Virtual Channel Swim – Part 1 – Dover to British Shipping Lane

My good friend Sarah sent me an awesome workout plan for a week – just when pool swimming was starting to wear me down.  A virtual channel swim.  She divided the English Channel into parts – Dover to the British Shipping Lane (9.25km), British Shipping Lane (7.4km), Separation Zone (1.85km), French Shipping Lane (6.5km), and French Shipping Lane to Cape Gris-Nez (9.25km). I was positively ecstatic about the idea.  My imagination was already incorporating memories from my trip to Dover and my experience as crew with the boundless possibilities of what might happen with my Channel swim.  I thought it might be fun to blog about the different parts of this adventure.


I took a quiet step off the back of the boat and plunged into the cold night – allowing the water to swallow me with bubbles and sound and chaos and disruption.


Remember to exhale.  You already have full lungs of air.  That was what Gary had advised when I jumped off the boat into Alcatraz.  Most people hyperventilate when they jump into cold water, because they forget that they already have lungs full of air. I wonder how cold it will actually feel?  How shocking?  Jumping into the Alcatraz swim wasn’t that bad and that’s much colder.


A quick swim into shore.  The sounds of the cobbles and the pebbles and the stones on Shakespeare beach and the water slipping through them… that hushing sound – the Dover Lullaby.  Such a signature sound of the English Channel and Dover Harbor.  Swim toward it, until the lullaby is a roar around you.  Clamber out of the water and up on the dark, quiet beach.  I can feel the pain of the stones under my feet – 


…there’s a best way to walk on them, though.  What was it the swimmers at Dover Harbour said? I can’t remember it.  We’ll fast forward that part for now.  


Raise my arm in the air and wave.  The observer will note the time.  And then it’s my turn.  My turn.  To begin.

I push off from the wall in Saratoga Springs Regional YMCA and surface in the English Channel.  200 yards at a time, I planned to cover the entire 9.25km swim from Dover to the British Shipping Lane.  And when I get past five miles, I’ll do the last 1,125 yards and get out at the wrong end of the pool and leave.  I laugh at myself.  I don’t know how or why, but there is always a wrong end of the pool in my internal navigational system.  I hate ending up at the wrong end of the pool, usually – it’s unbalanced to only do an odd number of laps.  It’s just not right.  But today, today it will be fine, because I’m swimming the English Channel today.  It’s not a pool at all.  I smile to myself.


The silky smooth saltwater.  Listening as the Lullaby fades behind me.  How free will I feel? To finally be doing what I’ve worked so hard for?  How excited?  How certain?  … how cold?


Don’t worry so much about the cold.  I don’t know why you do that.  6 hours in 53 degree water, remember?  You did that.  You’re the girl who runs to the ocean to jump in in the dead of winter to swim for 15 minutes.  Because you can.  And you always know you can and you always do!  You can swim an ice mile.  It’s just a fact. I know, you don’t understand how it is possible for a body to withstand 15 hours in sub 65 degree water. I know. But isn’t that just one of the times when science and sport seem to argue? We can only understand so much of ourselves, I suppose.


And when the answers and the truth have cut their ties, will you still find me… will you still see me… through smoke…


I will have passed beyond the sea walls by now. The vague, dark shadows… I won’t be able to tell.  The lights of Dover will become small and distant.  I will be looking into a dark world from the watery surface with fogged over goggles over rough waves.  It might take a while.


Or, what if it is daylight when my swim starts?  Sarah and David started at night.  Sylvain started during the day.  Oh dear, that would change so many things!


A soft gray morning lights up the world.  I can see the sea wall as I stroke toward the beach where my parents wait.  They stand there, watching as I crawl out and walk up onto Shakespeare Beach to start my swim.  My mother might kiss my cheek.  She might have tears in her eyes-


I don’t think I like the idea of starting in the daylight.  But what if I jump off the boat in the night and hit something?  Or what if something hits me like it did Carey?  A seal, perhaps.  I giggle nervously at the idea and bubbles billow out around me in the pool in Saratoga.  But if I start in the day, people could see me off from the beach.  Unless I start from Samphire Hoe (where they wasted all the material from the Chunnel).  Somehow it seems oddly appropriate for me to start from a Waste, Borrow, and Staging Area from a Construction project.  Maybe I should strike a yoga pose.


I straighten from Warrior Three, strong and centered.  What a fearsome sight I am in my fur bikini with my dreadlocks, running toward the Channel with the Viking ship waiting in the boiling surf-


But if I start in the daylight… I will finish at night.


Bleary eyes.  Foggy goggles.  A thick night.  I can’t feel the rain as it adds to the water around me, but I know it is there.  I know from when I stopped at my last feeding.  Water within.  Water without.  All it is is water… and darkness.  And cold.  No sun to warm me.  Focus on the warmth in your core.  It can’t be much farther.  But I swam all day, and my skin is burnt and now even colder.  My shoulder hurts and slows my stroke.  I know it’s trouble.  I must be close, but the lights still seem so cold and distant on the French shore.  I am not shivering.  I am not that cold.  What if-


Stop that!  Well, I guess I am still afraid of something.  Swimming all day and into an unknown night.  In the cold.  With a wind whisking away my body heat and no sun.  Throw in fatigue and possible shoulder pain- how long will my stubbornness really carry me before science wins this argument?  Maybe I could ask my friends to help me with some early summer night swimming – when it’s still cold enough to matter.  I don’t mind being afraid – but I don’t want to go with any area of myself untested.  And swimming into a night for an unknown amount of time when it’s cold seems to be an area where I haven’t truly been tested. I mean, what if I can’t start until the afternoon?  What if I have to swim not just into, but through the night? …I wonder if it’s too much to ask?  Testing myself the way I have for the last few years… shouldn’t I know by now how I will do no matter what?  I just need another type rating.  I’m not fast enough to go without. I have to put my body through the conditions longer.  I have to live in my head longer.  I don’t think I like the darkness-


The sun is rising, now.  A clear day with a bright pink horizon over the saltwater.  Warm and gentle, the fingers of light glide over my face and I smile.  Pink and lavender – my favorite sky.  Some clouds bright blue with pale, yellow-gold edges.  They blur before me through my goggles.  I haven’t looked at the boat, and turn my head to breathe toward it.  The familiar faces.  The best people.  I hope Natalie remembers to rest some of the time…


I screwed up my feed schedule back in Saratoga.  I meant to drink the first feed before jumping off the boat and to swim the first two miles without stopping, just to make some headway and find a stride and settle down.  But in Saratoga, it was not morning – as it was in my mind’s eye in the Channel – it was late and I was on my way home from visiting my Grandma and my Aunt in Ithaca and Saratoga was the only pool between there and home that was open until 9pm.  I didn’t really have enough time to make it to the British Shipping Lane, but I was going to try to get as far as I possibly could.  I was nervous about the rest of the drive home, the weather was a little on edge.  But I needed to swim.  I have enough friends along the way home, that if I had to find some place to stay, they would let me stay with them.


Anyway, I was going to have to iron out that feed schedule and practice it.  And figure out breakfast before the swim and how early I will have to get up… Of course, this run was experimental with feed anyway, as I was trying a new product.  I turned the trunk of my car into command central for distance swimming.  Gallons of water, empty bottles, various feed mixes…


I’m a rover and seldom sober… I’m a rover of high degree…  When I’m drinkin’, I’m always thinkin’… how to gain my loves company…


Technical, logistical, planning, planning, planning while the numbers scroll up toward 5 miles…


The sun is rising, now.  A clear day with a bright pink horizon over the saltwater.  Warm and gentle, the fingers of light glide over my face and I smile.  Pink and lavender – my favorite sky.  Some clouds bright blue with pale, yellow-gold edges.  They blur before me through my goggles…


I like sunrises.  I wondered about the start of my swim a million times and painted the sunrise a thousand different ways.  I envisioned rain and wind and quartering waves… I saw stars and then I saw no stars.  I didn’t think about talking to my crew very much… I thought about the ocean more.  The elements.  The cold.  The night.  The day.  Leaving the land behind and not looking back.  The weather and the water.


And then the clock hit 8:45 and the lifeguards hovered nearby, using their presence to shoo me away.  I had been the only person in the pool since 8:00.  I didn’t quite make it to the British Shipping Lane.  But I did make 5 miles and my feed seemed to work and I found a chink in my swimming armor…


So I left the Channel, pulling myself out of the Saratoga water on the right side of the pool.  Sometimes even a swimmer has to stop swimming, especially when the Channel is closing.

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