Meryem Tangoren-Masood’s English Channel Swim

It all still seems like a dream and I still cannot believe that I can say, “I swam the English Channel!”

The worlds hardest open water swim, all swimmers, of all levels, are humbled by the powerful seas. More people have succeeded at climbing Mt. Everest, than swimming the English Channel.

The days leading up to my swim were very challenging. The emotional roller coaster while you wait for “your day to swim” is one of the hardest parts. I believe when your Captain says it’s a good time to go, you go. I had three times prior to when I swam that were possible starts. The weather had not cleared, so they were canceled. Finally after dinner one evening, I phoned Michael and he confirmed meeting at the docks at 2am, Saturday, August 11, 2001.

The gear was already packed from the previous “drill.” So, I went to bed around 9:30pm. I woke up at 1:30am and got ready like usual. Brushed my teeth, took a shower, put on sunscreen, swimsuit, and warm-ups. Took Advil and Dramamine with buttered toast and water. 2am we met at the docks to load up the boat. I was cheerful and chatty not realizing what was ahead. To my surprise there were many people to see me off. I saw Allison Streeter, Queen of the Channel having completed her 40th crossing this summer. She wished me good luck and reminded me that she always wears clear goggles, a much needed reassuring comment. Marcia, my close friend and inspiration was also there along with my new friends from Dover, Peter, Sheila, their son, daughter-in-law and family friend. I met another swimmer, who was also swimming his first attempt at the channel. I wished him good luck and gave him a hi-five while saying, “See ya in France.”

Everything was fine until Mike drove us out of the harbor. Suddenly, I had more than butterflies. I lost my breakfast and felt really scared. I had never felt so nervous in my life. I prayed and prayed until I heard Frank say, “Five minutes. Better grease-up now.” I put on my cap and goggles then I took off my warm-ups. Holding onto the metal frame above, Nasir greased my key chaffing areas. Everything was rocking back and forth. I felt so sick. I wanted to run away and hide, but I knew it wasn’t an option. “I can do this, one stroke at a time.” I prayed, “Please God protect me and give me strength.”

Feet first, I jumped into the silky darkness. The cool water felt like home. I took my warm-up strokes to the beach. After those first few strokes, I felt much better, but I was still unsettled. The water was warmer than the air, and I felt very comfortable. I rode a small wave onto the beach and felt the rocks below. “This is what I have to achieve on the other side. Remember, I can do this,” I said to myself.

I stood on the beach and to my surprise saw shadows of people. I made out Marcia, she came towards me, “I’m so scared,” I said. She confidently said, “You are ready for this.” Without hesitation, I looked out towards the boat’s light and ran in. The horn blew, beginning my swim. I swam as fast as I could. A minute later I realized the boat was signaling me to come-in, so I immediately did. They forgot to pin a light stick onto me, so they can see me in the dark. Frank leaned over and pinned the light stick to the back strap of my swimsuit. Mike told me they were putting the second light stick by the opening on the side of boat, the area I would feed from. The little red light reminded me of the little red lighthouse and I felt at home, alongside my boat.

The darkness did not scare me. The deep sea below did not frighten me. I love swimming and have no fear of what’s below. I’ve always believed that I’m in the home of sea life, so I should be polite and considerate. Unlike most, I saw the sea as my silky blanket. The harbor lights lit up the white cliffs gently. The black sky outlined the dark cliffs. They looked like swirls on a painters palette. The Cliffs were so incredibly large from the water, very surreal and absolutely beautiful at the same time.

As I swam, the harbor lights and cliffs quickly faded away. After two hard years of preparation and training, my day was beginning beneath the crescent moon and stars. When Mike turned off the spot light and I swam in the dark peaceful sea, I felt so honored to be swimming while others slept. I thought, “I am swimming the English Channel.”

I loved my night swim because I saw the most remarkable sunrise. The dark blue night slowly edged up into the sky as the orange hues pushed it away. My view was like one you’d experience in a planetarium. My eyes were filled with the sunrise when I breathed to the left. And when I breathed to the right, I started to see my boat, the Aegean Blue, more clearly.

The early morning hours went by very quickly. My feeds were on a 45 minute interval, which I later learned. I churned my arms, like the machine motion that they had been practicing. With each stroke, I prayed to stay strong and confident.

Many people ask, “What do you think of for so many hours of swimming?” The time when you are swimming is completely different than the time you experience in your daily life. It’s more like “time” when you’re on vacation. You don’t think of a specific task to be done in a certain amount of time. Rather, it is like a broad canvas or an experience. When I swim, I have no concept of time rushing away from me, or trying to catch-up. Instead, it’s like I’m on vacation, spending long moments somewhere, truly experiencing something either new or old but always in a fresh perspective.

My body had been trained to subconsciously concentrate on swimming. My own rhythm of breathing every 3 strokes with my synchronized kick, kept me focused. Sometimes, I have many layers of thoughts. Sometimes, I sing songs. But mostly, I meditate on my stroke and my breathing. It can be very relaxing and exhilarating all at the same time.

The Channel is filled with so much significant history. I thought about where I was and the experience I was having at every moment. I wanted to be present and feel. I recalled Beleriot, the first pilot to fly across the Channel on July 25th, 1909. I imagined how he felt when he took off and only saw water. I also thought of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel on August 6th in 1926, at the age of 19. This summer was the 75th anniversary of her swim. And I thought of many other women who’ve successfully crossed, like Allison, Penny, Marcia, Marcy and Nora. I imagined my own finish, the glory I would feel, worth any pain I had or would have.

Several hours into the swim, for a brief moment, I wondered, “Will I make it?” The wind had increased and I began feeling tired. On my next feed, I told my crew and they instantly responded. Nasir and Morris encouraged me that I was swimming really well, “You’re holding a steady stroke count. You can do it.” Nasir began writing messages on the dry-erase board. I took each stroke with all my heart, while saying my prayers. I dug deep down within myself, “I am mentally strong.”

At one point, I remember looking up and only seeing the swells. “Wow,” I thought. “I’m swimming in some rough seas. But, if it was really bad, they would take me out. So, I must be okay.” I recall trying to figure out what time of day it was and realized I had no idea. Knowing they couldn’t tell me details, at my next feed, I asked “Am I making progress?” I had seen land for the longest time, which is commonly known as the English Channel delusion. They hesitantly said, “Yes.” And I never asked again.

During my feeds, my crew told me quick key information, like stroke count and how I was swimming. I controlled my desire to be chatty and concentrated on drinking the entire feed bottle. Often I surprised Morris and Nasir when I asked for the Listerine. “You drank it all?” “Yup, Vaseline, too please.” The mouthwash helped minimize the salt water swelling my throat and lips. It was so refreshing. The Vaseline helped soothe my lips. I loved the Listerine and Vaseline.

Occasionally Morris and Nasir asked me if I had seen the big tankers that whizzed by. “Wow! That was huge!” Earlier, on the boat ride over, Michael told me that he’d give me some apple tea, if I was swimming well. I had noticed the packet on his boat and was so excited to see a “Turkish product” aboard. Sometimes, I wondered when will I get that tea. I think it was an indirect bait that kept me going.

Occasionally during the swim, Michael would wave to me from the wheel house. All I saw was his strong forearm straight out from the window, and his fingers gently twinkling towards me. I smiled when I breathed facing him, and he smiled back. Another indication that I was swimming well, was when Frank blew me kisses. Earlier he told me that only the good swimmers get the kisses. When I breathed facing the boat, I sayed “Yes!” To Frank who held the message board asking, “Will you marry me?” Frank, Morris and Nasir were truly the best. The little things meant so much to me when I swam. I felt so honored to have such an excellent crew looking after me.

I saw the Sea France ferry coming from in front of me, not from behind. Then on one of my feeds Nasir told me it was apple tea, so I knew I was getting close. But I still couldn’t see shore. But the message board started to give me clues of France. “Passport please?” A drawing of the Eiffel tower. And my favorite, was a drawing of a croissant. That’s when I should have known I was really close because crew never send messages about food to a swimmer. 1000yds, 800yds¸ 600yds..350yds.. “Nasir, I still don’t believe you!” He said “Swim straight on in. France is 350 yards ahead. I still couldn’t see shore above the swells.

I kept on swimming, and noticed the boat stopped. Onward I went and then I felt the warm water, like a Jacuzzi. I breathed to the right, three strokes, then to the left. I noticed there was another swimmer in the water. Three strokes, back to the right, three strokes, back to the left. Oh! It’s Michael, my captain, in the water next to me! “Meryem, swim to shore, stand where there’s no more water and then wave to the boat!” “Okay.” I kept on swimming, then, I was pushed towards the beach by a wave. I kept my head down and swam in as hard as I could.

Like slow motion, the finish onto the beautiful French beach of Sangatte, was incredible. I swam until my hand touched the sand. When I stood up and started to walk, I noticed it was deep again, just like Greenwich, my training grounds. So I plopped back down and swam the last few strokes until the sand was literally below my nose. Somehow, I stood up and ran onto the beach. I looked down at my feet. I saw the glittering nail polish on my toes had lasted and there was no more water, just sand and rocks. My arms floated up towards the sky in a “V”, a true victory. I turned to face the boat and the horn blew. I looked out onto the English Channel and I knew it was over. I swam from England to France.

As I lifted my goggles off, I saw a couple sitting on the beach to my left. I tried to say “Bon Jour” in my hoarse voice. But the wind was too strong, they did not hear or see me. I quickly collected some rocks by my toes and as I tucked them into my swimsuit, I saw a big beautiful white terra-cotta roofed house under construction above the stone wall. As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight and air, I noticed people in the window waving to me. I waved backed and moved my arms in a swimming motion to communicate that I had swum from England. Of course they knew and they continued to clap and wave to me. I was so happy, so proud and so very humbled all at the same time. I said my thanks to God for this successful swim and swam back towards the boat. It was so real and so much like a dream. My short 300 yard swim back to the boat was the happiest “warm down” of my life.

Many people don’t understand why swimmers desire this crossing. The channel is a beautiful body of water, crystal clear, powerful, peaceful, and very magical. The beauty the sea offers is a humbling experience, so unique and so special. Every swimmers experience is different, just like our fingerprints. But for all describing how you feel when you succeed is like describing yourself from a video. It’s so hard to believe, even to yourself.

Would I do it again? It’s the greatest body of water to swim in, full of history, power and grace. If I have the opportunity, I will.

Saturday, August 11, 2001, Meryem Tangoren-Masood swam across the English Channel in 13 hours 31 minutes. Approximately 10 hours in Gale Force 5 (21 MPH winds) She is the second Turkish woman to cross.

Her successful crossing team:

  • Captain, Michael Oram
  • 1st Mate, Alan Ruston
  • Observer, Frank Richards
  • Trainer, Nasir Masood, friend and husband
  • 1st Crew, Morris Finkelstein, friend and co-swimmer
  • 2nd Crew, Karen Davies, friend and host at the Gladstone Guest House