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10 tips to keep your bits while swimming the chilly English Channel

The Challenge

After being part of a successful 6-person relay swim crossing of the English Channel (2016) with my team the Crazy Canucks I want to feel the butterflies and pebbles on an English beach one more time with sights set on France. I’m going back as half of a 2-person team. Sounds doable right? Half the Channel (we swam 50 km in our 2016 relay) and at my age in 2023 at 66 I feel like I will be biting off just enough to chew.

After some intensive research it looks like there is a good reason duos are quite rare. All the “ins” and “outs” of the one-hour shifts are a mind game and a shiver fest. All the helpful advice about ditching the duo for a solo aside, I have gathered 10 great tips to share from the some of the top open water swimmers in the world that will help anyone attempting a solo or relay open water challenge in chilly waters.

The Wonderful Mentors

Marilyn Korzekwa

In her 60s, named after famous Canadian swimmer Marilyn Bell, here are just a sampling of Dr. Korzekwa’s accomplishments:

  • 1st to complete Lake Ontario from south-to-north and north-to-south
  • 1st Canadian Triple Crown swimmer which includes the English Channel, Manhattan Island and Catalina Channel
  • Planning a second attempt of the first crossing of Lake Nipissing in 2020
Photo from Marilyn Korzekwa, Santa Barbara Channel

John Myatt

Ice king, John Myatt, is a father of three from Britain who has come back to swimming in the last decade after a long hiatus. Here is a sampler of John’s claims to fame:

  • Gold medal winner of the 45-49 age group at the Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk, Russia in 2019 (1,000 metres in zero degree water)
  • Half of a two-man English Channel team in 2015
  • Two-way, two-man English Channel relay in 2018 (22 hours, 49 minutes)
  • Currently planning a very challenging yet-to-be announced solo English Channel crossing
John Myatt on ice

Lynne Cox

American Lynne Cox is arguably the best cold water, long distance swimmer the world has ever seen. Her most famous swim was the 2.7 miles in the Bering Straits, 350 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska where the water temperature ranges from 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps the most incredible of cold water swims, her 2 hours, 16 minutes from Little Diomede (USA) to Big Diomede (USSR) astonished the physiologists who were monitoring her swim. It marked one of the coldest swims ever completed.

Lynne Cox
  1. Staying Warm

Warming up is tough. Go below, get dry and in a sleeping bag and drink lots of hot calories. Bring at least three sleeping bags per person in case they get damp. Buy them cheap in England and throw them out. Forget grease, just enough Vaseline to prevent rubbing. Grease will keep you clammy in your sleeping bag. Bring lots of swim suits so you can get in a dry one. Maybe a hair dryer if you’ve got electricity on board. Cut your hair short so it dries fast. You may need one support staff dedicated to keeping you in hot food and drink. — Marilyn Korzekwa. (Hard core Marilyn re cutting your hair…my hair is short but my partner Jan is in the process of growing her’s long…)

2. Acclimatize to the cold

I would definitely acclimatise to the cold as the thing is with a two person relay your not really fully recovered or warm going back in and that did take its toll. My top tip would be to build up to eventually swimming 6 x 1 hour with 30 minute breaks and feeds as when you get that extra half hour on the boat it will be amazing and you’ll enjoy your swim alot more and have the confidence knowing you have done it virtually all in training. — John Myatt

3. Trust your partner

As your a two-person team you will definitely want that trust in each other on the day knowing you have done all the hard work. — John Myatt. (Here is where keeping your bits comes in. Jan and I know that if either of us wants to call it quits the other will be strongly discouraging this idea. Just having someone counting on you can make all the difference when the chips are down.)

One plus one equals more than two

4. Don’t let age hold you back

I think you don’t need to be limited in your thinking by your chronological age. I think it’s great to tackle these swims at any age. If you’ve done the preparation and you are in shape it comes down to your mental fortitude. — Lynne Cox (I do think there are some concessions you need to make in your training which should include good rest days that will help in recovery. I will be 66, Jan will be 61.)

5. What to eat and when

All of your feeding can be on board during your one-hour off. Eat whatever you like. Hot chocolate, hot Maxim, hot coffee, latte, Perpetuem (a Hammer nutrition product, comes in two flavours that I particularly like- orange vanilla and coffee latte), tea with lots of honey or sugar, soup. I find pb and jam sandwiches easy to digest. Chocolates, eclairs, cake, etc. Potato chips are good for nausea. — Marilyn Korzekwa. We didn’t feed in the water during our hourly swims even when doing the two- way, I don’t think there is a need as you can get more nutrition down you on your hour out of the water. — John Myatt

The Channel was fickle during our 2016 swim. We had periods of relative calm but strong winds and waves nearing France.

6. Curb your enthusiasm

In January 2017 I was smashing out 14k on a Monday in the pool feeling like I was invincible and with in a short space of time I developed three major shoulder problems that lasted for 18 months, it was a hard path to my start line but I got there in one piece by changing my stroke and training habits and respecting that sometimes less is more, your body needs just as much rest as training, well in fact a whole lot more rest, never neglect that. — John Myatt

7. Fat or fast

The general answer to, “Should I put on weight to swim in cold water?” is that if you are very slim you better be fast. If you are a slower swimmer a little extra padding will help to keep you warm. It is also universally advised to do lots and lots of training in cold water. Another expression I’ve hear is “eat your wetsuit” or add a bit of jiggle to replace the insulation your wetsuit provides. With our June swim window, Okanagan Lake will be suitably chilly in the spring, even colder than the Channel, which will be ideal. (Jan doesn’t know it yet but I think we will be dipping in the lake (with wetsuits) all winter the season before our swim.)

8. Train smart

You should do a trial 34 k swim of Lake Okanagan in late May. It will work out the kinks, help you learn what you like, refine your schedule and give you immeasurable confidence. By April, you should be each be swimming 20 k a week. — Marilyn Korzekwa

Inevitably it’s all about making it to the start line in one piece, if you get any niggles ease back and seek a way to deal with it, either through physio stroke analysis etc, you just have to protect yourself and not force it and it will come with consistency. — John Myatt

Train in all types of weather and include some night swims, I would add.

9. Don’t fear the jellies

When I was swimming half way back from France on our second leg the light was shining down in the water and I could see the purple/ blue hues from the jellyfish bioluminescence and it was the most wonderful sight I have ever seen, the stings were nothing, a lot less than a stinging nettle. The culmination of the cold 11c water at night and the stings were the perfect tonic in waking me up and getting me to the finish. — John Myatt (Sounds a bit hard core John! I did get stung on our six-person relay and although it hurt at the time a little vinegar poured on the sting helped immediately. Although unpleasant, the jellies are a lot less scary than sharks which we thought a lot about on our Catalina Channel relay…)

10. Enjoy the ride

It’s all about the hours and hours of training and the camaraderie that brings. Once on the Viking Princess and out there in the Channel, It’s also about trying to take in the beauty and not letting the enormity of the task override the possibility of drinking it all in.

Night Swim, scary “fish” and magical bioluminescence – The Crazy Canucks take on Catalina

The sun! Pretty stoked to see it. You would be too.

The Crazy Canucks, a relay team of six Canadian swimmers, followed a successful English Channel crossing in 2016, with a bid to swim North America’s equivalent. Thirty one kilometres from Catalina Island to mainland California’s San Pedro just north of LA, the swim has its own unique set of challenges, in particular the pitch black sea and sky lit only by the moon. The area is the most popular dive spot in the U.S. so it’s well known for its large variety of marine life. So, inky black ocean teaming with life and a swimmer with only a regular bathing suit, cap and goggles swimming away hoping to blend in.

It’s been 40 years since I’ve stayed up all night, watched a friend puke, shed most of my clothes and had an absolute blast. Won’t wait another 40 to do it again.

Jump in…Looks inviting right?

Our swim began at 10:56 p.m. Friday, September 13 under a full moon. What could go wrong?

Pretty dark eh? That’s me.

Within minutes of the start, after I had rendezvoused with my kayak paddler, my brother Dean, and our support boat, The Bottom Scratcher I saw something.

Heading into shore so I could stand on dry land and begin our Channel crossing.

Something big and grey and slow moving was visible in the water beneath me because of the cluster of lights from the Bottom Scratcher. It glided away and while I was telling myself that I hadn’t really seen it, it made a second pass going in the other direction. Big enough to displace the water under me and big enough to be terrifying.

During our rules debriefing aboard the Bottom Scratcher by our two Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observers, we were told to call out for advice if we saw anything disturbing rather than head for the kayak or the boat and touch either which would disqualify our entire endeavour, two years of training, hours of logistics, thousand of kilometres of air travel, three kayakers and five family and friends who came to help and cheer us on… A team earlier in the season had suffered this fate the observers told us.

I chose not to phone a friend and put one arm in front of me and then the next and next until the grey phantoms receded from my thoughts. A few moments later I clearly heard dolphin squeaks underwater. Kayaker Dean later reported he had seen two dolphins and a big seal at the beginning of my leg. Dolphins! I had wanted to swim with dolphins, so wish comes true, even though I didn’t see them.

The next bit of magic was bioluminescence. The bubbles from your hand entry and exit were a vibrant blue and green. We were all enchanted by it.

Before I knew it, a whistle blew and it was time to tag off to John Ostrom and it was time for Dean to paddle faster as John is speedy.

Does this light make my butt look bigger eh?

“Jumping into the ocean in the dark was made a lot easier in the moonlight,” says John. “The water was way warmer than I expected, there were no jellyfish like in the English Channel, although I occasionally brushed into bits of seaweed. The first one in the dark and the biggest chunk were disconcerting at first but then became routine.”

Peter Sinclair, my Canadian cousin who now lives in Brisbane, Australia, getting psyched.

“It was different swimming at night,” says Peter. “This is well out of what I normally do as I am almost always asleep at 1 a.m. and definitely not swimming in the Catalina Channel so that aspect really made it a grand adventure. “

“Dean getting in the kayak and then you in the water swimming to shore at Catalina to start our swim made a very strong impression on me. As for swimming at night, it was pretty comforting to have cousin Dean in the kayak right beside me.

“It was a really fun experience having all of the 20 people on the boat including my sister Gail and her husband Doug and the boat captain Kevin and Chef Ro.”

Peter and his sister Gail, who came from Toronto to be a part of our adventure.
Some of us and friends and family along for the ride on the wonderful Bottom Scratcher. See our flag flying next to the American flag? That was cool to spot from the water.

“The mighty night swim was very much anticipated,” says Janice Johnston who tagged off from Peter in the relay. “It was like the nervous excitement of a small child on Christmas Eve. I talked about doing this for the last two years and everyone said, ‘Wow, that’s really crazy.’ I really questioned what I had signed up for and was encouraged by you saying, ‘You are going to love this!’ (I was right eh?)

“After almost losing my goggles by diving in (not a great choice) I was very scared to start but I had to with the team needing my leg of the relay. It took about five minutes to settle in to a nice pace and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the bioluminescence was. Green and blue lights with every stroke! The water was giving me a nice warm hug and the waves seemed to have flattened out. I felt like I was swimming strong and fast only to find out later that we were in a very strong current and no-one was swimming their usual distances. When I heard the whistle, I couldn’t believe it and felt I could have kept going and going.”

The heroes of our venture were our paddlers including my brother Dean. He even went for a few dips himself as the kayak exchanges were tricky.
Isobel did some paddle shifts and got to paddle for her husband John.
Mel, my sister, overcame seasickness to do her two shifts including the last that took us into land. She is self-dubbed our kay – yak – er.
Jill, Chris’ wife was our alternate, whom we didn’t have to employ but she was an invaluable, calm presence on our deck crew and she looks pretty fabulous in hats.
Husband Al, pictured with brother Dean, was also a key deck hand helping with the kayak exchanges and sampling the caterer’s brownies.

Chris Lough, next swimmer up, said the dark made an impression on him too. “Swimming in the dark, the full moon shining on the bubbles, the sunrise when it finally came and the whole crew having such a good time (except for the seasickness episodes) made the biggest impression. The warmth and calmness of the water surprised me. Once I got my head straight, which took about 10 minutes, I really enjoyed it. As for sharks, so many folks had been swimming previous to me and had no issues so it was not really a concern.”

Chris rocking our team colours.

Our anchor swimmer Janet Robertson, had selected the last leg as she had incorrectly anticipated it would be dawn by then. “The hardest part for me is always getting in the water. Sitting down on the platform and looking into the dark water at night and the blue water of the day made me wonder what might be out there,” she says. “My head going under water after the push off was not a happy place.”

Janet says, “Its wonderful how we all worked toward the success of the swim. Everyone was so supportive of each other and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Dean’s determination to get us through our swims, his supportive comments from time to time were very much appreciated. He had to work harder than any of us. The beauty of the surroundings was something else I won’t ever forget. The full moon, calm ocean, the quiet… I also loved it that we all got to swim into the beach to join John, who like in England, got to touch land at the end of our channel swim.”

Chris and Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observer Steve who noted our wind and water conditions and ensured we followed the channel swimming rules such as not touching the boat, keeping our swim order throughout the swim, handling the exchanges properly and so on.
We were all happy to see the dawn.
“It’s the bacon.”

With the dawn the kayak exchanges became easier and for me the shark fear shrank. For John they amped up. “It was cool to be swimming at dawn when the sun came up. The downside was I could start to see shadows further down in the water. I had a few anxious moments with my imagination starting to go wild on me. I kept seeing a shark, whale, submarine, shadows? I focused on the kayak and settled down.”

Peter in Jan’s belly dancing skirt? taking in the sunrise.
Isabel and John at dawn.

How cool is this note from the Queen of open water swimming Lynne Cox! “Congratulations you Crazy Canucks: Elaine, Chris, John, Janet, Peter, and Janice on your Courageous Catalina Crossing! I Loved seeing your photos, reading about your swims, seeing how much support you had from: Dean, Jill, Isobel, Al, Gail, Mel, Chris and Doug on your swim. So happy you had such a grand adventure, a wonderful time, and made some unforgettable memories. You must feel so proud of yourself and your team! Congratulations!”

The channel, officially the San Pedro Channel, is a busy shipping lane.
Pretty darn magical swimming next to my sister. She was thinking of me and at that moment I chose to give her a little wave. Yup, makes me tear up. Dean and Mel (cousins Peter and Gail and husband Al on the boat), family that paddles and swims together stays together.
We plastered the Bottom Scratcher with Canadian flags
Dean on a rare coffee break
Chris checking his distance, Jill and Janet’s husband Chris
Mel and my cousin Gail’s husband Doug in the galley. Looks like Mel is all good to go now.
Peter, Janet, Janice, me, Chris…John is swimming the last leg. We jumped into join him. Janice looks a bit “enhanced” as she has a giant Canadian flag in her upper suit.
That’s us doing victory handstands and Mel in the kayak having a weep.
Fun to be the first Canadian team!

Pretty proud of us. As we were having breakfast at our hotel in our swag a woman came up to us to ask what we were up to. Upon hearing our story she said, “Don’t know if it is proper to point this out but you guys aren’t spring chickens.”

Thanks to my swim buds for life, our kayakers, friends and family on the boat and back home cheering us on, our Penticton swim coach Diane, The Bottom Scratcher crew and captain Kevin, Caterer extraordinaire Ro, observers Steve and Roxanne, the dolphins, bioluminescent plankton and California.

Up next? Looking like a double crossing of Lake Tahoe in 2021. Can’t wait!

Post script

And then this happened…just three weeks after our swim…

A San Diego resident is fortunate to have emerged unscathed after a massive great white shark chomped his kayak Saturday as he paddled off Santa Catalina Island.

Danny McDaniel and Jon Chambers were enjoying a break from a commercial scuba-diving trip and paddling in separate kayaks toward Ship Rock, near the island’s east end, when the shark bit the back of McDaniel’s vessel.

“My very first thought was that my buddy, who was 25 feet behind me to my left, was messing with me,” McDaniel, 51, told For The Win Outdoors. “But then I looked down and saw this giant snout completely over the kayak, and then I saw its huge body stretching beyond the bow.”

The shark, estimated to measure nearly 20 feet, turned McDaniel’s 9-foot kayak until he was facing a wide-eyed Chambers.

“I remember him saying, ‘Oh crap. Oh crap,’ ” McDaniel recalled. “My primary thought, meanwhile, was to stay on the kayak no matter what.”

Chambers told NBC 7 that the shark “was in attack mode” and “thought we were prey.”

McDaniel and Chambers waited briefly in eerie silence before paddling back to Emerald Bay, where the rest of the dive group had been hanging out.

On the way McDaniel discovered that the shark had left two of its teeth as souvenirs. “One was laying inside the kayak under seat, and the other was in the cargo hold behind the seat,” he said

A week before McDaniel’s encounter, (so two weeks after our swim) photographer Jami Leslie Feldman captured footage of a 13- to 14-foot great white shark swimming 70 feet below the surface at Ship Rock, and posted the clip to the Underwater Paparazzi Facebook page.

Swimmer Chris says, “I am glad I was in the water and NOT in a kayak. 

Mel, Doug & Is – whew!”

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