The final countdown

28 07 2010


There’s nothing like a deadline to galvanize the mind. The final hurdle before attempting my channel crossing was the prospect of a marathon six hour qualifying swim. This presented two major challenges. Firstly, I’ve never spent more than two and a half hours in the sea. And even that was thanks to the steely determination of the Dover crew, who do not take ‘I’m so cold I can’t feel my limbs’ as a reasonable excuse to get out early.

Secondly, the swim must be completed in open water that’s less than 16C. Which meant I had little time to spare before the water would be too ‘warm’ to count. You might wonder if there’s an element of sadism to all these rules. After all, no one expects Everest aspirants to climb with the primitive equipment that Hillary used in 1953.

But the real reason you need to complete your qualifier in less than 16C is that if you don’t, you won’t have a hope lasting twice that time in water that’s only a degree or two warmer when you make your attempt.

Goosy gander

And this is where the fat comes in. Not the goose fat that’s lodged in the public consciousness. It’s what people ask about more than anything else. And they seem genuinely disappointed to find that boiling some unfortunate gander to a paste and smearing it all over your body is in fact an urban myth. Modern channel swimmers just use a bit of Vaseline, and that’s to stop the chafing. Greasing up does little to protect you from the cold, it’s the fat you have under your skin that helps.

In the world of channel swimming, portliness is next to godliness.

So as the deadline for my qualifier loomed, my diet became as important as doing lengths in the pool. To survive the insidious cold of the channel, you cannot be too vain to gain. At first I reveled in indulging in the kind of food I normally eat sparingly. But having your cake and eating it is not all it’s cracked up to be. Having a lot of what you fancy quickly wears thin. With pasta and pizza on the menu most nights, I find myself dreaming of salad.

But if you want an excuse to eat for two, without having a baby, then channel swimming could be your thing. Though there is a labor of sorts at the end.

‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’

Despite all this carb loading, I failed my first attempt. So with my last chance in sight, I arrived at Dover Harbour to find the choppiest conditions of the season and the odds stacked against me.

I stepped into the water at 9am in torrential rain. Like a giant washing machine, the sea flipped me onto my back several times as I struggled to breathe. But somewhere in my mind I convinced myself this water torture was a game. And that lasted me until the first feed at two hours, and then three, and then four. At five hours you couldn’t have dragged me from the sea. I finally emerged just after 3pm, last out of the water, when normally I am first.

It seems I failed better than I ever expected.

Crunch times can bring out the best in us. But not every deadline should be ridden to the wire. Just as the oil spill in the Gulf is stemmed, it seems the cap is spinning off planned emission cuts. There may be just 77 months to save the world from an irreversible tipping point for CO2 levels and environmental disaster, but that’s more than the term of office of our political leaders.

Which gives you some indication of where it currently sits on the global agenda. And where it should sit on yours.


Baptism by ice

8 06 2010

Tempting fate is never a good idea. I was so busy gloating about how many lengths I could do that I didn’t see it coming. As Oxford’s finest were leaping off the Magdalene Bridge in a tradition that dates back to the dawn of alcopops, I was preparing to take a road trip. Though, not by road you see, because that wouldn’t be very eco. I took a train to the coast to dive into the depths of Dover harbour. And despair.

Swimming in the sea is nothing like swimming in a pool. I know that because I’ve read it several times since undertaking this challenge. And because I have swum in the sea plenty of times before. I was even in the sea last October. Surely May couldn’t throw any surprises?

Sometimes you are so wrong about things that your own stupidity hits you like a sledgehammer.

The sea is at its warmest at the beginning of September, when it can reach 19C. Which means that it is still fairly temperate in October, probably around 15C. This was my first mistake. Dover harbour on May Day was just 9C.

It’s not cold, it’s character building

To kick off our training, we did two swims, for just 15-20mins, two hours apart. You need that long to recover. During the first swim, I had to be pulled out of the water because all my limbs went numb. On the second swim, the wind picked up and choppy salt water sloshed round my mouth like it was a plughole in a gargantuan bath tub.

And then came the shivers, like being held by the shoulders and shaken violently. Apparently this is normal, you only need to worry when it doesn’t happen. I had to be helped to dress myself. Someone bought me a cup of tea and held it as I drank. In this indignity, I found comfort in the kindness of strangers.

It may have been a lonely journey doing lengths in the pool, but there are literally dozens of people willing to subject themselves to the vagaries of the sea in the name of channel swimming. And thankfully, a handful of volunteers who pick up the pieces when the sea spits you out.

Flirting with hypothermia

After the shakes came the wobble. The moment where I started to think that maybe I was a bit crazy to be doing this. Why didn’t I spend my summer lying on the beach like normal people, instead of flirting with hypothermia? But I felt a bit better when I read this on the website of the Outdoor Swimming Society:

“0-11 degrees: freezing. Jumping in likely to impair breathing in the uninitiated, as breath comes in big jolting grasps and it feels like someone has clamped on an ice neck brace. Water has bite, skin smarts and burns. Limbs soon become weak – 25 metres can be an achievement.”

And of all the people who recoiled on hearing of my water torture, I knew there would be one person who would ‘get it’. The kind of person who subjects themselves to extreme temperatures for professional curiosity. Lloyd is our Head of Global Field Safety at Earthwatch. He’s like a cross between Ray Mears and Colt Severs. He’s exactly the sort of person you would want to have around in a crisis. But there are no crises in Lloyd’s world, only situations. I imagine he’d be pretty handy in one of those too.

Hot is the new cold

You might wonder why I’m banging on about how cold it is, when 2010 is set to be the hottest year on record. The crucial factor is that this represents average global temperatures. So it will not be warmer everywhere. Believe it or not, where you live is not the centre of the universe, but you’d be surprised how many people think it is. Like here in the UK, where our unseasonably cold winter probably did as much to dent public confidence in global warming as Climategate.

So really I should revel in our cold sea, because soon it could be like bathing in the Riviera. Like exam standards and children’s behavior, in a few decades time, swimming the channel will not be the feat it once was. And while part of me would be a tiny bit grateful for the respite, it is cold comfort when you consider the devastating effect on sea levels and marine life.

And somehow, using a little less goose fat doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to do nothing about climate change.

The loneliness of the long distance swimmer

30 04 2010

You may think that because I work in PR, I am prone to exaggeration. But when I said I wasn’t much of a swimmer, I really wasn’t selling myself short. When I began my training last autumn, it was mostly of the dry kind. Going to the swimming pool is akin to having an Emperor’s New Clothes moment. And while I’m happy to go along with the illusion that it’s completely normal to be parading around in your under-garments, I’d rather be looking more Victoria’s Secret than Queen Victoria. And that was enough to send me scurrying to the gym before I so much as dipped a toe in the water.

So, apart from a bracing dip in the sea on an unseasonably sunny day in October, my swim training, pre-injury, never progressed beyond 30 lengths of the pool. Otherwise known as 750m, or just over 2% of the channel.

You’re probably starting to get the picture. And to wonder at the heading of this blog.

A love affair with chlorine

So after six weeks with my feet up, I began my slow crawl back to the pool, swallowing my pride and probably more chlorine than is safe. In my first session (in the slow lane) I managed only 10 lengths and was overtaken by a man in his 70s doing breast stroke. To be fair, he was very fit for a 70 year-old.

But stroke by stroke, I started to improve. I stopped holding my head high and dry like a periscope. I learned to breathe in the water. Ten lengths became 20, then 50, then 100. I did more lengths in the first week of March than I had swum the whole of February. The first week of April, I swam as far as I had in March. Last week I did 5km (200 lengths) in the time it took me to do 4km the week before. My fitness has crept up on me as insidiously as I lost it.

Now I’m not overtaken by anyone doing the breast stroke.

At last I’m emerging as a swimmer. And I have the hallmarks to prove it. I smell of chlorine all the time. I’ve worn out a whole swimsuit. I go to the pool on Friday night, while everyone else goes down the pub. I wear goggles for so long I look like I’ve had rhinoplasty.

I spend most of my time staring into a watery void with occasional gasps for air. But the training’s going swimmingly.

This week, I’m on track to do 1,000 lengths. The distance would have been inconceivable to me just eight weeks ago. By the time I set off in three and a half month’s time, I should have completed over 15,000 lengths and much of that in open water.

But even a challenge the size of the channel is nothing compared with the efforts of your average swimmer. If you swim 40 lengths, three times a week, not exactly herculean by any standards, you’ll already have clocked up over two channel swims in the time I’ve been writing this blog for Treehugger. Chances are no one will congratulate you. Or ask you to write about it. You probably didn’t even notice yourself.

Earth day, every day

Take Earth Day, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Some people did something special. Most people probably did nothing at all. But some people did what they’ve always done for the environment on the 14,040 other days that have passed since Earth Day began.

And this is the point. It’s not just about the big occasions or grand gestures: the most powerful statement you can make is by underwriting change into your daily life. If I succeed at my channel attempt in August, it will be down only in a small part to the 37,000 strokes I make on the day.

There is no glory attached to what you do for the environment, unseen, unsung, every day. There is no medal, no certificate, no pat on the back. But it amounts to a hell of a lot more than crossing an intemperate stretch of water between England and France.

Channel challenge: treading water

22 02 2010
Training in the channel, October 2009

Last week was a milestone: it is six months until my channel swim. If all goes well, I will be standing on Shakespeare beach near Dover in the early hours of 18 August with just 21 miles of sea between me and France’s nearest fingertip, Cap Gris-Nez. Of course the English weather, unlike the tides, is far from being an exact science. In reality I could be on call anytime that week: waiting for the phone to ring with my very own self-imposed emergency.

But in many ways I feel lucky to be faced with an insurmountable challenge. The New Year arrived with a bang, or rather twelve of them, when hazy with flu I took a shortcut down my stairs. It was a month before I could limp more than a few hundred meters and six weeks before I got back in the pool. In this case, I could walk before I could crawl.

Tongue in cheek

As an unwelcome souvenir I have a large hematoma, much like an extra butt cheek, jutting from my thigh. It appears my bones, if not my blood vessels are unbreakable. After the medical equivalent of ‘phone a friend’ my doctor found a scissor-happy surgeon willing to excise it – for cosmetic reasons. But given that it will eventually go away naturally, and an operation would further set back my training, it’s a no brainer.

On the plus side, maybe it will distract me from fixating on the rest of my butt.

After six weeks off, I should be very nervous about the challenge ahead. But to take on something this big, you need to have a sort of perverse attraction to hardship and adversity. And to a degree, I can fall back on my previous fitness. Having started training last autumn, I was already strong before my injury.

Muscles it seems have memory. Which is more than can be said of my brain cells after one too many glasses of merlot.

Speaking of which, now that I’m back in training I’m off the booze, apart from special occasions. I have yet to define exactly what that constitutes, but I’m guessing that it might legitimately include birthdays but probably not weekends.

A sobriety sorority

To keep me company, a handful of my female colleagues at Earthwatch have volunteered to sign up for a buddy month of sobriety. And after hundreds of hours worth of training, I’ll also need to spend the month before my swim in a carb loading, pasta eating frenzy to ensure I have enough insulation to keep the icy seas at bay.

I have no shortage of male volunteers to join me in that.

 Training over the months ahead will not only be about building stamina. With successful crossings taking an average of 14 hours, I will also need to raise the bar on my boredom threshold. In the time it will take me to swim the channel, you could fly from New York to Mumbai, take a train from Paris to Vienna, or drive from Denver to Las Vegas.

Under the carbon microscope

To ensure the challenge is as sustainable as possible, I’ll be viewing my lifestyle under a carbon microscope, from choosing the most ethically sourced swimwear to following the lowest footprint diet. Do feel free to offer me your tips on training and treehugging, and in return I’m happy to answer any queries you might have, such as why I go swimming in a blouse.

I’ll also be looking for a more reliable training partner/coach than my camera-shy canine. Despite his enthusiasm for swimming, he is very short on advice and swift to abandon me for anyone with a ball.

Milestone or millstone?

And for your entertainment and my reassurance, I’ll seek expert guidance from survival gurus, marine scientists and fellow adventurers in a bid to find answers to the critical issues of the day, such as: “How can I take a cold shower without screaming?”, “Can you die from jellyfish stings?” and “Do I really have to do a Paula Radcliffe when nature calls?”

Milestone or millstone, the time for backing out has passed. I have booked my crew and support boat: the Viking Princess. I only hope I can live up to her name.

All at sea

22 11 2009

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?