I wasn’t far off the mark when I described my swim as a labour of sorts. I’m more than three weeks overdue and practically bursting with anticipation. Tide and time may wait for no man, but they will hold you to an uncertain vigil, checking the weather forecasts as often as you clock the time of day. After the coldest August in 17 years, the sea is testing my patience before my prowess.
I’m in a kind of channel swimming limbo, physically prepared and mentally ready, but as far as I’ve ever been from France.
What happens next?
Channel swimmers are booked in queues of four or five on the neap tides, which occur for around a week, every other week. This is when the tidal flow is at its weakest, and conditions are best to swim. But if you miss your slot due to inclement weather, you will likely swim on a spring tide instead. This is when the tidal force is at its strongest, making it a more challenging crossing (as if it wasn’t hard enough already). If you’ve ever been down to the beach to find you can wade out a hundred meters and still be just waist deep, this is a spring tide. All that extra water gets sucked into the channel to make havoc for swimmers like me.
There are benefits to swimming in September: the water is about as warm as it gets at 18C. And there are drawbacks. The air temperature is cooler, and the days are getting shorter. The longer I wait, the more likely it is that I will not only start my swim at night, but finish it in darkness.
But adorning myself with a couple of night lights, like a spartan Christmas tree, is the least of my worries. What I should really be concerned about is taking my mind off the interminable wait. So I am still making the long trips to Dover to train in the harbour most weekends. And although Oxford is about as far from the sea as anywhere in England, I’m grateful for the relative proximity. I’ve met several swimmers from overseas who’ve had to abandon their hopes this year and return home.
The waiting is not helped by the fact that I get asked at least ten times a day, when I’m going to swim. At first I gave really lengthy expos, like the second paragraph in this blog. Then, when I got sick of the sound of my own voice, it evolved into a practical ‘It’ll be another week or so’. And when I could tell people were getting sick of having to ask me, a resigned ‘who knows?’
And now no one has to ask me at all, they just venture a look and I shrug my shoulders.
One event that promised to provide a distraction was the news that a crocodile was spotted in the channel. Oh the irony of embarking on that mammoth swim, only to be met with the jaws of death instead of a welcome parade. But it would be hard to deny the crocodile its pickings, having completed an epic swim of its own, and being cold blooded, entirely unprepared for the chilly waters of the Channel.
Being more used to the kind of crocs you wear on the beach, the story caused barely a ripple amongst the waiting swimmers, despite making headlines. Although I did instigate a media blackout as far as my mother was concerned, who was already fretting over basking sharks in the channel, despite their preference for plankton over people.
But the crocodile turned out to be an especially menacing looking piece of driftwood. In this case, its bark really was worse than its bite. And front page news was relegated to the small print, the reserve of apologies and admissions and stories of razor-toothed reptiles which turn out to have a hollow ring.
And I can’t help but be reminded of the fanfare that greeted the Climategate scandal. Like the croc that never was, there was distinctly less appetite for a second serving after the science was vindicated.