Friday July 22nd saw myself, Justine and Emma hooking up a caravan to Justine’s van and setting off on a 5 and a half hour drive to Dover. Everyone was in good spirits and once we’d manoeuvred the caravan (leant to us by Kimberley Caravans, complete with giant stickers announcing to the world that we were going the swim the Channel!) off Justine’s drive we were good to go!
We’d put together a few cds of motivational tunes that kept us entertained for most of the journey (although the Nottingham to Dover drive is not one I’d choose to do often!)
Stopping at the service station for a much needed coffee and wee break, Justine expertly parked the Van + Caravan in a ‘long load’ space… only to get back to the car and find a big yellow piece of paper stuck to the windscreen… yep… that’s right, clearly someone didn’t consider Van + Caravan to be a ‘Long Load’ … Great!
So… we have Emma marching around the car park determined to find the culprit and give him and earful (and probably worse) .. Justine taking photographic evidence of the length of the Van + Caravan and declaring that she wasn’t going to pay it, and ‘what are they gonna do… take me to court?!’ .. and me suggesting that we go onto money saving expert.com to find out how to protest the ticket!
We left the services in a bit of a rage.
It then dawned on us that we didn’t know how much the fine was.. So I opened the ticket .. Only to find that it was a ‘pretend’ ticket.. Just warning us not to do it again!
Very funny indeed!
The rest of the journey was pretty uneventful and we arrived at Varne Ridge caravan park to a lovely warm welcome from David & Evelyn.
To our delight Mark Preston, his family and his buddy Ryan were also staying at Varne Ridge. Mark and Ryan were in Justine’s lane at the 24 hour swim we did earlier this year so it was nice to see some familiar faces! Mark told us he hadn’t yet been able to get started on his Channel attempt because of weather and tides… time was running out for Mark as his buddy Ryan was going to have to head back home for work commitments, and as any channel swimmer will tell you, your buddy is SUCH an important part of any swim as its their job to make sure you get fed and watered throughout the swim!
Also on our site were a few Australian solo swimmers, including Geoff, who had completed his swim the day before, despite having to do a 15 km detour to try and beat the tides near France.
There were also 2 junior teams over from Australia, along with their families and coach Pauline. The Barracudas were a great bunch of kids and what an experience to have at such an age!
After struggling with officially the World’s Worst Awning Instructions we thought we had cracked it and were about to start patting ourselves proudly on the back for a job well done, when Evelyn popped over and said to us ‘girls.. That don’t look right… I’ve never seen one with poles on the outside’ So it was back to the drawing board. Luckily it was past 4pm which, it would seem, gives us the 1 hour window where Justine’s brain is firing on all cylinders ;-) and Emma and I just followed Justine’s instructions until all poles were on the inside and the awning looked like a proper awning!!
So we were all set up ready for a good nights sleep … (despite a few hiccups that were sorted by David!)… and with our jim jams on we settled for an early night.
Then came the storm
It was a storm like no other storm I’ve heard before… ever!
It was terrifying. We were woken to loud thunder and the crashing of lightening that sounded like it was right on top of us. I screamed and was nearly in tears I was that scared. We even invited Justine to come share the one bed, coz obviously under a duvet is the safest place in the world! Justine declined the offer (we later found out she was too scared to move!) and we tried to get some sleep once the storm had calmed down!
When we got up in the morning we were fully expecting to find the site filled with charred shells of caravans but the only damage seemed to be that the storm had totally bent one of the tent poles of our awning… thank god we’d moved them onto the inside hey!!
3 cold showers later (the storm had also tripped the electricity in the shower blocks!) we were ready to head to swimmers beach to buy some lights in case we had to do any night swimming on the day.
Now, our previous experience on swimmers beach hadn’t been a little mixed as we’d gone to do some training there a few weeks previously, only to be told that our relay was ‘impossible’ and that we’d left it a bit late to come practise in Dover. Not exactly confidence building especially considering this was said with no idea how much we had been training, or our previous swimming credentials! Luckily Justine and I are both tough cookies (despite the storm shenannigans described earlier lol) and actually turned this around to motivate us to show em and prove them wrong!
Anyway, we bought our lights from the lovely Michelle (who likes my hair!!) and went off to go buy some provisions to keep us fed while we waited for our swim to be confirmed.
Our buddy and physio Dani arrived on Saturday evening full of beans and excitement… this was great and just what we needed!
Our friends Karen & Lisa arrived in their motor home on Sunday, along with Louise, Jess, Sally, Mike and Legs (our photographer for the swim) who were staying in a campsite down the road. We also went to Dover Station to pick up Tracey who had travelled all the way from Scotland to come and help us on the boat. Tracey is a Sports Psychologist and it was great to have such an awesome support team with us for what was sure to be the biggest challenge of our lives.
Dave (Justine’s husband) Emma Lou, Mai and Efan popped round to see us and do a bit of investigating on where best to wave us off from on the day.
It really was a special moment when I realised that all these people had come for us… to help us and support us. It made me realise just how lucky I am to have such great friends and family.
After a visit to Samphire Hoe (where the swim was due to commence) we realised that our supporters would have to try and see us off from a cliff edge as they would not be allowed access through the tunnel at 4:30am when the swim was due to start. We were glad that we had done our homework and got it all sussed our before the day, or else our friends would probably have missed seeing us off.
We had a lovely day in the sunshine (me in the shade.. Damn that ginger skin!!) with all our crew and friends.
So… its Sunday… the weather is lovely and we’d had a few messages on facebook from Pearl (our pilot Fred’s wife) saying that things were looking good for our planned Monday morning departure, but Fred would phone to confirm at 7:30pm. My word, half seven was a long time coming!
To keep ourselves busy, Justine and I went online and spent some time reading messages of support from friends, family, colleagues and other channel swimmers that had become our ‘internet buddies’ throughout this whole journey. We also went online to see how our sponsorship was doing. We were blown away by the generosity of people. It really was an emotional few hours, and the tears would randomly flow as we read the kind words people had written about us. Even as I type this the tears are flowing remembering how much this all meant to us.
We were feeling good and were pretty certain that Monday 25th would be the day. Then I went to chat to some other swimmers on the site. Mark told me that his swim (which had been postponed several times now) had again, been cancelled. Mark was due to set off the same time as us. This worried me so much. If Mark was being told he couldn’t swim, then surely we wouldn’t go either. Looking (again!) at the weather and wind reports, Monday really did look like the best day… and we just really wanted to get this blooming swim done!
So it was back to waiting.
Then we got the call… WE WERE ALL ON FOR MONDAY!! We all cheered. It was really going to happen!
That night we all slept quite restlessly but we had expected that and tried to ‘bank’ some sleep hours in the day.
3am Monday 25th July the alarm went off and we all got up and started getting ready for this once in a lifetime experience
Me, Justine, Emma, Dani, Tracey and Legs all took a steady and nervous drive in the van to Folkestone, to meet our pilots Fred and Harry (Fred’s handsome son!) and load the boat up with all of our kit.
We had SO much kit it was unbelievable… we were covered for all eventualities! 7 plastic boxes full of warm clothes, food, drinks, and gubbins, all labelled up to try and help the crew find things if needed!
Our CSA observer arrived… another female.. Ros. We were wondering if there had ever been an all female team AND crew before?
We all boarded the boat and started the journey to Samphire Hoe. I covered myself in Sudocream (nappy cream) as it has a high zinc content to offers great protection against the sun. We had decided not to grease up as its quite messy and there is no scientific evidence to suggest it actually keeps you any warmer
As we reached Samphire Hoe, we looked up to the cliff top to see (and hear!) our friends and family that had got up at stupid o clock to see us off… it was such a welcome sight and gave us a massive boost just when we needed it!
I was due to start the swim, which meant that I had to get off the boat and swim to shore, whereupon I would raise my arms above my head to signal the start of the swim and then get back in and start swimming. I started the swim just after 5am. When I entered the water I remember thinking how the Trent had felt colder than this the week before when we were training. This gave me a really good feeling about the swim.
CSA rules state that each swimmer must then swim for 1 hour alternately until they reach France. A 2 person relay is considered as difficult as a solo swim as the stopping and starting make it very difficult to maintain a good body temperature, but we had trained hard and acclimitised hard so that our bodies were really ready for this!
I started swimming back towards the boat and tried to find my rythmn. It was so hard. The waves, although not massive, kept breaking my stroke and I felt like I was being thrown around and up and down for the entire 60 mins. I made good progress despite this. The boat was on my left had side, which meant that I have to breathe bi laterally so that I could see the boat and not drift off in the wrong direction. Thank goodness we’d both trained ourselves to do this, as my natural stroke is very lopsided and ‘lollopy’ breathing every 2, and always to the right, so it was a good job we’d practised breathing to both sides! Because of the buoyancy of the salt water and the waves, it was quite hard to keep a decent leg kick going as it often felt as though I was kicking fresh air. My stroke is quite high in the water at the best of times!
Unbeknown to me, my ‘Luck be a lady’ swimming costume (hideous creation I found in the bargain bin!!) was right up my bum and my first 60 mins of swimming were spent exposing my entire white bottom to the whole of the boat! (this was soon to become the least of my worries!)
Seeing Justine and the crew on board when I breathed was really comforting and helped calm me down whenever I started to get overwhelmed by how tiny and insignificant I was in the middle of this massive expanse of water.
With around 15 mins left of my first leg I started to feel really sea sick. I battled on and tried to convince myself it was all in my head. Then I saw Emma take out the 10 mins left sign.. Which soon became the most amazing and welcome sight for each leg we swam!… after what felt like 20 mins came the 5 mins left sign.. And then after what felt like 3 hours I saw Fred drop the steps over the side of the boat ready for Justine to get in,and me to get out. This was a pattern that would soon become ‘normal’ each time in my head the last 5 and 10 minutes seemed to last forever!
At the end of my first leg I climbed back on to the boat and asked for a ginger biscuit to try and help with the feeling of sickness… I was wrapped up trying to get warm, and emma handed me an unopened packet of biscuits… I was feeling AWFUL and I just looked at them.. Looked at my hands wrapped up in sleeping bag and gloves.. And threw the biscuits back to emma declaring ‘how am I supposed to open them’ Luckily Emma is very tolerant and I had warned all the crew that there may be times when we would be a bit snappy and mean, I just never thought it would be over a packet of ginger nuts!
I tried to eat the biscuit (once Emma had opened the packet!) but I was really struggling.
Then all of a sudden I found myself with my head over the side of the boat being sick. This continued for the next 2 hours. At one point whilst being sick, I started to feel movement down below and I feared an explosion from both ends. I quickly went off to find the toilet on the boat. I was mortified. I had to get Fred to explain how to work the toilet after telling him that I needed a ‘massive poo’ and I was worried it wouldn’t fit in the toilet. Seriously it was so embarrassing but I remembered being told that the pilots had pretty much seen everything so tried to tell myself that while I was sat on the loo!
Ros, our CSA observer was also feeling a little unwell, and was being sick over the side of the boat for most of the journey. I felt quite relieved I wasn’t the only one!
My first hour on the boat seemed to last forever as I wasn’t speaking much, and was focussing on the horizon as Tracey had told me this would help. It really did help but it took a lot of effort and at some points I felt my eyes roll into the back of my head (maybe sleep… maybe drifting in and out of some form of consciousness) I didn’t tell anyone until after the swim as I didn’t want anyone to worry!
Justine finished her hour, swimming strongly and I prepared myself to get back in the water. I was looking forward to getting off the boat so couldn’t wait to get swimming. Unfortunately the sea sickness continued while swimming. At one point I stopped and Emma held up the ‘smiley face’ sign (we had mad several signs to help with communication between the boat and swimmer) which meant ‘are you ok?’ I gave Emma the thumbs up, just seconds before doing the loudest burp ever. I think maybe people in France heard it.
So … poo… wee.. vomit and burps. Oh the glamour of the Channel!
I put my head down and carried on swimming, all the time thinking about our reasons for this challenge; to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. While I was being sick and feeling sorry for myself, I thought of those young adults who are suffering with cancer and having to have chemotherapy where they can be sick for days afterwards. This put everything into perspective for me and helped me get on with the job in hand.
The second leg seemed to pass fairly quickly and it was soon time to get back on the boat. Oh Joy!
The water had felt colder on this leg than before, possibly because of the sickness and lack of fuel in my body, so it was harder to get warm on the boat. I got myself in our amazing ‘people shaped’ sleeping bag and stuffed some hot water bottles in there for good measure!
I forced down a piece of crystallised ginger. HIDEOUS… but it really seemed to work! By this time Dani was also struggling with sea sickness.. But was still cracking on with helping Justine with whatever she needed! What a star!
Emma & Legs were busy keeping me warm and trying to feed me and keep me covered in sudocream but the smell was making me feel sick so I was resisting having more put on my face (I’d pay the price for that later when I returned to England looking like Rudolph!)
Tracey was a constant motivator on the boat and when swimming. Always there waving us on and keeping us going. We really had an amazing team with us!
At last I was feeling human again. It was like that feeling you get the morning after the worlds worst hangover.. You know the one where you wake up feeling normal, with no headache, or no sick feeling .. And you feel glad to be alive again!!?
My next leg felt amazing.. I was back on it!
My pace picked up and I felt I was cutting through the water with ease. The sun was on my back and the sea looked clear and almost blue! There were a few really cold patches that chilled me right to my core, but luckily we swam through them quickly (apart from on one of justine’s legs when she had to stop and tread water for a few minutes to let a MASSIVE tanker go past!)
I think it was on this, my 3rd leg, that we were joined by (I later found out) Chloe McCardel, an Australian solo swimmer who was attempting a 3 way swim (E-F F-E E-F) She was swimming at a great pace, escorted by The Viking Princess and her crew. It was great to have a distraction, something else to look at. The crew of our boat and hers were waving and shouting. It was amazing! Unfortunately on her way back to England (after reaching France) Chloe had to stop her attempt due to hyperthermia. I felt honoured to have shared the same bit of sea as her!
The rest of the swim is a bit of a blur… following Masterpiece (our boat).. And looking ahead at The Viking Princess… passing and dodging a few jelly fish.. Swimming over a REALLY big one and trying not to freak out about it!
Eventually France seemed to be getting closer and the White Cliffs of Dover seemed to be getting further away. I tried not to look.. But it was impossible not to!
Time spent on the boat was taken up looking at messages on face book.. And texting people about our progress. Who’d have thought 10 years ago that in 10 years time I’d be sat on a boat updating people on a social networking site, through a mobile phone!? I also found time to write a note to Justine. The funny thing about a 2 person relay team is that after virtually living in each others pockets for the last 8 months, all of a sudden we’re doing this challenge… but never getting the chance to actually speak to each other throughout!!
My note told Justine how great she was looking in the water and that Dave Haller (her coach a city of Cardiff many moons ago that I knew through my welsh swimming days) would be proud of her as I’d even seen her lick her legs at one point… (a standing joke as Justine has the worst leg kick I have ever seen ;-) )
It was lovely to get a reply to my note the next time I was out of the water .. Addressed to Rocket Girl!! (so named because Justine says I swim like a rocket!!)
Before long I was sat on the boat after my 5th leg when to my surprise Fred started to lower the smaller boat that would be used to escort the final swimmer in to France as the bigger boat has to stay a few hundred meters from the shore.
Oh My God… we were nearly there!
Fred was rushing me and Legs into the boat so that we could catch up with Justine as it was looking like the hour would just tick over in to my leg for the last few minutes.
Unfortunately the engine on the smaller boat decided it didn’t want to play with us so Harry rowed us in a bit closer then I got the nod from fred to get in and get swimming.
Head down and towards the rocks at Cap Gris Nez. I felt brilliant. Every stroke taking me closer to that dream.
Justine had already finished (unbeknown to us on the little boat, she had actually finished within her hour in a time of 9 hours and 58 mins)
As I was meters away from landing a huge wave lifted me up and dumped me unceremoniously on a massive rock. Ouch! I kept swimming and climbed up the rocks so that I was officially in France. We’d done it
It was a very strange feeling landing in France. The picture I’d had in my head was one where Justine and I would be hugging and random French people would be cheering and congratulating us. The real picture was very different to this!
Justine had a couple of French policemen coming over to her… I couldn’t see where she was so was just stood balancing on the rock with blood pouring down my leg and arm (from the rock dumping!) waving to errr… no one!!!! So I got back in the water and swam back to Fred and the crew on Masterpiece… escorted by yep.. Another policeman in a boat!!!
Back on the boat was the best feeling ever. We’d only gone and swam the bloomin channel!!!
Hugs and kisses all round when Justine finally got back on the boat! And then the 2 hour journey back to Folkestone
As we neared Folkestone Harbour we heard a huge cheer. Stood on the dock side were all our friends and family… it was an even better sight than the 5 mins left sign… and the French coast!! we got onto the little rowing boat and Harry rowed us to the side… we felt like heroes returning from war! Lots of hugs and even more tears.. And a well deserved pint… (although our mouths were a bit messed up from all the salt water!!)
The staff at the Mariners pub were great and made us feel really special, donating money to the Teenage Cancer Trust and getting us a drink in on the house!
Our crew were just amazing, and we could NOT have done it without them… Legs .. Now known as (Sea) Legs took some brilliant photos as well as doubling up as buddy to anyone that needed dressing or feeding. Tracey and Dani made sure Justine was kept in tip top condition and did an awesome job! And Emma basically has put up with me and my tiredness for the past 8 months… and been a constant support and motivator throughout the whole thing.
We couldn’t have picked a better Pilot than Fred. He really knows his stuff… and it was due to Fred and Harry that we smashed this swim in less than 10 hours. Putting us second fastest this year (at the time of the swim) Not bad for a couple of open water ‘novices‘!!
When we got back to Varne Ridge David and Evelyn had put a big banner on our caravan that read ‘congratulations on swimming the channel’ everyone came out of their vans and came to give us hugs and talk to us about our swim. I really hadn’t expected this .. It was just fantastic. I would recommend Varne Ridge to any channel swimmers as it was great to share stories and feel the genuine support of the other swimmers. (other campers on the site were also successful… Mark got his chance on the Tuesday and totally nailed his solo swim… and the 2 junior Australian teams both completed their swims later on in the week)
It was a very emotional day, but I had expected to feel more tearful… little did I know that this was yet to come.. After feeling a bit like a robot on the Monday… by Tuesday I kept feeling myself welling up at random stuff!!… Especially when we went to the White Horse pub in Dover to write on the walls alongside other successful channel swims for the past 40 years… by Wednesday the tears were flowing even more… and its pretty much been the same ever since. Its now Saturday!
All the way through this we had maintained that it was the journey not the destination… but hey .. It was one hell of a destination!
Thanks to everyone for following our story... this is not the end!