Updated: Mar 15
Looking to the other end of a swimming pool can be daunting for some, especially if you have just started swimming. Contemplating a mile swim is scary for others. Thinking about your first swimming event might challenge your nerves. But how in the name of a holy mackerel do you get your head around the idea of swimming across the English Channel?
The English Channel presents the challenge of 22 miles of deep open water with oil tankers in busy shipping lanes, jelly fish – and who knows what else bobbing about. That doesn’t cover your own struggles: you’ll be fluffy, puffy and filled with salt – and then there’s what happens inside your head; the fear, fatigue and frustration.
OK, but if you’re determined to do it, how do you prepare?
You need to be a fantastic swimmer with loads of experience.
You need a full understanding of the channel tides and times.
Your training must be top notch.
Your pace per mile has be up to speed to cope with the tides, which change direction, the weather – wind, rain – the swell.
Put all this together – will you be ready for a channel swim? Absolutely not. There’s a lot more to making this into a success story.
If you decide to follow this mysterious inner voice, untold and unknowable experiences follow like shadows of distant personalities and mountain peaks. Doors open where no one expected to find a portal of any kind. Assistance appears from acquaintances, new and old. Strength emerges from depths you didn’t know you had.
We admire, however, not just the swimmer’s strength but also the acceptance of their frailties and their willingness to persevere. The trust they put in others and the support they accept, without compromise or judgement.
I met Emma for the first time one early morning in June. On the banks of the downstream waters of the River Thames, swimmers were preparing for the 4k Lock to Lock, one of the SwimOxford swim series events. Emma had a swim hat and goggles – no wetsuit.
The SwimOxford swim series was founded on the premises of supporting wild swimmers, from start to the finish. All swimmers are greeted and applauded for their efforts and a deep connection into the arms of the open water community is felt.
In 2016, Emma completed the Oxford Classic Mile, 4K, 6K and 10K Lock to Lock swim series – and the English Channel. And yet, she was a novice swimmer.
But not just a novice. Other people’s views find a way into our hearts, causing doubts and fears. Emma had to cast aside unflattering and non constructive remarks from professionals, strangers and friends alike. She already knew that she was not the best swimmer; she was perfectly aware that she swam in the slow lane. But that was just the start – she would not let that be a problem.
And more. She knew that better, faster, stronger swimmers have failed the Channel swim. She knew that on paper, these swimmers had the odds on their side: better technique, more experience, faster speed, loads of strength, younger. But this would not hold her back.
Now you begin to understand some of the key attributes for getting across the Channel.
Every time we went to the pool, Emma was there. When we left, she was still there. Growing from the change of energy and transforming her mind with every stroke, every length.
Looking back to Emma’s epic 50-mile channel swim, still brings goose bumps up my spine. I treasure the small glass bottle of sand brought back from far away shores; this reminds me of how perseverance and dedication is a choice to take or leave.
In these current times, deep into our third lockdown with winter restrictions gripping us all, and an ever-present threat hanging over all our lives, these thoughts of perseverance and dedication ring strong and harness our connections to each other.
The Swim Oxford teams supported Emma on all her swim events, but Emma lifted our spirits way above the clouds and for that we are truly thankful. Her energies never cease. She helped create a 2018 channel relay team, which included a Swim Oxford member, and now, as we swim together through the seasons, with her very mischievous ways, with her laughter and her joy, Emma still lifts our spirits.
This is Emma’s story of her Channel swim…
"I was to meet my pilot on the harbour side at 12:30am. Oh my goodness, panic rising, heart beating I had made a few phone calls for advice and yep it was definitely a go. First lot of thanks to Mark Johansen (aka Pantsman whose simple, straight and direct answer was exactly what I needed). My crew had sadly been reduced to two as my original swim date wasn’t until the Friday but the two amazing women Amanda Davey and Wendy Trehiou (Second lot of thanks for their strength and support not only as crew members but all the way through my training) were going to be with me. Any form of sleep eluded me and it was time to head off. After being shouted at by Maddie for trying to help pack the car, we set off and arrived at Folkestone Harbour which was ominously void of water. A brief few minutes of panic passed but then my nights in shining armour turned up (Third lot of thanks to Fred and Harry of Masterpiece Charters Folkestone for their patience, sense of humour and tough love at the right times when needed) and informed me the harbour would be filling up in no time soon – phew!!! That would have made for an interesting swim. We made it onto the boat via rowboat which itself was hilarious (sorry Wendy)! On our way to Shakespeare beach, I felt sick and I knew it wasn’t because I was on a boat. Greased up, forms filled, lights on and ready for the off. What happened next I will be apologising for until eternity because as I jumped overboard to swim to the beach I had the utmost worst case of tourrettes!! If I had I met my fate at that moment my last words would have ended with a C….. I am so ashamed. I swim to the beach and maroon myself, arse in the air, scrabble to my feet, clear the water and hear the horn, off I go. I swim and swim and swim and not once did I ever think about it being dark or what may have been below/around me. First feed went really well and then it hit me like a bulldozer, or rather my left calf muscle. I had the most painful cramp in my leg that I had ever felt, my toes curled under, my leg came up like a periscope and I thought oh golly gosh what an inconvenience. Or did I again swear like a navvie and at one point the screaming became so loud you probably could have heard me over in France. Wendy and Maddie thought It might be good to give me Miso soup to see if that helped and found out quite quickly that that taste wasn’t to my liking, again apologies for the language. After about four hours I managed to get my foot moving and with every stroke I was moving it like a rudder as the creeping onset of cramp was never that far away.
Dawn broke and the changing colours of the Channel were mesmerising, from a dark inky black to murky grey, misty sage and eventually a light blue then aquamarine. That sun was a sight for sore eyes and calf muscles.
The next few hours were pretty uneventful apart from the fact that it seems that my swimming costume had slipped and I had been in fact swimming the best part of 6 hours with my boobs out. Having been told this my Maddie my reply of “Oh well, not much I can do about it now” and indeed I did carry on the rest of my swim swaying to and fro. Sorry crew, Sorry Fred and Harry, Sorry official CSA observer, I hope it wasn’t written on my swim report. I swam through a plankton snowstorm (Fourth lot of thanks to Alexandra Hayden for her knowledge as I just thought it was mucky water). Met some friendly jellyfish to which I ashamedly flipped the bird to after they had just stung me across the face and around my foot. The Channel gods were on my side as the water was like a mill pond, I was so lucky to have experienced probably one of the channels calmest moments, the only slightest bit of turbulence was from the biggest tanker I had ever seen in my life and as we passed behind it I found myself taking a few strokes mid air before being unceremoniously dumped back into the water.
Mid afternoon came and the sun was blazing down, I could feel it on my shoulders but I was cold. I knew something wasn’t right as I don’t get cold in the water, being blessed with layers of bioprene helps. I get cold after I’m out of the water but not normally during. This cold was a different kind of cold, it was the type of cold you feel when you have the flu. On telling my crew this I was informed that I wasn’t cold and to keep swimming so I inevitably threw my toys out of the pram. It was decided that my feed should be changed and my next feed was a Wendy special of Coca Cola and double strength Maxi. Well that did the trick and after about 20 minutes, the rocket fuel ignited and I swear I could feel the sugar pumping through my body and I was off , well as off as I could be, it did take me nearly twenty hours after all.
Wendy jumped in and joined me for some moral support for which I am truly grateful but at the time hated, all I could think of was that she was looking at me thinking, jeez woman hurry up, you call that swimming, can she go any slower, really she thinks she can make it? I know Wendy would never ever think this but when you are accompanied by a two way channel swimming legend it kinda gets to you. Wendy got out and asked me if had I enjoyed her swimming with me and the thing is, when you are in that situation honestly is always the best policy so I said no. Her reply made me chuckle. Lets just say I wasn’t the only one swearing on the day. The sun was setting and apparently I was joined by a pod of dolphins which would have been wonderful if I had seen them. I knew Maddie had seen something but as she was under strict instructions not to point wildly at things she just stared in wonderment at them. I mean how am I meant to know what she is pointing at. We found this out on my training swim as my crew rushed to my side of the boat pointing furiously, oh my god jaws, monsters what what, nope dolphins. I was also joined by a solitary seal, many P&O ferries and a submarine which alas wasn’t yellow. At one point Wendy told me that I had a get a wriggle on for the next 3 hours, seriously 3 hours, oh no wait, she said 3 kilometers but I thought she said three hours and I tried but I don’t do anything fast, apart from swear. Night came and I was still swimming, I had written Just keep swimming on my arm which was slowly disappearing into the inky water again. Getting closer and closer to the French shore line with the bright orange street lights which do not get any smaller after hours and hours of swimming I was at the point where I was told that I had no more feed to come and at the right point the dinghy would be put in the water with the intrepid Harry in it and Wendy would get in and follow me to shore for safety. I had been swimming so long my flashy light had run out of battery and at this point I kinda know how it felt. I knew I was getting really close as the water tasted different, no not of garlic and vino sadly (apologies for awful stereotyping there) but almost of fresh water and mud. The bio luminescence in the water was so mesmerising, I was being treated to my very own underwater firework display and at one point almost forgot to surface for air. I had oooohs and aahhhhhss going off in my head it really was jaw droppingly beautiful. Wendy and Harry are now both in the water and I had left Masterpiece behind, this is the point on the tracker when I think panic set in and everyone thought I hadn’t made it. I was in my own world. Picture the scene from Finding Nemo where Nemo and Dory follow the light of the fish, well that was me following the green glow stick on the back of the Dinghy being surrounded by my private fireworks show, ooohhhh preeetttyyy. My very own tripping moment was interrupted by Wendy shouting at me that she could touch the bottom and I was brought instantly back to reality. I swam and swam and swam and only when I took a scoop of sand with my left hand on the sea bed did I know I had made it. Or not quite I still had to get out of the water. Trying to anchor your feet to the sea bed after nearly twenty hours of swimming is easier said than done and I had to flip myself over onto my back and bring my knees up to my chest to get my legs bent. I made it, I actually ran onto the shore, or rather I thought I ran but it was more like a hobble with my left leg being dragged behind me, it’s a good job I didn’t hear any bells. I had done it, I’d swam the English Channel, a normal mum and housewife had accomplished something beyond her wildest dreams, how was I rewarded…… I wet myself. Oh yes, I spent literally the next minute doing nothing but having the warmest most blissful, gravity assisted wee of my life. Wendy came up to hug me and I had to tell her I was still in fact weeing, bless her, I got a hug anyway. We quickly searched around in the dark for some pebbles and yep could not find one so hand full after hand full of sand was scooped up and deposited down the front of my swimming costume which didn’t help the boobage situation any. I swam back with Wendy to Harry in the dinghy who said cheerfully “Hop in”, well no prizes for my answer, actually I don’t think I swore at him but told him there was no way I was going to be able to heave my soggy ass into the dinghy, well I was weighed down with an extra stone of sand. Harry rowed or rather towed me back to the brightly lit fun boat that was Masterpiece and I was confronted with the steps of doom. I promise I did eventually put my boobs away before hauling myself up the ladder, getting to the top I just could not get my legs over the side so was ably assisted by a tearful Maddie who thankfully I didn’t land on top of as you would never have seen her again. Maddie got me dressed and successfully managed to save some sand, just don’t ask where it ended up and from that moment on the vomiting started and proceeded for the next three hours. Turns out I really don’t do boats. The trip back is a bit of a blur but I can remember being looked after wonderfully. As we approached Folkestone Harbour I hear screaming and shouting and to my surprise, my crew had travelled all the way down that evening to make sure they were there for when I go back (more thank you’s to Sara-jayne Harvey, Lucy Tarrant, Trudie Long and Sharon Geraghty), I tried to wave but t-rex arms were just not allowing it. Back on dry land I was showered with champagne and glitter stars (thank you Sara and Sharon). I was simply overwhelmed at being presented with a trophy by my crew with my name and Channel Swimmer written on it, I can remember being overwhelmed that they had that much faith in me to do it and get the trophy engraved even before I had swam. It was now about 3am on Thursday 22nd September, we had been awake since 7am on the morning of Tuesday 20th September and Maddie and I made it back to the flat which in a moment of realisation was indeed on the second floor and I had three flights of stairs to get up. Each step was a new swear word. Later that day we awoke and eventually made our way to Whit E. H Orse to write my name on the wall. It’s a good job I found a space not too high on the wall otherwise it wold have been an X and nothing else. I had to hold my arm up to write as it was. I had the most amazing bowl of chips for lunch and we set off home. I still have lots and lots of people to thank and I am slowly getting around to seeing everyone. I am sorry this has been such a long article but my experience really was life changing and I wanted to share it. Life is for living and savouring and if anyone has a dream to do something really stupid, I say do it and don’t look back."
Photographs from top Matt Hardy, Sergio Souza, Darrin Roles
Main photo of Emma by Darrin Roles