ate age 46 I had to put up with 30°C heat and that was the trigger that got me back into the water. It was then that I discovered TI on the internet with it’s unique approach to swimming. After learning more about it, I was slowly shifting my paradigm from swimming against the clock to swimming with the least amount of strokes. Even though I am far from mastering the “Front Quadrant Swimming Style” my endurance has significantly increased and helped me to accomplish 35km in a 24 hour pool race (with a 10 hour break in between two 7 hour-swims). Thatv was 10days ago at age 53. My shoulders still didn’t hurt at the finish line and I could have kept on going “forever”.

    I also do open water swims in Italy up to 4km out into the sea and back. I have also practiced many hours in cold water (below 65°F) but I am very realistic about the channel: If I am not able to put on an extra 20 lbs (at the moment I got 180 lbs being 6:1 tall) I will not be able to survice the cold.

    Dear Terry, I wish you all the best for your channel crossing. May every yard you swim for the preparatin be a pleasure to you.


  2. Gerald
    Your story is inspiring and uplifting. I hope it may inspire others in our age range to pursue swimming improvement and accomplishment as you have. I agree completely that swimming marathons are more healthful than running marathons and they have the potential to teach us far more about what it means to be fully human.
    I feel that your experience suggests that swimming the Channel in the next few years would not be unrealistic. As well there are other marathons in warmer waters – such as the Zurichsee marathon (26km) – Aug 8 2010 is the next – and the Tampa Bay Marathon (24 miles) April 17 2010.
    I hope to meet you at the start of a long open water swim one day.
    PS: Where do you live?

  3. Terry

    Thank you for your kind and encouraging words.
    In long distance swimming I have noticed (at least for me) there are two
    major barriers: the shoulders and the water temperature.

    As the shoulders are the most vulnerable point of a swimmer,
    the knees are the most vulnerable point of a runner.
    I thank God that I have good knees that don’t limit me in running! In running I am limited by the temperature (always too warm)

    Once I have adopted a halfway decent style (which is still needing tons of improvement)
    I am no longer limited by pain in the shoulders.

    As in running, the next hurdle in Open water swimming is the temperature, but this time in the opposite direction (ie the cold). The ability to “grow a wetsuit”, ie gaining weight is pivotal for success in the channel. If I’ll be able to put on some extra weight, chances are that we really see each other one day at the English Channel. I am also considering to cross the Straight of Gibraltar some day.

    Have a nice and fulfilling winter swim season.

    P.S.: I am living in Austria, Vienna. A small and beautiful country where open water swimming doesn’t get any media attention. I owe all my knowledge about OWS to the internet.


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