Dennis Dressel’s English Channel Swim

Dennis Dressel
English Channel Swim
August 20, 2003

I arrived in Dover late Saturday afternoon on Saturday, August 16, 2003, after a 5 hour delay at JFK resulting from the great power outage. I checked into my bed and breakfast and went down to the harbor for a quick 20 minute swim just to feel the water. It has been a record warm summer in Europe and the water was a balmy 66 degrees.

After a good night’s sleep, I rose and went to the harbor for a 45 minute swim. Sally Minty-Gravett and Dave Parcells (my support crew for the boat) arrived at the beach as I was getting out of the water. My captian, Eddie Spelling was also there. The forecast for Monday and Tuesday was not good for swimming, in fact it was very windy but Wednesday looked good. Monday and Tuesday were spent swimming in the morning, lunch and dinner with friends, relaxing, and last minute preparations for the swim. The final decision for Wednesday would be made on Tuesday at 7:30pm. The forecast was not as good as previously but still a go.

We all met at the boat at 3:30 am in the harbor. The boat was loaded and we headed out of the harbor to the start at Shakespeare beach. At 4:32 am I hopped into the water, swam to shore, walked totally out of the water and jumped back in for my trip to France.

It was dark until about 5:30 am and I had a glow stick pinned to the back of my swimsuit so the boat crew could see where I was. There was a beautiful sunrise at 5:45am. The water felt warmer than the air and it was nice and clear with a half moon to my left. There was a fresh wind but it was from the north which caused the water to travel the same direction I was headed-a good thing! After two to three hours the wind grew stronger and I was a bit worried the weather was going to turn bad. But it soon dropped to almost nothing and the sea grew calm-an even better thing!

I was fed various mixtures (all liquid) of Maxim, Gatorade, etc. I fed on the hour for the first three hours, then every 30 minutes for the remainder of the swim.

The first 10 hours were uneventful. We crossed the Southwest shipping lane and marveled at the huge ships passing close by, then the separation zone, followed by the northeast shipping lane. The channel is like a big highway with a traffic control tower directing the ships passing through.

At about 10 hours I could see CPT. Eddie conferring with Sally and Dave and they all had serious looks on their faces. We were in danger of missing the “point” of Cap Griz Nez which would add significantly to the swim. We were only a few miles off France but moving laterally with the tide making slow progress toward shore. The crew explained the situation to me at the next feed and told me I must sprint in order to hit the point. After 10 hours of hard swimming I wondered how I can go any faster! Sally jumped in for 30 minutes as a pacer to push me then it was Dave’s turn to jump in and punish me for another 30 minutes. During the last two hours I did 61 strokes per minutes as opposed to 54- 58 for the first 10 hours.

The tide was pushing us laterally with the coast and were gradually coming closer to it. The point was coming up and it would be a mad dash to try to catch the tip of it. If not, there would be a lot more swimming to do! I missed the point by only 100 yards but was able to tuck in behind it and landed on huge boulders. The boat was about + mile off shore because of shallow water so Dave hopped in and caught me as I was landing and took photos with a waterproof camera.. We were at the foot of a large cliff and there were people leaning over the top applauding-it was great! My time was 12:07.58. We swam back to the boat and I was really, really happy and relieved.

Sally and Dave were terrific. Sally, a 3 time channel crosser is from the island of Jersey which I swam around in 2002. She has encouraged me for the past year to go for the channel swim and promised many months to be part of my support crew on the boat. She was superb in my feeds and keeping me informed where we were and who had called the boat to offer support .

Dave is also a 3 time channel crosser which includes a 2 way in 2002. He lives in Madison, CT and plans a 3-way in 2004. He and I trained together for several years in Long Island Sound and the Yale pool. This is his second time as my support crew. He was like a drill instructor the last two hours of my swim and was successful in extracting more effort out of me than I knew I had.

My pilot, Eddie Spelling, did a terrific job in navigating across the channel. Most people not familiar not with channel swimming don’t realize how critical and difficult a job this is. It is not a simple straight line across. The tidal currents are very strong and push you laterally across the channel. It is like a 24 mile wide river who’s flow changes direction every six hours but the intensity of the flow in unpredictable.