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Marathon swimming

Sink or swim – Canadian team prepares to swim North America’s equivalent of the English Channel

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The next act of the English Channel swim relay team, the Crazy Canucks is a swim that is comparable in length , conditions, difficulty and challenge and all a bit closer to home. The Crazy Canucks are taking on the Catalina Island Channel on lucky Friday, September 13, 2019.

First swum in 1927, on the heels of the intense publicity from Gertrude Ederle’s  swim of the English Channel in 1926, Catalina also has a long and storied history in marathon swimming history and brings with it its own set of unique challenges that make it a worthy goal to be respected and tackled with solid preparation. Our swim will be overseen by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, our pilot boat the Bottomscratcher  could not have a better name and our main kayak guide is my brother Dean Dogherty, who competes internationally in outrigger canoes.

We are going for a record that we are keeping on the down low at the moment but it could add to the fun of the achievement.

 

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Four English Channel team veterans will be joined by two new swimmers to make up the team of six.

The challenges of cold water, high winds and waves we faced in the English Channel, the seasickness that struck down half our team to varying degrees from violent to mild and stings from jellyfish are all Catalina possibilities. In addition we face two more. The Pacific Ocean swim starts at near midnight to avoid the winds that kick up in the afternoons. Pitch black conditions can bring on vertigo as the black sea and sky merge together to cause confusion and add to the stress of swimming in a large ocean. On the plus side, many swimmers report swimming through magical bioluminescence. The other factor involving sea life with many sharp teeth is not to be mentioned by name….Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldermort. The positive side of this equation are dolphins which will all be on the look-out for.

Here are thoughts from the team as we prepare.

John Ostrom

“I’ve swum my whole life and I enjoy it most when I’m in shape and feel powerful in the water…Open water is interesting to me because I grew up on the ocean (Prince Rupert) and always feel it’s a bit mysterious. I don’t really fear the ocean but am always curious about it. Swimming in some ways allows me to become closer to nature.”

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John, in the dingy, heading back to the Viking Princess after touching France.

“The epic nature of the swim and doing it as a team appeal the most. I am not super keen about swimming at night (me neither) and I’m going to have to put images of sharks and squid lurking below out of my mind!” (Guess he didn’t get the memo re that which shall not be named.)

“I am very happy about the English Channel swim and how everything worked for us so well. Of course I am very proud to have been the “finisher” that touched France.  Having done that channel I know we will also do Catalina the same way with a very competent group.”

Chris Lough

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Chris mid-Channel

“I swim three to four times a week year-round,” says Chris. “I spent all my summers in Quebec and played in the water for hours a day. Open water is just a return to the joys of those childhood times for me.”

As for the challenge ahead, Chris says, “Swimming in the dark and the unknown potential for larger “fish” ups the excitement.” (See, he got the memo…)

As for the English Channel, Chris says he has nothing but fond memories. The only thing he would change is his approach to dealing with the nausea.

Chris is preparing by swimming four times a week and working up to cold water swims in the spring as well as some night swims and increasing his distances as our swim draws near.

Janet Robertson

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Janet watching as the sun rose on the Channel before her turn in the drink.

“I like the feeling of moving through the water both in the pool and in the lake. I believe in balance in life – swimming is part of that balance. Open water swimming is freeing and meditative – I can find my zen. I lose all that life throws at me when I’m in the water…so freeing.”

Janet’s approach is to try to minimize the build up talk as this makes her nervous.
“Night swimming will be very important to the success of the swim so I think we should plan a swim camp with that as a focus.

“I am proud to have done the English Channel. I had to dig deep quite a few times to reach the group goal. I wasn’t going to let the group down. I will take everything from the English Channel to Catalina, except, hopefully, the sea sickness. Who knew I would consider doing either the Channel or Catalina. Butterflies reign supreme as well as deep breaths.”

Elaine Davidson

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On the way back to England after our team swam more than 50 kilometres to reach France in some gnarly conditions. The grin says it all.

As idea originator and the team captain of both swims I am fully in. For me it’s all about something I love doing more than anything else, talking five and now seven people into joining in on the adventure and working toward a crazy goal that will change our lives or at the very least give us some pretty unique experiences.

In water, all is possible. As T.H. White says, “There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air…It is like the dreams people have.” When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water. When you enter the water you dive through the surface into a new world. You are in nature, part of it, in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land. To get that feeling utterly and completely you need to be in a river, lake or the ocean.

The swimming training is important, sure. The mental training of swimming in cold water, in the waves and wind and at night are the most important. My training goals are to be prepared physically and mentally tough.

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Dean, doing his thing in Kelowna this summer.

I am also beyond proud to swim with this team which comprises four long-time friends, my cousin Peter who is a Canuck( but lives most of the year in Australia) and embodies for me my dad’s spirit and a new enthusiastic swim pal Janice who is up for anything. Making the team even more special is my brother Dean who will be beside us in that big ocean in a kayak making it feel a little less big. We will swim between the Bottomscratcher and the kayak which will both be lighted to keep us on track in the pitch black.

Janice Johnston

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Jan horsing around after a lake session this summer in Skaha.

“I love to swim in open water because I find it both relaxing and challenging. Swimming to me is like walking, you don’t have to think about it. The challenge comes to get faster and add some distance. There is such a great freedom and being close to nature when you swim in open water plus I REALLY DON’T LIKE FLIP TURNS! I didn’t swim competitively as a young person but I have embraced swimming as an adult. I even became a lifeguard at age 51.”

Jan says she is looking forward to meeting her new team mates. “I think it’s going to be amazing to swim in the ocean at night (maybe even scary) but that is part of the challenge. I am really hoping not to get sea sick during my leg of the race.”

She is a firm proponent of our post-swim tradition of doing in-water handstands and sharing liquorice on shore.

Peter Sinclair

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My cousin Peter, far left, pictured with a relay team that swam 16 kilometres across Lake Rosseau.

Peter, who swims every day,  has spent this past summer taking dips in Elk Lake in Victoria, Lake Ontario in Toronto and Lake Rosseau in Muskoka. “In Australia, I get to swim in the ocean a lot which is really fantastic, conditions are different every day. Variety is fantastic.

“I am looking forward to meeting all the team members and their families, taking the boat to Catalina, where I’ve never been before and of course the swim itself. I’m maybe a little nervous about the temperature of the water.”

The English Channel and Catalina Channel are two of the marathon swims that make up the triple crown of swimming. The third is the swim around Manhattan. There are fewer than 200 relay teams that have swum Catalina and even fewer than that 200 number that have swum the English Channel.

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10 weird questions asked about our English Channel swim

 

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  1. Is this a new race? I’ve never heard of a swim in the Channel.

Locals think we are talking about swimming in the Okanagan River Channel, a seven-kilometre-long man-made channel connecting Okanagan and Skaha Lakes. It is filled with people on floaties, often with beers in tow, every hot summer day and is only five-feet deep in many places. “No, we are swimming the English Channel, also called simply the Channel, hence the confusion. It’s the body of water that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. We will swim at its narrowest point of 32.3 km in the Strait of Dover.”

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2. You wear a wetsuit right?

No, just like the first woman to swim the Channel, Gertrude Ederle, we will wear bathing suits, caps and goggles. Gertrude was slathered in blubber from baby dolphins, mainly because she was allergic to the salt in the water. Today’s solo swimmers can buy Channel Grease from Boots Pharmacy in Dover. It’s made from the sap of an Amazon rainforest tree. Us relay guys won’t need it with our one-hour stints in the sea.

3. So, you find the biggest bathing suit you can to keep warm? One with legs?

Nope. And they are called swim costumes. “A standard swim costume shall be of a material not offering thermal protection or buoyancy and shall be sleeveless and legless. Sleeveless shall mean the costume must not extend beyond the end of the shoulder onto the upper arm and legless shall mean the costume must not extend onto the upper leg below the level of the crotch.” So basically we are talking speedos for the guys.

4. What day is the race?

It’s not a race as in a mass start all on one day, although times are meticulously recorded by an independent observer of the Channel Swimming Association. Swimmers head out throughout the swimmable period, which is pretty much July to September, according to weather and tides.

5. How do you know where you are going?

Swimmers don’t have to worry about that. You are escorted by one of eight Channel Swimming Association pilot boats. We will be in the capable hands of Reg Brickell, whose father also piloted Channel swimmers. We will swim alongside, (without touching) the trawler, Viking Princess and when at sea Reg has the last say on our safety.

6. Lots of people have done this right? It’s not that big a deal?

If we make it, we will be among a pretty elite club, even as a mere 6-person relay team. My admittedly dated 2011 record book shows only four Canadian relay teams have made this swim. I know of one other that swam it two years ago as they live at the other end of our big lake and I’m sure there have been a few others since. Half our team will be 60 in the year of our swim so that will be cool too. Touching wood, fingers crossed, rabbits foot…

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7. What will you do when you get to France? Holiday?

After the lucky last swimmer on the relay team walks or crawls on the French shore above the waterline somewhere near Cap Gris Nez, we hop in the dingy until we hit deep enough water to board the Viking Princess and motor for Dover. Although we all have to have our passports onboard, we aren’t allowed to stay in France. It’s tradition to take a pebble from the French beach with you as a souvenir.

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8. It’s only about 32 kilometres right? You can see France on a clear day right?

Strong currents and tides mean you swim a lot further and a typical swim looks like an “S”. In fact, the slowest ever successful swimmer took more than 28 hours to complete the swim. She ended up swimming 70 kilometres as she pushed well off course by strong tides. We don’t want to beat that record.

9. Aren’t you afraid of the deep water?

No. We are all used to swimming “in the deep end” and have lots of deep lake swimming away from shore experience. But, we are afraid of the cold water, jellyfish, swimming in the dark at night, being in the busiest shipping lane in the world, not the cleanest water to swim in, getting seasick either on the rocky fishing trawler or in the sea while swimming, letting our team down by not swimming hard enough to get through the currents and the biggest one of all… Getting to England and not being able to even attempt the swim if the weather is too bad during our swim window (July 26-August 1). Rabbit foot, touch wood, salt over shoulder…

10. Why are you doing this?

Because it’s there? Speaking of Everest… About 3,000 people have climbed it and less than 1,000 have swum the English Channel solo. We all have our reasons. Here’s the story of Crazy Canuck team member Charlie:

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Charlie, warming up after our 15-degree 2-hour test swim in Skaha Lake in the fall

 

“I’m swimming the Channel because of a combination of things. You twisted my arm and I was dropped on my head.” More seriously she talks of the amazing English Channel history and that swimming on a relay team seems a “doable” way to be a part of that amazing story.

Charlie is an athletic goddess in my eyes. She holds the Woman over 50 records for both Ultraman Canada (2011) and Ultraman Australia (2015) among other achievements. Enough said.

“My biggest challenge is with the cold water. I’m sure I had some mild hypothermia after our test swim. My brain was pretty fuzzy and it took forever to get into warm clothes. It should be OK though as it’s only an hour at a go and the Channel will likely be warmer than our test swim was.”

She says she also looking forward to adding our names to the walls of the White Horse in Dover and celebrating with a pint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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