The channel and me -View from above – Crew and support swimmer for Sophie Etheridge – Adaptive Athlete 21st/22nd/23rd August 2023.
The lead up to me being invited as crew was, as expected, a bumpy one.
I’m not sure what you believe in, but I know that many things happen for a reason, divine intervention and putting positive thoughts into the universe are the equivalent of good karma.
One sunny afternoon in Cornwall in August, my 8 year old son asked me if I’d like to swim the channel again, I pondered his question for a moment and having had such an amazing experience on my relay crossing a few weeks earlier, I said “I don’t think so, but I’d love to crew for someone”
Sophie had her team in place, until circumstances changed and she needed someone to fill in.
Sophie messaged me on 9th August….The very same afternoon my son had asked this thoughtful question, starting her message with “hey, you know you’re always up for an adventure and some fun”
The dates initially didn’t work for me. I could go if Sophie’s swim began on the 18th or 21st. There was no wiggle room. Her solo channel attempt had a window of opportunity, just like everyone else that swims the channel. Sophie was waiting for everything to align. The crew, the conditions and Camilla!
As it happened the universe spoke again and the swim was booked in for the night of Monday 21st August. I was good to go! I haven’t asked Sophie how many people she asked before me, maybe I don’t want to know, as I could actually be a long way down that list!
But there I was, back at Dover harbour with the glistening, twinkling English Channel before me at 10.30 pm meeting Sophie, Mike and the crew of what was about to be a record breaking solo channel swim.
We got a trolley (yes, a trolley) to get all our equipment, bags and more importantly Sophie’s feeds down to the boat, Sophie followed in her wheelchair, this was quite a sobering sight, with her family and Mike assisting her down the ramp.
Formalities over, passports in hand, we embarked the boat, easier for some of us than others. Once plonked on the deck I had an overwhelming sense of “what have I got myself in to” shortly followed by “wow, look at the castle and the amazing back drop of the iconic white cliffs of Dover”
The observer and now friend, Jason Kelvin, asked us questions for his paperwork. Expecting the adventure to take a maximum of 20 hours, we were all set to head out in to the now dark foreboding Channel.
Sophie left the boat with little assistance and swam to shore at Shakespeare’s beach. This is a preferred starting point for swims and is the shortest distance between England and France. The beach is named this, because it features in one of William Shakespeare’s plays “King Lear”
Once Sophie was on land she patiently waited for the boats Claxton to sound. Just the thought of this noise in the dead of night ricocheting off the cliffs gives me goose bumps, there is honestly nothing like it and I have now been privileged to hear it twice.
The Claxton sounded and she was off across the English Channel, at 12.22 am 22nd August.
One of the team, by this time was already feeling a little queasy, we quickly realised we were down to a support team of two and between Mike and I, our eyes did not leave Sophie for the next 29 hours.
Something I was worried about was the feeds, although there were extensive instructions on this on laminated paper in a waterproof folder (who knew)! I still didn’t feel confident making them up, knowing what time to give them or indeed even how to fling them out to Sophie. As we continued into the early hours of Tuesday, Mike took control of the feeds and Sophie’s pain medication.
We were treated to a beautiful sunrise and I know Sophie relished in having the sun on her back. She was covered in a mixture of lanolin, vaseline and sun cream, with a green light on the back of her hat. The second light on her swim suit got knocked off on her way down the steps when entering the water, this was quickly replaced by a red glow stick, which we later found out was the most annoying part of Sophie’s swim (whoops).
With some top tips on photography from Jason, the morning bled into the afternoon. We had the mid-way buoy in our sights for what felt like hours, it seemed like we were making little progress towards France. It was around this time we spotted a couple of what looked like porpoises in the distance, this buoyed those of us on board and our enthusiasm for the swim.
Jason was concerned that Sophie’s stroke rate was dropping, this meant that I would go in and swim with Sophie for no longer than an hour, to encourage her to swim a little faster.
I was like a child at Christmas. I have totally fallen in love with the Channel and will do anything to swim in her beauty. Just after 4pm, we told Sophie I was coming in, she didn’t exactly look pleased by this news, but must have known we had her best interests at heart.
I was in, and just as I did every time before now, I surfaced with a huge smile on my face. I was not to touch Sophie, or to overtake her at any point during the support swim. This was really difficult, with adrenaline rushing through me and an energy that was urging me to “Just swim”
I ended up swimming in purposeful circles, swimming slightly behind or next to Sophie, almost but not quite overtaking her, then circling back round to maintain my position behind her. I kind of wish there was a video of this so I can see if it looks as bonkers as it felt.
After 40 minutes Jason was happy that Sophie had pushed through and her stroke rate had significantly improved.
As I exited the water, I was surprised how cold I felt. I was met with my dryrobe and a hot drink….. An open water swimmers dream!
The rest of the afternoon passed with feeds, snacks, chatting and wondering when on earth we would get there!
Mike also got in for a support swim at some point, though I do not recall the time. I say “swim” loosely, he was very motivational to Sophie with his words, but swimming eluded him as he bobbed around, trying not to overtake her.
As we came into our second evening, England seemed like a distant memory, yet the French coastline was not getting any closer.
I once again went in the water with Sophie, this time just after sunset. My time had come, a night swim in the Channel, this time however, I was apprehensive and hesitated before the leap into the water,
I needn’t have worried, there was that smile again, and this time the water felt warm and silky. The trouble with swimming slowly is that you get colder quicker, I knew I might be needed later in the night for a third swim, so opted out after 20 minutes. This time my recovery was slower and I wondered how Sophie was managing with the 17 degree water enveloping her.
Sophie had been adamant she didn’t want to know any times while she was swimming, and then…..She asked. We knew we had to tell her the truth, so I told her she had been swimming for 20 hours. It was dark, choppy and it seemed never ending. Sophie simply said….”Okay, tell me when It’s been 24 hours” put her head back in and, well, swam!
We never told Sophie when it got to 24 hours, and it’s a good job too, she had now got in her head that she might not make it to France, but swimming for 24 hours straight was a pretty cool thing to do and would still tick all her boxes of fundraising and raising awareness of disability swimming.
A few times in that second night I catastrophised, I wanted Sophie out of the water and safely on the boat. The air temperature had dropped, everything on the boat was damp, the swell had picked up and the boat seemed so small and open to the elements. I actually remember saying “We have all got families to go home to”
The experienced crew and observer would calm me down, or simply look at me with a “We know what we are doing” expression.
Being honest though, there were a couple of very serious conversations that night of whether we should get Sophie out of the water, particularly when we noticed even after extensive planning, that Sophie’s feeds were running low and it had now been over 24 hours since she had taken any of her regular medication. But with the gut instinct of our very experienced pilot, Lance, we pushed on.
It was around this time when I allowed myself have a rest, a 20 minute power nap on the deck. I figured if I was on deck, I would hear what was going on. On waking, I swapped with Mike and was back with eyes on Sophie.
Eyes on Sophie who was now not swimming particularly straight, Sophie who looked me dead in the eye and said “I don’t think I can do this” I asked her in what way, was she cold, was she too tired, was she in pain” without much of an answer I got Jason to watch her with me, count her stroke rate and offer any advice.
It was now when the swell was at its worst, the boat only slightly protecting Sophie from the waves. Lance stuck his head out and shouted “There’s not much I can do about this, swim back left of the boat and we will keep you safe”
Sophie, possibly at her lowest point of her swim got swept far behind the boat. My heart was in my mouth, as she tried to catch up to us, she ended up so disorientated that she was on the wrong side of the boat swimming back to England, now not being protected by the boat at all.
It took my best teacher voice to get her to turn 180 degrees and swim the correct way. The boat stopped, so she could regain her position on the port side, and she continued to swim.
As we hit 3 or 4 am, I had a thought that she might not make it. Every time I asked how far, the crew said a couple of miles, sometimes they referred to land miles and sometime nautical miles.
An hour or so later I had to sleep. This time below deck on the sofa. This is a sleep I wished I hadn’t had, I missed Lance getting the little boat ready and going to support Sophie into shore…..the French shore! I woke with a start, with Mia, Lance’s daughter piloting the boat. Where was everyone? What was going on?
Then over the radio we hear the most amazing news- She had made it! Lance confirmed by radio that Sophie had successfully swum to France. She had to crawl up a sandy beach, to exit the water enough for her swim to be ratified and within the rules. Lance helped her onto the small boat, which, let me tell you wasn’t without drama (one for another day). Sophie was desperate for the channel swimmers rite of passage, a French stone or pebble. With the beach being sandy, this was not possible, however Lance did pick her up a shell which was put in her Dryrobe pocket for safe keeping.
We were all on the top deck as she motored towards us, whooping and cheering for our dear friend, superstar and Solo channel swimmer Sophie Etheridge.
29 hours and 4 minutes of nonstop, arms only swimming.
The journey doesn’t stop there, once Sophie was back on the larger boat (after a bit of swearing from pain as the strapping lads helped her up the steps from the little boat) she needed attention, warmth and a drink. These were successfully achieved, followed by some sickness and mild nudity, Sophie was ready to celebrate…..oh, nope, I mean sleep!
Two hours later Sophie reappeared, the sea was glassy, the sun was shining and we only had an hour back to Dover. It was a time of deep reflection for all of us.
We were met at Dover by friends and family of Sophie’s, waving and cheering as we came into the harbour.
In all honesty, after this, there was a huge crash, an anti-climax. The swim had exceeded everyone’s time frames and we all needed to be somewhere. The goodbyes were brief, the congratulations meaningful and the promises of all keeping in touch genuine.
But my story does not end here, with swims planned, gala dinners, awards nights and the STA conference all approaching, there will be plenty of time for celebrations and planning new adventures.
Until then Bien Joue Sophie.
A HUGE thank you to Camilla for writing this, if you want to keep up with her adventures you can find her via the links below:
On Instagram: @mybigsummersupandswim