I Swam The English Channel

09/20/2011 07:54 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011
  • Doug McConnell The 48th person over age 50 to swim the English Channel.

We settled in to our flat in a little seaside town eight miles north of Dover. Everyone was excited about being in England and having authentic fish and chips, so we found a suitable place and dove into the greasy goodness. I checked in with our boat pilot, Mike Oram, who was in the middle of escorting a two-way swimmer right then.

He dropped the bomb, "I'm glad you're here, because we think that there may be a slot tomorrow on Lance's boat, and you should take it if you can. The weather doesn't look good for the next few days." (Lance is Mike's son and is part of the next generation of English Channel escort boat pilots.)

All I could do was stare at the fish and chips, thinking that it wasn't exactly the pre-swim meal that I should have eaten.


The next morning, after having been in Dover for less than 18 hours, I went swimming in Dover Harbor, which is a rite of passage for every Channel aspirant. I met the Channel swimmers' mother hen, Freda Streeter, who is the local expert because her daughter, Allison, is the Queen of the Channel with some 43 crossings. Freda Streeter is a woman you listen to, and you listen very carefully. I swam a mile or so in the cold water of Dover Harbor with her blessing.

I called Lance, and he took me through weather forecast, "It will be a little wavy to start, but then it should go to glass. If you want to go, we have to go as soon as you can get here."

We told our nervous kids, "Look, it isn't exactly what we planned, but we came here with one goal, to swim the English Channel. We are all experienced at this, that's why we practiced it. We have controlled everything we can control. Now, let's get down there and knock this thing off."

In a whirlwind, we were at the Harbor, we met Lance and his partner Chris, and were off.

Our swim actually started from Shakespeare Beach, just a little south of Dover. The pilot boat can only get within 50 or 60 yards of the beach, but the Channel rules are that you have to start from dry land. The boat gets close, you jump off and swim to shore, you stand on dry land, and they blow the starting horn. I gathered my thoughts there, and was buzzing from how quickly it had all come together (jet lag, perhaps?) but I had accepted the offer to go and felt like I had better deliver. The air horn blew and I stepped into the water at 12:50 p.m.

The swim began. We were out of Dover Harbor in what seemed like no time, and then came the waves that Lance had warned me about. Force five and six mean wind speeds of 20 miles per hour or more, made difficult by the fact that the tide and the wind were moving in opposite directions. The seas were very "confused," and waves topped five feet. Five footers are not in themselves a huge problem, but with no rhythm to the waves, I just couldn't get a consistent stroke cadence going. I was being slapped around by the waves, taking in lots of seawater, and trying to keep on course.

Lance had said the wind would spin around to follow the tide within an hour to make more rolling swells. Unfortunately, that didn't happen either. Despite my efforts not to fight the water, my shoulders were really aching. I continued to swallow and breathe in a lot of seawater. I felt like a punching bag.

The five-foot choppy waves were with us for six hours as we covered about 12 miles. The choppy water was having an effect on the crew on the boat, and they were terribly sick. My wife Susan, three of our kids, and our friend Meghan were on the boat and were busy the whole time, even when they were actively heaving over the side. As I swam, they kept this from me and I had no idea they were having such trouble, but hearing the stories afterward, it was agony for them.

After the wind dissipated to a force four (less than 20 miles per hour) and came around a little to our favor. The five-footers became three-footers and it was a welcome contrast. I finally felt like I could get a stroke cadence going and start making some good progress.

I have a pesky problem in that it is very hard for me to swim straight, particularly after I start to get tired. It's one of the lingering effects of a herniated disc I had last year that cost me a lot of strength in my left arm, and I wasn't able to fully re-develop it. Hence, I am a drift-left guy and was always correcting my course back to the boat.

Staying close to the boat was an issue, too, because it was terrifying. Lance's pilot boat is a sturdy fishing boat at 40 feet. Pitching around in the waves, and being just a few feet from that monster, made it constantly feel like the boat was about to fall on me. So, I kept a little distance. The distance meant that I swam farther, as the boat could not protect me from the waves. I have dreamt about that boat pitching and rolling ever since.

Two issues concerned me, but were totally uncontrollable -- cold and jellyfish. As it turns out, the water was 63 degrees the whole time, and I never got cold. After midnight, it got a little chillier, probably because we lost a few air temperature degrees, but the cold was not an issue that I couldn't deal with.

Jellyfish are a different kind of problem, and the Channel is famous for them. I had a bad experience with a jellyfish on a previous swim, so we loaded up on the antihistamines ahead of time expecting the worst. I only hit one that was small and stung my chest for a second and was gone. My crew saw a pink one, "larger than a basketball." They wisely did not report it to me.

I count my strokes in open water swims. Counting keeps my mind occupied and it helps me keep track of time and distance traveled. Before the Channel swim, the longest I had gone was Tampa Bay, which was 24 miles and about 32,000 strokes. I had done the arithmetic for the English Channel, and had mentally prepared myself for 40,000 or so. As it turned out, I was pretty close -- it takes 40,538 strokes to make it across the English Channel.

The feeding routine for this swim was the one we developed during other long swims we had done. Every thirty minutes, which is about 1,750 strokes, I stop for a few seconds and toss back some high carbohydrate Infinit Nutrition liquid. My son Gordy was the chief bottle tosser for feedings, and was the real hero of this swim. He was protective, totally diligent, and did not get sick at sea. As the day turned to night, Gordy had my other son, Bill, heat the water a bit before they fed me, which was a really nice warming lift.

I am pretty inexperienced at swimming in the dark, and almost seven of the 14 hours of the Channel swim were in the dark. We had practiced night swims and had settled on two strobes, one attached to each side of the goggles. The dark also changed the water. During the daylight, I was surprised to see the clarity of the water. After dark, though, the water was inky black. It was eerie to stare into infinity.

One of the best bits of news from the swim is that my neck was just fine. I was the grateful recipient of Medtronic's Prestige replacement cervical disc a year and a half ago, and it held up like a champ. I was never even aware of my little bionic device. If not for that little replacement disc, this swim would have been incomprehensible, and I will forever be grateful to my friends at Medtronic for their technology and their support of my swim.

The finish was not pretty. Susan gave me these little pep talks, like "five miles -- you do that in practice every day," and "three miles -- just a loop around the lake," and "a mile and a half -- back and forth to Buck Island." I almost didn't believe her. Finally, Lance poked his head out and said, "Mate, you're there. I am going to shine the spotlight at a beach, and all you have to do is follow the light. The tide is low and I can't take the boat any shallower than here, but you are about a hundred yards out."

I was stunned. I looked in the direction that Lance was pointing, and I couldn't see it. After 14 hours of following this guy's instructions, I wasn't about to stop, so I swam for the light. I finally felt the sand under my left hand, and I knew I could stand. I had made it to France. Walking out of the water was almost impossible. My legs had been cramping for about eight miles, so I staggered onto the beach and kept walking. The Channel rule is that you have to finish on dry land, and not knowing what qualifies as "dry land" on a sand beach at low tide, I kept walking until Lance blew the air horn. Then I would know I was done. The air horn sounded, and I became the latest member of a pretty select club.

Immediately, I started to get cold. I was in a wet Speedo, on a very dark and empty beach. I wanted to pick up a rock from the beach to give to Susan, but I couldn't find one with my hands feeling around in the sand. I was getting colder by the second. So, I walked back off the beach, rockless, swam back to the boat and climbed aboard. I was in France for two or three minutes, tops.

I was greeted with hugs all around, a couple of warm towels and some dry clothes. We started the two and a half hour ride back to Dover as Susan and I had some quiet time over a cup of hot tea and compared stories about what we had been through. I made a couple of phone calls, but mostly just wanted to share that time with her. The kids found places on the boat to conk out after an exhausting night and slept most of the way back to port. After a long night, we watched the sun rise.

I am the luckiest guy in the world. To be a part of a successful team (even if I am the team member who wears the Speedo) and to have the core of that team to be my family is an overwhelming feeling. We all learned lots of lessons, but the unforgettable one is that teamwork can make an audacious goal a reality.