english channel swim

On 25 August 1875, seafarer Matthew Webb swam from Dover to Calais in 21 hours 45 minutes to be the first person to swim the English Channel.

On 21 August 2015, I commemorated this event by completing the same swim in 13 hours 19 minutes.

This is my account of that wonderful day.

Andy King, skipper of the Louise Jane, had never seen an English Channel season like 2015. The English Channel is known for its notorious and erratic weather but Andy had never seen tides, weather and storms like these. It did not look good.

I had booked Andy to escort me across the English Channel back in 2013. I deliberately chose 19–26 August as my window to attempt the channel, to celebrate the anniversary of the first ever, successful crossing made by Captain Mathew Webb, 140 years ago.

Two days before my window started I met with Andy. I said I was ready to swim any time he wanted to. Then we waited. The weather was terrible. Eventually, on the night of 21 August, Andy told me, 'We’re going to give it a go mate and hopefully we’ve got a 15-hour window for ya.'

We prepared for a 3am start the next day. My team included my partner (now wife) Kylie, daughter Michelle, and coach Vlad. We all slept until 1am then set off to meet Andy, his son James and the official observer from the Channel Swimming Federation Phil Collins (great name).

We were all very excited to finally be under the starters orders. It was reassuring to see Andy and the others going about their work just like any other day – no fanfare or fuss, just a very professional, organised crew well versed in safety and the rules of the Channel Swimming Federation, of which there seemed to be volumes.

In training, I had told Vlad to just tell me what, when and how long to swim and I would do it without question. I trusted him completely but now i was in the hands of Andy, and his many years of experience with swimmers and the perilous Channel tides.

After a brief from Phil, we set out from Dover marina to the beach around the corner, Samphire Hoe, where I was to start my crossing. Just after 3am Andy unceremoniously said, 'Well there you go, get in!' He shone a weak torch onto the chalky cliffs above the western end of Samphire Hoe. I had no idea we were so close to shore. So primed, focussed and greased up to combat the cold and chaffing, I kissed two-thirds of my team farewell and leapt into the cold, choppy, black waters to swim to the rocky beach.

English Channel swimmers are only allowed to wear one cap, a pair of goggles and one swimsuit that doesn’t go past the shoulders or below the knees. You are not allowed to wear or use anything that may aid 'speed, buoyancy, heat retention or endurance'. The water was 14°C.

I had to stand on dry land to satisfy the start rule. I scrambled up the steep slope of slippery round rocks and heard the distant horn of the Louise Jane, which signalled the start of my odyssey.

Surprisingly, I felt calm and confident. I knew what I had to do for the next 45 minutes, before I could stop and take the first of what was to be 18 liquid feeds. It had taken me two years to work out my nutrition. Much was painful trial and error but I learnt a great deal from fellow channel swimmers and professional nutritionist, Tara Diversi.

Every 45 minutes I needed to consume precisely 45g of carbohydrate in the form of maltodextrin powder mixed with 300ml of water and a splash of fruit-based cordial. I needed to consume this mix in no more than 45 seconds (to stop the risk of drifting backwards and adding more time to an already challenging swim). This was my 45/45/45 swim feed routine.

When I reached the boat, I realised I hadn’t thought about what it would be like to swim alongside a large fishing boat, in the dark, with the boat pitching and heaving in considerable chop. My first 45 minutes was spent trying to work out where to swim and to assure myself that the pitching Louise Jane wasn't about to clout me on every wave.

It took me about three hours to warm up and get into a proper rhythm. By this time the sun had just begun to rise and I got glimpses of a cloudy beautiful sunrise. I asked Andy to switch sides so that I could watch the sunrise but he replied, 'Sure we can when the sun is up, now keep bloody swimming!' Not exactly the time to debate so I kept going and changed sides on the next feed.

To prevent confusion from too many voices giving instructions and advice, Vlad was the only person to speak to me during a feed stop. He watched me like a hawk for the entire swim, providing encouragement and arguably the longest stroke correction class ever.

As the sun rose and the waves slowly settled, I too settled into the swim and started to enjoy the challenge. The crew became more relaxed and I watched them joking and laughing, probably at my expense. Michelle had brought a small whiteboard to show me messages received from supporters on Facebook and Twitter.

The pen she used was too fine so I found it difficult to read. Often it took me a few minutes to decipher the message. She was enjoying this more than I was. After a few hours of messages Michelle leant over the side with yet another relayed quip. I looked up and couldn't make head or tail of it, so I swam closer – 1,2,3 strokes breathed to the other side and then 1,2,3 strokes to Michelle’s side again. There was Michelle, hands still in the holding position but no whiteboard anywhere to be seen.

The look on her face was hilarious – she looked like a four-year-old who had dropped her ice-cream cone. I laughed aloud for the next 10 minutes. The whiteboard had slipped from her hands into the Channel. I’m sure she thought she’d let me down when in fact I was thankful that I didn’t have to read the bloody thing anymore.

The long monotonous swim cycle went on, feeding every 45 minutes. Time, in long distance swimming, takes on an elasticity that is hard to explain. Some 45-minute sections seemed to go on forever, while others seemed to fly by. It’s one of the remarkable psychological dimensions of swimming, similar I imagine to the effects of meditation.  

I can’t recall feeling exhausted at any time during my Channel crossing. I do remember having a short dark period at some stage, but it wasn't the wall of pain and fatigue I had been warned about. There were more high points – the first few feeds after the start, the long beautiful sunrise, the large container ships and tankers along the way.

My advice to any swimmer is to savour every minute of every sunrise. There is a soft almost imperceptible glow just before dawn. The anticipation of sunrise is a welcome distraction and when the first rays pierce the morning you can’t help but feel nature’s energy. I get two hours of entertainment from every sunrise. It was the same when I was a seafarer – the 4–8 watch was highly sought after because you saw every sunrise and sunset.

The seafarers working on the ships are the inspiration for my swims hence 'Swim for seafarers' to draw attention to their hard and thankless lives.

At one feed Vlad said, 'Listen, I need you to sprint like Friday 50s. Give it everything you have until I signal otherwise and then we talk!' I didn't ask any questions I just went flat out. To my surprise, I had plenty in the tank and watched Vlad spur me on precisely as we had trained. I dug deep to get through whatever it was that worried Vlad.

After 5 minutes Vlad swung his arms slower indicating I could return to my slower rhythm. I learned later I needed to get around a fishing net and swim through a tidal stream, which can often be very difficult for swimmers towards the end of their swim.

The nicest part of the afternoon was when Kylie and Vlad each had a session in the water with me – the regulations allow for up to an hour in and then two hours out, as long as there is no touching or leading the swimmer. It was decided that a 45-minute swim was best to match the feed cycle.

It must have been about nine hours into the swim when Kylie jumped in. She immediately lost her goggles and when I caught a glimpse of them drifting into the depths instinct took over and I duck-dived to retrieve them. When I surfaced I saw Vlad and Kylie both yelling, 'What the hell are you doing? Swim, swim swim, don’t dive!' Remembering why I was there, I swam off and Kylie caught up after getting other goggles. It was a wonderful interruption to have Kylie so close and to enjoy some of the swim with her, especially when I found out later that she’d been horribly seasick earlier.

Kylie is a constant source of support and inspiration. She has a way of making everything easier – training, cold, distances and fatigue are all made so much more manageable when she is involved. Having her and Michelle along for my Channel swim was an enormous help. 

Vlad’s swim with me was a welcome surprise as we hadn't discussed him swimming with me. Vlad’s enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy spurred me on – he is a constant inspiration.

Finally, I saw, way off in the distance a dark line which had to be land or beach or rocks or reef. I didn't care which because I knew it had to be French! Very soon after I noticed a slick looking Zodiac inflatable boat with two men in orange uniforms, watching my every stroke. Vlad signalled me to feed and Andy told me that I should hurry as this was the last feed. I could see the white sand of the French beach that I now know to be Wissant. The Louise Jane launched her small inflatable boat, crewed by James and Phil, to shepherd me the last 1500 metres to the beach to confirm my swim.

I could see the beach for what seemed like a long time but it wasn't getting any closer. I recalled many stories of the cruel unpredictable tide working against swimmers and beating them in the final few hundred metres. I’d come too far for that and swam as hard as I could until finally I started to make some way.

Phil looked a little flustered as the Zodiac came closer, filming me, monitoring every stoke. Perhaps there was trouble with immigration, due to the Syrian emergency in Calais, but they weren't going to stop me and they didn’t try.

As the beach came into focus, I could make out women in bikinis and men in shorts. Phil told me I could walk the last 25 metres as he’d noticed how shallow it was and I hadn’t. A small crowd had gathered and were clapping. About 10 metres from dry land one of the French officials from the Zodiac got out to walk alongside me and tried to shake my hand. At the same time a French woman waded in offering me a celebratory kiss, and a banana of all things! I waved both away as the regulations dictate that, 'During a swim no physical contact with the swimmer shall be made by any person …'

'Phil … Phil,' I yelled as I stood with my hands in the air, 'Is it over, have you sounded the end?'

'Yes,' Phil told me matter-of-factly as he fumbled with the dinghy. 'It’s done, now let’s go back.'

I wasn't going back before I collected a kiss, a handshake from the curious and impressed French gendarmes and, of course, that banana.

Bonjours all around and mercis and much chatter and excitement ensued. A tall bloke offered me a small plastic bag. Incredibly it was a Belgian work comrade and good friend, Christian Roos, who had tracked my swim by satellite, travelling up and down the coast all day trying to estimate where I’d land. He’d also found Andy’s phone number and continuously texted him asking where I’d end up. Andy had told me that it wasn’t until the last few hundred metres of any swim that he could estimate a landing place, so he too was amazed at Christian’s appearance.

'Now at last we can have a beer,' Christian said handing me a carefully chosen range of Belgian beers. I gave him a big man hug, I was so happy to see him. He’d waited four hours on the beach to have a beer with me, he was sunburnt and had had his own share of beer while he waited.

As Phil and James, took me back to the boat we shared a feeling of great accomplishment and relief. I jokingly asked Andy if I could swim back to make it a double-crossing and he said, 'No cash, no splash,' meaning if I wasn't carrying the £2800 for the second swim he wasn't going to let me. I happily surrendered.