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
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
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
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.
- 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.)
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
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.