STA Channel Swim 2023 Part 3

***NOTE – Towards the end of the swim things got muddled in terms of the order they happened, I could use my observers report to write this accurately, but, I want it to be real and give people a sense of what the swim was like for me***

I noticed the sun was starting to get lower and for me, that is when my swim really started. I knew I couldn’t be far off the time when I should have been nearly in France or getting out/landing, but France still looked miles away, and I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong. Not long after, I finally made it into French waters – not that I knew it (around hour 17 I think). I normally enjoy swimming when its slightly tougher conditions but having already been in the water for the longest ever time I have spent in the water I wanted nice, calm, kind waters, but as my mum often said to me as a child “want doesn’t get”.

I always say that marathon swimming is 80% mental strength and only 20% physical. I had prepared myself to start in the dark and finish in the daylight, I hadn’t prepared myself to swim through a sunset and a second night. I could feel that was where I was heading, and I didn’t know if I would be swimming another full night or only a few hours. I was struggling with eating and refusing all solids because swallowing anything hurt, my lips were incredibly swollen (Mike kindly informed me “that people paid thousands for lips like that”) and I was seriously lagging, I had just about had enough. I think it was also around this time I briefly fell asleep whilst swimming. Mike was the one watching me swim at the time sitting on the back corner of the boat and I am not sure if what made him do it but he asked if I was ok, to which I responded “oh, thanks for waking me up”. 

Who knew you could sleep swim…? I didn’t. 

I am guessing the guys on the boat could tell I was struggling because Mike got in to swim with me. He didn’t swim with me for long, it felt like he was only in for about 15 minutes but that was all I needed him for. The important thing of Mike being in the water with me wasn’t the fact he was swimming with me, it was what he was saying to me that helped. I wish I could remember all that he said as he was annoyingly swimming side stroke next to me whilst I was swimming as hard as I could. 

I do remember him telling me to “keep going”, that “you can do this” and him calling me a legend, which made me smile because not long after he got out and I realised Mikes leg-ended earlier than it should have – sorry Mike! I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that the swim had been incredibly painful for him, which is why he didn’t stay in for long. It didn’t matter though because it had given me the boost I needed and reminded me I could do this and done his job.

I could really feel the sun going down, the wind chill beginning and the darkness was creeping in. That is when I asked how many hours I had been in the water and got told I had been in for 20 hours. My instinct was to say I would go for 24 hours and then get out, my thoughts being that no one could say I hadn’t given in my all if I had swum for a full day. However, after a little while my mind wandered, and I began getting concerned.

I knew:

  • I had a full night to swim through, likely 8 or 9 hours of darkness, alone in the water. 
  • I was likely running out of feed.
  • It would feel colder as I didn’t have the sun on my back and the wind was picking up.
  • It would be more difficult for me to see my crew and feed so I wouldn’t get as much reassurance from seeing them there supporting me. 
  • It was going to be a challenge to get through the night and being honest, I wasn’t sure I would make it. 

I think my team again, sensed that I was struggling with the fact it was almost completely dark and as a result when she was allowed, Camilla jumped back in for a second swim with me. It helped to get my stroke rate up again and it gave me reassurance that although I was swimming into what would likely be a long, unpleasant night of swimming I wasn’t going to be alone during it, my crew had my back and would do whatever it took to get me to France.

As the dark finally set in completely the waves got bigger, the wind picked up even more and I started feeling cold. I tried not to think about being cold because it was making me feel worse, but I couldn’t help it – I was running out of distractions and things to think about so it was all I could think about! It was then that I remembered a conversation with Phil Warren, who I met at the Bristol Channel Swim camp during my training. On his swims he had a red dragon (or 3) on his boat, and he told me that when he was feeling cold, he would imagine the dragon breathing fire over the water around him, warming him up. I decided to try doing similar by thinking warm thoughts. I figured I was coming up to a feed and decided to mentally use that feed to warm me, the feed wasn’t important in that moment, the only thing that was, was warmth. 

As soon as the bottle was dropped down to me by Mike, I grabbed it with both hands and hugged it trying to get some feeling back into my fingers. I then obviously had my feed and started swimming; I focused on the warm liquid moving through my body. Going down my throat, into my stomach and spreading throughout my body warming me from the inside out; by focusing on that, I suddenly felt much warmer. Thinking about getting warm and staying warm also distracted me for a bit, so it used up some time too.

I don’t know how much time passed, in some ways it felt like forever because it was suddenly pitch black with no moon, but in others it felt like no time at all. All I could see was lights, nothing else. It was disorientating and un-nerving, especially with the wind increasing and the boat rocking more. The only thing reassuring me at the time was when Mike and/or Camilla sat at the front of the boat, I couldn’t see them, but I could see their feet on the rail and that was enough. 

I was starting to feel a bit sea-sick again and figured that by that point I would have run out of food. I was also worried my fairy lights at the front and back of the boat running out of battery because they were what I was using to work out where I was in relation to the boat. What the crew were concerned about was the fact I hadn’t had my daily medication. So at the next feed I told them what I could do without and did my best to take the rest. I don’t know if I swallowed them all as some of them disintegrated into mush – it really didn’t help with the feeling sick!

Not long after I started noticing I was getting stung by jellyfish more and more frequently. It was dark so I couldn’t see them, but I most definitely knew they were there. The stings became endless, as soon as I thought I was through a smack of jelly fish I was stung by another one and I was starting to panic. At my next feed I told Mike I was being stung and asked him to get rid of them, I knew logically that there was sod all he could do about them, but I needed to know that someone was doing something to help stop the pain that the Jellys were causing me. From that moment on Jellyfish were Mikes fault. I was doing everything I could think of to not think of the jellyfish around me but that made me think of them more, so I decided the best course of action was to try and make light of the situation and come up with a joke or 2 about Jellyfish but instead I ended up with murderous thoughts. I started by thinking about the boat landing on and hitting the jellyfish instead of me and that, it would probably squash the jellyfish. When that wasn’t helping anymore things turned even darker and I imagined a jellyfish massacre and pictured all the jellyfish going through the boats prop and being turned into a Jellyfish Smoothie. It was somehow comforting that if they stung me, they were then going to their death.

My next concern was that the waves and swells were bigger, the boat was moving up and down more and it was disorientating. Not long after it started making me a little nervous, especially when I somehow ended up on the other side of the boat facing and swimming back towards England, I was later informed at this point Camilla wanted to pull me out. It wasn’t until I went from seeing the bottom of the boat in one breath and on the next, I was almost eye level with Lance that I panicked. I tried to calm myself down by reminding myself that my support crew and boat crew wouldn’t let it get too dangerous, if they thought it was then they would have pulled me out. I had to have that trust in my crew.

Despite trusting my crew, I needed to move/swim further away from the boat because I was scared it would land on top of me! 

I managed to keep going for a while but soon the combination of the cold, swollen lips, choppy water, jellyfish sings, fatigue from swimming for 20+ hours and the boat almost hitting me got too much. It felt dangerous, I felt unsafe, and I absolutely hated it. I had a discussion with myself, I was trying to decide if I should listen to my heart, or my head and I was left torn.

My head was telling me I was in a dangerous situation that I should get out of, my heart was reminding me of how far I have come to get to this point in the middle of the English Channel. Not just physically how far I had swum but the journey to my channel attempt. I had gone from becoming disabled and being in a deep dark depression to swimming the English Channel in the hope of helping others. It was only 3 years ago that I was someone that hardly left their house, didn’t like socialising and whose self-worth was rock bottom and now I was there in the middle of the English Channel. I had to keep telling myself that if I have managed to get through all of that, then I could get through any pain that came my way in the swim, but this wasn’t about pain, it was about safety. I stopped swimming, looked at Lance who was driving the boat and just said “I don’t like this”. 

I explained my issue to him and said I didn’t like how much the boat was rocking and how it kept almost landing on me, his response “The wind has picked up so I am afraid there is absolutely nothing I can do about it”. I told him we needed to change something because if we didn’t, I was getting out. I swam for a bit and kept trying to work out how I could change my situation and the only thing I could think of was if I wasn’t next to the boat, it wouldn’t be able to land on me. Lance suggested I swam a bit further back, so I dropped back. I began swimming following and focused on the fairy lights on the back corner of the boat; it worked. Almost instantly I was more relaxed and quite content, I am not sure Lance was too keen on me swimming that far back, but I had a crew member sitting in the corner watching me all the time, so it was ok.

The longer the swim went on, the harder I was finding feeding because I was having to do every feed twice. I had no strength at all left in my legs, so as soon as I stopped swimming I was moving backwards. When I was feeding, I had enough time to drink about half of the feed before being so far behind the boat I worried about the string getting caught in the propeller and I would have to let go to have them reel the line in whilst I caught up with the boat again and the feed line was thrown again. It was exhausting but I just kept swimming and swimming and swimming….

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