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The Channel

Just over 800 of over 4,370 attempts have been successful since the formation of the Channel Swimming Association in 1927.

Captain Mathew Webb was the first person to swim the English Channel. He accomplished this feat on August 23, 1875 on his second attempt, with a time of 21 hours and 40 minutes, swimming from England to France. Not only was the swim significant as the first successful swim, but his course was altered by the tides, making the ordinarily 20-mile swim considerably longer.

As shown on the diagram of his route below, Webb was pushed west, then east, followed by another larger western push, and finally by a huge eastern push, ending with a landing in Calais. Most English Channel swimmers follow a variation of this crossing. Missing the coast is the largest single reason for a swimmer to quit the attempt to conquer the Channel. For most swimmers, the thought of swimming another six hours while waiting for the tide to change is too demoralizing, painful, and cold to endure.

COURSE OF THE SWIM

The more the pilot knows about the tides, weather and the swimmer's ability, the more accurately can he plan his intended course. Pilots draw on their experience and local knowledge to forecast the best departure point and time for their swimmer. The Skipper's own observations of the actual conditions on the day, the regular advice supplied by the Coastguards and the position fixes given by modern navigational instrument all combine to permit fine course adjustments to be made en route, to the swimmers best advantage.

The tidal flow is most parallel to the coast and the swimmer is swimming at approximately 90º to the coast. Fortunately, the tides flow first one way and then the other way, and their effect is largely evened out over a 12-hour period. Even though the swimmer may hold a steady Heading through the water towards his destination, his "Ground-Track" will be curved. So there is little to gain -and much to lose - by doing battle with the Tides trying to achieve a direct Ground Track! There are places during the crossing where one can get a little help from the tide, but there are also areas where progress will be hindered. The idea is to get a balance between the two.

The Pilots job is to guide the swimmer so that he can be in the right place at the right time, in order that the currents give the maximum assistance - and the least hindrance. To achieve this, he will need to know, in advance, the swimmer's sustainable swim-rate over the period of the swim. He needs to time your approach to the Coast so that the tides do not work against the swimmer just when he is most tired.N.B. The Coastline of France is not parallel to England. It 'drops away" either side of Cap Griz Nez.

Adequate and appropriate nourishment is vital to the swimmer's success, but has to be done briefly: an over-run of the half-hourly feed time by even as little a 1 minute every time could make the difference between landing with the tide or of having to swim on for several more hours!

The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping zones in the world, with approximately 500 vessel movements every day…..and there are ferries, hovercraft, sea cats, and jetfoils crossing between England and France at very regular intervals. Because of this, International Shipping Lanes have been agreed and their areas marked on the charts. On the English side, we have the 'South West Lane' which is for vessels travelling down the Channel to the Atlantic. On the French side, we have the 'North East Lane' for vessels, which are travelling, up to the North Sea areas.

The English Coastguards, stationed at Langdon Battery Dover, and the French Coastguards, stationed at C.R.O.S.S. Cap Gris Nez, keep radar and VHF watch on the whole area…..liasing with the vessels using the Channel. They broadcast navigational bulletins every half hour and log vessels using the lanes to co-ordinate ship movement and to monitor safety. In these announcements, they warn shipping of the presence of Cross Channel Swimmers, and give the latest known positions of the Escort Vessels.

Channel Swims differ from other swims of this distance by their complexity and the local environment. There are hazards such as jellyfish, seaweed, flotsam and jetsam. Most particularly, the swimmer has to navigate safely across the Commercial Shipping Lanes - and give way to most other vessels in the Strait.

Swimming the distance of approximately 35.8 km each way is only part of the challenge. Other factors which have to be encountered, making it the "Everest" of swimming, include:

  • cold water temperature
  • tides
  • divergent currents
  • jellyfish
  • water pollution
  • waiting time
  • sea conditions on the day
  • sea sickness

In addition, there is an element of luck involved in getting everything to fall right on the day.This is why it is one of the ultimate challenges….the 'Benchmark' of Marathon Swimming.

Waiting for the conditions to materialise

One cannot plan the exact day on which you are going to swim. Whilst you may have booked your 1 week window within which you hope to swim, weather conditions from day to day may delay or even prevent a swim indefinitely - many swimmers have had to pack up and return home without even having had a chance to swim. The unpredictable English weather changes from being sunny and calm, to stormy, within a few hours.This waiting game and uncertainty plays havoc with your mind to such an extent that when you do climb into the water all your mental preparation and 'psyching' oneself up, has been long forgotten and is wasted. On top of that, being a harbour port and a military base, Dover is not the most pleasurable place to spend your days waiting. A further aspect is the relating to training when waiting. Do you carry on training while waiting or do you rest in case your swim is the next day?

Conditions on the day.

You are on continual standby and are sometimes only given a couple of hours notice before swimming. The weather may be fine when starting out but invariable changes (if not a few times) during the swim. What may have been expected to be a calm sea may turn into gale force winds and rough sea after only a few hours into the Channel.

Sea sickness.

The problem with sea sickness is that you either do not feel like taking in any liquids or foodstuff or alternatively if you do, you tend to vomit everything up, thus losing all the energy source and nutrients. If you do not replace these nutrients then, not only do you endanger your well being, but also will not have enough energy to pull trough the tough period.

Of the more than 6200 known attempts only about 474 people have successfully swum the Channel: a success rate of only about 7%