Notes on my English Channel Swim by Henry Eckstein
On August 24, 2000 I swam the English Channel. This is an account based on notes I made during the days leading up to the swim and right after the swim.
I had signed up and made arrangements to do the swim a year in advance as there are a lot of people that attempt the swim and very few spots during the season, which is pretty much only certain dates during the summer months. I applied through the Channel Swimming Association, an officially sanctioned organization that is authorized by the British government to conduct the swims. (The other organization sanctioned to pilot swimmers across the English Channel, The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, was not founded until 2001). I made arrangements with Michael Oram so that either he or his son Lance would pilot me across the channel. Swimmers sign up with Michael Oram as much as 7 years in advance as he is a very seasoned boat pilot and has only a few spots each season. My friends Michael Ross and Dickson Sorenson agreed to come to England to be my crew during my swim.
My wife Toni and I arrived in England on August 13th and spent a week with our friends Raja and Theoges Rajasundrum in Brighton (Hove, actually). The following weekend my crew arrived and we drove to Dover and checked into our Hotel.
As part of my preparation, I read books about swimming the English Channel. I read Marcia Cleveland’s book, Dover Solo. I read Penny Lee Dean’s Book, Open Water Swimming. I talked to quite a few successful Channel swimmers to get their experience and their advice. Nevertheless, the difference between my projection of what the experience swimming the English Channel would be like and the reality was huge!
What I could not get from the books was the feeling of comradeship (and group anxiety) amongst the aspiring channel swimmers. The swimmers this year came from England, U.S.A., Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Greece, India, Norway, Holland, Canada, Argentina and Germany. We all hung around the beach at Dover Harbor, meeting at 10 AM to train and meet with the other swimmers.
Dover Harbor has three major sections; The western arm is a port for the ferries and hovercraft that take people between England and France. The eastern most part is a major port for container ships etc. The middle section, which is bordered by giant piers that separate it from the eastern and western arms is about 2/3 of a mile wide and just as deep. At the deepest point from shore, there is a long sea wall that runs parallel to the shore. The sea wall protects the harbor from bad weather. Small, moored sailboats and other personal sea craft dot the center section. This is where many channel swimmers come to train, swimming laps between the pier walls; 1200 yard laps. When you get near the western pier wall you can hear the giant fans of the Hovercraft roaring.
At the beach by the harbor I met many veteran channel swimmers and people that have been involved in the organization, piloting, and observing of swims for many years. One of the most interesting people that I met was Fred Hammond who I was told could look at a prospective swimmer and tell if that person had the right physique and attitude to be successful. I also met Joe and Marlene Smith as well as a number of channel boat pilots and channel swim observers. A few times I ran into Allison Streeter. I had met Allison twice before when I competed in the annual 28.5 mile swim around Manhattan Island. Allison is Queen of the Channel having completed 40 successful swim crossings to date as well as being one of only three people to complete a three-way crossing!
On the weekend, Norman Trusty came with his car boot full of Channel Swimming Association souvenirs like T-shirts, caps, etc. The local veterans came to watch us swim, watch our stuff while we swam, inspire us and to provide us with a wealth of information about swimming the Channel. There were swimmers from countries all over the world. I would ask their opinion about the state of the weather particularly what they thought the wind would do over the next few days. I needed the wind to calm down enough or else I might not even have the opportunity to attempt the swim.
I found myself constantly looking up at the flags on the beach and the harbor piers to see how violently they were waving. Usually a boat captain will not start a swimmer if the wind is force 4 or above (12-16 knots). The biggest factor preventing the start of a swim was the wind. Unfortunately the weather in this part of the world is very localized and fickle. If the wind doesn’t calm down enough during a swimmers neap tide, that swimmer may miss the opportunity to swim!
Even the most experienced boat captain can only make an educated guess as to how the weather will behave during a swim. Sometimes swimmers are started in force 5 winds if the captain thinks it might die down later in the day. Waiting in Dover for my swim was very nerve wracking. My ears were wide open for any gossip about other swimmers. I would hear a rumor that some swimmer or relay team went out that morning but no one knows how they are doing. I wanted to ask a lot of questions. Did they make it? Are they still swimming? Was the wind worse or better on the French side than over here in Dover? Will the swimmers ahead of me on the queue get to swim tomorrow so that maybe I can go the next day? Will my time expire and if it does, how will I explain to my crew that they came over here for nothing? What would I tell my friends back home?
According to the charts, my neap tide lasted only 4 days. A neap tide takes place when the moon is half full and the difference between high and low tide is the smallest (less than 6.1 meters). During neap tides the speed of the water flowing through the Straights of Dover is the slowest. Spring tides are just the opposite. Spring tides take place during the period when the moon is almost full or almost new. During spring tides the water in the English Channel flows very fast. It is much easier to pilot the average swimmer across the channel during neap tides. That is why nearly all the swims are planned around the neap tide. The length of the neap or spring tide can vary from a few days to almost two weeks. The tide schedule can be predicted years in advance. I was able to make arrangements a year in advance for my swim based on a published tide schedule.
Every night at 7:15 PM I would call Mike Oram to see what my chances were. “Doesn’t look good tomorrow but we are hoping that Tuesday the winds will calm”. The local weather forecast was broadcast around 6:30 every evening. The boat pilots used this information along with other information to predict whether a swim across the channel will be viable the next day.
On Sunday, August 20th I had breakfast with Dennis Dressel. Dennis and Dave Parcell were scheduled to go out at 1 AM the next morning with Lance and Mike Oram respectively. Even though it was still officially the tail end of a spring tide, it was just slightly over 6.1 meters, close enough to do the swim. They had both swum in the Manhattan Island Marathon swim with me 2 months back. (Dennis finished 38 seconds ahead of me in a 9 hour swim!). It was still on the tail end of the spring tide but the weather looked good. The next morning I ran into Dennis at breakfast (surprise!). Their boats had gone out just beyond the harbor on the way to the start but they encountered heavy seas and had to turn back. They would make another attempt at 2 PM that afternoon. This is what is so nerve wracking about the channel. You have to keep yourself psyched 24 hours a day.
That day (Monday, August 21st) my team went to the boat docks at about 2 PM to wish Dave and Dennis good luck as they made another attempt. After their support boats left the dock, we got in our car and drove to Samphire Hoe, a mile long promenade a few miles west of Dover that was built over land fill that came from building the Chunnel. We ran along the promenade in fierce wind carrying our cameras, hoping to watch the two heroes begin their swim. We were just in time to watch the two boats heading out towards France. They had begun their swim from Abbots Cliff, a small beachhead just west of the promenade. The boats were being tossed about like toys. We couldn’t see the swimmers at all because of the rough seas. My crew and I stood on the promenade of Samphire Hoe looking at the scene with our jaws touching the ground (at least it felt like that). It was a terrifying sight. The wind was 18 knots. We stood there and watched until the boats disappeared from our view. The boats actually traveled in a north easterly direction as the strong channel currents quickly drove the boats in the direction of the North Sea.
That afternoon we drove to Canterbury Cathedral which is a short distance from Dover. When we got back to Dover I was surprised to run into Dennis who was not in good spirits. He had stopped his swim after a little over one hour. He told me that he could not even see the boat because of the rough seas! He said that he will get the chance to try again in a few days but he was obviously and predictably disappointed. He hadn’t heard about how Dave was doing so I called Mike Oram’s wife Angela and she told me that (after 5 ° hours) they were still going strong. I thought a silent prayer for his success.
At 3:30 AM the next morning I was wide awake so I went down to the hotel lobby and waited for about an hour hoping to see Dave come through the doors as a champion. After about an hour, I finally went back to my room and fell asleep.
At 7 AM on August 22nd I was having breakfast in the hotel sitting by the windows overlooking the harbor. At about 7:30 AM Dave and his crew and Dennis walked by the window. I ran out to meet them. Dave although very tired, looked like he had just won a major lottery. He had completed his swim in just over 12 hours. During the first half of his swim the winds had continued at force 5 then dropped to force 4. Whew! I told Dave that he was now my official hero.
Later that morning Michael Ross and I did an easy one hour swim in the harbor (63 degrees). Then we all drove to the top of the white cliffs, hiked, took photos and enjoyed the magnificent views. The day was crisp, the skies cloudless, and we could see the coast of France clearly. I had been told however that a crisp clear day like this also meant that the conditions were probably not good for a channel swim. The conditions that bring quiet seas generally do not bring such crisp visibility.
August 23rd was the 1st day of the neap tide. The winds were Force 5 and no one swam this day. In the morning I ran into Dave Parcell and his crew. They were jogging! The day after his 12 hour swim Dave was out jogging! I gave him a photo that Marcia Cleveland had taken of him, my training partner Craig Kandell and myself on the beach at Todd’s Point near Old Greenwich, Connecticut. One of Dave’s crew told me to be sure to buy ‘Sea Legs’, a really strong seasickness medicine. It helped them make it through the grueling 16 hours on the boat. Later that morning, I ran into Dennis who told me that he was now thinking of leaving and trying the swim next year.
I did another hour swim in the harbor with Michael Ross and then went to town to buy the rest of my supplies for the swim. My supplies included flowers, rice and fruit. I intended to make an offering to the deities of the English Channel as suggested by Steve Walker from Seattle who swam the Channel in 1996.
In the afternoon I drove my wife Toni and my friends Michael Ross and Dickson and Debria Sorenson to the old fort overlooking the Port of Dover. There was a lot to see up there but Toni made the suggestion that I take it easy. “You don’t know that you might swim tomorrow morning! Don’t waste your energy”! After checking out a few of the more interesting courtyards, Toni and I returned to the car and took a nap while our friends played and checked out the tunnels and other sights. Later that day, at about 4 PM Toni suggested that I call Mike Oram on our cellular phone to see how things looked. I did and he said that I should call back at 7:30 PM but that it looked pretty certain that I would get to swim the following morning. He said that the swimmer ahead of me on the queue had an emergency and had to leave and return to the United States. Therefore, not only did I move up in the Queue, but also Mike Oram would be my Pilot. Prior to that I had been scheduled to go with Lance Oram, Mike’s son who is reputed to be an extraordinary Pilot also.
I was glad that Toni suggested that I call him. I had not yet prepared my equipment and if I was to get ready and also get some sleep I had to hustle. We made the assumption that I would get to swim and as such we returned to our hotel. Michael Ross, Dickson Sorenson and I worked as a team to mix Endurox, a high-energy powder with a drink I found in the supermarkets in England called Lucozade. I was used to mixing the Endurox with PowerAde but that didn’t seem to be available in UK. Then we went to dinner at Topo Gigio, a small Italian restaurant in Dover where I loaded up on pasta.
At 7:30 PM I called Mike Oram again and he said the swim was on and to be at the boat at 3:30 AM. I went down to the beach with my offerings, said a prayer and threw them into the water. I was ready. I told myself that the hardest part was over. I had stuck with my rigorous training schedule over the past year and now all I had to do was:
- Keep Swimming
- Trust Michael Oram’s piloting skills
- Trust that the weather will hold out.
- Trust the boat captain (Michael Oram)
- Swim one lap (OK, a long one)
- Trust my pilot (Michael Oram)
- Keep moving my arms
- Do whatever Michael Oram says.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 24th, 2000
On Thursday morning I woke up at 2 AM. Michael Ross and Dick Sorenson who were to be my support team during the swim helped me to load the gear into the car. I didn’t want my wife Toni to be on my crew for the channel swim because I knew it would be very long and rough and I did not want to be worrying if she was alright or if she was seasick etc. Although she wanted to come she agreed to support me in thought during the swim.
My crew and I drove to the boat docks and then carried the gear down to the “Aegean Blue”. Captain Mike Oram was sound asleep on the boat. It was 3:30 AM. I woke him up. Mike apologized to me and told me that he had made a slight error. No big deal. He had used yesterdays tide chart to compute the start of my swim. So we had an extra hour before we needed to leave. This proved to be very beneficial to me as I had a chance to chat with him at length.
He asked me how long it took me to swim a mile. I told him about 22 minutes. He reckoned my swim would take me between 12 and 14 hours based on my swimming speed and the expected weather conditions. He told me that I had to swim really hard the 1st two hours to be sure that I cleared the Goodwin Sandbar. The Goodwin Sandbar is Northeast of Dover Harbor. If the current carried me to the north side of the sandbar, my swim would be pretty much done, as the boat would not be able to cut across it.
He also told me that today was the 125th anniversary of Captain Mathew Webb’s Channel swim in 1875. Captain Webb was the first person to successfully swim the English Channel. He began his swim at 10 PM on August 24th 1875 and finished about 22 hour later. I felt honored to have the opportunity to swim on this historic day.
The boat was named ‘Aegean Blue’. I like that name because it brought up memories of Greece and its crystal clear warm waters. Besides Captain Mike Oram, on board the boat were Mike’s crew Emma Ruston, an observer from the Channel Swimming Association, Derek (Dell) Carter, and my support crew Michael Ross and Dickson Sorenson. Mike Oram would be spending much of his time plotting the course of the swim and Emma was a skilled pilot who could handle the boat while Mike was giving his attention to navigational calculations, etc.
Each swim must be certified by an official observer for it to be counted in the record books. Derek, besides making sure that all rules were obeyed (no wetsuit or fins, no touching the boat or another person, no floatation devices, etc.) would keep a detailed log of my swim using a 6 page form created by the Channel Swimming Association. Every half an hour he would log my exact latitude and longitude. Every feed he would note exactly what I ate, how many seconds the feed took and anything I said as well as other general comments. Every hour he recorded my stroke count, air temperature, sea temperature, wind force and direction, wave height, state of the sea and whether the tide was ebb or flood. He also carefully recorded the name and exact time that any boat passed close to us. A copy of this detailed log was given to me after my swim.
My crew came with me from the U.S. to support my endeavor. Michael Ross had been my training partner the previous year when I did my first 28.5 miles swim around the island of Manhattan. He has a Ph.D. in sports psychology and owns a health club in New York City, the All Start Fitness Center on 63rd Street and West End Avenue. It was Michael that taught me how to train for super marathon cold water swims. Michael and I swam together on the Bronx High School of Science swimming team in 1964. We met again when I joined the Asphalt Green masters swim team in 1996. Michael and his wife Meg just had twins a few months before and so it was a huge sacrifice for Michael to come to England to support me. Dickson and his wife Debria have been friends with Toni and I for a long time. They live in Wycombe Pennsylvania and he is a film director. Both Michael and Dick crewed for me earlier in the year for my 2nd Manhattan Island swim on June 12th. Dickson brought his video camera to record my swim.
At 5 AM we left the docks and reached Shakespeare Beach at about 5:20 AM. Shakespeare Beach is just west of Dover Harbor and is about 1 mile wide. It is a very isolated beach. The only way to reach it on foot is to drive to a small village called Acliff and then walk down steep steps along the cliffs. During the daytime only a few locals can be found walking along the beach. I greased up using a mixture of Lanolin and Vaseline and then Mike Oram said I could jump in any time I was ready. I didn’t wait another second. I jumped in and swam to the beach. Later, when I watched the videotape, I heard Dickson Sorenson say, “May the angels be with you”.
The rules for swimming the channel state: the swimmer must start from dry land with no water behind them and end on dry land. I stood on the beach making sure that the waves didn’t touch my toes (I didn’t want any technicality to get in the way of my success). I looked at my watch. It said 5:26 AM. The boat’s horn blew and I ran into the water and started swimming. It was still dark outside but I could see the lights of Dover Harbor to my left. Mike Oram had suggested that I swim to the starboard side (right side) of the boat since I could bi-lateral breathe and the boat would then protect me from the wind and waves coming from the northeast. For some reason I swam to the port side of the boat and maintained that position throughout the swim. Anytime I attempted to breathe to my left I got a wave in my face. So I breathed almost entirely to the right during the swim. As this is my stronger side it worked well. I also avoided breathing boat fumes, which would have been on the starboard side.
I had heard from many others who successfully swam the English Channel that having the right psychology was more important than any other factor for a successful swim. I had psyched myself up during the last few weeks and made it a point to never entertain a negative thought about my swim. So my main thought when I ran into the water at Shakespeare Beach was ‘This is the most exciting thing I have ever done! I am so ready for this!’
After about and hour or so, the sun rose. I basked in the beauty of the sunrise while maintaining a steady stroke. The first of many boats that I saw was a container ship called ‘Aquitane’. It was emerging from the eastern arm of Dover Harbor. Seeing this huge ship a few hundred feet away from me was an awesome sight. During the next hour I saw 7 more ships! Mostly they were large container ships. I would try to make out their names when taking a breath. They had names like ‘Cantebury’, ‘Provance’, ‘Cezanne’ and one that I had trouble deciphering because it was in Russian (I think). It was an oil tanker called the “Kaptan Spivak’. A few times I thought I was looking at land only to realize that I was seeing the hull of a large vessel.
The Straight of Dover is the busiest shipping lane in the world. On the British side the ships move in one direction towards the southwest and on the French side in the other direction towards the northeast. During my swim over 30 large container ships, oil tankers, cruise ships and hovercrafts passed within less than a mile from our position. Often the wakes from these giants were enough to toss me closer to my support vessel. That combined with the constant rolling waves caused by almost continuous force 4 winds coming from the north east meant that I had to constantly focus on my swimming strokes.
The first two hours of my swim was relatively calm with Force 1-2 winds. This means maybe 5 knots causing small waves but very easy to navigate. However, a few hours into my swim the winds went to force 4 and the waves became between 1 and 2 meters high. Even the impact of high winds and waves can vary depending on whether the wind is with the current or against it. I am sure that the weather conditions during my swim was not as bad as 2 days prior when Dave Parcell swam. However, often I would bring an arm around expecting to grab an armful of water only to find my arm scooping up air. Other times I would complete a stroke expecting to lift my arm out of the water but find the water to high to lift it out. I thought about what Marcia Cleveland had told me after completing my last training swim in the US before leaving for Europe. She said ‘Don’t fight the waves. You can’t win!’ So I focused on feeling the rhythm of the waves, trying to make myself one with the sea.
Marcia Cleveland is an accomplished Channel swimmer and author of ‘Dover Solo’, a must read book for anyone attempting a major open water swim. She swam the English Channel in 9 hours and 44 minutes! She coordinated the 28.5 mile races around Manhattan each year and helped me train for the Channel. The weekend before I left for England, she threw a surprise sendoff party for me at her home in Connecticut.
About 4 hours into the swim, Derek, the official observer, called to me and started pointing at something ahead of the boat on the port side. I could see he was trying to warn me about something. I stopped and then I could see what looked like an island of seaweed floating on the surface. Derek was directing me to swim between a small gap in the mass of seaweed. I tried my best to avoid the bed of weeds but at one point I swam into it and I could tell that if I got entangled in these weeds it would be quite a struggle to get through. I remembered Marcia Cleveland telling me about literally having to crawl over a similar mass. The weeds dangle many feet beneath the surface and can entangle your legs and arms as you swim. After a few minutes of being navigated around the obstruction I continued my swim. This event was captured in my videotape. After I got past the seaweed, the camera panned to the horizon. The seaweed islands went on for miles!
On a number of occasions I saw giant jellyfish floating about 2 feet below the surface. I had encountered and had been stung by jellyfish many times when doing training swims in Long Island Sound in Connecticut. It’s not a comfortable feeling, being stung. Besides being painful, it used to make me angry. The irritation usually took about 20 minutes to wear off. The jellyfish in the channel are something else. I have heard their stings are excruciating and that many swims have been aborted because the swimmer was stung. The water in the channel is pretty clear, so when I saw jellyfish, I tried to steer away from them and kept my stroke shallow. I don’t know if that helped any but I never got stung during my swim.
One thing that is mentioned in the application for swimming the English Channel is that swimming the channel is a partnership between the swimmer and the boat pilot. Until I swam, I didn’t fully appreciate how critical the Pilot’s role is in a channel swim. Nor did I realize how completely brilliant these pilots are. It is not enough to be able to pilot a boat across the channel. It is not enough that the swimmer is well trained both physically and mentally and that the weather conditions are reasonable. The success of the swim depends just as much on the knowledge and experience that the pilot has in understanding the subtleties of the currents in the channel.
How are the currents affected by winds? How are they affected by a storm that might have taken place somewhere far away in the North Sea? How does the size of the tide and the speed and direction of the wind affect the speed of the current? From where and when shall the swimmer start the swim based on the swimmer’s speed and the estimated current direction and speed? During a spring tide the current can be twice as fast as during a neap tide. If the swimmer starts in a spring tide from Shakespeare Beach which is the typical starting point during neap tides, the swimmer might get swept too far north too fast and will probably not be able to do the swim (that is why Dave Parcell and Dennis Dressel started their swims from Abbots Cliff instead of Shakespeare Beach).
The pilot may start with 40 possible courses for the swim and then after watching the swimmer for an hour might narrow that down to 6. The pilot might continue to adjust the course as the swim progresses. The swimmer has to trust the pilot 100%. If the pilot says swim, you swim!
My watch has a thermometer in it. It can record and store the water temperature for 24 hours. For the first seven hours of my swim, the water temperature was 62 degrees. The second half of the swim registered at 64 degrees. At that temperature most swimmers unaccustomed to those temperatures would experience hypothermia within a short time. Even though I had trained myself to swim for long periods in very cold water, I still felt the chill throughout the swim. So when the sun rose and began to bless me with its warmth I was delighted. During my 3rd feed after swimming for 2 _ hours I commented to my observer, Derek Carter, how much I appreciated the sunshine. During the next feed, Michael Ross asked if I had any special requests (meaning did I want something in particular to eat during my next feed) and I replied “You Are My Sunshine”.
Because the time of the start of an English Channel swim is dependent on the tides, the probability of doing at least part of the swim in darkness is pretty high. Since the wind often picks up in the afternoon as the sun heats up the water, it is not uncommon for swims to be done entirely at night when the seas are often at their calmest. However, a lot of heat is lost when parts of the body touch the air as when the arms come out of the water. So a night swim, though possibly giving calmer seas, might increase the chances of the swimmer succumbing to hypothermia. I counted myself very lucky to have such a cloudless sky and to have begun my swim just prior to sunrise giving me a full day of sunshine. During many of my feeds either Derek or one of my crew would ask me if I was cold. To further help my psychology as well as assure my observer and crew that I was doing OK, I would always answer “I’m toasty warm”. To physically help to maintain warmth, my feed drink was always mixed with hot water that was heated in the boat galley. I looked forward to the warmth as well as the nourishment and short break from the monotony that these drinks provided me. During one feed after 10 ° hours when something went amiss in the galley, I received a cold drink. This was the one time that I became annoyed with my crew and expressed my displeasure with the situation.
While waiting on the boat in Dover Harbor before leaving for Shakespeare Beach I had an opportunity to talk at length with Mike Oram. He asked to see what I was going to feed on. I showed him the nearly empty container of Endurox and he carefully read the label. He gave it his blessing but he told me that the Lucozade that I mixed it with was pure sugar and for the purposes of this swim was useless. He called the Lucozade “pure garbage”. But we had premixed nearly all of the Endurox with it. Oh well. It was too late to do anything about that. He asked me how often I planned to feed and what feeding mechanism I planned to use. I told him I planned to feed once every hour for the 1st two hours, every 45 minutes for the next four feeds and then every half an hour after that. The feedings are very important and serve three purposes: to hydrate the body, to provide nourishment and to provide some warmth. We made the mixture concentrated so that it could be mixed with hot water from the galley right before each feed.
Each swimmer has to figure out his own mechanism for getting his food. The swimmer is not allowed to touch the boat or another person so the food must be passed in a way that these conditions are not violated. Some swimmers use a feeding pole with a basket attached where cups can be placed and held out to the swimmer. I used duct tape to attach 2 sports bottles to a long rope that my crew could throw over the side of the boat and then reel back in when I was done drinking. In the first bottle I had my Endurox mix. In the second was mouthwash. The water in the Channel is quite salty and after many hours can cause your lips or throat to swell up. This can not only be uncomfortable but has also been the reason some swimmers were unable to complete their swim. During the swim I planned to rinse my mouth at least every other feed. Marcia Cleveland gave me this idea and I am forever in her debt as I think I would have had a very uncomfortable swim without the mouthwash.
There was also a rubber band around one of the bottles. I asked my crew to stick a packet of Power Gel with the tab already cut off under the rubber band during each feed. Power Gel is made by Power Bar and is a gooey flavored sports mixture in a soft aluminum packet. I only planned to eat the gel as an alternate to my drink and if I felt like having something solid.
It is important to keep the feeding time to a minimum as the current is constantly moving you in a direction perpendicular to where you want to go. As explained in the application, with 20 to 25 feedings during a swim, if a swimmer took two minutes each time it would add 40 to 50 minutes to the swim. This could mean the difference between landing on the tip of Cap Griz Nez or being swept back into the Channel and spending an extra four to five hours in the water waiting for the currents to turn again.
My goal was to keep my feedings at 30 seconds or less. My idea was for the boat to pull slightly ahead of me, have my crew throw the bottles off the side of the boat and then I would swim into them. I would turn on my back and quickly squeeze the warm drink into my mouth, rinse with the mouthwash and then turn on my stomach and continue to swim. The crew would then reel in the empty feed bottles. I had practiced this during my last Manhattan Island Marathon swim. I found during my Manhattan swims that eating the Power Gel took more time, particularly because I didn’t want to litter the waters with empty aluminum packets so I had to fumble to get the packets back under the rubber bands. As it turned out I ate Power Gel only a few times during my channel swim.
I’ve heard it mentioned that having a successful swim was 90% dependent on attitude. Throughout the entire swim I kept repeating to myself ‘No matter what nature throws at me, whether wind, waves or cold, so be it’. I kept repeating ‘So be it’ throughout my swim. It became the mantra for my swim along with ‘Mathew Webb, 125 years’. I kept thinking that the next chance I would get to swim on a major anniversary date of Mathew Webb’s famous swim would be in another 25 years. I had this opportunity to be (for all I knew) the only person to swim on this anniversary and I did not want to blow it. As it turned out another swimmer, Patricio Dottavio from Argentina also swam on this day piloted by Duncan Taylor. He completed the swim in 12 hours, 17 minutes. Sometime during the last hours of my swim, Patricio’s boat returning from France came near ours and the pilots blew their horns, the Aegean Blue’s horn congratulating Patricio and Duncan’s horn wishing me luck.
When Mike Oram told me he thought my swim would take 12 to 14 hours I made the assumption that I would take 12 hours. I work well when I can break up large tasks into a series of smaller ones. Even though I knew that I had no real idea of how long the swim might take, I made this assumption and then celebrated each small victory. When 4 hours had passed, I thought to myself “Congratulations, You just completed 1/3 of the swim”. At 6 hours I thought “Half way there”! At 8 hours, “Two thirds there”! At 9 hours, “Wow! You only have one quarter of the swim left”! At 10 hours I thought to myself “You only have 2 hours left to swim.why, that’s only a typical morning work out”!
After 11 hours I still had not seen any sight of land. Although the occupants of the boat had been watching the coastline of France for hours, even small waves can severely limit a swimmer’s visibility and as such I had not seen land since the first hour of the swim. Never the less, after 11 hours I thought to myself, “You only have 2 hours left to swim.a typical morning work out”! After 12 hours, I found myself on the crest of a wave and for the first time since I began my swim I saw the French coast. It seemed very far away, more than a two hours swim. So I thought to myself “Only a 3 hours swim left.that’s only slightly more than a typical morning work out”!
Emma brought her favorite ‘Spice Girls’ CD on board and played it constantly throughout the 18 hour boat ride. Although I heard it when I played back Dick’s video tape of the swim, I couldn’t hear it when I was swimming. Dick told me that it drove him and Michael Ross crazy. During the neap tides in August, Mike and the other boat captains and crews who pilot channel swimmers may make numerous back to back journeys to get as many swimmers across as possible. This means long hours on the boat with very few hours break and little sleep. I imagine that after making the trip over and over again, each person finds a way to stay entertained.
Derek Carter did this by fishing for mackerel. At about 11 AM I watched in astonishment as Derek began fishing off the stern of the boat. Within a few minutes he brought up 4 mackerel in one cast. He had the line rigged with many hooks. I felt uncomfortable that he had bait in the water so near to me and I envisioned a school of larger fish speaking amongst each other “Well here’s a tasty dinner, but wait.over there is an even bigger dinner, a feast for all of us”. I also thought that no one on my boat should be taking anything from the sea. If anything they should be making more offerings. He continued the fishing for what seemed like a few hours. Although I found Derek’s fishing distracting, I made light comments to him during my feedings. During one, I asked him how many mackerel he had caught and if he planned to save some mackerel for me. I was told to keep swimming.
The force 4 winds resulted in 4 to 6 foot swells for much of the time. I could see the boat being tossed about and was not envious of my crew being on board the boat for so long. After 7 hours, Michael Ross joined me in the water for an hour. Except for the few days since he arrived in England, he had not done any cold water training that summer. I was very impressed that Michael was able to swim in the cold and rough conditions for so long. Normally, we swim at about the same pace, but after 7 hours of continuous swimming I was no match for Michael and so he literally swam circles around me. He was ostensibly in there to pace me, but I really did not want to be pushed. I had a rhythm going with my stroke and did not want to change that rhythm. I was not out to set any records or achieve a particularly fast swim. I just wanted to finish. But it was nice to have the company in the water. The visibility in the English Channel is pretty good because the water is always moving so fast. I could clearly see Michael’s stroke under the water from 20 feet away. After an hour Michael got back on the boat. The swim had temporarily cured him of seasickness of which he had been experiencing almost from the start of my swim.
Before the Aegean Blue left the harbor, Derek asked me if I got depressed. I found that to be an odd question and told him such. He clarified himself by saying that many swimmers begin to experience severe discomfort after five to seven hours when the body turns to itself and begins to break down muscles for nourishment. I remembered the last few hours of both of my Manhattan swims and also the last few hours of the six hours swim I did on June 3rd across the mouth of the Patomac River from Virginia to Maryland. During that swim we had 25 knots head winds against the current causing terrible chop and making it a particularly difficult swim. I remembered feeling the frustration of not being at the finishing point. In each of these swims I couldn’t wait for the swim to be done. But I can’t say I was actually depressed, just extremely tired. I remember a few occasions towards the end of each of these swims asking myself why I was so foolish to embark on such a task. There was no one I needed to impress. I should remember to never sign up for one of these swims again. But I was always determined to continue the swim until the end.
I told Derek that I didn’t get depressed and I decided then that no matter what happened, I would think only positive thoughts throughout the swim. Just like how the children in Peter Pan learned to fly. Think of pretty things.
So I was surprised that I didn’t really feel any frustration or doubts until 12 hours into the swim. At that point during one of my feeds I asked Derek for words of encouragement. All he said was “you’re doing great, keep swimming”. A few days earlier I had been talking with Joe Smith. Joe had attempted the channel twice when he was in his twenties but failed. Then, the year before, in 1999 at the age of 65 he became the second oldest swimmer to successfully swim the channel. His wife Marlene told me that she was so relieved because for the previous 40 years she never heard the end of his frustration. Joe told me that I should never ask how much farther I had to swim. He said that no one would tell you. This is because no one really knows. You can be 500 yards from France, but if the current changes, you can be swiftly pushed back out into the channel for another 4 to 5 hours of swimming. You just have to get used to swimming until you get to shore without any idea of how much further it will be. I was careful never to ask how much further I had to go but my asking Derek for encouragement had really been in the hope that he would tell me just that!
During the last two hours of the swim I had the illusion that I was swimming in a narrow channel between the boat on my right and a large stone wall on my left. This hallucination probably came as a result of fatigue and the constant wave action to my left. At my 7 PM feeding Mike Oram asked me to swim close to the boat. I found myself swimming what felt like just under the hull of the boat. I was concerned that I was too close to the boat but it also felt as though I was benefiting from a slight draft from the boat. I found out afterwards that Mike was piloting the boat so that I would land on a 50 Meters stretch of beach on Cap Griz Nez. If I was too far off the port side, I might have ended up missing the beach.
At about 7:30 PM I watched during my breaths as Dick Sorenson prepared to throw my feed bottles over the side of the boat. Then for some reason he put the bottles and rope down and picked up the video camera and began shooting. I figured he saw an impressive photo op and would shortly resume getting me my food. Ten minutes later he still had not thrown me my food. I thought that maybe he had forgotten and finally I picked my head up out of the water and yelled, “Where’s my food!” Everyone on the boat shouted back at me “Keep swimming!” They were anxiously pointing to beyond the bow of the boat. I thought to myself “How do they expect me to keep swimming without nourishment? Even if I’m close to shore, I need the nourishment to finish my swim!” I was thoroughly exhausted by now and felt that I desperately needed the food. I was angry with everyone for not seeing to my needs.
Then I saw the beach. It was only a few hundred yards away and I knew at that point that I would succeed. This was the first time during the entire swim that I clearly saw the French coast. I swam hard staying a few feet to the port side of the boat. When I found myself swimming ahead of the boat, I realized that the boat had stopped and that I was swimming the final stretch. I swam until I could see the gravel seabed. Then I kept swimming until the bottom practically scraped against me. Finally, I stood up and carefully waded ashore. The boat blew its horn and I turned around and gave a victory salute. I had swum the English Channel! My official time was 14 hours and 24 minutes.
I walked a few feet up the rocky beach and gathered half a dozen rocks. This seems to have become a tradition of channel swimmers, to gather stones from France. I unzipped the small pocket in my bathing suit and put my souvenirs inside. Then I noticed that Michael Ross had swum to shore with me. He had brought his disposable camera wrapped carefully in plastic that was heavily taped to protect it against getting wet. He started fumbling with the tape trying to unwrap his camera. As he fumbled with the plastic and duct tape, and within 30 seconds from the time I stood up, I started shivering uncontrollably. I was acclimated to doing long swims in low 60 degree waters, but the 14 plus hour hard swim had taken it’s toll and I realized I was in danger of getting hypothermia. I told Michael to forget the photo but he begged me to wait just another minute. I endured the shaking, and my reward was that about a year later I received a photo of the most awful looking creature you can imagine. That would be me after my Channel swim. My eyes were puffed and pale and the remaining channel grease made me look like I had climbed out of a sewer.
I ran back into the water and I swam back to the boat. The water felt warm compared to the air. When I climbed up the ladder on the back of the boat the first thing I said was to Mike Oram. “Give me Sea Legs”! Sea Legs are high potency anti seasickness pills. They must be super potent because I could not find them anywhere in Boots chemists or other drug stores in UK and I imagine they might have been banned. I had seen the ‘Aegean Blue’ pitching wildly during my swim and I knew it would be minutes before I got seasick on board. Mike Oram obliged me after he escorted me carefully to inside the cabin and sat me down. I was so tired that he and my crew had to hold my arms up for me so that they could slip on my sweat shirt. Mike wrapped a warm towel around my head. We lose 25% of heat from the head. Then I was given a cup of strong hot tea.
I kept shivering for another half hour. This kind of shivering was not new to me. Some of my training swims were in water as low as 51 degrees. But besides shivering, during the first 45 minutes of the four hour trip back to England, until the Sea Legs kicked in, I was horribly sea sick. I was sea sick, shivering, my arms were aching terribly and I was grinning like I was drunk. Dick called my wife Toni who was waiting anxiously in our hotel in Dover and I talked to her for about 5 seconds. I told her ‘I did it’ but then I was too tired to hold the phone or even speak. I lay back on the narrow bed in the boat cabin and closed my eyes and felt my consciousness expand to encompass the entire Straights of Dover. I felt incredibly fulfilled and within this feeling of oneness with the universe, I found myself witnessing beautiful ocean waves and in the middle was this one strange being that looked kind of like a benevolent white octopus with a human head. This could have been from the extreme exhaustion, but it was a wonderful vision and lasted for a few days whenever I closed my eyes. At last I slept for a few hours.
By the time we got back to Dover, it was after midnight. I was already feeling stronger and was actually able to help carry my gear from the boat to our car and then drive back to our hotel. Dick’s wife Debria and my wife Toni were waiting in the lobby. Toni had already told anyone who would listen that her husband had swum the English Channel. Toni loves people and makes friends very easily. Toni introduced me to a woman who was an evangelist preacher and some of her friends and at 2 A.M. in the lobby of a hotel in Dover I was beginning to regale them with my exploits when Toni collared me and dragged me off to our room. The first thing I did when I got back to the room was strip down to my bathing suit and jump into a warm bathtub. My reason for leaving my bathing suit on was that I would be presentable in case the queen of England came to knight me for my achievement. After a long hot bath and when it was apparent that no one else was going to show up in our hotel room at 3 AM I got into bed and slept. For the next week I took plenty of Advil as my shoulders ached so badly that I found it hard to sleep.
In the morning I went to the beach in Dover Harbor and I received congratulations from the channel swimmers who were there. I met Scott Lautman for the first time that day on the beach. Scott is an Olympic class swimmer from Seattle, Washington who was introduced to me by Steve Walker. I conversed with him by email prior to coming to England. He was scheduled to do the swim the next week with Michael Oram as his pilot. I was now in a position to give sage advice and told him to just keep his focus on the goal, France. Scott successfully completed the swim a few days later in 10 hours, 37 minutes.
The next day on Saturday morning members of the Channel Swimming Association had a brief ceremony honoring Mathew Webb on the 125th anniversary of his famous swim. There is a statue of Captain Webb across the street from Dover Harbor. The ceremony was on Saturday so that more people could attend. I felt so honored to have completed the swim exactly 125 years to the day after Mathew Webb’s triumph. Even 125 years later, fewer than 600 people had successfully swum the Channel. More people had climbed Mount Everest!
Besides Captain Mathew Webb, there have been a lot of people who helped me to achieve my goal by inspiring me including my friend Michael Ross who was the first to encourage me and help me to train for the 28.5 mile swim around Manhattan in 1999. It was only after I completed the Manhattan Island Marathon that it ever occurred to me to attempt the English Channel. This was definitely not a life long ambition! Another supporter is my friend Marcia Cleveland who seems to be forever inspiring and training wayward swimmers in the ways of the cold long swims. My training partners from my swim team, Meryem Tangoren (who swam the Channel in 2001 on what is reputed to be the most horrendous weather conditions ever seen during a successful swim) and Craig Kandell also kept me focused and encouraged.
But my greatest inspiration is my wife Toni. This is because she is the one person in my life that never underestimated my ability to do anything that I set my mind to. She patiently endured years of watching me go from the swimming pool to work to the swimming pool and then to sleep seven days a week. She always made sure that I kept my focus on the things that were most important. And most important she believed in me.
- Henry Eckstein is Vice President and Chief Information Officer for York Insurance Services Group, Inc.
- He was 52 years old when he swam the English Channel.