“Congratulations on your English Channel relay last year! ,” says Lynne Cox. That is a tough swim and it must have been fun and challenging to swim the Channel as a team. Your next goal sounds equally challenging.”
Even people outside the rather niche open water swimming world recognize the name Lynne Cox. It’s because she is an elite athlete who broke many world records, among them swimming the English Channel at 15, being the first woman to swim across the Cook Strait and working 10 years to get the permission and then swimming across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia during the Cold War.
“The San Pedro Channel – swim from Catalina Island to the California mainland is the place I began my open water swimming career,” she says when I asked her advice on the Crazy Canucks’ next adventure in 2019. “It was as significant as my first kiss. It was where I fell in love with swimming long distances in the open water and the people who make these swims possible.”
That first kiss for Lynne came when she was all of 14 when she made the crossing with three other teenagers. “We felt a small school of fish swimming around us, bumping into our legs and feet. Flying fish the size of mockingbirds were leaping out of the water,” she writes about that historic Catalina swim in her amazing book, Swimming to Antarctica. “They’d emerge from the depths and fly across the air, flapping their fins and sailing across the sky…In the phosphorescent light, they were magically turning iridescent pink, blue, purple, rose and green.”
Lynne says, “You can expect that your Catalina Channel swim will be exciting. If it isn’t, why do it? You will have an incredible journey, learn lots about yourself and your team, and the Pacific ocean.”
“The Catalina Channel will be a bit warmer than the English Channel depending on the weather, time of the year and time of day that you swim it,” says Lynne. (See Charlie, it will be OK!) “Weather conditions are usually more stable than the English Channel, so you will have a good chance at getting good conditions.”
Any advice for us non spring chickens I asked her? “I think you don’t need to be limited in your thinking by your chronological age. People in their 30s can have the bodies and health of 60-year-olds and people in their 60s can have the bodies and health of 30-year-olds. I think it’s great to tackle these swims at any age if you’ve done the preparation and you are in shape.”
It was a thrill to be in touch with Lynne and prompted a re-read of her Swimming to Antarctica book and an intense, couldn’t-put-it-down read of her latest book Swimming in the Sink which had some lyrical descriptions of open water swimming.
In the darkness of early morning, my arm strokes jostle millions of plankton. A chemical reaction occurs in their bodies. They turn the black water sparkling phosphorescent blue. I wonder about life, the universe, and my place it it. I feel the warmth in my body, the cold ocean surrounding me, and I watched fish swimming fathoms below me lighting the depths of the universe. I wonder how the stars can burn so bright without losing their heat the frigid heavens.
I watch the rosy sun rise from the dark blue ocean and see it change color and create waving rivers of crimson, orange, yellow, and white light. The onshore breeze wakes the world like a gentle morning kiss. When I train I think about my life, my passions, and what is in my heart. I list the things I do need to do each day and the things I want to do. But I also dream about what I can do, and that makes life rich and exciting. Lynne Cox
It was a thrill to read about her English Channel swims as well now knowing what it is like to be in that chilly water myself. How fun was it to read that her boat pilot was our pilot’s dad, Reg Brickell?
Twenty-six miles, so near yet far I’d swim with just some water-wings and my guitar I could leave the wings But I’ll need the guitar for romance Romance, romance, romance
Catalina Island may be the island of romance but a relay attempt from the island to the California shore will be anything but. That’s OK. The Crazy Canucks are gearing up for our next adventure in 2019 after successfully crossing the English Channel in 2016. As the first dude to cross the English Channel (Mathew Webb) says, “Nothing great is easy.”
Less than 300 relay teams have made the 32.5 kilometre crossing which starts at midnight from Catalina Island when winds are calmest. It’s cool that it’s still a relatively small number of crazies that have made the crossing. This open water swim challenge, part of the triple crown of swimming that includes the English Channel and the swim around Manhattan, has some unique elements we will have to wrap our heads around including a lot of night swimming. It’s so dark on a Catalina crossing that some swimmers experience vertigo not knowing which is up or down in the inky black. This channel is also home to a type of fish with a recognizable fin that shall remain very nameless, especially as the team has four members at present and it would be fun to add a full compliment of six.
How hard can it be right? Canadians are a tough lot as we proved to our sceptical English Channel boat pilot Reg. He confessed after our swim, with a pint in front of him, that he wasn’t super confident we would make it as we had done the majority of our training in lakes.
Canadians are so tough that the first to cross the Catalina Channel solo was a 17-year-old from Toronto, George Young. Young was the only one of 101 starters in a race in January of 1927 and he did most of the swim without his swim trunks. We will likely wear suits…
Here is my 10 point case for talking more of my team mates into this new adventure…
1. The Catalina Channel is slightly shorter than the English Channel (32.5 km vs 33.7 km, about 0.8 miles shorter which should take an elite swimmer about 16 minutes)
2. The Catalina Channel is slightly to significantly warmer no matter what month is attempt is made.
3. Tides are much less powerful and less lateral than those in the English Channel.
4. The Catalina Channel winds are significantly less strong than in the English Channel on any given day, especially since most Catalina Channel swimmer begin their traverse at night. (We faced Force 4 winds on the English Channel)
5. The Catalina Channel has jellyfish, but while everything can change on any given day, the jellyfish in the Pacific are generally not in the same volumes as they are strewn across the English Channel. (Two of us got stung.)
6. The Catalina Channel allows kayakers, paddlers and pace swimmers to support the swim from shore-to-shore in any formation or duration as desired.
7. The windows of the Catalina Channel are much longer due to the number of swimmers and fickle weather in the English Channel.
8. Both shores and illumination across the Catalina Channel can generally be seen, even at night, but this psychological advantage is not always available in the English Channel.
9. Dolphins, a sign of good luck and protection among channel swimmers, are in significantly greater numbers in the Catalina Channel. (How cool would that be)
10. Boat traffic is significantly less in the Catalina Channel than in the English Channel.
A couple of additional “selling” features of the Catalina adventure are the name of the boat that we will charter to guide us, our kayak paddlers and the pipes that will mark our successful completion. The Bottom Scratcher (yup…that’s the name) and its captain and piper Greg Elliot will pilot, our paddlers will include my brother Dean and fellow team member John’s wife Izzie.
Crazy Canucks Catalina Channel Relay 2019 here we come!
This summer I went swimming. I swam and swam and swam right into fall. I swam in Canada’s largest open water swim race, Across the Lake in Kelowna and I swam 12 kilmetres in Canada’s longest lake swim, the Skaha Ultra. When all the training was done I decided to swim every single day in the lake until October just for the love of the lake. For the love of swimming. My 52-day streak had no fixed swim distance but each swim ended with a handstand. Why? The answer is as unfathomable as the streak.
“If all you did in your lifetime was enjoy the beautiful things around you — the sunset, moon and clouds or all the plants and animals — that would be a worthy life.” Laird Hamilton
I’ve swum in the English Channel, the Hudson River, the Med, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean and in countless Canadian lakes. Anywhere. Everyday. Always. It’s who I am.
Of all the places I’ve swum Okanagan Lake is as perfect as it gets.
It’s clean, big, deep, varied, gets nice and warm in summer, has few weeds, no predators, changing weather conditions to make it feel like an ocean some days and the scenery is spectacular. I’ve seen eagles and osprey fishing, loons diving, vintage planes flying overhead, sailboats, windsurfers and kite boarders playing, outriggers, kayakers, dragon boaters, paddle boarders. I’ve swum beside an historic paddle wheeler. I’ve dodged sunbathers on rafts and talked to triathletes. I’ve occasionally collected beer cans to recycle and dove down to add to my sunglass collection. I watched water bombers fight a wildfire. One awful day I kept an eye for a dead body as searchers looked for a drowning victim.
I like to watch the water drip off my arms and sparkle in the sun. One magical day during a sun shower, raindrops splashed back off the lake like diamonds. I’ve seen small glowing yellow leaves suspended in dark waters.
Not to over romanticize it, the last two weeks of the streak took some moments of courage to enter the bone chilling water.
On the plus side, I have had lovely Manitou beach and her sheltered bay all to myself. My swim three days ago was the nicest of the year. The sun was warm, my skin burning in the cold water and I was feeling uplifted, clean, happy, energized and calm all at the same time. It’s a sensory deprivation and sensory overload.
When we were kids, open water swimming meant freedom – no lifeguards, no chlorine, no drudgery of laps following the black line on the bottom of the pool. Recapturing some of that freedom is part of why open water swimming events are the fastest growing watersport of the decade.
A lot of Okanagan open water afficiandos came to the sport from triathlon and yet more became interested after marathon swimming was introduced into the Olympics at Beijing. Lake Okanagan has a long history of open water events. The Across The Lake Swim began in 1949 and is the longest running and largest (1,200 swimmers) annual open water event in Canada. This swim was recently recognized as one of the top swims in the world by openwaterpedia.com. The 3.1 and 7 k Rattelsnake Island Swim is a destination swim attracting a loyal following and new swimmers every year. The Skaha Lake Swim started life in 1985 and despite a small hiatus, is back to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary this year.
International attention was brought to the lake last summer when Adam Ellenstein entered the Guinness World Record with the fastest, continuous lengthwise swim of British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake. The 39-year-old U.S. resident completed his 106.6 kilometre swim from Vernon to Penticton in 40 hours, 57 minutes and 11 seconds.
Ellenstein’s swim began in the early hours of July 25 and wrapped up late the next night (just about the time my Crazy Canucks English Channel Relay team completed our swim from England to France).
Okanagan Lake’s clean and relatively warm waters are shark and jelly fish free making open water swimming here all the more enjoyable. Winds can whip the lake into some challenging waves but events are held in the relatively calm waters first thing in the morning.
It’s back and I was the first swimmer to register
The newly resuscitated Skaha Lake swim started life in 1985 organized by local sport’s legend Steve King as a complement to the Ultra International Triathlon which the next year became an official Ironman.
“The Race took a hiatus because we hadn’t been able to find the right race director,” says King. “Now we have a solid team in place. There is definitely a rise in participation and interest in open water swimming,” says King. “You can look at the increase in numbers in Master’s programs, events like the Across the Lake swim and the new Canaqua Open Water Swim Series(this event will be part of that). We always had swimmers from the U.S. and a few other internationals and the South Okanagan is now world-renowned as a sports mecca.”
“Reviving the race has been on everyone’s mind for a number of years,” says one of the Skaha Ultra Swim organizers Steve Brown.
The event returns Aug. 13 for the 20th running of the race that was held from 1985 to 2004 with the exception of 1999. Brown is joined by Steve King, Shelie Best, as well as ultra distance athletes Chad Bentley, Matt Hill and Lucy Ryan of Vancouver. The group came together last September and talked about resurrecting the Ultra Swim.
The Skaha Lake Ultra Swim is being reinstated as an official event of Peach Festival. The swim is 11.8 kilometres starting from Skaha Beach to Kenyon Park in Okanagan Falls. The swim begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 1:30 p.m. or six hours, 30 minutes later. Entry is limited to 100 athletes and their support paddlers. The race is affiliated with Canaqua Sports Open Water Series. Now in its third season, the Canaqua Sports Open Water Series has grown to nine open water races for 2017. The goal of the series is to promote open water swimming across Canada, creating a Canadian brand to the sport. Currently there are two in B.C. (Invermere and Penticton), one each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and five in Ontario.
“No question that there has been an upsurge in open water swimming interest,” says Brown. “Skaha is unique in that swimmers will swim the entire length of the lake. There are a lot of swims that go across lakes but we are the longest lake swim in Canada and that’s why there is huge interest in this one.”
Swimmers this year will be gunning for some records including the one set by
Luke Stockdale of Port Coquitlam who swam 5:50:42 in 1992 and did it all with the butterfly stroke. The most senior finisher ever was 70-year-old Lorne Smith of Okanagan Falls 5:10:38 in 2004. The most wins for men has been four by record holder Serge Score and five for women by record holder K.C.Emerson. Swim times have varied from the record 2:21:44 to 6:35:13.Participants must be at least 16 years of age and swim the distance. There is also a cut off at eight kilometres at Ponderosa Point which swimmers must reach in four hours, 25 minutes.
For safety reasons each athlete has a specific support watercraft with them throughout the swim. Organizers also provide high-speed rescue watercraft with medical and lifeguards in case of emergency.
“There is also a huge interest in open water swimming from older age groups as well,” says Brown. “For those athletes that have been beating themselves up on the roads for years swimming, even long distances, is a kinder, gentler from of exercise.”
The earliest known open water swim races were held in Japan and then Europe during Roman Times. The sport reached a heady popularity in the early 20th Century in North America where its heroes were front page news.
In Canada, crowds in the tens of thousands flocked to Toronto in the 1930s. They came to cheer on local favourites for purses that would equal hundreds of thousands of dollars today. Huge crowds, big paycheques and ticker tape parades awaited winners like Marilyn Bell and Winnie Roach Leuszler.
What’s old is new again and the Okanagan is the perfect place to get immersed in the world open water swimming and open water swim racing.
In our swim order, here are our strongest impressions of our big adventure:
Elaine (leg one (England), seven, and 13)
Motoring out of the relatively calm harbour into a rolling sea in the pitch black at 3 am and realizing the enormity of the task ahead.
Al, my blog’s The Handyman, our alternate and chief crew member giving me a quiet pep talk… “You have to set the tone for the day. No matter how bad it is in there when you come out say it was fine.”
Everything happening so fast but in the midst of it all thinking to myself, “This is pretty cool. I’m standing on the beach in England and me and my friends are about to swim to France. I have to remember to remember this feeling.”
The sun, an orange ball appearing as I breathed to my left and the dark sea. Beautiful.
Swimming steadily with random thoughts going through my head like singing the Sloop John B, wondering if the jellyfish are awake yet, how close should I swim to the boat?, good thing we did all that cold water training as this water is bloody cold, how long have I been swimming? check your form, it’s cool my team mates are watching, wondering what they are thinking? ah, I get how this works I swim up to near the front of the boat and then he turns the engine on for a minute and I’m near the back of the boat…this is normal, I wonder how this relay exchange thing works in practice and how easy it will be to get up the ladder? with the leitmotif always coming back to I am right now, this very minute in the waters of the English Channel swimming to France. How cool is that? Right?
Resting between swims lying down in the boat and still being able to hear the rhythmic slaps on the water from my team mates’ arms as we make our slow, steady progress toward France and tearing up with the thought of all that means. We are swimming France and I have some cool friends to do this with me…
Watching Janet in the water at the rail of the Viking Princess after her being so seasick and having to walk away unable to watch anymore with a mixture of pride in my friend while feeling badly for putting this scheme into action and testing her in a way that at times seemed might be beyond her limits. (It wasn’t — she is made of tougher stuff than even she knew I think.)
About three hours in watching Janet and Charlie feeling so ill and thinking, oh my God, I don’t think we are going to make it. This is too much. We are all going to be back in this boat and heading back to England and that will be that.
All the small interactions with team mates, support crew, boat pilots and observer throughout the day. Helping Charlie warm up after her swim when she was shivering uncontrollably and being sick equally uncontrollably but still magically, somehow, retaining her sense of humour. Borrowing John’s warm swim coat and realizing afterward what a brilliant job he did all day making videos and taking spectacular photos (much of which was used by Wayne to make a fabulous video). Confiding in Al my worries about not making it and his helpful, calm, reasoned, supportive presence. Keeping a close eye on Janet in the water and cheering her on extra hard. Chris’ calm, steady influence throughout the day and his general good humour and quiet confidence. Jaime’s excitement about the day and her can-do attitude that helped us look at it as somewhat fun. Watching Charlie give Ray the thumb’s up signal asking him to turn on the generator for the kettle. Gruff swearing Ray getting us all off and up the ladder in one piece. Coming out of the water cold and a bit overwhelmed each time to find someone with a warm towel and words of encouragement so you can muster it up to get back in there again even when the waves got huge when the time comes.
Having our English Aunt Ann and Uncle John such a big part of our adventure was amazing. From visiting Dover with us two years before our swim, to buying the team a round when we first arrived in England, providing us with towels, sporting our team sweatshirts, coming to Dover to be a part of it and getting to know the team at dinners and the pub, hosting Jaime at their lovely home after we left Dover and listening to our tale and sharing our excitement as they greeted us at the Dover Marina on our return and a ton of other supportive things means so much to me and Al and now the rest of the gang too.
Being so close to France for so long and making no discernible progress for hours thinking again that we wouldn’t be able to push through the current and get there or that it would take so many swims from each team member that the sicker guys would peter out. The wind and waves are building to a crazy pitch at this point too adding to the thoughts about the impossibility of it all.
Getting in for my third swim with words of encouragement from boat pilot Ray and swimming harder than I ever have in my life while still having no idea if we were getting an inch closer to France.
Climbing up the ladder and seeing that we were so close that we were actually going to make it! Total and utter breakdown. All the emotions and worry I had bottled up for 13 hours come flooding out…laughing and crying and ecstatic. This is what blows my hair back. This is why I want to have more adventures to spice up the hum drum to give me things to think about when I’m lying in bed at night. This exact minute of complete elation I have carried around with me every day since July 26 and hope to carry at least a spark of it forever. WE SWAM THE ENGLISH CHANNEL.
John (leg 2, 7 and 13 France)
Two things stand out for me. Seeing the dinghy with no spare swimmer in it meaning they thought I’d make the beach! Then actually getting to the beach. After pouring it on for the third swim and wondering if I was going to make it, these two highlights will stick in my mind forever. The beach being the most vivid!
The beach fought me. I thought I was in and stood up and started striding but then it dropped off again and I was back swimming some more. I couldn’t stand up on the final beach rocks and my toes jammed between them. They were sore for a couple of weeks afterwards. I had to crawl on all fours. The surf was a bit of an issue but the water got much warmer in the shallows! Making damn sure I got above the high tide line and up close and personal with the cliff. Oh yeah, everyone wants souvenirs — where to put the rocks from the French beach? I realized I had to swim back to the dinghy and couldn’t hold handfuls so I filled up my speedo!!
Worst moment? No much, maybe the shivery half hour after the first swim where I thought hmmm….this is going to be hard and the thought of two, possibly three more swims seemed daunting. Seeing how seasickness was becoming a factor with the team was also worrisome.
I am viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime “bucket list” event. And of course, it would not have happened at all without Elaine’s dream. I am really glad you had this dream Elaine.
Charlie (Legs 3 and 9)
We have all used the word EPIC a lot describing this adventure and I really can’t think of a more fitting term to sum it up. I am no stranger to ultra distance racing and pushing beyond what I had perceived my limits to be. This swim was different in the fact that the actual swimming was the easiest part. All the fears and mental hurdles proved to be more challenging as did the physical ones of seasickness and hypothermia. In most other events I have been able to train in similar conditions (weather, hills, distance, terrain, etc.) to prepare myself. In this case, the only way to prepare for swimming in the middle of the ocean with no land marks as points of reference is to do it when your boat pilot says it is go time.
Not many grandmas can share a story like this with their grandkids. I hope it lights a spark in them to set a crazy goal of any kind and achieve it one day when they are older. Maybe one of them will take me to school for show and tell, if they still have such a thing.
The best part for me has been the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie our team developed. the media coverage was so unexpected but pretty cool, especially the congratulatory postings from celebs like the Queen and the Prime Minister.
None of us would have succeeded without the support of our life partners. Mine was outstanding even though he thought I had lost my marbles when I agreed to give it a go. And of course this absolutely would have never been possible if not for the dream of our Den Mother and all her planning and cat herding. Huge shout out to Elaine.
I have three tips for anyone thinking of making the attempt:
1. Book the Viking Princess, piloted by Reg and Ray Brickell. Best there is but you need to book early. I am still in awe of the way they stayed so laser focussed on so many computer screens, radars, radios and cameras to keep us out of harm’s way, even when the seas turned nasty. It was obvious by their excitement and celebration when John succeeded in climbing ashore in France that escorting swimmers is more than a job to them.
2. Stay at the Churchill Guest House. Alex was so welcoming, helpful and supportive. Cool old house with lots of British character, kitchen and laundry facilities and perfect location to walk to restaurants, grocery stores and the beach for a swim.
3. Have a chat over a pint with someone who has done the swim or at least attempted. I’m available if they are buying.
Chris (Legs 4 and 10)
Definitely one of my life highlights for me. I have been fortunate to have done some pretty interesting things, seen some great places and this really is one of the best.
I was super impressed with the way we handled ourselves. Supportive, gutsy, can do attitude. Calm, cool and collected. Keep Calm and Carry On! I think we all just decided we were going to be successful and put our minds to it. Well done.
I think out of the water was great! Very nice to travel with the gang and we got along famously. I think that translated into the way we did the swim.
Would I do it again? Yes. I think it is one of those iconic events and I’d be happy to help another team make it happen for themselves.
I am very happy that I was part of this team effort. This is something that I would never take the initiative to do and I am grateful to Elaine for dreaming this, making it a reality and for inviting me along for the fun. What I learned about me? When I put my mind to it, I can dig deep and get it done, the training, the cold water swims and the day itself. It was not easy but doable. I know I would do whatever I had to to hold up my end of the bargain. I trusted that everyone else would. I was nut surprised that everybody did.
Biggest revelation? Shit we were lucky. The stars aligned for us. Give or take, 50% don’t hit the water (weather), 50% of those don’t make it. That is a 25% chance you will be successful. Not good odds. But we did it. I think Elaine added some descriptive words to that?! (Yes, I sure did.)
Many thanks to each of you for a wonderful adventure. Next! (Editor’s note…there is a move afoot to attempt a Crazy Canucks relay of the Catalina Channel in California in 2018…at least with a good representation of the team and possibly some new blood.)
Janet (Legs 5 and 11)
The swim was monumental in every way! The training, the injuries and then doing it against all odds — for me at least. I would never have thought that I could come back from my panic attack a few years ago to swimming the English Channel.
-I can do this! Swimming in the ocean at Kona with Elaine, joining the master’s swim group, swimming in the lake bit by bit, doing the Across the Lake and Rattlesnake swims and finally the channel all with Elaine’s encouragement and companionship and in the end the channel – who knew!! A sense of accomplishment – I have butterflies again writing this.
The swimming part turned out to be the easiest part even with the big waves – there was no fear which was very surprising – I can do this. Fortunately the jellyfish were below me so they weren’t an issue and I wasn’t worried when I saw them. On the second swim I didn’t see any jellyfish. I really appreciated seeing everyone watching me from the boat – when people left I wondered what had happened to them. Mostly my thoughts were still except for thinking I’m doing this and not letting anyone down.
Best parts were getting it done. I really appreciated the group of people I was with – no one freaked out when I started throwing up – there was silence for a minute I think but then everyone went back to what they were doing. There were suggestions to change positions in the boat and to lie down which were gratefully appreciated.
The worst part was the sea sickness – I felt so helpless but it never occurred to me not to do my swim although I found out later I caused everyone a bit of concern when I got in the water.
Everyone has been pleased for me for doing it but I don’t think people get the enormity of it. It is really hard to put into words what we went through.
I would like to thank my rock Chris who got me through the sea sickness and supported through every step of the three year journey. I would like to thank the team for taking over my watches. The team really came together even though we hadn’t spent much time training together – I didn’t meet John until we got to Dover. Most of all I would like to thank Elaine for everything she did to get me to the goal. Even though Ray came across as a real tough guy his job was to get across safely and he certainly did that. Reg was a charm. Alex was wonderful – he was there with suggestions when needed – he was quietly supportive and helpful – the perfect host.
It was an amazing day full of life long memories and friendships. Thanks.
Jaime (leg 6 and 12)
I think the whole experience is still really sinking in. Looking at the stats the other day and realizing that we are one of only 5 Canadian relays to ever swim the Channel (through the CSA anyways) was a bit eye opening. As well, there have only been 36 successful solo swims by Canadians. That makes our adventure all that more remarkable!! Thanks for having this dream, I would never have been involved in anything like this if not for you.
HIGHLIGHT MOMENTS – not getting sea sick. Probably sounds sort of selfish but this was my biggest fear and whether it was the Bonine or my natural sea legs, I was extremely relieved that I felt good all day. Can’t imagine what Janet and Charlie endured. – the look on your face when you realized John was going to make it to France – pure joy! One of my favorite pictures and moments of the whole day! – I will never forget the feeling I had hanging onto the ladder as I waited to jump in for my first swim. What a huge mix of emotions – my heart was pounding out of my chest! I was shaking I was so excited, nervous, exhilarated and down right terrified! Then it was go time and there was no time for hesitation, I just had to jump in and swim. Wow, getting a bit emotional just thinking about it. Definite highlight in my books. – my second swim in the big waves was SO MUCH FUN!! That was one of the most enjoyable parts of the day for me. I remember the boat lurching back and forth so much that when I turned to breathe, sometimes it seemed like I could reach up and touch John and Al. Pretty cool experience. – John reaching France of course and seeing Chris and Charlie holding up the Canadian flag as he made is approach
WORST MOMENTS – watching how ill Janet was getting and wondering if I would even get a chance to swim if she wasn’t able to make it through her first swim. Thank goodness she was a trooper! – after Charlie got an update on our progress and was told that there was a possibility that some of us would have to swim 2 or 3 times more. That was disheartening news and I started to question to some extent our ability to make it. – not having my family in England with me to share in this experience. Even though I know it was not a kid-friendly kind of trip and there is absolutely no way we could’ve managed it financially, it would’ve been the icing on the cake to have Ian and Ella there. Ian would’ve been in his glory had he been able to come on the boat – he would’ve loved chatting with Reg!
THINGS I WON’T FORGET – the hush that fell over the boat as we left the protection of the Dover Marina and headed out to sea. There was definitely a lot of nervous energy. I’m not sure about you, but I was thinking “Holy shit! What the hell have we signed up for?!?!” Not too long after, I saw you swimming alongside the boat in the dark, steady and strong strokes and thought “Hey, this might not be so bad” – the jellyfish – I will never again in my life witness jellyfish like I did during my first swim. There were so many of them down below and although I was frightened at first, the fear diminished and they were really amazing and beautiful creatures to look at. Not many people get a chance to see them from that point of view. Pretty frigging cool. – the taste of the salt water. My tongue felt about 3 times it’s normal size! – the great sleep I had in the hold of the boat on the way back to England. The hum of the engine and sound of the boat bouncing off the surface of the water was mesmerizing. Best sleep I had in days! TRAINING I am happy with my training given my location and juggling of work and family life. However, I wish I could’ve made it up to Sylvan Lake more often than I did and a trip to Vancouver for a couple of dips in the ocean before hand would’ve been nice. Just wasn’t in the cards though. Glad I did both the Rattlesnake and Across the Lake swims in 2015 without my wetsuit. Definitely boosted my confidence knowing I didn’t have to rely on the buoyancy of my wetsuit to feel comfortable in the water. What I think was most difficult was training on my own – you, Jan and Charlie were lucky to have each other to swim with. I think a proper Master’s swim group would’ve been a benefit to me as well but Innisfail doesn’t offer one. I did improve my speed a little bit over the past few summers but I was hoping to be a bit faster than I was. Oh well, I may have lacked in speed but at least I wasn’t cold! That is what I am most proud of. It’s very intriguing to me how you can train your body to tolerate the cold water. I really began to enjoy swimming in the cooler water and I think all of my ridiculous dips in the cold lake served me well. The only time of the day I was really cold is when I woke up in the hold of the boat after my big nap on our way back to England.
CHURCHILL GUEST HOUSE Can’t say enough about these guys. The accommodation was lovely as were the hosts. Alex really went above and beyond to make us comfortable and help us out in any way he could when it came to our swim. Betty can cook a mean breakfast too. Thoroughly enjoyed my stay and like I said, the set up of the guest house and close proximity to the downtown made it a much better choice (in my opinion anyways) than Varne Ridge.
WHAT’S NEXT? This was definitely a once in a lifetime “bucket list” type of adventure for me. So glad you talked me into doing it – it was such an unbelievable experience! Have no desire though to do a solo swim or another relay. Curious to see what you guys come up with for new swim adventure ideas! The swimming across to Summerland with the bottle of wine sounds fun!
A few swimmers have set out for France from English shores across the Channel without a boat to pilot them. They all drowned.
We didn’t drown thanks to Ray (photo above on the left with a pint) and Reg Brickell and the Viking Princess. The Brickell brothers have piloted “crazy” people across the English Channels’ challenging waters for almost 50 years, following in their dad’s (Reg Senior) wake. All three have been honoured by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and no family is more intertwined in marathon swimming history than the Brickell’s.
Reg started work with his father just before his 16th birthday in 1967 and Ray started when he turned 16 three years later. In 1981, they took over the running of the boat from their father and escort more than 30 swimmers each summer.
With an uncanny knack for picking the right day and time to start a swim based on the individual or team’s strengths and weaknesses, the brothers are highly sought-after pilots and first choice for anyone trying to break Channel records.
When choosing our boat pilot from among the eight certified by the Channel Swimming Association Limited, the Brickell’s amazing history and track record made it a no-brainer and we reserved our spot with them on the first tide three years before our successful July 26, 2016 swim. Good call…100 per cent. In addition to getting our sorry asses to France relatively in one piece, the brothers now will have a special place in hearts and Christmas cards for years to come. After experiencing such an intense 13 hours and 47 minutes together feelings run strong about the people who help you along the way. For example, I’ll never forget laconic Ray’s little speech to me as I readied for my third swim. “Come on luv. Let’s see a good team captain swim now. Give it your all.” I swam my heart out because of those words. (Some of his other words are memorable too. He used a lot of sailor language to keep us in line, especially if we took too long to get up the ladder.)
With almost 50 years of Channel swimmer piloting there are stories to tell. With a couple of pints in front of the brothers at the Ship’s Inn in Folkestone three days after our swim the tales begin. (There is a picture of Reg senior on the wall near the pub commemorating his remarkable Channel swim piloting).
“There was this one lady we have piloted a few times, can’t remember her name…well she was in there swimming away and would complain from time to time of pain around her mid-section when she would stop on her feed breaks,” says Reg. “This went on pretty much her whole swim. When she got out and stripped off her suit a fish and a jellyfish plopped out. You see she was pretty big in the chest area and they had slipped into her suit and the jelly was stinging her.”
Reg says his biggest peeve is swimmers over-inflating their projected speed. “They tell me they can swim four kilometres an hour but can only swim two. That changes a lot of our planning. Swimmers need to tell us the truth.”
Next to the human aquarium lady story, Reg’s favourite is one about a guy who takes the cake where the estimation of his ability is concerned. “This fellow had a helicopter and a second boat just to film him as he was a star and they were making a documentary about his swim. He got in with huge cheers, swam about 300 metres and called it quits because it was too hard. They still made the documentary.”
Crazy Canuck John Ostrom says he is very happy with our pilot choice. “He has huge experience, a capable boat and a diligent crew.” John, who grew up on his father’s fishing boat in Prince Rupert, British Columbia has the skinny on what is involved in piloting us.
“Reg’s job is complicated,” John says. “He has to constantly monitor weather conditions and forecasts, other ship traffic, the performance of the Viking Princess’s propulsion and electronic systems and keep tabs on the swimmer and the support team. Any one of these things can change on a moments notice. On top of that, there is the risk of floating debris or oil slicks in the water he tries to avoid. However, Reg will not dodge jellyfish.
“You can see how if the swim team is not doing their job (either by being unprepared or because of seasickness) in monitoring the swimmer in the water, keeping their gear organized or behaving in unsafe ways such as falling or slipping, that as captain, he could easily call off the swim just for that factor.”
Reg has a full suite of electronic navigational equipment including radar, two GPS-based systems with vessel identification capability and numerous radios of different types. The map of our actual swim shows the typical swim path channel swimmers have to take adding many more kilometres onto what could otherwise be a 30 kilometre swim (we swam almost 50 k). The major swings are the result of starting the swim in an incoming tide and then experiencing the outgoing tide six hours later.
Crossing a shipping lane (there are two in the Channel, one north, one south) is tricky at the best of times. What you want to do is cross it quickly to stay out of the way of commercial traffic which is not possible with swimmers. The commercial traffic know we are out there. “What Reg has to do is be predictable and the commercial traffic will slightly alter their course to avoid the Viking Princess,” John says. In fact, the Baltic cruise me and The Handyman went on in 2015 was held up two hours by a Channel swimmer.
The Viking Princess, built as a fishing trawler needs modification to slow it down to swimmer speed. While I was in the water on the first shift Reg and Ray set up a parachute drag system behind the boat. Throughout our swim we heard the boat engine pushing us forward and then stopping to let the swimmer catch up. There is no such thing as auto pilot on a Channel swim.
“We saw that the winds were increasing during our swim,” John says. “We wouldn’t have been able to swim the day after we did as the winds really kicked up.” At one point Reg told us that a few more miles per hour of wind and he would have hauled in the swimmer in the water and pointed us back to England. “It was medium bad out there toward the end of your swim,” he says in his understated way. None of us (save John) had experienced Force 4 in a small fishing trawler in the ocean before and the rocking of the boat caused some bumps and bruises. At one point Ray came out and told us to sit the f*** down, hold onto to something and forget about going in the hold for anything anymore. He said if anyone gets hurt, the swim is finished.
When the waves got crazy from a condition called wind against the tide, the water began to look frightening but was in fact easier and more fun to navigate while swimming than it was moving around on the boat deck.
Reg’s biggest responsibility is keeping us all safe. He has the ultimate call of when to abort a swim and this power was granted to the Channel Swimming Association boat pilots after a swimmer (not piloted by Reg) pushed herself passed her limit and insisted on keeping going with France so near. She died in the attempt from a heart attack or hypothermia.
“I don’t like to see people fail in their attempt,” says Reg. “It’s no fun at all but for the sake of the swimmer we often have to end it. Our years of experience help us to know when to make this call. We try to stop a swim before it gets too bad. The decision is made when a swimmer is no longer making good forward progress. They get cold and too tired.” Reg says they also had to pull a swimmer out who had been stung on the tongue by a jellyfish.
“You guys did really well. With the seasickness of a few of your swimmers and in particular Janet, you could have easily packed it in before your sixth swimmer even got in the water. A Channel swim is really hard. It’s hard for solos and for relay swimmers. Don’t sell yourself short as a relay. You have other issues keeping the whole team healthy and ready to get in. You was all a bit touched in the head you know but I think you did a great job looking after each other and muscling through when things got tough.”
Reg’s chat at the bar brought up a fear we had dismissed. “Oh yes, there are sharks in there. I caught a 25-foot basking shark not long ago. It wouldn’t eat you, only come up and give you a kiss.”
I asked Reg if the piloting gets routine and was happy to hear his answer. “We get such a charge out of seeing our swimmers touch the shore in France. We get a lot of pleasure seeing swimmers succeed. Sounding the horn when they make it is amazing. I’m going to do this till I die and I’m not looking around the corner for that.”
Zzzzzzzzzzwat. “OK, that was definitely a jellyfish sting. You bastard, thanks for that. Keep swimming,” I say to myself and do. I don’t even consider that I may run into their pals as my focus was pretty intently on swimming as fast and as hard as I can and getting back up the wildly bobbing ladder.
There are more than 200 species of true jellyfish globally but only (only?) six species found in the English Channel: moon, compass, lion’s mane, blue and barrel jellyfish and the mauve stinger. The Crazy Canucks report seeing most of these. These bad boys are famous for their stinging cells, called nematocysts. The ‘sting’ is coiled and fired like a harpoon when triggered. All species have nematocysts in their tentacles, some also have them on their umbrella. These are some of the species we encountered…
“My fear of jellyfish and the sting they have was much worse than my fear of seasickness,” says Charlie, the first of the Crazies to encounter jellies. “Turns out I had things backwards. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a whole lot of respect for those creatures of the sea but after swimming over and around so many of them, I eventually realized they weren’t out there hunting me down to try and sting me.
“When I saw the first one early in my first swim, I freaked out and turned on the afterburners to get as far away as possible from him and he was just a little guy. (Editor’s note…the crew on the Viking Princess were watching when Charlie did her brief kick-a-thon and wondered what it was all about…) My swim coach would have been so impressed with how hard and fast I kicked. After that first sighting, it was like a steady jellyfish parade of all different sizes and colors floating by and underneath me.
When I got out of the water, I asked Elaine if she saw any and she had not (perhaps because it was too dark during her shift) ((Yup, pitch black…didn’t see a thing, yes!)). She told me not to say anything though so as not to add any more anxiety to Janet who was suffering so much already (seasick). When Janet got out of the water and said she saw some, it was okay to have the jellyfish talk.
Janet reported be in awe of the beautiful creatures when she got over her initial fear of being stung.
Jaime contended with a flotilla of them, technically called a smack or a bloom. She saw John and Al on the boat deck pointing at them as they drifted by her. “As scared as I thought I was of the jellyfish, it was quite a sight to see them moving along in the deep water underneath me while I was swimming,” says Jaime. “There were sort of beautiful in a strange kind of way. I remember seeing lots of big orange-red coloured jellies. Then the little purple ones started floating by me on the surface and that’s when I got stung (actual moment recorded in photo above). “It was a weird burning sensation, not super painful but really annoying. I was freaking out a bit in my head at this point. I managed to avoid more stings and was relieved when my turn was done.”
“Poor Elaine never did see them but got a good sting on her shoulder that I treated with malt vinegar supplied by the boat pilot who also kindly offered some salt and pepper to go with it,” says Charlie.
Why I didn’t see any jellyfish? Embarrassing equipment malfunction I am eternally grateful for. Fogged up goggles. My goggles were all prepared with anti-fog for my first swim in the dark but in the excitement of the day were not sorted for my second swim. I could barely see the boat and my cheering section were a blur.The third swim I was out of luck for both anti-fog solution and back-up goggles as they were in the hold of the ship which became a no-go zone when the winds kicked up. It was too dangerous to try to get down there. The sting was manageable…seeing them all floating around me likely may have not been. On the other hand I may have avoided Mr. Stinger Pants had I seen him but still thinking see no evil was the preferred course. I am happy to hear about how cool they looked…secondhand.
The recommended treatment for a sting is immersion in salt water…got that covered…and vinegar which Reg had on board for his fish and chips. Good man. The next blog post is about Reg, his brother Ray and his famous father Reg senior and their long history of guiding other crazies through the jellies to France.
“We had a bet about who was going to get sick first,” Reg says. “We see all of you on the one side to the boat watching the swimmer in the water and see Janet take a runner to the other side. Ray wins a fiver.” I wonder who Reg picked?
Sea sickness is no laughing matter in actual fact and has scuttled many a relay’s attempt to swim the English Channel. Reg’s wonderful Viking Princess is a fishing trawler when not put into use to take crazy people across this narrow, unpredictable, cold, jelly fish, turbulent, current-plagued body of water. When moving at swimmer speed (with the aid of parachute drag line to slow her down) the Viking Princess has some pretty significant rolling motions that began as soon as we had cleared Dover Harbour’s breakwater. A large percentage of the team’s Channel crossing is spent on this carnival ride with resulting betting.
To get all scientific, seasickness happens when there’s a conflict between what your eyes see and what your inner ears, which help with balance sense. Your brain holds details about where you are and how you’re moving. It constantly updates this with information from your eyes and vestibular system. If there is a mismatch of information between our two systems, your brain can’t update your current status and the resulting confusion leads to a quick run across the deck or a dash to the head and all the nice calories and fluids carefully selected for energy are offered to the fish.
As this was my biggest worry about our adventure I did a lot of research on how to prevent it. Marathonswimmers.orghas over 1,000 posts on their seasickness thread with their various ideas for keeping cookies un-tossed including various ginger products, patches, bracelets, Dramamine and Bonine, the later being my drug of choice. Only available in the U.S., Jaime suggested it would be worth acquiring some as it worked well for her triathlon coach. Good call or maybe the Bonine takers were lucky? Once the half of the crew afflicted got things somewhat under control the Handyman dispensed Bonine to all and sundry and things started to improve for them slightly. I wrote a testimonial on the Bonine website and added my comment to the 1,000 on the marathon swimmers forum. No, this post isn’t sponsored by Bonine but it sure could be.
“I had experienced butterflies many times through the lead up to the swim especially in the last weeks. The night of the swim my stomach was once again bothering me which I put to nerves,” says Janet. When we went through out to the one water and saw the waves I thought ‘oh dear I could be in trouble’ but I was convinced focusing on the horizon and being out in the wind would be OK. As the boat went up and down with the waves, the horizon would disappear which was not a good thing but I was excited for Elaine to be off and watching her blinking light in the distance and catching up with the boat.”
“I can’t remember for sure when I started to throw up but I think the sun was up…And then it was my turn. I went down into the head with Chris to put on my suit but the unsteadiness caused me to be sick again but there was no way I was going to let the team down — it didn’t occur to me to not go in so in I went.”
“Strangely when I was in the water I felt OK. Everyone was watching me except for Chris which was a little unsettling but I found out later that he was cleaning up the bathroom — that’s a good partner to have in life!”
Janet’s photography from a lying-on-the-deck perspective. “Gee, I thought this was the busiest shipping lane in the world and I don’t remember seeing any ships.”
Charlie is one of the toughest athletes I know. She also had her turn with seasickness and battled back hard.
In her words…Theme from Gilligan’s Island. “The weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed.” And so were my cookies. When the nausea started I couldn’t decide whether I was sea sick or the nervous tension of jumping in the cold, jellyfish infested (this is not an exaggeration…they were everywhere) waters was getting to me. It did not take long to figure it out. No amount of ginger, Bonine or patches was going to help. The only cures, albeit temporary was to be in the water swimming or laying on the deck with eyes closed. Neither options were feasible for long periods of time so it was, what it was. That’s all I have to say about the barfarama. It wasn’t one of my biggest fears but it turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the day. Long day with no calories to keep you going.
Editor’s note here: When I was down in the hold helping Charlie get sorted out after her swim she made a mad dash to the head and was violently ill. She came back, sat on the bench, apologized (not necessary at all) and started laughing at my sea hair do. Hard core, right?
“Either it was the Bonine pills or I have good sea legs and never knew it,” says Jaime. Felt a bit guilty at one point that I was feeling so good and others were not.” (Me too.) Would’ve made for an extremely long day. Charlie and Janet were troopers. Just relieved I wasn’t part of the Barfarama club.”
Chris had an associated membership in the special club. “I vomited after both swims due to taking in some salt water and being below decks to change into warm clothes just did not sit well with me. When I was on deck and cheering on the other swimmers I was fine.”
(The hold was the death zone and was avoided but for the briefest visits to change or brew tea.)
Me and John were A OK. Me because of the miracle drug? John, pictured here taking a sighting on the French coast during the end of our swim, has sea legs 100 per cent and took no sea sickness precautions at all. He grew up as the son of a West Coast fisherman.
All I can say is thanks guys. Your ocean donations were gratefully accepted and my gratitude is total.
Here is a CBC radio interview about the experience:
Much of this first post about our swim comes from team member Chris with a few of my interjections… Each swimmer or team gets a designated six-day window and a “tide” (which means first appropriate weather and tide opportunity to start a swim), when Elaine (our captain, and whose dream this actually was) had signed up for this way back when she thankfully opted for first tide, second tide is sometimes better for swimmers but you are second in line to go. Third tide makes it questionable if you will actually get a chance to go because you are down the lineup. There are 7 or 8 licensed certified pilots that do this. We met a Romanian on Tuesday night that is 3rd tide and has been here for 7 days waiting. (We saw him Friday night and he went Saturday…he sadly didn’t finish his swim) Weather Wednesday was a no go and it looks like the rest of the week is questionable.
Here is where the horse shit luck starts to come into play. We were in Dover all of about an hour when we make the call to our boat captain Reg which went like this…. “Hello luv…ready swim tomorrow.” Me (Elaine)…. Slight pause where I control my voice…”sure.” So only three hours into our swim window, no chance to deal with jet lag….we are a go. Our worst nightmare would have been to wait for the go-ahead day after day and not have a weather window at all…pack our bags and fly back to Canada.
So now we have the second worse nightmare…we are actually going to have to drag our asses out of bed and jump in the cold ocean and swimmer by swimmer try to swim to France.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016 – We loaded the van at 2:30am, picked up our other swimmer (who was not staying at the same place) and arrived at the marina at 2:45. There was another swimmer there from Japan, he was going to attempt a double crossing. (He only made one way) Ouch. Some pictures and nervous pees then they pulled the boat up to the dock and we loaded up. Dark and breezy, in the harbour. Out past the breakwater and it was a different story, still dark, still breezy and yes indeed big waves. Nervous laughter and then quiet. Dead quiet and stark white faces… What have we gotten ourselves into? I (Elaine) compared notes with everyone afterward and even the ones that don’t generally swear agreed it was “holy fuck” this is crazy although not one of us voiced this out loud.
We motored west up the coast towards Folkestone (where some pilots are based) to Shakespeare Beach. Elaine gets ready and into the dingy she goes, gets dropped off on the beach – rather she has to jump in and swim the last little bit. Some boats sound the horn to start the swimmer but she just got in and they radioed the observer that she had started. Still very dark but she had a couple of strobe lights on so we could see her flashing as she approached the boat.
(Elaine) This all happened so fast I was in the water, on the beach, back in the water and swimming before I could process any of it. Swimming in the dark was fine but I think I was In shock that this was actually happening….The Handyman (my husband) said, “No matter how bad it is in there when you finish your turn say it was fine…you have to set the tone.” Good advice I thought and lied when I got out.
(Chris again….) Once she was beside us the dingy gets hauled up and we are away. Pretty wavy to start but I think we all settled in and cheered her on. Lots of people with one eye on Elaine and one eye on the horizon trying to ward off seasickness. This was one of our biggest fears so we had all sorts of ideas and means of staying away from that. Fail…more on that later.
So, the way this works with a team is that we have a designated line up of swimmers. You have to follow that sequence the whole day, no subs or changes. The other big rules are you can’t touch another swimmer or the boat while in the water and you have to have the swimmer in the water swim past the next swimmer when changing. Makes sense and relatively easy to do. So, the ladder was at the back of the boat. Swimmer #2 climbs down the ladder, they slow the boat and the Swimmer #1 (in water) swims up to the back of the boat. Swimmer #2 jumps in, Swimmer #1 swims past them to the ladder and grabs ahold which became an interesting challenge when the ocean got mad later in the day. Swimmer #2 swims to the side of the boat and once Swimmer #1 is aboard away we go. The observer from the Channel Swim Assoication gives you the jump in cue etc so really not hard. But – tired cold swimmer in the water, excited somewhat seasick second swimmer and a rocking boat and noise and cheering and cameras and… I (Chris talking here) almost landed on Charlie (a she) the second time we switched.
Part two…Barforama to follow when back in Naramata at a real computer with many more photos to choose from….