Swimming across the English Channel may be the Holy Grail of our sport. When we think of great challenges, Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, comes to mind. It remained unclimbed for centuries, but with advances in materials technology and with trained, expensive guides to hold your hand and carry your gear, the summit of Everest has become much less difficult to reach.
How does Everest compare with the challenge of the English Channel? Briefly, many more mountaineers have summitted Everest (10,250, along with 291 deaths) than swimmers who have made it across the Channel (1,881), even though the cost of swimming the Channel is far lower than that climbing trip to the Himalayas. Getting to England is much easier than going to Nepal. There are also a great many more swimmers than mountaineers. The Channel is more financially affordable, it is easier to reach, and there are so many more adherents to the sport of swimming. Then why is it that fewer have been successful in swimming the Channel? There are good reasons why many fewer swimmers have made it, versus Everest summit successes.
It is time for a bit of history. Everest was first climbed by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. The first successful swim across the English Channel was done by Captain Matthew Webb in August 1875. He reached France in 21 hours and 45 minutes in 60-degree water. Captain Webb became a hero in his native England, the first to conquer the Channel after many unsuccessful attempts by others.
Let’s suppose that you have been pondering swimming the English Channel. What kind of logistical, financial and physical problems would you face? Let’s start with getting permission. Swimming across the Channel is governed by the Channel Swimming Association. To secure a date for your swim you are required to go through them. Without them, you will not be allowed to swim. There is a fee involved. Next, you will need an escort boat. Only a few boats, fishing boats with professional pilots, are considered acceptable to guide swimmers. These pilots are very experienced in dealing with swimmers. The Association can help you to find your pilot in the Folkestone/Dover area.
You will have to book flights to and from England. For reasons below, the time window for your swim has to be flexible, so scheduling your return flight will be a problem. Next, you will need a place to stay in the Folkestone/Dover area. There are lots of Bed and Breakfast owners familiar with the unique needs of Channel swimmers. Getting from the airport to your lodgings is not difficult with good public transit in England.
The water temperature of the Channel is much like the Pacific Ocean off California, cold. It is warmest in the warmest months, and probably best in August. You can expect temperatures in the high fifties to low sixties, and you will be in the water for a long time wearing only your swimsuit. There are beaches nearby where you can acclimate somewhat to the cold water.
Timing is critical, and depends largely on the phase of the moon. The Channel is tidal. The best tides are neap tides that occur about halfway between the full moon and the new moon, so there are not many days in the month that are favorable. Consider that Channel weather can be bad, making days impossible for your attempt. When you arrive you will meet with your pilot. He will tell you that he will call you in the morning to let you know if you will be able to swim that day. Chancey? That is why your return flight needs to be flexible. Too many swimmers have sat in their hotel and never got the call to swim.
Your route will not be a straight line. The tides run north to south, then turn back to the south as you cross west to east, reversing every six hours or so. Your route will be a big “s”, maybe with three curves if you are slow enough. This is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Along the way you will encounter ferries, tankers, freighters and fishing vessels, all of them pushing up large wakes. The captain of a Chinese freighter will not move for swimmers. Depending on the weather, there could be big waves. A friend of mine was in the water on a rough day for 17 hours.
Swimmers must follow Channel Association strict rules. No wetsuits, no insulated caps, no touching the boat or any person en route, among other rules. There is a monitor on board who can disqualify you.
Sounds tough? You have another possible way to experience a Channel crossing. Find some like-minded friends and put together a relay. The rules permit it. When my relay team of six swam in 1999, we rotated one hour turns in the water, and finished in thirteen hours, having a ball all the way across. The next day we drove to Scotland and swam Loch Ness. A great swim vacation, Scotch whiskey, and a tattoo for a souvenir made for fine memories.
There is a sad finale to the life of Captain Webb. After he became widely known as the conqueror of the English Channel, it appears that his heroism went to his head. He became a professional adventurer, accepting money for swimming challenges during his travels. For a while he was successful at it; until he accepted a bid to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below the falls. The Buffalo Express reported it on July 25, 1883: “WEBB LOST IN THE RAPIDS. GALLANT SWIMMER REACHES THE WHIRLPOOL AND IS SEEN NO MORE.” Captain Matthew Webb died at the age of thirty-five. Sic transit gloria natare.