If You Don’t Put Your Toes In The Water You’ll Never Know The Temperature. English Channel Attempt
Beginning Preparation: I finally decided to commit and start my planning in June 2015. I contacted Dave to see what we needed to do to get a slot for the summer of 2016. He put me in contact with Michael Orem a Channel Swimming and Pilot Federation Pilot to see what was available. I looked at the dates and positions he had available and decided on the window from 9 – 16 August 2016, position number 3. This was a NEAP tide window (the smallest differential between high and low tides-3meters or approximately 10 feet). The other option was the Spring Tide with 10 meters of difference or approximately 20 feet.
I then started looking for lodging and dates for when I wanted to arrive in Dover to allow this Texas swimmer plenty of time to acclimatize to the cold water! I knew that going from 80 to 62 degree water needed some adjustment time. I also started reading about English Channel tips from other Marathoners. Prior to the relay crossing, I had read Lynn Cox’s book, “Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer,” about her Channel Crossing. It was extremely interesting and accurate as to how our relay crossing and landing went. I found another great resource in the Channel Swimming Academy, founded by Loretta Cox and her husband Geoffrey. Nancy had previously met Loretta during our relay training on the promenade. We purchased and read Loretta’s book about her life and swimming. I contacted Loretta via Facebook and started a conversation with her about the Channel and my attempt the following summer. I obtained her and Geoff’s book, “The Channel Swimming Manual” and found it filled in all the questions I had that I couldn’t get from other sources. It is a great resource and covers everything imaginable. Loretta is a Triple Crown Swimmer, solo channel crosser (several times), relay participant many times, official channel observer (too many to count), and channel swimmers crew (many times). She gave me advice on feeding and schedule, training and when to accomplish your long swims, including progression of the length of time of the long swims.
Armed with this knowledge I embarked on a strength-training program for my shoulders. I used a program designed by specific swim strength trainers at Swim Strength Consultants. It was a great program and progression from easy to difficult was reasonable. I’m not sure if my 61 year old body was not ready for the increase of shoulder activity, or it was complicated by my trying a swim tether in my home pool and moving tables and chairs for a party, or it just created the perfect storm, but I ended up with a left shoulder bicep tendonitis. It was painful to swim anything for about a month and after that only when I did butterfly, Oh darn, I had to eliminate fly from practices! I slowly ramped up my practices over the fall from 3-4 days/week to 5, starting around 10-12K/week to final weeks approaching 40K/week. After the New Year I started to increase the time from just over an hour to 90 minutes. In February I started to get in the home pool when the temperature finally reached mid-50’s degrees. I would tether up and swim for 10-15 minutes 2-3 days a week trying not to re-injure my shoulder to start the cold water acclimatization. I remember one day I got in and the thermometer read 58, no problem I said I did 5 minutes the other day 10-15 minutes should do today. That cold water tingle was all over my body and lasted for a good 5 minutes. After I got out I noticed that was taking a little longer than usual to warm up, going on 30+ minutes. I bought a new thermometer the next day and put it in the pool and it read 52 degrees. I also was wondering why I was shivering more after 10 minutes out of the water when I thought I should have been warming up. I was aware of the “cold shock” entering cold water but hadn’t heard of the “after drop” effect. This is the explanation from Simon Griffins at Outdoor Swimmer, “When you swim in cool water the body cleverly tries to protect vital organs by reducing blood flow to the skin and limbs. Thus the core stays warm while the skin, arms and legs cool down. The process is known as peripheral vasoconstriction. Shortly after you exit the water, peripheral vasoconstriction ends. Cold blood from your limbs and skin returns to your core where it mixes with warmer blood thereby causing your deep body temperature to drop, even if you’re warmly dressed and move into a warm environment. This is why you often only start shivering 10 to 15 minutes after leaving the water.” Now I was prepared for cold water acclimatization and the after effects.
I had decided to do the 8 Bridges Swim again in June. This put it about 8 weeks out from my Channel attempt. As late March approached I transitioned to Boerne City Lake on Fridays and Saturday mornings swimming with Tri-Force (local triathlon club I affiliate with) and members of my local USMS masters team. The initial temps were in the low 60’s. These swims started at 30 minutes and gradually increased to 4 hours with my wife, Nancy, as my devoted and excellent kayaker. It is an important job in marathon swimming to have a reliable kayaker because they are responsible for direction and stopping you for your feeds (nutrition and hydration). This allows you the swimmer to only stay with the kayak while swimming saving energy from not having to sight for yourself. We practiced my feeding technique on every swim, trying different bottles to try and find the best one. When the USMS Long-Distance Postal event opened up for the 10K and 5K around May I completed both. I had been training some mornings at an outdoor 50 meter pool and had completed a couple of 10K swims prior to doing the two postal events. I was practicing my feed schedule with every practice over an hour. That schedule was swim an hour, feed, swim hour two, feed and then every 30 minutes, alternate hydration with feed.
In June, we took a two-week vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, which is on the island of Oahu. I swam almost every morning in the surf for 30 to 60 minutes. The surf was great and I was feeling good in the swells. The 8 Bridges was upon us and we did Stage 1, June 26th, 18.3 miles in 5 hours and 40 minutes, 5th out of 17 swimmers of all ages. But it was a painful swim! Around the 2-hour mark my right forearm started to hurt just above the wrist. If Dave Barra had not jumped in and swam with me for about an hour it would have likely stopped me, but he took my mind off of the pain. Around the 4-hour mark my left forearm started to hurt as well. I finished the swim, iced that night and got up in the morning ready to try Stage 2. Stage 2 was the next morning, June 27th, 19.8 miles. I was really hurting at the beginning of the swim, but I had decided that mentally I needed to start the swim anyway, as it was possible I might feel this way during the channel crossing and I was exactly 8 weeks from the start of my window! I lasted 3 hours 16 min before I officially withdrew and was labeled a DNF, the first time I had ever done this. I felt okay about this as I had never felt this pain before in swimming. I came back to San Antonio and immediately went to an Airrosti Doctor, had three visits and a week later was back in the water swimming! My next major event was to try and do a 10-hour swim. I had completed weekend swims of four hours but the lake was getting too warm to swim any longer. I chose to swim at my local pool as I could get there at 5:30 and swim till master’s practice, do master’s practice, swim till the next master’s practice, do the second practice and then keep swimming. I had all my feeds by the pool and kept to my schedule. At hour seven I started developing a pain in my right shoulder and lat area. Again, since I was now within 6 weeks of my attempt I stopped at the eight-hour mark, two hour short of my goal and 6 short of my 12-hour swim.
Now during all this, I knew I still needed to accomplish my 6-hour qualifying swim which had to be done in 16C or maximum of 62F water. Being in South Texas, that was not a possibility in the summer! I started getting worried about this, as without it I was not going to be able to swim. So it was down to the last weekend before we left for Dover. I called Dave and he said to come up to Minneapolis and we would drive to Lake Superior, Duluth Minnesota and find some cold water. He said Lake Superior is always cold. We arrived in Duluth on Saturday mid-day and drove around on the north shore to a friend’s weekend house and launched from there for a swim, Dave in the Kayak, me swimming. Dave was absolutely correct--it was cold. I had brought a thermometer with me to verify the temperature. Dave checked at the surface and we had 58F water. Woohoo, we were off! I surface dived in and immediately felt the tingling shock of the cold water all over my body, and told myself that I’ve experienced this in the pool at home, no problem. We hugged the shore where it was shallow (5-15 feet), hoping for warmer water. After about 30 minutes, we rounded a corner and the water got really deep (20-?, it was dark deep blue) and much colder. Another tingling shock of cold water! I’m thinking this isn’t possible is it, two tingling shocks, never felt this before. I told Dave this was much colder than earlier and didn’t think I’d last much longer in this water, so we turned around and decided to do a racetrack course near where we entered which was about 30 minutes per lap. Dave said we could do the 6-hour qualifier. Off he went to the house for the feed and off I went for another lap. Back at one hour and feed, feeling good. Off for two more laps. Back at two hours for another feed, okay could be starting to get cold. During the next lap I noticed my hands were getting so cold and I couldn’t feel like I was getting a good catch, but I could see that I was. I started opening and closing my hands trying to generate blood flow and heat. I started to kick more to also generate heat. At the next lap, 2.5 hours, Dave said he was getting his suit on to join me, as he said my stroke was slowing down. So off Dave went to the house and I went for the next lap. In addition to the hands and legs feeling cold during this lap, I noticed that my head was starting to feel cold as well and I had never experienced that before. When I came back, Dave handed me my feed and said he thought I should get out. He was in the water with the thermometer. I asked him what the temp was now? He said the surface temp was 58 but a foot down it was 53. I said that the colder water I felt (the second shock wave) had to have been in the upper 40’s. We got out. I did not complain. Still, a first for me swimming in 53-degree water for 3 hours! Sunday morning we went to a beach by Duluth where the water was 60. This felt like bath water compared to the previous day! I did a 2-hour swim, went back to the hotel, ate breakfast, rested and then went back for another 2-hour swim. The water early in the morning was like being at the beach with 2-3 foot waves crashing the shore. This is a lake I said to Dave how’s this possible and he said Lake Superior has been known for 40-foot waves (Edmond Fitzgerald disaster). After lunch with Dave and his amazing family I headed back to Minneapolis to catch the flights back to San Antonio, arriving home at 1 AM Monday after delays. We left for Houston to start our journey to Dover at 9 AM that same morning the 17th of July with me still not having completed my 6-hour qualifier.
Final preparations: We arrived in Dover on Tuesday morning, July 18th, just before lunch. First look at the Dover Harbor was beautiful, water was stunningly calm just begging me to come and swim. After settling into our B&B, I returned to the Harbor around 2 pm and what a difference! Not only was it now low tide, but the Harbor conditions turned into what I remembered from two years prior during our relay attempt, except it was sunny and warm. Note to self; always arrive in Dover with your swimsuit on ready to go. Anyway, undaunted I went for a 45-minute afternoon swim in the harbor. The water was a high 62 degrees. Felt good, but cold. The thing that always amazes me when I see Dover is the difference in tides. Coming from the U.S. we have maybe 1-2 foot difference in high to low tides. In the Channel depending on the moon you have either a 3M (10 foot) change during the NEAP tides or a 10M (27-30 foot) during the Spring Tide. No wonder we lost so many brave service men during the Landing on D-Day to drowning. We connected with Loretta and agreed on meeting Loretta and Geoff for dinner to discuss all the details of my progress and the next 3 weeks. All was going well until I mentioned to Loretta, oh by the way, I still needed that pesky 6-hour qualifier! I must say that she took it in really good nature, that British stiff upper lip thing, and didn’t miss a beat as she told us that we may have to go to Scotland to find water cold enough for qualifying as the Dover Harbor was now above 62-degrees. This was a major shock to us! But, then we looked at it as another opportunity for travel and sightseeing possibilities as well! Fortunately, Geoff got up early the next morning and went down to the harbor to check the temperature and it was at 16C, the limit. At that moment, I was just sitting down to my first hot full English breakfast (2 fried eggs, bacon (we call ham), English sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, two slices of toast and hot coffee) when out of the blue; Loretta messaged me to get down to the Sea Sport Centre immediately to start my qualifier. So, off I went without breakfast and told Nancy to bring my feed, no not that hot breakfast, but no hurry as she had an hour before I needed the first one and she should be able to enjoy the hot breakfast. As I passed by the kitchen window leaving the B&B our Innkeeper, Margaret, later said that she was wondering where I was going since she had just delivered our breakfast and wondered did she cook it that poorly I was going out to eat! Not a good start but we had a good laugh that afternoon.
It was probably best in the long run that I didn’t have any time to think about this 6-hour swim before walking into the Harbor to start. Besides, what a great way to get over jet lag! The first 3 hours were great. Sunny no wind and waves. At about hour 3, I had another of Loretta’s swimmers join me for an hour. He is an autistic gent who is planning to swim the channel this coming summer (2017) and may well be the first autistic swimmer to do so! The wind picked up and we had to shorten our racetrack course from the full width of the harbor (approximately 1000M) to half due to the wind picking up, and really turning the one end of the harbor into a literal washing machine! The next couple of hours passed quickly and I was done before I knew it. It was great, and I didn’t get cold at all. Over the course of the next two weeks I continued a regimen of swimming 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening or varying by 2 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. Swimmers told me that the local Harbor Seal while swimming may greet you but fortunately I didn’t get that surprise. We went to Folkstone one day and I swam 2 hours there in the open water and then another day went to St Margaret’s at Cliffe to swim for 2 hours in the open sea. This was a great place to swim as I got to see Ian Fleming, the James Bond creator’s house every time I went one way. It was beautiful! The third week I decided to start tapering back to one hour a day in preparation for the swim. Loretta, Geoff and Willow (their Cockapoo) treated us to sightseeing in-between swims and on weekends. We saw all the castles in the region and gardens to boot! Kate (daughter), Oushan (son-in-law) and Gunnar (3 yr. old grandson at the time) also came to visit from Italy. We did some sightseeing with them to Canterbury and local sights as well. I was fortunate to have Kate on board as well when I did the swim. As it turns out during the second week when we were having dinner at a local favorite pub, I overheard these two gents talking at the nearby bar and it sounded as though they were boat captains. So I inquired and low and behold it was my boat captain, Lance Orem, and a friend. So I introduced myself and told him I was on his boat in 2 weeks. He told me to be ready in case they get ahead on the list. That put knots in my stomach for a couple of days.
The Saturday before I entered my window I called Michael Orem, Lance’s father and owner of the boats, to let him know I was there and ready and asked where we were with projected weather and the list. I was number 3, meaning number 1 had first choice and then 2, then me. He told me to call back Sunday evening. I did and nothing much had changed except I found out that number 1 was doing a two-way crossing and needed two good days, so he was probably going the next weekend. The number 2 slot was an Irish female swimmer and she had to wait and see what she was going to do, but there was a possibility of going on Tuesday. Monday came and I did my one-hour swim in the morning and we went to dinner that evening. During the meal I called Michael again and he said the Irish swimmer had just arrived in Dover and had to find out the status of her crew. Michael said someone was swimming the next day. My stomach did flips. I couldn’t eat, as I was to call back in two hours. I called again and the answer was it was my swim if I wanted it, meet at the dock at 10 AM with your crew ready to go. We finished dinner and headed back to the B&B to finalize our packing. Over the past two weeks, we had already done our shopping based on what I could remember from the relay and advice from Loretta. I settled in for a long summer’s night sleep. I felt content that I had prepared the best I could given all my ailments leading up to this point. I had missed my 12-hour swim and some other long swims but was not concerned. I slept very well.