In the days before Big Brother, children used to dream of being famous for doing something. I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. On horseback. That is, until I discovered those particular combination of skills didn’t constitute a recognized job description – not since the 19th century anyway. Luckily I had another big idea up my sleeve, and it wasn’t so much a career choice as a statement of intent. I was going to swim the English Channel. What I hadn’t figured, was that it was highly unlikely my parents would sanction a five-year-old to swim the 21-mile crossing to France. But there was one unassailable fact my youthful ambition glossed over: I couldn’t swim.
Three decades on, and finding myself single for the first time in years, I decided it was high time I should call my own bluff. I am going to plug the man-shaped hole in my life with 300 trillion gallons of sea water. Come to think of it, a few pints would have been enough. But it’s not just a relationship hiatus that’s motivated me to take on the Everest of distance swimming. As Head of Marketing and Communications for Earthwatch, an international environmental charity, I am all too aware of the increasing threat of climate change and pollution to the world’s oceans. The Channel alone is home to a billion pieces of floating plastic. And while this time next year I may secretly curse the fact the water isn’t a couple of degrees warmer, rising sea temperatures would have a devastating impact on the huge diversity of life in our seas.
Channel swimming isn’t compared to Everest for nothing: fewer people have successfully swum from Dover to France than have climbed the Tibetan giant. Amongst this elite club of just 1000 members, swimming the Channel is often described as being 10% physical and 90% mental. And I really wish this were true, because then I could just book one session with Dr Phil, rather than doing endless lengths in the pool for a whole year. Of course what it’s actually getting at is the cold, because it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t convince your body it’s not on a crash course with hypothermia. You see, the trouble with Channel swimming is that you’re not allowed the luxury of a wetsuit – just a regular swimming costume is permitted between you and the icy waves. This is why you face a bigger battle with your body temperature than the sea. And I don’t mean to underestimate the achievement of anyone who has scaled the highest mountain in the world, but you don’t have to climb Everest in your underwear.
Since announcing my challenge, the question I get asked the most, apart from ‘Are you crazy?’ is whether I’m a good swimmer. Well, I have run half marathons, skied valleys, climbed mountains (ok, not Everest admittedly) and ridden wild horses. But I have no claim to fame with swimming. No haul of medals, no badges, not even a certificate for doing the most lengths. Or any lengths.
In swimming I am all at sea, in unchartered waters, not waving but drowning.
What I do have is better odds than my younger self. I can actually swim. Besides, where would be the sense of achievement if I was already some mermaidesque aquatic champion? Surely that’s the point of a challenge: it’s not your nine to five. After all, you wouldn’t sponsor a model to do a 24-hour fast.
Over the next year I aim to raise thousands of pounds to support vital Earthwatch projects, including our youth programme. What better than to inspire the next generation not to treat the planet like an inexhaustible drive-thru? And rather than just a tedious account of how many lengths I’ve done, I’ll meet some interesting people along the way and ponder about the environment and life in general. A kind of George Monbiot meets Bridget Jones. And when I step into the Dover surf next summer, smothered in vaseline, I hope more than anything that I make it to the other side.
Of the Channel that is, not the afterlife.
I wonder when someone told me ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea’ if I got the wrong end of the stick?