Normally, my bouts of blog writers block are infrequent and short lasting. That is not the case this time. This is a big one and I’m not sure where to begin. I’ll start by saying it was an awesome and memorable week, one which I won’t ever forget, let’s see where this blog goes from here…
After nearly two years of work and planning we arrived in Dover several days before my seven day swim window opened on September 12th. The goal was to get acclimated to the time change and settled before hopefully a swim early in the window. Our base of operations was Sea Purse, a fabulous house on the water in St. Margret’s Bay with incredible views of the White Cliffs, the Strait of Dover and France in the distance.Shannon and I got the house provisioned up and our intrepid crew, my brother Bill and my friend Maura arrived the next day. Every day we could get up stare across the water at the the prize-France. Little did we know that we would be staring at it for days. Just before we arrived the weather was pretty sketchy and the wind had kicked up the waves in the channel and swimmable seas weren’t in the near forecast. As Maura said with her Irish lilt, “the seas had a little personality”. We started our days by going to “swim practice” in the morning in Dover Harbor. My coach, Chloe McCardel, English Channel swimmer extraordinaire, swam with us as we did laps back and forth in the harbor with the other swimmers from around the world also waiting for their big day.
The balance of the days were spent eating at pubs, walking around, doing errands and enjoying the views of the White Cliffs and the Channel from Sea Purse.
I also started to repetitively listen to Tom Petty’s old song~The Waiting (the waiting is the hardest part) and Eric Johnson’s instrumental jam, The Cliffs of Dover. We finally got the call with about 24 hours notice that the waiting was about to be over. Go time was Friday morning on the Viking Princess! Things seemed to move pretty quick then as last minute preparations were made and we reviewed the feeding plan, yet again.
All thing being considered Channel swimming-wise we had a very civil start and met the pilots of Viking Princess, Reg and Ray along with our official observer, Phil at the dock at 5:30am. That morning, my stalwart crew of Shannon, Maura, Bill and Chloe were on their game, as expected. As we motored out of the harbor, they organized the deck with our provisions and they started prepping me for the swim. By prepping me, I mean lubing me up “all over” with Channel grease to prevent chafing. It was very clear that three of the crew had no intentions of doing this task. The short straw fell to Shannon.
It got real, real quick when they lowered the zodiac in the water and I hopped on it with Ray and he motored me about 30 meters from the shore at Samphire Hoe Beach. I jumped in and swam to shore and awkwardly cleared the water.
I said a little prayer, raised my hands above my head and waded into the water. It was 6:38am. I could hear the cheering from the boat. As I took my first of many, many strokes I thought, “Is this really happening!”
At this point, from a swimmer’s perspective there isn’t much to share as your head is in the water and you are stroking away. This however is where the work gets done for hours on end. Aside from watching the waves as I breathed left and my hands repeatedly entering the water there are a few items that stick out in my mind.
First, the White Cliffs of Dover are magnificent to look at on land but from the water they are huge and it seems you can see them forever. Try as I might, it was hard not to notice them when I looked to my left when I took a breath. They didn’t really screw with me mentally with respect to distance covered. I bet I could see them at least three quarters of the way across.
Second, I was looking forward to seeing the shipping traffic from sea level. I don’t remember seeing any in the English shipping lane going towards the North Sea. Somewhere in the separation zone I spotted a large tanker in in the French shipping lane going towards the Atlantic Ocean. Most likely, I had a long ways to before I entered the shipping lane but that’s when I remembered first seeing ships and the massive ferries crossing the Channel. Thinking about their size, what they are carrying and where they were going helped pass the time.
What I looked forward to the most was my feedings every 30 minutes. They were my chance to have human interaction and to get out of my own head. It was fun to watch the preparations of the crew on deck leading up to the feed. Bill and Maura had their routine down pat providing the warm liquids and some solid food. Shannon was in charge of social media and the inspirational whiteboard messages with words of encouragement from friends. Chloe and the official observer Phil checked on how I was feeling, logistical updates and gentle prodding to keep the pace or to pick it up. My feeds were quick but provided a morale boost. The crew was great.
So what did I think about between feeds? A lot! I thought about family, friends, coaches, team mates that provided me encouragement over the months of training, past swims, future swims (can’t wait) and all the many blessings I am so fortunate to bear. I could go on and on. Deep into the swim I found a a groove that really kept me focused and I think kept my stroke rate up. I would take my feed, recite the poem Invitctus* and I would just start counting strokes. When I got to somewhere near 1500-1700 strokes it would be close to feed time which made me happy. I lost count quite a bit.
If you are patient and take enough strokes eventually you see Cap Gris Nez. The problem is when you see it you still have many strokes to go. The key here is to keep you head down and not look towards France. Easier said than done. I did just fair in this arena. Not sure really how far I was from shore when it was time for what ended up being my final feed. The crew was particularly animated telling me to swim hard…so I did. I swam longer and farther than I expected. Finally, the zodiac was dropped in to guide me too shore. At that point I knew I had made it. I was instructed to swim carefully to this rocky area. It took a could of tries for the waves to help push me up on the rocks. With some effort I stood up, cleared the water and threw my arms up. I did it-I swam across the English Channel! I enjoyed the moment for a bit hearing the cheers from the Viking Princess and gently slid back into the water and jammed some keepsake pebbles from France into my speedo. Ouch!
It was fun getting back on the boat to cheers and hugs. I was a bit wobbly so they escorted me to a deck chair pretty quickly. Phil, came over with his stop watch and asked what my target time was. I said, “I don’t know? 13-14 hours”. He showed my his stop watch and it read 10:51:21 on September 15th~much faster than expected. I was pleased.
We all laughed, chatted and shared stories of the day and enjoyed a muted celebration with champagne. It was a 2.5 plus hour trip back to Dover and it was time for me to focus on not getting motions sickness on the Viking Princess. We would celebrate at the White Horse the next day.
The White Horse pub, one of the oldest in Dover, is where Channel swimmers go to gather, swap stories and celebrate their success.
We all met at the White Horse for lunch. It was Shannon, Maura, Bill and I to start. Then came Chloe, Bob our friendly taxi driver, eventually Maura’s friend Michele. We rehashed the prior day’s swim and looked for the signatures of friends and friends of friends written on the wall. We also looked carefully where I could ceremonially sign my name to the wall or ceiling. The ideal spot was found and I went to ask the owner of t he pub for a black marker. He got me the marker and a foot stool and I awkwardly wrote my name on on the ceiling with my date and time of the swim and a stanza from my post feed mantra~“I am captain of my soul” from the poem Invictus. Even more awkward than writing on the ceiling is the fact that I misspelled a word and misquoted the stanza and noticed it well after the fact~oh well.
That’s about it when it comes to reliving the actual swim itself but the overall experience over the past year was the journey itself. It was experiencing new pools and masters teams in: California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Arizona, Texas Florida, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Spain. There were new and old open water swimming venues alike: Boulder Reservoir, Platja Barceloneta, Laguna Beach, Nahant, Swampscott, Compo Beach, the L Street Bath House and Aquatic Park in San Fransisco. Two big and very memorable open water swims to helped prepare the way. The Strait of Gibraltar with Grant. Wow-what a fun swim and great trip! And then Anacapa in the Santa Barbara Channel suggested by Coach Chloe. This swim was a huge mental confidence boost in many, many respects.
Most important was the people I met and spent time with in and out of the water that helped and supported me in their own unique way. There were so many people along the way it’s hard to thank everyone. Apologies in advance if I mess anybody, as I’m sure I will. Many thanks to my coaches Chloe, Bill and Jen-some stroke just can’t be fixed but lets keep trying. My long time swimming friends at MIT that I happily start my mornings with: Hubbard, Ian, Carmen, Eric, Elaine, Katie, Joe, Bob, Dustin, Josh, Sarah, Mike, Carson, Jeff, Chris, Jacki, Phil, Heather, Ali and Solly, the list goes on. New and old friends at Wayland Community Pool: Elaine, Rachel, Bob, Jeanie, Jeff, Randy, Sonia, Kevin, the bald guys lane (Larry and Bruce) and “fast Jen” (thank you so much for swimming long with me). The open water gang: Tommy (English Channel swimmer 2017), Maura (English Channel swimmer 2015), Kate, Amy and “open water Jen” (can’t believe how much time you spent swimming in cold water with me-thanks). The folks at a great non- profit Swim Across America: Janel, Kitty, Kay and friends Rip and Suzi who organized our English Channel Relay in 2014 (Fours Bouys & a Girl) that planted the solo seed. Thanks to the Westport crew who reinvigorated the open water bug: Andy (spiritual crew member), Mike, Mark and Clay-the Slipper will be mine again one day. And of course to my loving and supportive family with a special shout out to my caring, understanding and very, very patient wife, Shannon.
At the end of it all I have two overwhelming feelings. First, an overall sense of feeling “accomplished” and knowing that if you put the time in and do the work you can accomplish great things. Second, a feeling of gratitude that I am healthy and have the ability to explore and pursue new adventures. Also being very grateful for family and friends that love and support me along the way .
This will be hard to beat…I’m not sure what’s next but…there will be something!!! A Burrow family relay…and more?
*My mantra during the swim
Black is the night from pit to pole
I thank whatever god maybe for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance I have neither winced or cried aloud
Under the bludgeoning of death my head is bloodied but unbowed.
In this place of wrath and tears looms the horror of the shade
Yet it finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate
Or how charged with punishment the scrolls
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
~William Ernest Henley