Channel Relay Swim 2003

Team (in swimming order)
Finbarr Martin
Margy Sullivan
Helen Oldfield

Like all good swims this one started midway through a quality bottle of wine. Summer was steamy, and the usual motley crew were relaxed and socialising on Naomi’s parents’ balcony in Rotherhithe overlooking the river. One minute there we were (that’s Finbarr and I) enjoying the view of the London skyline when the next thing we knew we were agreeing with Margy to swim the Channel in the three-person relay. Perhaps it was the heat (mid- August if you remember was a scorcher) that lulled us into a false sense of security, or the bravado that comes post three glasses of rosé or more probably it was Margy’s persuasive dogmatic powers but somehow we made the leap from salad days to feat of endurance.

Fast forward. It’s 2.30am just over four weeks later. We’re on a boat heading out of Dover harbour. Finbarr is significantly less relaxed. It’s dark and cold and he’s first in.

I woke up the morning after the bash wondering whether I really had agreed to the swim the Channel. Never mind, I thought we probably won’t be able to get a boat. Wrong! Margy even more efficient and determined than usual (I kid you not) called at 10.30am to say it was booked and we were off in a month. Good grief! That’s a few weeks to go from idle summer pottering at the lido to serious amounts of hours in the water. Not to mention the cold.

For the record, one of the reasons that swimming the Channel seemed like a good idea at the time was that it was warmer than it had ever been, due to the long hot summer. Rumour had it that it was 67F, as you got closer to France. After years of being ostracised as the skinny one who couldn’t take the cold I thought I could simultaneously break my phobia of English sea temperature whilst rebuilding my reputation. So I embarked upon a twofold plan of action – swimming no less than 30 lengths of the lido each time I got in and eating no less than 30 times a day in order to develop a layer of subcutaneous protection which Channel hard nuts proudly boast about.

Finbarr and Margy meanwhile had been swimming around the Scillies and going to France to take part in competitions, so they were quite trained up. Still they had a long way to go before they could confidently look four hours swimming in the face. Our training programme became a heady mix of endless laps of the lido interspersed by the highlight of going to Dover harbour to train with the experts.

One Saturday in September Margy and I got to Dover to discover, much to our chagrin, that there was no one else there. We felt like a couple of saddos. That was until Margy spotted a swimmer in the distance coming into shore. As he approached we wondered if we knew him. I can only describe what happened next as a scene from Last of the Mohicans. As we stood there, this fabulously honed, bronzed tall, Daniel Day Lewis God of a man emerged glistening from the water and strode confidently up the beach. Margy and I, overcome by this vision, found ourselves bursting into giggles in the manner of 13 year old girls. As he walked up I spluttered ‘Been in long?’ before we erupted into more schoolgirl guffawing. Suddenly Dover seemed less sad. We trotted down to the water and strangely enough managed to swim non-stop for two hours that day (could it have been the adrenaline rush?) – the most I’d ever managed to swim in one go.

We were due off on Wednesday 17 September. The day arrived. It had been hot forever, but there was a reported change in the weather on the way. So it was now or never. There was one slight technical hitch – the Doctor has gone and got a bad back that very morning. So bad that he was finding it difficult to move around. Swimming the Channel’s no problem then! Happily help was at hand in the shape of the NHS. Finbarr did a little insider queue jumping and managed to get some emergency treatment. The physiotherapist was slightly aghast when her patient enquired whether it was possible to swim the Channel with a partially collapsed disc. Never in the history of medicine had such an ailment been treated by the vagaries of the Channel.

So we’re on a boat heading out of Dover harbour. It is dark and chilly because it’s two in the morning but there isn’t a drop of wind. The swim begins officially when Finbarr starts off from Shakespeare beach at 2.38am. We use light sticks for the night swims. But the light from the boat and the moon mean that it isn’t too bad. In fact it is quite something to swim in the inky black. For the first six hours of the swim the sea was like a millpond – we even spotted a couple of seagulls bobbing around on the water having a chat. As the sun came up during Margy’s second swim it was truly magical. With the orange gold sunrise on the water it was hard to believe that we were on the English Channel. And as for the temperature, although it was cooler in the night, I swear that on my second swim the water felt actually quite warm!

Still, just before I got carried away by the idyllic scene it was rudely interrupted as the sea began to chop up during the seventh hour. I started to worry about prospect of a fourth swim as I’d been secretly hoping, being last team member in, to get away with just three one hour slots. This would mean a finishing time of 11 hours. I frantically began to work out distances and speed. I said a prayer to the sea gods but it was not to be. As Margy’s fourth swim came to a finish France, though tantalisingly close, was sadly not close enough. There was nothing else for it - trying not to moan too much I got back in.

Meanwhile, as the team had been swimming the hours away a crack team of helpers, chefs and boat runners had been making the journey very much easier. Well that was Rob and Egg. Both adopted radically different styles of service. While Rob endlessly ran around making bacon sandwiches, cups of tea and fetching towels, Egg made sure that he tested the quality of the food throughout the journey and slept in one-hour relay slots.

It’s my final swim. I can’t believe I’m in the water again but hope that if I swim fast enough I can hit France. I reach a personal best speed when I spot two jellyfish beneath me. The skipper had showed us that we were 1.5 miles from France on the GPS. I can swim two miles an hour so I hope I can get in quickly. Wrong again! I get out an hour later to be told there is still an hour to go! Good grief. Finbarr valiantly goes in for a fifth time. By now his back is magically cured - the Channel could give Lourdes a run for its money - and Finbarr reaches the beach 52 minutes later with Margy, Rob, Egg and I in tow for the last couple of 100 yards.

From a bottle of wine, to France. We’d made it. We were all very pleased with ourselves because we had done more swimming than we’d ever done before – Margy and I did four hours each, and Finbarr four hours and 52 minutes. It was a happy team.

Of course in time honoured lido fashion we finished it all off with a bottle of Moet and half a bottle of Jamesons on the boat back.

Egg meanwhile was resting on the boat floor. All the swimming and alcohol finally took their toll as I realised I was exhausted. Egg’s bacon sarnie inflated stomach suddenly looked like the most fantastic thing I’d seen in weeks. I made a bed with my towels and Egg’s stomach became a very comfortable makeshift pillow. And he thought he had got away with being a helper…I slept the rest of the way back.

By Helen Oldfield