It’s not about the Swim

By Dave Parcells

The weather in Dover, England is so unpredictable. When they forecast it’s going to be calm, they are right only 50% of the time, and vice versa when they predict it to be windy and high seas. In my week in Dover I saw calm days with High seas, windy days with reasonable seas. After a few days, I gave up trying to figure out the pattern. It wasn’t worth it. I needed to focus on one goal, reaching the French shoreline.

I arrived in Dover on Wednesday, August 16, 2000. I had heard that many of the channel swimmers meet at a certain spot each day to practice in the harbor. The spot was not hard to find. Each of the next few days I would go down to the beach each morning and get some practice in and talk to many of the other swimmers. My friend Dennis, who was also going to attempt a crossing, arrived on Friday and my crew, Mark and Dave arrived on Saturday.

On Saturday evening, Dennis and I invited the Queen of the Channel, Alison Streeter, out to dinner. We had met Alison at the Manhattan Island Swim in June and we wanted to pick Allison’s brain and have her share some stories and advice. Two weeks prior Alison completed her 39th crossing. An incredible statistic but what’s even more amazing is that she has failed only one time in her 40 attempts. We had lots of laughs and enjoyed the evening. During dinner, I talked to my boat captain, Mike Oram, and he said it looked like we would be going Sunday night/Monday morning.

I called Mike again on Sunday afternoon and he said the forecast looked good and to meet him at the boat at 2:00 am. I expressed concern about going in a spring tide (the neap tide didn’t start until Wednesday) and the projected high tide of 6.5 meters. Normally Channel crossings are done only in neap tides due to weaker currents, however, Mike stated that the weather usually was pretty windy this time of year and we could make it across the Channel in a spring tide under good conditions, although it may take a little longer.

Mike has been escorting Channel swimmers for 18 years, so who was I to argue. I said lets go and he said to be at the boat at 2 am.

The wind was calm all day Sunday and Sunday night. I was getting pumped up and feeling very confident as each time I looked at the large flag on top of Dover Castle, it was barely blowing. Of course I didn’t sleep a wink. What was equally exciting is that my friend Dennis was also going to be swimming at the same time on Mike’s other boat, piloted by Mike’s son, Lance. Dennis and I trained together, so it was a great thrill to be swimming the Channel at the same time. We reported to the dock at 2:00 and we pulled the boat out of the protected harbor on our way to Abbott’s Cliff, which is a couple of miles down the coast towards Folkestone where we were going to be starting from. As we pulled out behind the break wall of the harbor, the boat was hit with 8-foot swells. No kidding. We all felt the boat was going to capsize and within minutes Mike turned around and he said we’ll try again on Monday afternoon at 2pm.

Monday was windy but Mike said it was supposed to calm down by late afternoon and that the swim was going to be a bit “lumpy” the first couple of hours. Little did I know what lumpy really meant.

So I jumped in 63 F degree water at 3:06 pm to Force 5 winds (20 + mph) with the expectation that the wind and seas was going to calm down soon. The wind was causing steady 3-6 ft swells with an occasional rogue wave even higher. Well the wind did die down but not until 8 pm and then it only decreased to Force 4 (16 -20 mph). The waves eventually did decrease to 3-4 feet shortly after dark. But that’s the best it got, the wind and seas never did calm down like they predicted. I battled these conditions the entire way.

But I kept plugging along while getting tossed around like a rag doll. Waves were crashing over my head and rolling me over, and I swallowed plenty of water. During some of my previous long distance swims, I was able to maintain a stroke rate per minute of around 65 or 66. However, I could not get above 60 due to the conditions. During the first 4 hours, I kept thinking about quitting and asked myself many times why I was doing this. But every time I thought about pulling out, I remembered a saying in a book I was reading earlier in the day by Lance Armstrong (cancer survivor turned Tour de France bicycle champ in 1999 and 2000) “It’s not about the Bike” and I kept saying, “It’s not about the Swim”. It was about all the people counting on me by through their moral and financial support and all the people who were stricken with cancer who will benefit from the money I was raising for cancer. I thought about all the smiles on the 500 cancer survivors who attended a breakfast organized by St.Vincent’s last fall. All these survivors in one room who beat this dreaded disease. Suddenly, the tough swim and the pain I was experiencing paled in comparison to the battle each of these people went through in order to see the sun rise for another day. If they could win their personal battle, I could win mine. So I kept going.

Then around 5 hours into the swim, as it started to get dark, my mind took a tremendous turn for the better.

Suddenly, I was determined and knew at that time that no matter how harsh the conditions became, I was going to finish. So I kept stroking away (still at 60 per minute) and was making some good progress. The last 7 hours were swum in the darkness. It was a beautiful clear night with lots of stars and a half moon, but the only thing I could see were the lights of the boat 15 feet to my right. It was lonely but I could always see the shadows of my crew and that gave me comfort.

On one of my breaks (about 10 hours into the swim), I asked Mike where we were, how long it was going to take and when the tide was going to shift and possibly push me back away and parallel from the coast. If that happened it could add many more hours to the swim. He said I was about 5 miles out and if I swam hard the next hour, I should be close enough to shore that the tide change wouldn’t sweep me away but it’ll slow our progress and make it a little more difficult. I said to myself, “Like it could get more difficult”. So I sprinted as hard as I could for the next hour. At 11 hours the tide did change but I was close enough that I could fight the tide and bear towards land.

The last 2000 meters seemed like it took forever. Mike stopped the boat 150 yards from the beach and pointed his spot light on shore and said go for it lad. When my hand touched the sandy bottom I had this tremendous feeling of joy and exhilaration. I stood up, fell and got up again and ran to the rocky beach and thrust my arms up in the air at 3:15 am. No lights, no cameras, no welcome committee, just me on the French shoreline. It was exactly what I wanted. I could here everyone screaming and clapping from the boat.

finishing time 12 hours 9 minutes and 35 seconds

I bent over and filled my bathing suit up with small rocks to take back to my kids, Jenna and Matt. As I bent over, I could feel how light headed I was from the exhaustive effort I just put out. My visions of drinking a beer on the French shore didn’t come true, but I didn’t really care anymore. After a minute or so, I hopped back in the surf and swam back to the boat for the 3.5-hour ride back to Dover.

On the way back to Dover, I was speaking to the official observer from the Channel

Swimming Association and he said in all his years of observing swims it was the toughest beginning to end successful swim he ever observed.

The Channel was by far the hardest thing I ever did, (even harder than the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii) and I won’t do it again. Not that I wouldn’t want to, but there is no need to. I am now a lifetime member of this exclusive club and will soon have a certificate hanging on the wall to prove it.

I am thrilled and very proud that my efforts raised approximately $40,000 for the cancer prevention programs sponsored by St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Ct through it’s Swim Across the Sound initiatives. It’s a great organization and I feel honored to have been able to use my talents to raise funds for such a worthwhile cause. I need to thank all of my sponsors and supporters who helped me reach my goal. I am also thankful for my friends and loyal crew members, Dave and Mark, for helping make my dream come true. Without their support and dedication, I would not have been successful

Oh by the way, on the way back to Dover as the sun was coming up, the wind did die and the Channel now looked like a lake. I was gazing off towards the rising sun wondering how much faster my swim could have been with these condition, but then I realized “It not about the Swim” and smiled.