Tuesday 15th of June was a beautiful day- arguably as perfect as you could get for a long distance swim. We set off from Elizabeth on Jersey at 4am, and as the sun rose it glittered and glimmered through the low-lying haze and mist sitting on the sea, before finally gaining the strength to burn through.
By the time we arrived off the coast of Guernsey, it was a bright blue morning; clear, a little gusty, and the sun had already started to warm the water to a toasty 13.4°C (56°F for any non-metricated people!). It had been a 3 hour boat ride from Jersey to Guernsey, so I was beyond ready to put on my hat and goggles, cream up and slip into the water. The funny thing about such a long boat ride to the start was that I found it actually calmed me. In comparison to Jersey 2 France which was a 20 minute boat trip, or setting off for the English Channel which is 45 mins; being forced to sit still and just relax for 3 hours allowed me to completely mentally prepare. By the time the boat arrived underneath Fort Doyle on the north-easternmost tip of Guernsey, I was ready. Even the jellyfish hovering below me as they started to come to the surface for the sun’s warmth couldn’t phase me!
[Couldn’t phase me… too much. Apparently I screeched loud enough that it was the first thing my observer wrote on her report, but if you ask me that is neither here nor there, since I’m telling the story!]
I swam to the rocky cliff of the island, and pottered around for a little while to find a safe enough rock. COVID measures meant that I was not allowed to actually touch the island of Guernsey, so I had received permission from the Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club who ratifies all Channel Island swims, that I could ‘hover’ my hand over a rock. Proof of touching distance, but not touching. To do that, I had to find a rock I could safely tread water next to and not be crashed into it by the waves!
Eventually, I found one. I waved at the boat to indicate I was ready, hovered my hand, and waited for the ship’s horn to release me.
06:09am. The horn bellowed. Time to swim.
The first 3 hours were choppy, but that allowed the time to pass quickly as I had so much to concentrate on. The coastal areas around Guernsey are a minefield of shallow rocks, outcrops, islets and lobster pots. All of the rocks and the wind that was slowly picking up meant that it wasn’t just wavey- it was choppy on top of the waves. I spent the majority of the first section through those shallows focusing on following the boat’s zig-zag path through the obstacles, and straight-arming my stroke*. It was tough, but I was fresh so it wasn’t too bad!
[*Straight-arm recovery is when, instead of bending your arm while you move it from back to in front of you so that your hand is close to the surface of the water, you windmill your arms over the water. This means that when it is choppy, your hands don’t crash into any small waves on top of the water, which causes extra drag and slows you down. It is a bit more effort than bending your arm in the recovery phase, but takes a lot of strain off your shoulders not hitting the chop.]
By 09:09am, the water had warmed up to 14°C (57°F). I was cruising pretty happily, stroke rate at 48 strokes per minute (spm). Nothing much really changed for a couple of hours, my stroke rate stayed at 48-50spm, and was counting down the feeds until 6hrs and 39 minutes, which would surpass the longest swim I had ever completed. The boat even tooted the horn to tell me when I passed it- I did a little celebratory barrel roll.
At my feed at 14:39, after 8 and a half hours in the water, I started letting my crew know that I was feeling a bit tired. I could feel the cold starting to get to me a little too, but the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the sea was settling and calming down beautifully. They switched around my feeds a bit, giving me a little bit more caffeine and I was good to go again.
At this point, I’m reporting pretty much just from my observers report. In general in a swim, the hours all kind of merge into one for me. I zone out, I play in my head, I sing songs to myself and I make up songs, and I don’t really remember much unless something sticks in my memory.
I remember managing to catch a mini chocolate bar one-handed and gobble it down, (all hail the latent water polo treading water skills!) This was apparently 14:09.
I remember playing a game with myself where I unfocused my eyes every time I breathed towards the boat, and tried to make it’s name turn into different words. Turns out, a word like Lionheart can keep me entertained for hours!
So much goes through my head on a swim. Thoughts of everything, and nothing. It never feels like you’re just alone with your thoughts for 16 hours.
My brain occupies itself, I become hyper focused on my technique, my breathing, my crew on the boat, seagulls and jellyfish and bits of seaweed around me. I think about my previous feed and how it went. I think about my next feed, and how much I’m looking forward to it. I practice and rehearse EXACTLY what I want to say to my crew at the next feed.
Sometimes I zone out. It’s not boredom. I think of it more as a meditative state, or a trance. Time flies by, and the next feed takes me by surprise as it feels so soon to me.
Sometimes, I will have imaginary conversations or arguments. Almost like the kind you have in the shower, where you come up with that PERFECT comeback to an argument from years ago.
Leading up to my 16:59 feed, I started rehearsing something important that I wanted to tell my crew. I was getting really cold. I thought it through and tweaked it and changed it and perfected it; I wanted them to know I was cold, but I didn’t want to worry them. I was ok. I was fine. I was just getting really cold.
The sea temperature was down to 13.8°, and they told me that they were going to move my feeds to every 25 mins rather than every 30. The sea was completely flat by this point, mirror calm. Apart from how cold I was getting, the conditions were absolute perfection.
Unbeknownst to me, on the boat there was a different story going on. I was feeling pretty good, except for the cold and tiredness. I could tell that my stroke rate was about the same as it normally was, and so I thought I was making good progress. I thought I had worded my warning about the cold so carefully, so as not to worry my crew.
In reality, I had been stuck in the same place for nearly 3 hours battling against the current, and with my warning that I was getting tired and cold, the crew started to seriously worry that I was not going to be able to break out of the current I was stuck in.
We had started in Guernsey 4 hours before high tide, which had meant that I had had to battle my way away from the islands. High tide was 10:20am, which meant that about 14:30pm, 4 hours after high tide, the tidal currents were working exactly 180° against me. I had made a little over 2km in 3 hours, where in current neutral I would happily make 3km an hour. Matt, the pilot, started to warn my crew that if they couldn’t get me to try and break out of the current, I wouldn’t be close enough to the French coast to get the tidal “pull” as the current switches. Instead, I would start to be swept down towards Spain, and my swim would be over.
My crew knew that they couldn’t tell me this, so they started giving me messages from people watching online, and updates on my JustGiving page. They hoped that if they emphasised that so many people were watching and cheering me on, it would give me the extra boost I needed to swim that tiny bit faster.
They waited and waited for the tide to turn, and it just….. Didn’t. A fluke of the weather, or a fluke of the tides, but it continued to push me away from France than anyone on the boat expected it to. They’ve told me since that there was a lot of frantic poring over charts and tide tables on the boat, a lot of worrying, a lot of uncertainty. I had no idea- I just kept swimming.
There was never a set point where it became certain that I was going to make it. There wasn’t a time when they knew that I had made it close enough to France to catch the tide. The crew on the boat kept worrying, and I kept swimming.
At 20:00, the sun went down, and the last little bit of residual heat I was getting from it disappeared. I worked hard again to get the words right for my crew at my next feed: when you can only say 10-15 seconds of speech every 25 mins, you obsess over what those words are going to be.
“Every time I stop moving to feed, I can feel myself cooling down. It takes me 4-5 mins to warm up again after every feed”.
The sea temperature was back to 13.5°, my crew moved my feeds to every 20 minutes.
I don’t entirely remember Will getting into the kayak at 20:44pm, but I remember him being next to me. Funnily enough, I spent the next couple of hours worrying about him being in the kayak in his wetsuit- worrying that he was getting cold! The mind is a funny place.
Will bribed me through the last couple of hours with a steady supply of mini milky way chocolate bars and caramel macchiato flavour energy gels.
By 22:00, it was almost pitch black. It was only 4 days after the new moon, and having been staring at the bottom of the ocean for 16 hours, I couldn’t see a thing.
As we got closer to the beach, I could feel the swell picking up and starting to form breakers against the shore. I told Will to wait away from the shore- I didn’t want him to try and follow me in and capsize.
It took me a couple of attempts to make it into the beach- in my tired state and the blackness of 10pm, the waves felt almost unsurpassable. I would try and swim in, stand up, only to get knocked off my feet and pulled backwards by the wave behind me. Even thinking about it now, 8 months later, I can remember the strength of the waves and how I thought to myself that they must have been easily 5 or 6ft high. Of course, given how flat and mirror-calm the deeper water was, it’s highly likely that they were no more than a single foot or 2 high. But that’s not how they live in my memories.
Eventually I managed to get onto the beach, and I ran up to get away from the water line. I threw up my hands and called to Will, who radioed back to the boat. Apparently they sounded the horn, but I couldn’t hear it.
I don’t remember getting back through the breakers and out to Will in the kayak, but I remember the 800m swim back to the boat. I was absolutely, completely and utterly spent. It may have been because I had reached the end of the swim and my mental energy was gone, or it might have been a result of my brief break on the beach, but my shoulders started to seize. So poor Will and I were stuck between a rock and a hard place- I could barely swim, and when I did I was making slow progress. Or I could cling to the back of the kayak and allow Will to tow me, but it meant I wasn’t moving and so I got incredibly cold, fast. We ended up alternating, and the journey back to the boat took us almost 20 minutes. 30 seconds being pulled by the kayak, trying to kick my legs to stay warm, 30 seconds swimming until my shoulders got too painful.
In the end though, of course, we made it back to the boat.
15 hours, 59 minutes, 25seconds. 49km, or 31 miles. 42 feeds. An average of 13.7°. Average stroke rate 48spm. 46,080 strokes taken. 1st person to ever complete a Guernsey to France solo swim.