Channel Swimming – Very lonely, but intensely connected
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 25th, 2009

How many English Channel swimmers have you met in your life?

Hold that thought; I’ll come back to it.

Swimming the English Channel – by which I mean not just the business of traversing Dover Strait under your own power, but of joining the Channel-swimming community — is as compelling a social, as an athletic, experience. What struck me most during our 14 days in Dover was Channel Swimming’s combination of being both profoundly isolating and powerfully communitarian.

What’s isolating is virtually every stroke you take. During my two 2-hour relay legs, I felt more “alone with my thoughts” than in 40-plus years as a swimmer. During the eight to nine hours of my Manhattan Island Marathon Swims, with 30-odd swimmers dispersed across the broad East and Hudson Rivers (not so the narrow Harlem River) I sometimes spent 30 to 50 minutes without even a glimpse of another swimmer or their boat. But at the same time: (1) MIMS is a race, keeping me conscious much of the time of my competitors and their positions relative to me; (2) My paddler was usually close enough to provide a sense of companionship; and (3) I could always see Manhattan to my left — and some of its millions of occupants . . . sometimes waving from a seawall.

In the Channel, once I stepped off the narrow, rocky beach at Samphire Hoe I never saw land again. Our pilot boat, the Gallivant, was usually in view, but I could seldom distinguish those on board. Indeed my first two hours in the water, I spent far too much time scanning its decks, while breathing, and wondering what those on board were doing, or how I looked to them. That diverted mental energy needed for my swimming, and contributed to costing me a quarter-to-half-mile of progress toward France.

During my third and fourth hours in the water (following four hours on the Gallivant) I consciously avoiding looking for, or even thinking about, those on board. Nonetheless I experienced a noticeable boost in my spirits and energy when Willie sat on the foredeck where I could see him, during my final hour. That prompted me to perch above Dave and Willie’s positions in the water for most of their final relay legs. The combination of not looking for – yet being able to easily see – another human during my second leg helped make the quality of my swim materially better, both in distance covered and quality of experience.

I spent only four hours in the Channel, covering about six miles, during our crossing. While waiting for a break in the weather, we spent 20 or more hours and swam approximately 30 miles, in Dover Harbor, training and acclimating to chilly and choppy water. For about half that time, I swam alongside one to three other swimmers (at times Mike Solberg, Lance Ogren or John vanWisse joined us). Swimming with partners was the best and most enjoyable training I did. Yet, on a windy day – which 11 of 12 were – the waves could easily obscure close-by companions. On the Saturday prior to our relay, I swam for 3 hours in the harbor, with 20 to 30 other swimmers. Even with that many, I felt alone virtually the entire time, having the company of another swimmer for less than 10 minutes.

This quality of isolation is what makes the Channel a greater challenge for swimmers than any other and requires a capacity for focus that few of us have experienced before. As Mike Solberg – who completed a solo a few hours behind our relay – wrote in his blog, “If you’re not internally motivated, you’re toast.”

On the other hand, there’s the communitarian aspect, greater and more embracing than I’ve experienced in four decades of swimming. Even at St John’s University, where, for four years, I spent hours every day swimming, hanging out, and bonding with teammates, I never felt as emotionally invested in the aspirations, efforts and success of my colleagues as I grew to be in Dover. There were over a dozen other relay and solo swimmers also waiting for a break in the weather. We’d meet repeatedly at the harbor or around town, always swapping weather rumors. In total we may have spent an hour or less with most of them in that time. And yet when good weather finally arrived on the weekend of  Sept 19-20, and five to six swimmers or relays went out each day, we literally hung on their progress across the Channel.

There was a tracking system on board the Gallivant, on which Mike Oram could call up the position on any vessel within a 20-mile radius.  We checked the positions of the other swimmers at least every hour, as interested in their progress as our own, and silently willing them along in our wake.

Our relay reached France first among those swimming that day, and on our way back across the Channel, Mike steered the Gallivant back to each following boat and swimmer in turn. We slowly circled each, cheering and telling each how strong they looked.  The next day several told us how much of a lift our visit had provided.  But we were thrilled as well, to see fellow “tribe members” inching their way across the Channel – tiny dots of strobing glow-sticks moving through a 21-mile wide inky-black void.

One of those swimmers, Lisa Cummins, was 11 hours into an effort to become the first Irish swimmer to do a double crossing. Ahead of her lay another 24 hours of nonstop swimming. The next day, we repeatedly checked her progress at an on-line tracking site – showing a map of Dover Strait and her course, updated every 15 minutes — as she made her tortuous way back toward England, with the changing tides carrying her first this way, then that, aching to see her catch the tip of a cape on the English side as one of those tides carried her to the west, and experiencing relief and exhilaration when her track finally intersected with land, after 34 and a half hours.

Now, back to the question I posed earlier. Freda Streeter, who has guided hundreds of Channel swimmers over the last 25 years, turned 70 three days after our swim. Several dozen Channel enthusiasts celebrated Freda’s birthday with a party on the Dover-Calais ferry, as we swam.

The next morning (after getting to bed at 2am), we went to the harbor to take part in an “afterparty” — a short ceremonial swim, followed by cake and a champagne toast on the beach, attended by an estimated 30 to 40 Channel “alum.” Afterward we breakfasted at a nearby cafe. Mainly by happenstance, the 5 swimmers who’d swum the Channel the day before were there along with another 5 Channel swimmers among their support crew. Later that day I realized that, considering only 1000 people have ever swum the Channel, I encountered 4 or 5 percent of all of history’s Channel swimmers in Dover that morning.

Two days later, back at home, I asked Rich Loveland, my daughter Cari’s boyfriend,

“How many Channel swimmers have you met in your life?”


So I told him about Sunday morning in Dover. His response: “That must have been like being in Paris in the 20s.”  And so it was.

2 Responses to “Channel Swimming – Very lonely, but intensely connected”

  1. agvido says:

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  2. agvideo. Pls feel free to quote me.

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