Channel Swimming – The Big Swim Begins


An English Channel Swim: The Everest of swimming

Part 2/4 The Big Swim Begins …

By Zara Bullen

Zara’s Twitter: me_and_the_dog


Through all of this training the need to sleep is huge, the need to eat well is plentiful (loosing weight while facing a long swim in a cold sea isn’t a good plan) … the need to look after all the main swimming parts of your body, critical. The amazing Becky Schofield kneaded and massaged and loosened (and acupunctured and ultrasounded when required) my overused shoulders and back every two weeks. Having your rotator cuffs loosened isn’t fun in any way, shape or form but Becky ensured that I sustained not a single injury during all the many crazy miles and multiple hours of training – a miracle itself.

With so much sea surrounding my home county I’d decided early on to train locally but eventually the call of Dover and the promise of the training there proved too much for my inquisitive nature … the promise did not disappoint! To take words of advice from Freda (the channel swimming legend), to hear tales and receive advice from those that have completed the challenge themselves, to swim with others that share your dream was fantastic. The team of volunteers that gave up their weekends to grease me, feed me so I could complete multiple hours in the water and generally look after me are totally and utterly amazing. The world of channel swimming is one of the friendliest and generous worlds I’ve encountered. I would have loved to go there every weekend but it’s a long way – the times I did go were invaluable.

One sweet day I received an email about a channel relay team that had found themselves short of people, I’d only expressed my desire for an opportunity like this a few days earlier to a friend so I jumped at the chance. It meant probably spending my birthday at sea but this felt an apt way to spend it this year. While the boat and pilot were different to those for my solo it was enormously useful when it came to ticking things off my list (yes, it was a long list and ticking things off it had become an obsession…); sea swimming is one thing, sea swimming 10 miles from shore something else, tick. Jumping in from the boat, tick. Swimming far out at sea in the dark, tick. Forcing myself to think about what might lurk beneath/how deep it is/anything else that might freak me out, tick, tick, tick. Sighting the boat, tick. Sighting the boat in the dark, less of a tick as the boat was poorly lit (lights mainly on it’s mast meaning you had to over rotate whilst breathing to be able to spot it in the dark, totally throwing any good technique) but a big mental note to pack a million glow sticks for my solo crossing. Trying to swim on both sides of the boat to see which I preferred, tick. Encountering plenty of jellyfish, tick. Why I even got to swim with a swordfish!! And I got to check out beach in France upon arrival so the terrain was a little familiar in case it was a dark landing for my solo. The trip back was a less positive experience – over two hours with nothing to do but look at the massive expanse of water enveloping the boat, to consider the distance, to think “Gosh, isn’t it a long way” … then 15 minutes later “My what a long way”. Another 15 minutes “Wow, what a long way it is…”. This made me knuckle down and train my ass off for the last month or two.

The weeks before the swim wizzed by, swimming, finalising plans, swimming, briefing my support crew (the boat crew deal with the navigation and all the boat related jobs but you take your own crew with you during the swim so having the right crew is vital. These lovely, amazing people give their time to look after you, to help you achieve your dream. They feed you, they encourage you, they are ready to shout at you if they need to, and mine were perfect). Packing/unpacking/repacking the kit to ensure nothing is forgotten, swimming, going through the kit boxes with the crew so they know where everything is, and swimming. Then comes the constant checking of weather forecasts, driving yourself to distraction trying to work out wind and tide predictions that you don’t actually understand… Thankfully Eddie knew best (thank you Eddie!), the weather looked right and then the call comes. You are to be in Dover on Monday 23rd September ready to swim the following morning. Cripes.

Team Bullen consisted of: Will, Mark, Jonathan and Jenny. A perfect mix of swimming buddies, training support, endurance experts and comedians – each also a dear friend. Oh and me. TeamBullen was 60% vegetarian & 60% left-handed. How on earth would we manage?! We set off after work on Monday in two cars (don’t believe anyone that tells you that you only need a cossie, goggles and a hat to swim – I’ve never seen so much luggage in my life! Mark alone had enough kit for us all to continue on into France after the swim and trek for at least a month. Jenny & Mark beat myself Will and Jonathan to the B&B I’d booked us into (I was desperate for us all to be under the same roof which proved tricky last minute), the brilliant ‘B&B is great, landlord is “fun”!’ text from Jenny as we approached couldn’t possibly prepare us for Tom and his crazy house. We barely concealed our giggles (possibly as they were more bent over double guffaws than giggles…), books of erotic lesbian poetry laying about in Marks room, Jenny was treated to the delights of the ‘Purple Movie Room’ and Will had the names of the people whose bed he was sleeping in frames above said bed, as well naked pictures we could only assume were Toms wife, made complete with a half drunk can of vimto on a bedside cabinet! A trip to the pub followed. In a blue PJs in a very blue bed in a very blue room ‘where are you?’ moment JC & I (soberly) giggled ourselves to sleep. While entirely curious and totally weird (and not one of my best accommodation picks!), the laughter was the best tonic.

1 Don't believe anyone
Gear, gear and more gear. A little more than just a swimming costume, goggle and a hat!

I woke the next morning feeling strangely calm. Then looked at my phone to see that the swim had been delayed until the early hours of Wednesday morning. Suddenly we had a (sunny) day in Dover to kill. After Tom made us breakfast wearing his crocs & waistcoat,  we went to check out the marina and to see if we could see Anastasia (the boat that would escort me to France). Said hello to Eddie (the man that would guide my path) followed by a reccy to Samphire Hoe: my departure gate. Jobs done and it was still just 10am. While Jonathan was, of course, keen to take us on a trip to Dover castle AND around the Roman painted house I insisted that relaxing in the sun would be much better for the task ahead so we drove around the coast a little and found a little pub with a beer garden on the beach and here we made camp for the day. My lovely Mum & Dad and Aunt (AJ) & Uncle had travelled to Dover the night before also to support me so they too came to hang out with us for the day. My parents put brave faces on but I can only begin to imagine how hard that day was for them, at no point did they let me know they were terrified for me but I was later informed that they were. I think it was good for them all to spend time with my crew before we set off – each of them individually both competent and delightful, as a team they could only install the highest of confidence. The day was spent eating (I ate a whole two lunches!!!) and sitting in the glorious sun then a slow walk on the beach, a paddle and some huge ice creams – perfectly relaxing.

Unfortunately and tragically Toms B&B was full the following night so we decided to use my folks hotel as base. We travelled there, unpacked and re-packed my kit in the car park yet again, we ran through the brief yet again, unpacked and re-packed my kit yet again (not that I’m obsessive or anything you understand) then turned my ever patient parents and AJ & Uncle out of their rooms and out for dinner while we stole their beds for some attempted shut eye. What with it being a Tuesday night and The British Bake Off being on the TV, JC and I instead picnicked and ate cake while plotting awful ways to despatch of the annoying contestant. I had a few moments where my tummy felt a little butterflyish but – other than one larger moth doing a single circuit – really nothing much. I kept waiting for it, waiting for the sickening ‘what am I doing?!’ feeling but it never came. JC’s knowledge of how to ‘keep Zara distracted and calm’ was priceless – he delivered a calm and collected swimmer to the start without doubt. We’d arranged to all meet in reception at 11pm so suddenly it was time to get up and shower, before I knew it I was in my cossie and being covered in suncream.

4 Dinner
‘Fast food’ for the swim

I’d measured out all my nutrition powder into dry bottles before leaving home so Jenny, Mark & Will made these up with water before we left the hotel. The measurements allowed for the nutrition to be double strength so they could mix half solution with half hot water and hey-presto, I’d have drinks at the right strength that were warm enough to be pleasant while in the sea but not so hot as to burn what would become a sore salt water mouth. All in the cars, all down to Dover Marina to meet the Eddie, Paul the observer (who’d be watching at all times to ensure rules were adhered to) and the crew then get our gear on board Anastasia (I did none of this … resting my arms you see). My folks came to the Marina with us, hugged us all and waved us off on our adventure. I can’t imagine what this must have been like for them. Mum had said that she couldn’t bear to actually see me in the water from the day I signed up but having them in Dover was great.

We then motored out of the harbour, I’d forgotten to tell the guys that the water suddenly turns to chop as you leave the safety of the harbour – this is a temporary sea state but – all of them had ‘jeeeeeeez, how many hours of this?’ written clearly on their faces (I, meanly, giggled). Luckily it soon subsided and we were taken around the corner on a little 20 minute trip to a very dark Samphire Hoe. The plus side of getting slightly delayed meant that I’d hopefully get to land in France in daylight rather than navigate the rocks in the dark. The flip side – I was now starting my swim in the dark. When you start the swim, due to the depth of the water, the boat can only get so close to the beach so they pop you in, you swim to the shore and get out. Once totally out of the water you turn and get back in. The time starts when you leave the beach and doesn’t stop until you clear the water on the other side. The idea of swimming away from the boat into the dark was the only thing I was a little unsettled about in case I swam off course in the dark but as soon as I saw Eddie searching out the beach with a massive spotlight I knew I’d be able to swim to that easily and all was well. During the short trip to the beach my wonderful crew stowed the kit safely, then sprung into superhero style action lighting the side of the boat. There are of course lights on the boat but the lesson learned on the relay meant I’d packed a million glowsticks which Will, JC and Jenny set about activating and dangling to ensure maximum visibility. Mark had also had the brilliant idea of packing some super cool balloons, each with a tiny LED light in that glowed really brightly – these too soon adorned the side I was going to be swimming on and my boat looked fit for a party. Even in the thick fog that had come along to keep us company, the boat was clearly glowing.

While they were decorating I undressed (to just my previously tried and tested cossie – as well as being vile to swim in, wetsuits aren’t allowed as part of the rules for an official swim), gloved and greased. To within an inch of my life! No, no – not duck fat or any of the other delightful things people ask you if you’ll be covered in, just a (very) large quantity of good old Vaseline. Applied (very) liberally to anywhere that I’d previously chaffed during training (sexy I know). Salt water is very unforgiving on your skin and can leave you so sore if you get this wrong. The main trouble areas are armpits, underarms and the area to the back of the neck so these were duly slathered. Gloves off, hat and goggles on. I was told we were in 16ft of water, shown the point I was to swim to on the beach, the gate to the back of the boat was unchained and I was told I could get in when ready. I pulled down my hat, straightened my goggles and dived in. This was met with amusement from the crew, ‘she’s keen, people usually use the steps’. Well, start as you mean to go on and all that…!

And so, on Wednesday 25th September 2013, my attempt to swim the English Channel started from Samphire Hoe at 02:23hrs. The sea temperature felt fine at this point and I was glad I’d done so much swimming in cold water previously. I could see the boat pretty clearly, I tried to settle into my first hour of swimming after which time I’d be fed before swimming on for another hour until my next feed and so on … and so on … and so on. Lost in the moment and surrounded by dark, dark sea, it came as something of a shock to encounter what can only be described as a huge jellyfish! As it was pitch black I didn’t get to see the little git so I only have the size of the sting to go on – it got me from the back of my neck, round the side of my neck, across my chest and right down my front stopping below my belly button. I didn’t feel the actual jellyfish, just the sting and it hurt like heck but it certainly woke me up! And it was the only one of the entire swim so guess I got off lightly…

5 Thats how dark
Starting the swim with the help of glow sticks


Look out for Part 3 on Thursday … ‘Mind Over Matter’



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