I was pretty sure my feeds no longer had anything nutritious in them, it was just warm squash. I hadn’t planned for 29 hours of swimming, I planned for 23 at the absolute maximum, thinking I would only be in for 18 or 19 hours.
I was starting to run on empty, the only benefit I was getting from the feeds was warmth, but it was hard work having to catch back up with the boat each time because I just had no strength in my legs and couldn’t stay still while drinking. It was exhausting, I was doing every feed twice and it was becoming increasingly painful to swallow as well. I started to wonder if I would just be better to keep swimming and not even bother attempting to feed! I don’t actually know how often I was feeding towards the end as it just became a blur with everything else that was going on too.
After a while I got used to the bigger swells and the waves died down a bit so I could swim next to the boat again rather than behind it. Mia had taken over driving the boat for a while and when I took a breath to that side, we often made eye contact and she would smile. A smile isn’t much, but it reminded me I wasn’t alone and I was doing ok. A while later she told me they would probably be getting the dingy out soon. At that point, I was so tired I didn’t care, and I also didn’t realise what it meant.
I started seeing more people moving around on the back of the boat but couldn’t see what they were doing or even who it was because it was still dark. I heard a loud thud, looked round and the tender boat was in the water with Lance in it. The sun was beginning to rise but he attached one of the fairy light rings to the boat so that I could follow it like I had been through the night. It was only then that I realised that I was now following a small boat, which must have meant I was in shallow waters.
I kept following the fairy light but in front of us there was only darkness, surely if the shore was there, I would be able to see it?!
I followed the little ring of lights for what felt like hours, it was likely only minutes. As mentioned earlier I gave myself the rule of not asking how far I had to go but I was struggling, and I kept asking Lance how far I had to go but even he couldn’t tell how shallow the water was. I was so close but might as well have been 5 miles off the beach because I still couldn’t see it.
I started to think of the little circle of fairy lights as a ‘power up’ button and I had to swim next to it and try to reach it so I could press it and it would give me a boost of energy. Obviously, I wasn’t allowed to touch it but I would never have managed to catch it anyway; whenever I got close Lance pulled a little further in front of me. About 5 minutes later (I think) I saw him get a paddle out of the boat and try touching the floor, he couldn’t so we went on a little further. I stopped again to ask how long I had and thought I saw something move over my shoulder and asked what it was, Lance just told me it was a wave. It was only later I discovered it was likely a seal.
He tried touching the floor again and excitedly announced he could touch the bottom with the paddle! I felt like I should have been excited and happy, but the truth was that I was just so tired that until I was touching the floor nothing mattered to me.
A few minutes passed, and he told me I would probably now be able to stand up. I couldn’t quite believe the words he said but eventually clicked and I realised there was no way I was going to be able to stand up! I wriggled my toes and bent my legs to try and get a feeling other than pain in them, but it wasn’t happening. I knew I was going to have to crawl, it would be painful, and I was dreading it.
Before the swim Mike and I had gone through a couple of ideas I had come up with for him to do when I was close to shore and getting out, but Mike was back on Sea Satin and useless to me. I didn’t know if Lance had my crutches on the rib boat and the anxiety of how I would manage to clear the water was setting in. Lance sped ahead of me and got out of the boat and stood in the shallows. I was so close, but I had next to nothing left in the tank!
So many things went through my head when I saw him standing on the beach:
“Oh my god, have I actually done it? “
“How the hell am I going to clear the water?”
“How far would I need to crawl to clear the water?“
“Could I even manage to crawl?”
I kept swimming until I couldn’t swim any further and beached myself on my stomach. The butterflies in my stomach started and excitement began to build but I wasn’t there yet, so I didn’t want to celebrate. I had to find a way to get out and clear the water.
I began crawling up the beach on my hands and knees, boy was it tough and painful! I managed to crawl what felt like 15m but the shallow water seemed to go on forever and I had to stop because of pain and exhaustion, I didn’t know if I could do it.
I had a brief rest and told myself to “keep going and keep crawling” I was getting constant encouragement from Lance and somehow managed to find it in me to start crawling again. I ended up clawing at the sand hoping to get some grip, so I didn’t have to put any weight through my legs and move them, but it didn’t help.
I changed tactic and started talking to myself out loud saying “come on, you can do it. Don’t stop now, you’re so close, keep f**king going, one arm and knee in front of the other”. Eventually the water was almost like a puddle around me, it didn’t even cover my legs when kneeling and I went to stop but Lance told me to still keep going, I argued and swore at him saying I was out of the f**king water.
He told me “there is NO way I am letting anyone say you haven’t cleared the water and therefore the swim doesn’t get ratified, keep going”. I was hurting, cold and exhausted but kept going and eventually, Lance picked up the radio and said, “She’s done it, Sophie has landed”, the claxon sounded on Sea Satin at 5.29am meaning that I had swum for a total of 29 hours and 4 minutes.
I collapsed in a heap and sat looking out at Sea Satin in the distance, with the sunrise over the English Channel, it was a beautiful sight. I was totally spent, but I had done it – Sophie Etheridge the Channel Swimmer.
It had taken absolutely everything I had, and I had pushed my body and mind to the limit, but I had swum the English Channel Solo and as awful as the photo below is, it shows what it took for me to complete the swim. I well and truly proved everyone that had ever told me I couldn’t do something or who doubted me wrong! I had shown what those with disabilities are capable of with the right support and completed the Mount Everest of channel swimming. I had also proved to myself that my disabilities don’t define me and that I can do anything I want to and put my mind to.
When I was on the beach, I had no clue how long it had taken, and I had no clue which part of France I landed in either. I asked Lance if he could find me a pebble and he said its all sand and there isn’t one, I was a bit disappointed but there was nothing we could do about it. Thankfully, when I tried crawling towards the rib (with Lances help) I knelt on a shell and gave it to him to look after for me. I looked at him and then the rib boat and had no clue what he was expecting me to do to get into the boat so we could get back to Sea Satin.
Once I was by the boat Lance wrapped my DryRobe round me and then asked me for some help getting the rib boat back into the water. I thought he was joking; I could barely get to my feet let alone push a boat into the water!
In the end he helped me up and basically lent me over the boat, and I used the boat to support me standing but lent forwards pushing the boat as best as I could. I didn’t have a single ounce of energy left and I wasn’t helping so Lance helped me into/pushed me into the boat. He managed to get the boat in far enough that he could start the engine. He got in the boat and was kneeling on one knee with the other one behind my back supporting me so that I didn’t fall backwards.
The journey back to the boat only took a couple of minutes and as we came up to Sea Satin I turned to him and said “how the heck am I getting back on the boat”. He said he didn’t know but they would find a way. As we came closer, I could hear cheering and celebrating from everyone on the boat, which made me smile (the best I could with my swollen lips). We went round to the back of Sea Satin where the platform was and Jason and Grant were standing on the platform. Lance got as close as he could, and they pulled the rib right next to the platform. Lance helped me onto my knees, and I believe I did some sort of belly flop, grabbed the bottom of the ladder, and crawled/slid onto the platform so I was kneeling on it.
Time to stand up…I had a crew member both sides of me holding me under the arm lifting me up to my feet but in that moment, the ladder in front of me terrified me. How the hell would I climb a ladder, which is something I find difficult on the best of days let alone after having swum the channel!
Camilla, Mike and my sister were at the top of the ladder on the deck waiting and even after that length of time on a boat ensuring my safety and wellbeing through the swim, they were still encouraging and smiling at me!
I managed to get one foot on the ladder, and they helped to not only support me and take some of the weight but also to guide my foot to the next step up. It was then that Jason grabbed my left ankle to put it on the next step. I screamed, it was agony, and it literally took my breath away. I was seeing stars and I had to stop. I just couldn’t breathe or move because of the pain; it made me feel sick. Once I got my breath back and my sister and I explained not to touch my extremely hypersensitive and painful foot he apologised to me.
Camilla and Mike took over holding under my shoulders to pull me up as the blokes pushed me and guided my feet. I flopped onto the deck and was told they would help me up onto the seat on the boat, but I refused and said I was staying on the floor because if I sat on a seat, I could fall off it.
At least if I was already on the floor I couldn’t fall anywhere! I believe Mike agreed, but for the first time I could see was concerned about me. I was helped to lean up against the seat, my DryRobe was wet, so I swapped it with my sisters. Thankfully, before the swim started, I had put all my warming up stuff together, so the crew knew where it was and what I needed.
I had a beanie hat put on my head and blankets draped round me because I was shivering and asked for my hand warmer too. I was absolutely gasping for a drink and downed about 4 bottles of water and promptly threw them all up again, but I didn’t care, had another couple, and did the same thing again. I just wanted to pull the blanket up and the hat down, close my eyes and go to sleep but they wouldn’t let me.
At the time, I didn’t know what I looked like, but it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t until I saw the photos afterwards that I realised why they were concerned. I had started shivering and shaking more and was not only suffering mild hypothermia but was also going into shock. It’s a strange sensation, I could think and knew what I needed to do and how to do it but my body just wasn’t reacting in the normal way. I was getting in a muddle, felt dizzy and lightheaded and couldn’t really catch my breath properly. Everyone was looking unsure and a bit nervous but not saying anything.
I knew I needed to calm down so just for a moment closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and took deep breaths. As soon as I had done that, things started making sense again. The next issue and my biggest issue was, that I was cold, and sitting on a wet deck of a boat wasn’t helping. Once I had rested for a few minutes and got my breathing under control the shivering was getting worse, and we decided we had to get my swim costume off me and me off the cold wet floor! For a moment I wondered how the hell I was going to change and get my costume off and in the end my sister and Camilla had to help strip me and get me out my costume and under my poncho changing towel before wrapping the DryRobe back round me. I almost instantly calmed and the shivering subsided and everyone seemed much happier with how I was doing.
I was still cold, and I knew the only way to warm up would be to go below deck and get out of the wind. With help I managed to get over to the stairs and bum shuffled down them with some help. I was helped to the seats directly opposite the bottom of the stairs and basically collapsed in a heap. I then don’t remember anything else until what turned out to be about 2 hours later! I had fallen sound asleep but was sitting with my feet on the floor and was actually woken by the fact the vibrations in the engine changed!
I woke up to Lance lifting the floor of the boat up to get to the engine, he had tools out and was fiddling round with something. The vibrations in the floor were really starting to hurt my legs so once I was awake enough, I decided to go back upstairs and join the rest of my support crew on the deck. It was light and a beautiful day, but I think we all looked like hell!
As soon as I was upstairs, I got dressed with some help from Camilla and then, oddly I felt absolutely fine, although I didn’t really look it… It was like we were just having a nice day out; not like I had just swum for 29 hours! We had about 40min on deck together just chatting nicely and it was then that I was told I had set a new record for the slowest solo channel crossing. I was also asked what I would have said if I had been told my swim was going to take me 29 hours and 4 minutes; I just said “I would have told you to jog on, I can’t do that”. None of it, not even the fact I had swum the channel had sunk in, let alone getting a record for the longest time taken!
We were just coming into Dover Marina, and someone pointed out that we had a welcoming party, I figured it was my parents but then there was cheering and shouting, and I swear someone was banging a cowbell, or at least something similar! As we got closer, I realised I had absolutely no clue who the people were. I didn’t know if I should smile or cheer or what really, it was utterly bizarre having strangers cheering for me. When we got even closer, I realised I recognised Sarah Philpott and Tanya who was originally meant to be on my boat, but the others I still didn’t know! Why were there strangers there cheering for me?
They came onboard Sea Satin with a GB flag and a couple of absolutely stunning bouquets of flowers, then I saw my mum and I gave the biggest and most exhausted hug that I possibly could. The other supporters that were there wanted photos with me and to have a chat with me and frankly all I kept asking myself was what the bloody hell was going on, a group of random swimmers that ive never met had taken time out of work to welcome me back to England – it was nuts…little did I know of what was to come following the swim!
A HUGE thank you to the STA for supporting me throughout my training and swim and to my absolutely amazing support crew, without whom I would not have completed my swim. Camilla Golledge, Mike Goody and Laura Etheridge you are all INCREDIBLE and I am so grateful for your help and support throughout what turned into a VERY long swim. Also a thank you to my pilot Lance and boat crew Mia and Grant and of course not forgetting my lovely observer Jason – thank you for letting me swim and being almost as determined to get me to France as I was!