The first and only Irish over and back English Channel

Write-up by Lisa Cummins

It’s hard to even know where to start in describing my swim. It was such a fantastic experience, I can’t say that I enjoyed absolutely every minute but I did enjoy most of it. It’s nowhere near sinking in yet what I’ve done. Or maybe I’m still in denial the way I was leading up to it!

We spent a very long 10 days in Dover waiting for the weather to break. Wind, wind, wind. It was a big disappointment considering the forecast before we travelled had been so good so we had all thought we would get out nice and early in the tide. But it wasn’t to be. The waiting was frustrating, but my outlook was always that there was nothing I could do so I might as well make the most of my time there. I swam almost every day in Dover harbour and spent lots of time relaxing in the caravan (in the fantastic Varne Ridge Caravan Park!). I even had time to paint my toenails!

Sitting, Waiting, Wishing

Irish Colours

All through the second week it looked like the weekend was going to be good. The question was, would it be good enough for a two-way? As the week went on it looked like Owen would go on Saturday and me on Sunday when it had calmed down a little more. Until I rang Mike on the Thursday night and he said that it looked possible that Saturday would be calm enough for me to go. So I arranged to ring him again the following morning to get a better update. And started panicking!! I hadn’t been nervous for the few days leading up to that because I wasn’t sure if I would actually swim or not. But now things were getting real. Mike was very certain that I would go at some stage over the weekend. I was terrified and so, so excited at the thought of it!

The following morning I rang Mike…and the news was scary! I was to go at 10:30am, meeting at the harbour at 9:45am. ALL SYSTEMS GO! It was an absolutely manic day. I had to arrange flights to get Sarah and Imelda over, sort through all of my stuff and pack it, shop for the things that we couldn’t have gotten earlier in the week and borrow feeding equipment from Dave Whyte’s boat. And eat and try to get to sleep reasonably early. It all worked out in the end, Dan offered to go and collect Imelda and Sarah from the airport which was great. And we had most of the stuff packed up and ready by the time I was heading off to bed. I had a shower, put on a layer of suncream so that it would be well soaked in by the morning, and went to sleep. And, surprisingly, I did actually manage to sleep! The following morning was also crazy, and very emotional for me-I spent half the morning crying for some reason!! I think it was just seeing and hearing from people who were supporting me, I got so many texts and had people calling to the caravan to wish me well. It was great. Finally we were ready to go, and Owen’s dad, George, drove me down to the harbour. We had an absolute ton of stuff with us but we figured we didn’t want to run out of anything out there!We met Lance, my pilot, around 9:45 and I gave him the £3000 that was remaining to be paid for the swim. No going back now!! But the thought of not doing it didn’t even cross my mind at that stage. I was at the point where I figured that I was going to have the easy job for the next 30+ hours (although maybe a lot of people would disagree with me on that one!). Lance and his crew of Chris and Tanya had to worry about navigating and getting me to France and back using the best route possible on the highest spring tide of the summer. My mother, sister and Imelda had to think about feeding me-what to give me and when, read how I was feeling so as to know what best to say to me and keep everyone at home informed. All I had to do was to try to make their jobs as easy as possible by putting my head down and taking stroke after stroke. I couldn’t wait for all the fuss to be over and to be in the water and be able to hand off the thinking to everyone else. And soon that time came!

Lance drove us out of the harbour to my starting point at Abbot’s Cliff. It was the perfect day to start a swim-the sun was shining and the water was like glass. Absolutely beautiful. On the way over Sarah and Imelda greased me up and I got ready to go.

Getting Ready
 

Greased up and ready to GO!

By the time we got there I was ready. Lance brought the boat right in and I only had a few metres to swim into the beach to my start. On the beach were Owen, George, Jackie (Owen’s coach) and Ned. It was great to have them there to send me off. And I have some fantastic pictures of my start courtesy of George! Thanks George 🙂

My Send-Off! Thanks guys 🙂
 
Contemplating what’s ahead…
 

I stood on the beach, fixed my goggles and waited for the signal to start. At that stage I probably should have been having deep profound thoughts about what lay ahead and what I wanted to achieve. But to be honest I was just very excited to be starting and happy to have finally gotten the chance to swim. All of the nerves were gone. I was ready!

Yay, time to begin! 🙂

At about 10:35am Lance blew the horn on the boat. My swim had started! I hobbled down the stones (I’m not very good with walking on the shingly Dover beaches!!) and started swimming. I had thought that the first few hours when I was only feeding on the hour would go very slowly, but it felt like a very short time before my first feed. It went well and I was happy! I did realise that it was quite difficult to hear the crew talking (I had earplugs in) so out came the whiteboard for messages for the rest of the swim.

One of the most common questions I get asked when I talk to people about my swim is what I think about while I’m swimming. A lot of swimmers talk about mind games that they play to keep themselves occupied. I don’t do anything interesting really. I just let my mind wander wherever it wants to go. I’ve had plenty of practice from the long pool sessions! On the swim I spent a lot of time thinking about my training and about all of the people that helped me and what I’d been through to get to where I was. My crew were passing me on text messages from people that had come through, and after hearing one of these I would often spend the next while thinking about that person and how they had helped me in my training and preparation. I also spent a lot of time singing…I love the Amy McDonald album ‘This is the Life’ and the Lily Allen album ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ so I went through most of both of those. My most recent feel-good song is ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas and the Take That song ‘Greatest Day’ was in my head a lot. I tend to tune in to song lyrics a lot so when I wanted to change my internal cd I tried to think of a song that would keep me feeling energetic and encouraged. I did however end up with the Kookaburra song (you know the one-“Kookaburra sits in a tall gum tree, Merry merry king of the bushes he…”) in my head for a good two hours. It was just stuck there randomly and nothing I could do would get it out! It was still better I think than ‘Nellie the Elephant’ though-I heard of one Channel swimmer recently who had that stuck in their head for six hours of their swim!!

Happy out!
 

Everything went well until it came to about 4 or 5 hours in. I think at that stage I had a moment of clarity where I realised exactly how much I still had ahead of me and the enormity of what I was really doing!! This was one of the things that I had worried about before my swim-I’d had very few times in training that I really had to convince myself to stay in the water so I didn’t know how I’d deal with the mental demons if they arrived on the day of the swim. I never actually thought about getting out of the water, but I think I spent about an hour trying to convince myself that it was a good idea to stay in. Eventually I talked myself around, I figured that I’d done a 14-hour training swim, so there was no way I was giving up before that mark since I knew that I could get that far. I’m really glad that the doubts came in early in the swim. If I had started thinking like that later when I was more tired it would have been much harder to fight. But thankfully once I got those thoughts out of my head they never came back again.

I get asked if I saw much in the way of shipping while I was swimming. And to be honest I didn’t really. I saw a few of the ferries on the first leg because we were travelling pretty close to their path. I had warned Sarah to try to get a photo of me with a ferry in the background, the iconic Channel swimming photo!! And she did 🙂 Other than that I didn’t really see much. The ships passing up and down the Channel weren’t in my line of sight when I was breathing. I kept more of an eye out for them at night time, they were all lit up like Christmas trees then, they looked really cool!

At the half-way mark my crew gave me a signal. I had asked them before the swim to do this so that I could have some marker of where I was, since I knew that Lance probably wasn’t going to be very forthcoming with that information. I was at 8 hours when they told me that I was half-way, and that really annoyed me for a while. I was figuring that if it had taken me 8 hours to get half-way then by the time I got to France I’d have taken so long that Lance would say that I wouldn’t be able to make it back. At the next feed a half hour later I threw a bit of a tantrum and gave out that I was not swimming well and that my time was going to be very slow. That wasn’t exactly what I meant though-I really didn’t care about my time as a number, it was more that the longer I took getting over then the less chance I’d have of getting back. Once I started swimming again I regretted having said it, because I knew that they would spend until my next feed worrying about how to encourage me and how to keep me going. But I hadn’t been thinking about giving up or anything like that, I was just frustrated that it might take me 16 or 17 hours to get to France and then it would be very hard to turn around. But I think as soon as I said it I realised how stupid it was to be worrying about things like that-my job was to keep swimming and not to think about getting there or not getting there, if Lance thought I wasn’t going to get there then that was his call and until then I would keep swimming.

Maybe half-way across or a bit later my left shoulder started to get sore. All year when I’ve had shoulder issues it’s been the right shoulder that’s given me trouble. So I was surprised to have pain in the left shoulder instead during the swim. I think it was a good thing though-mentally if the right shoulder had gotten sore it would have been harder because I’d always dreaded that causing problems on the day…whereas when the left one got sore I just thought “that’s strange, the wrong shoulder is sore!”. I took some painkillers for it and they did help a lot. For a while anyway!!

I don’t remember much about it getting dark. What I do remember is once it did get dark and as we got close to the French coast, I could see the lighthouse on the Cap. Every time I stopped to feed my crew were telling me to swim towards it, I knew that that was what we were aiming for. And every time I saw it, it looked exactly the same. It didn’t look like we were getting any closer to it at all. I realised later that the tide had swept me past the Cap going south and then again going north. So I was pretty close to the lighthouse for quite a long time. Eventually we were swept north of it, and while I was disappointed to know that I wasn’t going to land on the Cap, I was happy not to be seeing it at every feed any more!

Nightswimming

I remember being quite frustrated for the last couple of hours getting into France. I couldn’t see how far from land we were, and I felt like I was getting nowhere (this feeling was not helped by seeing the lighthouse continuously for so long!). One nice thing was that a relay that had just finished their swim came by and cheered me on. I must say that I definitely had a jealousy moment at that stage that they were done and I wasn’t! It was a great boost though. And at one stage Lance turned up the music that he was listening to-I couldn’t hear a lot of it besides the beat because of the water and the earplugs but I heard ‘Castles in the Sky’, a song that I really like, so that gave me a pleasant change of soundtrack for a while!!

At that stage I kept veering off from the boat. I could see lights off to the left from the town of Wissant but nothing else. At a few of the feeds my crew kept convincing me to follow the boat and not the lights. I’ve heard so often about Channel swims where the swimmer decides near the coast that the pilot is taking them the long way around and heads off in what they think is a better direction. I knew that they thought that that was what I was doing but it really wasn’t-not consciously anyway! It just seemed that every time I looked to the boat it was WAY off to my left. I think that when I breathed to the left I probably took my line from the lights for the next 3 strokes until I breathed towards the boat and that must have been putting me off direction-wise. Eventually I concentrated on just following the light from the torch on the boat that was shining into the water and hoped that that would keep me nearer!!

Then Lance started playing around with the light on the front of the boat, and I couldn’t figure out why. I guessed that he was probably getting it ready to shine on the beach for me but I couldn’t figure out why he was doing it at that stage. I had absolutely no idea how close we were to land, I couldn’t see a thing in front of me. I just concentrated on swimming towards the boat as much as I could. And then they started shouting at me to swim away from it, and that totally confused me. It took me a minute to realise that they meant that we were very close and the boat wasn’t going in any further!! It was so nice when I did realise it though 🙂

As I got closer to the beach and Lance shone the light on my landing spot I saw that there were some people on the beach. I realised that a group of young French guys were having a beach party!! I realised that it they were on a beach in the middle of the night they probably weren’t sober, and I was worried that they would touch me and end my swim. I kept asking them not to touch me and tried to explain what I was doing…but of course I was explaining in English, at that stage my French language skills were buried much too deep to be of any use!!! I’m not sure if they ever realised what was going on and why there was a boat arriving from nowhere and 3 people arriving out of the pitch black water…but they did seem to understand that I didn’t want them to touch me anyway!! They wandered further along the beach, to my huge relief.

Sarah and Imelda had swum in behind me to make sure I was ok and to bring in some things for me. It was great to be able to chat to them without being under the same time pressure as I had on the feed stops. My big concern when I landed was that it had taken me over 17 hours to swim over and I was wondering if Lance was going to let me turn around after taking that long. I had calculated that from trying to add up the feed stops and figuring out where I was on the feed schedule (I had a list of feeds to cycle through). Imelda and Sarah looked at me as if I had about 10 heads, they couldn’t figure out what I was talking about with the 17 hours. They convinced me that it had taken me much less than that and to look at my watch. And of course they were right…it had actually taken me 14 hours and 36 minutes. Seeing and hearing that made me a lot happier! Of course it would have been nice to have hit the Cap and been faster, but I was never under any illusions of being a fast swimmer and I knew that if I had pushed it too hard on the way over I wouldn’t have had anything left for the way back. Regardless I was so happy to realise that I was at the 14 hour rather than the 17 hour mark!!

While I was on the beach I did a few things. I had a drink of water (it was nice not to have to tread water while drinking it!), I had a couple of throat lozenges (my throat was quite sore from the salt water even with the mouthwash and I was afraid to have a lozenge while swimming in case I choked on it), I put on some more grease on my shoulders (and tried to get as much of it off my hands as I could after!) and I found a souvenir stone (this took a bit of searching since we were on a sand dune in the pitch darkness!). I had a bit of a chat with Imelda and Sarah, I can’t remember what about at this stage. And then I heard Lance shouting so I assumed it was time to get back in.

I’ve had a lot of people asking me how I managed that part, the getting back in. It was something I had thought a lot about before the swim. Not in a visualising kind of way, I never really bought into the ‘visualising your swim’ thing, I always figured that I could never visualise something that I had never done and something that was so unpredictible. But I had thought about what I wanted my attitude to be on that beach. And I had had quite a bit of advice about how to view my whole swim. Freda Streeter, whose daughter Alison has done three two-way swims and a three-way (she is also Queen of the Channel with 43 EC solo swims to her name!), advised me to think of my England to France leg as a warm-up, and that my actual swim was from France to England. She suggested thinking of France as my starting point. Kevin Murphy (King of the Channel, with 34 EC solo swims including three two-ways) had warned me not to allow myself celebrate when I got to France. He said that especially since I hadn’t done a one-way before, it would be very easy for me to decide that I was so happy having made it to France that I didn’t need to turn around at all. I trained myself to think of France as a functional stop. I needed it to put on more grease and things like that, but it was just a step towards the goal, not a goal in itself. And I think this worked…the only thing that I was concerned about with regards to getting back in was whether or not Lance thought that I could make it back with the tides and my pace. I asked about this and Imelda quickly told me that I was getting back in regardless!! Even if I had wanted to get out I don’t think that I was being given the option!!

And so it was time to start on the hard part of the swim…France to England…write-up soon!

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