Monday, August 29, 2011

Coast guard to the rescue at Margate swim!

Dear Team

Just a bit of an update from us over here in the UK as we wait and prepare for our respective Channel Swim attempts. It's a long one with some exciting and interesting news, so please read if you get 5 minutes over a coffee break this afternoon.

Myself and Andrew Hunt arrived in to London late on Friday night and hooked up with Paul Downie and Shelley Taylor-Smith at St. Pancras train station early Saturday morning to catch the fast train down to Dover. We got into Dover at about midday on Saturday and witnessed six or seven swimmers heading out into the Channel for their swims in what initially appeared like great conditions. I remember sitting on the train and thinking that I'd really like to be out there, as taking advantage of good conditions is what it's all about. However, as it transpired none of those swimmers made it further than 4 hours that day, all getting caught in a severe storm that passed through once we reached our accommodation at Varne Ridge Holiday Park. We saw one swimmer later that day being transported to hospital in an ambulance off their boat with hypothermia. The sudden change in weather was a stark reminder that we really are at the whims of the weather gods down here.

Here's a video clip from Shelley talking about our excitement as we head down to Dover:

We went for a quick swim in Dover harbour that afternoon and the water temperature was fortunately very "doable". I then met up with my pilot (Andy King on the Louise Jane boat) who talked me through the plan of attack for next week. I am to call him each evening from now on at 7.30pm to suss out the opportunity to perhaps swim earlier if the weather is good. Our neap tide window does not start until Monday 5th September though, so going earlier risks a long swim on big tides, but chancing it until next week likewise means the risk of poor weather conditions and not getting a swim at all. After all this hard training over the last 3 years, it really does all come down to a bit of a gamble. As we've seen with Geoff, Lisa, Ceinwen and Wayne, you really don't know what you're going to get until you're out there. The contrast between Geoff covering 57km and Lisa covering 35km is entirely condition dependent and something that it's hard to prepare for physically. How long will I actually be out there for? Mentally this is quite a tough thing to come to terms with as well. Everyone constantly asks us "what time to do you hope to swim?" and in reality, assuming a successful crossing, the very first thing we'll be asked of anyone is "how long did it take you?" - however, we're rapidly realising that this number is totally irrelevant and incomparable from swimmer to swimmer. The real question is "did you make it?" but even then this not always a reflection on your ability as a swimmer given what we all witnessed with Wayne's amazing double attempt last month.

So, rather than mulling over what might happen, we decided to head down to Margate and a place called Joss Bay for a 3.8km swim race on Sunday morning. We were anticipating a few more swimmers for this race as the start list only featured about 80 swimmers, however, with late entries on the day this number swelled to a little over 100 we believe. The bay appeared calm and inviting but none of us could have predicted what was about to happen and that less than 5% of the entire field would actually finish...the rest having to be scooped out by the RNLI and coast guard!! We had to complete 3 laps of 1266m on a supposedly 100% accurate course and were warned that we should push north at all times as the tide was currently running north to south. We were told that the faster swimmers would be most affected by the tide as "slack water" was due to occur after the first hour which would enable the slower swimmers to complete the latter part of the course in less vicious tidal conditions. Not only was this completely wrong as it transpired with the timings etc but the tide completed shifted the opposite way about 40 minutes into the swim which directly affected the instructions to push north. Swimmers should have pushed south when the tide turned, but it's very hard to know this when you're out there, especially as a less experienced swimmer, of which there were many there on the day. A late start to the event due to the difficulty of laying the course in the tough tidal conditions didn't help things either. Tricky stuff.

Most swimmers were wearing wetsuits and whilst myself and Andrew Hunt donned our speedsuits in a bid to recoup some of the advantage we were "giving" to our full wetsuit clad buddies, Paul Downie decided to go "au naturel" and compete in the bathers he will use for Le Channel. Adam was also in attendance and swam in his full wetsuit and was probably banking on a 60-65 minute swim over that distance. Little did he know he'd be in for over 2 hours! Just a few days earlier I had covered this same distance in just over 48 minutes with swimmer Mark Scanlon down at Claremont Jetty, so you can imagine my initial disappointment when I exited the water in 2nd place overall and in 55 minutes, having not been able to quite hang onto the toes of the race series leader in his wetsuit. However, that initial disappointment was quickly replaced by shock when standing on the beach with 7-time World Marathon swimming champion, open water guru and FINA representative, Shelley Taylor-Smith, the stark reality of why our times were slower than we had expected was starting to unfold very rapidly before our eyes! Places 3 and 4 made it out of the water about 15 to 20 minutes (!!) behind me (both seemingly great swimmers), but then after this there was no-one, no-one at all...not even anyone left on the course itself! Whilst I felt like I struggled to make it to the last turning buoy I wasn't totally aware at that point of just how rapidly the tide had turned directions and how much of an advantage I had gained by being close to that last turning point when it did. Over an hour went by and save for the odd swimmer who had decided that the current was too strong and that they'd quit the race, everyone else had been totally washed out to sea! At this point the RNLI and coast guard were called into action as it was apparent that people were at a significant danger of being lost to the sea completely. Scary stuff.

Paul D, Andrew and Adam were all still unaccounted for and at this stage and I freely admit starting to panic that in my haste to suggest this race, I had inadvertently jeopardised their English Channel swim attempts! I might even lose my business partner Adam?! After 1h45, Andrew Hunt came running down the beach from the cliffs with two other swimmers who'd been washed a couple of kilometres down the coast before deciding to hop out and run along the cliffs back to the start. Andrew commented that he was having an excellent swim and was only ~300m behind the leaders going into the final lap of 3, but then remained completely stationary, swimming on the spot for over 30 minutes, just 50m away from that crucial last turning buoy. He and the others then got pushed rapidly backwards and into the next bay (!) as the force of the tide strengthened. To witness this from the beach was just staggering! Eventually, both Adam and Paul D were scooped up by the coast guard and returned to the beach after having being out there for over 2 hours! Luckily the race organisers and the coast guard were able to retrieve everyone, which is a testament to their skills at sea rescue and prompt action - both myself and Shelley were worried for a while it has to be said!

Here's Paul Downie's GPS trace from the race. Note the rectangular course in the bottom right corner of the image (the actual course), but then notice how far left (north) he is dragged by the current, ultimately covering 7.02km as opposed to 3.8km on the day! Amazing stuff!

Here's Paul D running out of the water after being rescued:

...the man never stops smiling! :-)

So, what should have been a ~60 minute training swim for us all, turned into something MUCH more than that, but provided a very valuable lesson in tidal changes in the English Channel. Whilst we had to plough directly head-on into the current, which ultimately proved to be a futile exercise, when we cross the Channel, we'll always have this at our side. When you view Geoff's 57km GPS trace of the 34km English Channel crossing, you realised how this S-shape squiggle is not an error in navigation but a sign of the veracity of the tides:

For Geoff to even finish that day was truly amazing given what we witnessed yesterday when only 4 of the entrants actually finished the event successfully. What the race showed us though is the acceptance of the futile exercise of trying to swim across the tide and into land when it turns, as Geoff says you've just got to go with it and wait for it to turn again and for Geoff this was an additional 4 hours later!! Incredible.

Sorry for the long update. Hope you've found it as useful and insightful as we've found the experience of yesterday to be ourselves. Luckily we're all OK and are just counting down the days to the swim itself now...whenever that may be!

Finally, here's me and Andrew sat on the white cliffs of Dover preparing this Blog in the beautiful (but extremely cold!) morning sunshine:



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