In aid of Altzheimer Research UK
What happens when you try to gather a bunch of septuagenarian swimmers together to make up an English Channel swim. Well, the first list changed frequently, as reserve after reserve where needed as others dropped out, this continued right till a month prior to the swim when the original organiser broke his arm, and then the final reserve couldn’t get a medical in time!
So Robert Lloyd-Evans, Bob Holman, Bob Roberts and myself all from Dorset joined Kevin Murphy, King of the Channel, having swum it 34 times and a very last minute member Parvis Habibi, gathered at the marina in Dover at 23:00 on Sunday 11th September 2022. There we also met Lisa Jupp the official Observer from CS&PF (Channel Swimmers &Pilots Federation) together with the pilots of High Hopes Simon Ellis and Maz Critchley, whome I strongly recommend if you ever think of swimming the channel, for their piloting skill, their boat and their sense of humour together with their professionalism.
Kevin roughly organised us in the order we were to swim according to our swim speed and where we would need the strongest swimmers and no changes are allowed once the swim has started. We began from the beach at Abbott’s Cliff. First off, fastest swimmer, Parvis who was to swim to the beach, highlighted by Maz’s torch. A good start, off he went at 90 degrees in the wrong direction! A few shouts and he got to the the beach, the boat’s siren went at 00:26 on Monday 12th September and we were off!
Parvis swam back to the port side of the boat and promptly started to swim further and further away! Wearing two lights one attached to his goggles and the other to his swim suit, he began to disappear! Eventually gaining his attention, he was back swimming along side the boat. Lisa became frustrated as she had to count and record our swim stroke, but every 20 or 30 seconds, Parvis would almost stop and do some breast stroke before continuing with front crawl. We were all feeling some misgiving as we were loosing the advantage we had gained by Simon starting us further down the coast due to the strong spring tides that would try to sweep us in a north easterly direction. Eventually I shouted to him, ”Not fast enough, keep to front crawl,” or words to that effect. To be fair to Parvis, the conditions were awful and it was difficult to breath without getting a lungful of water. But it did the trick, and he later thanked me saying, ”I needed that!”
Then I went in as second fastest swiimmer and realised what Parvis had been through, but I’ve had lots of experience of a rough crossing, so I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that it was only for an hour, albeit a very long hour!
On leaving the water I was both cold and tired, wrapped myself in multiple layers and huddled in the front cabin where I shivered for at least an hour. How on earth would I cope with the subsequent swims?
I was oblivious to the two Bob’s swims that followed me but apparently conditions had not improved. Kevin, the slowest due to no power in his new shoulder, and then and Robert were the next two swimmers. The change over happens following a five minute, then a one minute warning and finally a 10 second count down. The next swimmer stands on the platform at the back of the boat and jumps in behind the the previous swimmer, who then has to make there way up the ladder as quickly as possible so that Simon can get the engine in gear so that we didn’t loose too much to the strong tide pulling us in the wrong direction. Could we get Kevin’s attention to get back to the ladder quickly, but eventually he was back on board and likened the sea to the ’Dover Harbour Washing Machine’.
Now Robert’s turn who kept swimming quite a distance from the boat. We all tried to get his attention as it was nearly time for the 5 minute warning, and although he seemed to notice us he didn’t swim back towards the boat. Time was passing, and little did we realise that the swim was very nearly aborted as the change overs must be made within 5 minutes of the allotted time, by phew! All done by 06:30! As Robert climbed the ladder, with assistance, we realised he was probably hypothermic and confused as he was shaking uncontrollably.
At this stage, a number of us were looking at each other, wondering how long before the attempt would fail. I was beginning to think we were a bit like, ”Last of the Summer Wine.” But, I was almost pleased at the thought of no more swims, I had hoped to only have to do two, but because I was second swimmer it would mean a guaranteed three for me. Also, I had, had my misgivings about it from the start, and time and again had thought about pulling out neither liking the idea of a relay and nor knowing all the team members, but somehow had got myself there.
Parvis was in for his second swim, then myself. Simon and Maz were quite bemused by the whole scenario, if not more concerned with regard to the safety aspects. Simon did say he hadn’t needed to use his whistle in two years and now, shouting, whistles and the boat’s horn were frequently to be heard as swimmers decided to swim at 90 degrees to the boat. We were very aware that he could abort the attempt at any stage if he felt we were not safe. To our defence wasn’t easy for the left hand breathers, probably all of us, when we needed to swim on the left hand side of the boat to protect us from the wind and rougher seas. Add to that aged related confusion, poor hearing and eyesight especially in thdark and twilight, you have a recipe for disaster. Take note, it’s for good reason that its strongly recommended that you can breath bilaterally.
Some how we managed to get more than half way across and we were beginning to get our act together. Despite the conditions and all the shenanigans each member did their one hour with no fuss and little or no interaction between us, quietly warming up or snoozing in a corner after each swims.
Suddenly, it seemed possible we might get to the other side but probably in 19 or 20 hours, However, bearing un mind with wind and tide anything could happen. Drat I thought, not only no daylight landing, but I’d have to do a fourth swim in the dark!
As you approach the French coast line, it is so, so deceptive due to the strong currents. It’s impossible to swim directly to the coast and if you are not careful you get swept up towards Calais and ’Game Over’ as you are not allowed to compromise the ferry traffic.
But then the sea calmed down, the sun was hot, and everyone was in good spirits. I went in for a third time and swam as hard as I could and, almost enjoying it, the sea even felt ’warm’ in places. When I got out, I was amazed at how close the ferries were passing across our bow with the French coast line just beyond. Simon had to hold us for the ferries and for the tide to turn, I think he said to Bob Holman, ”Well done for swimming an hour and making little or no progress!” I take my hat of to Simon’s skill, especially when we learn that we might make it with the last two swimmers, Kevin and Robert.
Robert who swims like a frog, and we wonder how he made any progress, but progress he did make as he saw the beach getting closer and closer and with us all shouting encouragement . We all felt, as the eldest and the last swimmer, he should be the one to land. We all jumped into the water behind Robert to swim to the shore, to be met by a French man and some French militia.
Robert landed at 18:23, just minutes before the next swimmer would have had to take over. Making it a final time of 17:57. All having completed three swims each and with an average age of 75 years and 187 days. A new World Record for the oldest relay team………….
We had done it, we had become a team of equals who would probably remain friends for life after such and experience.
I am proud to have been part of the team with five fantastic guys and so pleased I said ’yes’ in the first place and resisted the urge to pull out, The icing on the cake was to land in day light, as I’d dreamt of doing on my two solo swims … now no need for another! …….