One-hour slots. Five team mates. Thirteen to eighteen hours. Twenty-one miles. A Channel relay sounds doable and nearly impossible at the same time. I know I’m fast but the arthritis can bite hard even after just a forty-minute swim – when it lets me do it at all. When I first find out about the Aspire charity relay, and then that there is one spot left for 2019, fears snap at me: Your body can’t handle it. You can’t risk it. You’ll be letting everyone down if you have to back out.
But I am tired of being afraid.
I meet my team, the Tigers, at Parliament Hill Lido when the water is nine degrees Celsius. We scream together, and afterwards we fight palsy-like shivers to get mugs of tea to our lips. This is the best thing about the relay, apart from the swimming: a new gang of friends.
Training really kicks off with the first Dover weekend organised by Aspire, a charity providing vital support for people with spinal injuries. They’ve been running the relays for a decade. It’s early May and the sea still clings to winter. Watching the videos and thinking yeah, I could handle that is different to standing on the pebbles watching other people shriek as they go in, while the hoodie-wrapped Aspire crew chivy you not to dawdle. There are three weekends in all, May, June, July, and even though the mercury does inch up, entering the water never gets easier.
Always it’s the same: the dreaded first few steps. The shrieking (and swearing). The reluctant immersion to the shoulders. A bit of breast-stroke to delay the inevitable plunge of your face into water as you switch to front crawl. The merciful bloom of heat in your chest which makes everything feel good for about three minutes. The arcing route along the big yellow buoys to the far harbour wall that stinks of boat oil and fish on the turn, before a long slog back to the beach by way of a Premier Inn that always seems to take an infinity to pass. Mouthfuls of salt water that leave your tongue burned for days after.
What most surprises me about those training swims is the companionship. Thirty-six or so of us in our bright green hats pile into the water and with people ahead, behind, beside me, I feel the faintest inkling of what it must be to be a dolphin. In June we have to do the Qualifier: the two-hour swim in sub-sixteen degrees Celsius, a prerequisite for Channel relays. The sea is grumpier than it’s ever been, all grey slappy waves, and the water is a generous fourteen degrees. For every minute of it, I want it to be over. Only my teammates get me through.
Them and Jelly Babies.
Then the training weekends are done, and the first Aspire team is already off doing their relay – the Panthers, including my friend Jamie who told me about the relay in the first place. I itch to go, knowing I have another two months to wait. In the meantime, I put as much swimming as I can under my belt – the Henley mile (gorgeous freshwater, a gorgeous twenty degrees Celsius) and long swims in my local indoor pool (way too hot). It seems impossible, but my arthritis hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared it would be. I’ve hit on a secret: it hurts the same amount whether I swim for twenty minutes or whether I swim for an hour, whether I swim once a week or three times in one day as we do on the final training weekend. The pain is a bargain in return for my growing muscles and my growing stamina. Swimming non-stop front crawl for three kilometres becomes my new normal. I ask; my body answers.
On Saturday 7 September, the call finally comes: get to Dover for 14:30 on Sunday. We Are Go.
When I head down on the train, I find that my hands are trembling. There’s an ink-drop of dread in my excitement. I think of how lonely the swims will be, how much cooler the air temperature is now compared to earlier in the summer. The hours and hours of being on a smallish boat in the Channel.
We leave the marina at 16:00, a little disappointed not to have seen the Channel 4 celebrity team whose boat was moored next to ours, being loaded up with cameras. With the sun out it feels windy but warm. First in the water is Calvin, who has to jump off Anastasia and swim to the beach, and then plunge in for real.
The clock starts at 16:17.
Calvin starts strong. Next in after him is Dave. More clouds creep into the sky. I go below-deck to change into my swimsuit.
18:17. Matt the observer unclips the chain at the back of the boat and I go down the metal ladder. I stand on the platform above the propellers, and the water that sloshes over my feet is not as warm as I’d hoped for. In a voice that forbids any dawdling, Matt yells for Dave to come back in and when he’s close enough to the ladder, he shouts at me: ‘Go go!’
Water thunders around my ears before I pop up and swim around to put the forty-foot hull of Anastasia on my right. It’s cold, and then it’s not so cold, and I fall into my stroke. Below me everything is grey-green, although with my prescription goggles, I’m sure I can see darker patches. I am not entirely happy about this. The theme from Deep Blue Sea plays in my head (fantastic film score, so under-recognised). I snap at myself that no Channel swimmer has ever, ever been attacked by a shark and my brain replies: ‘Yeah, but.’
And all the while I am reaching with my arms, spinning, breathing on every third turn. Sometimes my team mates stand at the railing and clap or shout, but with the hat it’s impossible to hear anything unless you slow down and cock your head and there is no time, no time.
Okay, I’m cold again. I am really, really cold. It must have been forty-five minutes by now, right? Did I miss the sign? Let’s concentrate on how pretty the sunset colours are. All those pink clouds.
Yes, there it is, Alaine – our peerless team leader – is holding up the yellow laminated card.
‘Finally!’ I waste breath shouting. Only fifteen minutes to go. One potato two potato three potato…
It feels a lot longer than fifteen minutes by the time Mel is on the platform and Matt shouts, ever-serious: ‘Okay in you come!’
Towel-down, dry robe on, chocolate cake in mouth. The sun is newly sunken. I wish I’d swum harder but it can’t be helped. Those of us who have been in already are in good spirits, while Des and Craig must be chafing for their turns – even if all their swims will be in darkness.
There’s a luxurious five hours until my next swim. With layers and layers of clothing on, it’s comfortable up top, even though the waves make us stagger drunkenly between our seats and our snack bags. Nightfall. Amid the reefs of cloud, stars glint bright.
We enter the shipping lane. From where I’m sitting, I can hear the captain’s radio in the cabin: ‘Be advised there are cross-Channel swimmers out tonight, please give them a wide berth.’
And the ships are vast. Blocks of black with bridges lit up gold and orange as if mobile towns are gliding silently by. While they all keep their distance, their wakes come again and again to send Anastasia see-sawing.
My next swim is getting closer. Dave looks exhausted down in the water, and it sounds like he’s really feeling the cold. I watch for Matt to come out of the cabin with all the despair of someone awaiting their executioner. Three minutes. Two minutes. One minute. Less than a minute left of being warm and dry. Matt comes on deck.
There is nothing I want to do less than to go down that ladder. But time is pulling me on.
00:17 – the swim that turns out to be, mentally, the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.
I’m back in the water. Oh. It’s not as cold as I expected.
But it is a lot rougher than I expected.
I’ve never swum in a sea like this. I swallow throatfuls of salt. Between the swell and the waves and the glaring spotlight the entire boat seems to blink in and out of existence and I keep losing it. I know I can’t stray far from the light, and I can’t go so near the boat I touch it – if I do either then Matt will call the whole relay off. I’m not bothered about the cold or what might be below me anymore. I’m not swimming fast, no way near it. I’m just fighting to keep with the boat, to breathe. The waves are coming from everywhere. My arms dip into thin air instead of water. I am lifted and dropped as if I’m no more than a feather.
I’m in awe of the pilot’s ability to steer so delicately with a swimmer beside them, but surely they’re going to call the swim off. Any minute now. This is impossible. Is this dangerous?
I write about it in my head while it’s happening, my usual coping strategy. In the novel I’m working on, one of my main characters will be swept out to sea, and the ten per cent of my brain that isn’t focused on the Channel is thinking, f**k yeah, this is good research.
But the other ninety per cent wants this to be over, more than anything. I have to wait for the sign. If I can even see the sign when it comes up.
Though I’ve tried not to, I break. ‘How much longer?!’
‘Sixteen minutes!’ Alaine calls back.
But Alaine was, shall we say, economical with the truth when Dave had asked the same question with the same desperation.
‘ARE YOU SURE?’ I yell between waves.
I can’t believe it when I get the three-minute call, then two minutes, and then Matt – beautiful, beneficent Matt – is summoning me back and poor Mel is going in.
On board, I shiver and stagger into dry clothes before clambering onto one of the bunks. With a damp towel for a pillow, I doze for three hours. When I hear Alaine call Calvin up, I know I’ve got to get some more food in me. Cup-a-Soup, chocolate, Haribo Tangfastics.
The east is paling as Dave takes over. Mercifully, the inshore water is far calmer than the shipping lane in the night. France is no longer hazy, though I find it impossible to tell how close we are exactly. It occurs that I might be the one to land us. I haven’t allowed myself to hope for it until now; it’s always been a one in six chance, after all.
I feel ready. I’m not tired at all.
About two minutes before my turn, Eddie the pilot comes out on deck, which he’s not done before.
‘The tide’s slack at the moment but it’s about to turn. Now you’ve got to swim fast, or the tide is going to take us further along and it’s going to take us another hour, another hour and a half.’
At his words I feel a new weight of responsibility. And doubt. That thin grey beach really does look far away.
Only when I start attacking the water do I realise how tired I actually am. But the pilot’s warning might as well be a shark at my toes. Oxygen-hungry, I switch to breathing on every spin to the right. Now all my teammates are gathered at the railing. Hang on, they’re looking beyond me.
I switch my breathing to the left side so I can raise my head to see and oh – the sun. The sun has come up, a perfect yellow disc. I snatch a few more glances of it before I go back to right-side breathing. I mustn’t wander from Anastasia, not when she’s pointing the way.
A ghostly blob in the water to the side. Is that a jellyfish? Maybe just some bubbles from the downward sweep of my hand.
Oh, okay, yes, there is definitely a jellyfish under me. A small barrel one. You guys just stay down there. Just not in the face, please not in the face.
As my left arm reaches its full extent, the palm of my hand lands on something in the water – smooth, curved, solid, slightly warm. I flinch away, surge on. It must have been a buoy (spoiler: it wasn’t*).
The bit of land I can see if I crane my head seems to be getting no nearer. How can I reach it in my hour? Is the tide already taking me away?
Then a joyful sight – one of the crew is getting the tender ready. We are reaching the point where Anastasia can go no further.
A few more minutes and then the tender is circling around.
‘Follow me now!’ the crewman calls.
Breathe. Reach. Kick. Reach. Kick. Breathe. Reach. Kick.
I spend precious seconds checking where the land is. Even with Anastasia and my teammates left behind**, I don’t think I’m going to get there.
The tender draws nearer. ‘You see the slipway? We’re aiming for that!’
I’ve always been terrible at swimming in a straight line.
And yet, I’m beginning to see ripples of sand and seams of weed beneath me. The seabed.
Now I can see that the slipway leads from the beach to a building perched on the rock above. It’s getting closer, it really is. Oh my god, I’m actually going to reach it.
I try to make every stroke count. The tender’s fallen back. The seabed rises to meet me.
And then the moment when it’s too shallow to do a full sweep of my arm. I put my feet to the muddy bottom and stand. Stagger through a morass of floating weed.
The sand is grey, the beach is tiny, the building above is shuttered***.
But I am here. Though the rest of my team can’t be at my side, I’m only here because of them.
The clock stops at 08:03. Fourteen hours and forty-six minutes.
I spend all of twenty seconds on French soil (well, sand) before swimming to the tender. When I’m back on Anastasia and we’re underway to Dover, the champagne comes out. Alaine starts her tiger-themed playlist (Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor, I Am The Tiger by Abba…). In the rough sea we brace and laugh and sing together, and I want to catch the moment forever.
When I wake the next day, the relay feels unreal.
I quite fancy doing it all over again.
(There’s still time to donate if you want to – though honestly it seems like every one of my friends already has, you guys are amazing – https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?pageId=1012986)
* No one on the boat saw me touch a buoy. Possibly it was the dome of a really big barrel jellyfish.
** Later, I saw a photo – my team had all been sitting on the front of the boat, looking as intent and serious as if they were watching an Apollo launch. Ah, my dear team.
*** The building, I found out afterwards, is the Restaurant la Sirène, just off Cap Gris Nez – if a solo or relay swimmer emerges from the Channel during open hours, a waiter comes down with a glass of champagne for them (absolutely devastating, to land before they opened for the day).
Aspire and the Channel relays
If you want to sign up to one of the best things you’ll ever do in your life, here’s the information to get started: https://www.aspire.org.uk/event/relay-channel-swim
Aspire works with people with spinal cord injury to create opportunity, choice and independence – providing invaluable services including housing, equipment, exercise facilities, and financial advice. Aspire is dedicated to achieving a world where people with spinal cord injury have an equal place in society by removing physical obstacles, economic barriers and social prejudice that divide disabled and non-disabled people.