It was the oldest group to ever attempt to complete a relay swim across the 23 mile-wide, rough and cold English Channel between England and France. All five in our team members were over the age of seventy, with the average age being 74. I was the oldest on the team, at age 77. A better qualified team of septuagenarians could not have been found. Our team captain was Michael Reid, MBE, who is president of the Channel Swimming Association and holds the record for the most solo swims - 33! The other three swimmers were all British Long Distance Swimming Association champions, two of whom had just returned from Montreal, Canada, having competed in the World’s Masters, where they each won an event. These are truly dedicated swimmers. I have also attempted five solos on the English Channel, and have succeeded twice, as well as two previously successful relay swims, and coached a third from the University of St. Augustine. I am also currently serving as Vice President of the Channel Swimming Association.
We started out the swim in fair weather, which promised to be moderate. It was not to happen. As Michael exited the pilot boat and swam to the beach to begin the swim, he raised his arms to signal his re-entry into the water and the start, we were all very optimistic. At the end of each hour, the next swimmer would drop into the water and pass by the current swimmer who would then exit. No passing a baton in this relay. I was the final swimmer in the set of five, anchoring the group, and then we would cycle through again. We each swam well, and while two of us experienced cramps, they were managed in the water by the swimmer without assistance, as the rules dictate. By mid Channel, the winds were at twenty knots (22 miles per hour) and the waves were building, especially when the tide went against the westerly wind. With three hours to go, the winds had reached a steady 25 knots and were gusting to 30 knots as night was falling, but still we were all swimming well. And then the weather took a turn. I completed my second one-hour swim and Michael followed. On board we were hanging on for life - seriously - the boat was being thrown all over the place. Two decks chairs, where we rested, broke completely. It began to rain and there was no shelter for us swimmers, as the temperature dropped to 45 degrees - we could not stay dry. I crouched on my hands and knees, bracing myself against the dingy and hanging on. I actually felt better in the water than on deck.
France was only three to four miles off, with a landing on the Cape Gris Nez. The nearest point was out of the question, as it was far too dangerous for a swimmer to attempt a landing on the rocks in such a storm. The distance to the nearest beach was some hours away and the weather still was building. The decision was made, and agreed to by all, that it was unsafe in these conditions to complete the relay. Had it been a solo, and if that swimmer had been in mid-life, then he/she may have pushed on. But discretion became the best part of valor, and we headed for home disappointed at the failure, but enriched by the adventure.
I went to Dover beach Sunday morning to meet with those training for their upcoming swims, surrounded by family and supporters. I found myself greeted by applause for our effort. Small, yes, but significant compensation - the approval of one’s peers.
Now I prepare to come home, hike a little with Catherine on the Appalachian Trail, and be at the boat yard as Kiwi Spirit is re-launched for the upcoming solo - circa November 8th.