Six Hours in the Sea
To enable anyone to even set foot on the beach start line of a channel swim, there’s a few crucial items that need to be ticked off. Apart from the usual admin things, there’s a medical and a six hour qualifying swim that must be done in the year prior to a channel swim attempt.
There’s a few rules for this swim, of which the normal channel swimming rules apply. A standard swim suit is the only thing, along with goggles and a regualr single swim cap, that can be worn. The water must be below 15.5C. Which all sounds so very simple, what’s the big deal? Let me elaborate. It’s a six hour swim for a start, something that would be a challenge for most people, just think about that for a moment. Start swimming at 9am when lots of people get into work and don’t stop until 3pm, for some that’s a whole work day, doing nothing but swimming. Now let’s make that a little bit trickier. Due to the channel being cold, the Channel Swimming Association put in place the ruling that this swim must be done in water that’s 15.5C or lower. The sea that you might paddle in on a sunny summers’ day is perhaps 20C and a swimming pool is usually 28C. 15.5C is chilly, after six hours it’s icy and something that must be trained for.
Cold water acclimatisation is a crucial step for being able to do a six hour qualifier, one that has been a central part of my training over this last year. Those swims in the North sea all through winter are the only way to tackle this. The days when the air temp is minus digits, the beach is frosty and the sea is 5C. That instant numbing of extremities pays dividends a few months later when the water feels balmy at 14C in comparison.
The day came for me to take on my six hour qualifier. Looking at the weather report there was due to be a thunderstorm at around 11am, so an early start at 5am was in order. Getting to Sea Palling at that time of day is always a treat. The sun had risen and the sea was looking beautifully calm. A final few checks and we were ready to go. I had a fellow swimmer, Naomi, who was also aiming to do a six hour qualifier and also my friend and coach Tracy Clark there to offer crucial support and feeds as and when needed.
The water was refreshing to say the least on starting. That thought of ‘damn, I’ve got six more hours in here… don’t think about hypothermia’ with that it’s imperative that your mind is put to work on positives, it’s warm, you’re feeling invigorated by the cold water, you can and are doing this now.
After an hour and the first feed, I stopped to turn around at the end of Sea Palling to swim back to the start and another ‘lap’. Imagine my surprise when the sea floor was there and felt quite furry. Seal! who came up instantly to see what we were doing in her playground. I can assure you that seals are big and take quite a little bit of faith not to be scared of when the sea is murky and you don’t have any safety back nearby. I set off back swimming, only for my new found friend to decide that it would be great fun to bash into my legs, swim around me and do the same again, and again. A mile later and some food sees me heading back to where whe was. I’m now joined by a very inquisitive juevenile Grey Seal, which is lovely but it gives you a fright when they just appear and are even more playful. Well at least it passes an hour or so quickly.
Naomi has sadly not been able to continue after 2hrs 46mins. The cold got the better of her and despite her wanting to conti
nue it was judged as not being safe to. A great effort though, she’s a very, very strong swimmer.
The sun is high in the sky now, a few clouds are however building and the tranquil sea is getting a little bit of a swell. That when I get a Jelly Fish sting on my left arm, they rarely cease to surprise, but I can’t stop, I must keep swimming if only to try and keep some warmth in my core.
The last hour and the rain has started, the beautiful morning has changed and so has the sea. The thunder and lightning is a concern, but I have 26mins left. There’s little to no chance of me stopping now, so I continue swimming, the last part of this challenge is nearly complete. I feel good, despite my shoulders aching and my face has been submerged in salt water for the best part of six hours.
At the end, I’m feeling great. No shivers at all, I feel like I could continue without any issues. My tongue isn’t feeling quite as loved. Salt Tongue is s common affliction of channel swimmers, your tongue swells and you lose the ability to taste anything… that’s going to take a couple of days to get over.
I’ve done it though and I’m now qualified to swim the English Channel. Getting to this part of my swim is a challenge in itself, one that I’ve learnt a lot about what makes me tick and what lies ahead in the channel.
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