From the inevitable “Do you cover yourself in goose-fat?” and “What do you eat?” to the existential “Why do you do it?”, I’ve rounded up the most popular questions about Channel swimming and tried to answer them for you. If you’ve got a question, please ask in the comments or grab me on Twitter. Remember, there’s no such thing as a stupid question (apart from the ones about being eaten by sharks; they’re a bit silly).
Do you cover yourself with goose-fat?
But…I remember seeing TV coverage about Channel swimmers and they were head-to-toe in white grease.
Yes; in “the olden days” they used to think that grease kept you warm. It doesn’t. Nowadays we use a bit of Vaseline (other petroleum jellies are available) on any area which might chafe. Whether that’s chafing from your swim suit (neck, arm-pits, groin), chafing from your stubble (men only…usually) or chafing from your own skin against itself (neck, sides, arm-pits), chafing is the (arm) pits and we hate it. The worst bit is when you get in a warm shower afterwards. Ow-ee! Vaseline won’t last forever but it will help. The grease they used to use was mainly lanolin. It stank of wet sheep, went hard when it was cold and covered everything it came into contact with (including pilot boats and crew members).
How many people swim the Channel with you?
If it’s a solo swim, none. It’s just you and the sea, baby. If it’s a relay swim, up to five other swimmers (you take turns in the water, usually an hour each).
But you must have a boat with you or something?
Yes, of course. Safety is paramount. Last time someone tried to swim the Channel by themselves their body was washed up in Holland a few weeks later. You have absolutely no way of seeing where you’re going or navigating, no way of carrying anything (food, drink) and no way of communicating with the coastguard. Your pilot vessel (a small motorboat for Channel swims, kayak or canoe for other swims) does all these things and many, many more. The boat pilot is the absolute boss of any swim. His or her decision on any situation is final.
How do you eat or drink? Don’t your sandwiches get soggy?
Things have come a long way since Captain Webb munched his way across the Channel on a diet of beef tea, brandy and sandwiches. Nowadays, swimmers favour warm, strong sports drink in a bottle which is typically thrown to them in the water and then reeled back in on string. You can eat, if you want to, but it’s a bit tricky. You also want to “feed” as quickly as possible, particularly in the Channel where the strong tides could be moving you backwards whilst you’re treading water. Catch the bottle, squeeze, drink, drop it and swim.
Have you ever seen a shark?
No, but I’d love to.
A big fish?
Yes, loads, and I genuinely love them: they’re so strange and very beautiful.
What do you think about whilst you’re swimming?
In an ideal world, nothing at all. Sometimes thoughts crowd into my head but i prefer it when it’s quiet and meditative.
Doesn’t it get boring?
Not for me. I love it. I like my own company. You know how sometimes you just want to get away from it all? Well there’s no better way to do that than to be face down in cold water miles away from anyone else (other than perhaps going into space, but that’s an even more expensive hobby). You can’t hear anything except your own breathing and the sound of the water. You can’t see anything except the colour of the water and glimpses of the sky. You can’t talk to anyone. You can’t smell anything (well, you can but you get used to it!). And you can’t feel a great deal because everything’s slightly numb. I love that. Maybe I should have therapy?
But, isn’t it terribly cold?
You bet. But you get used to it, and the bit you never get used to (personally speaking) you deal with thanks to a healthy dose of mind over matter. We start training in early May when the water is about 10*C: then, it’s really cold, believe me. I can’t even describe how cold that is. We build up from 20 minutes to seven hours over the following months, when the water will reach the dizzying heights of 17*C. By then, you’ve got used to it and the water (and air) have warmed up, and somehow it doesn’t seem so bad.
Can’t you wear a wetsuit?
Wash your mouth out! No, Channel swimming rules state you can use nothing which will assist you – it’s about the challenge of swimming in cold water. You can wear a normal swim suit, swimcap, goggles and earplugs. That’s it. Wetsuits are horrible. You can’t feel the lovely water!
I don’t know how you do it.
Honestly, neither do I. But I do, year after year. You have to love it, and you have to really want to do it. Someone I met recently compared long training swims to long-haul flights, and I thought that was brilliant. You know it’s going to be a long time, but what can you do about it? You’ve committed yourself to it, and you can’t get off now. You go into a sort of daze, everything’s slightly strange and you’re in a completely different world. Finally, finally, you reach this wonderful place you’ve been thinking about for so long, and you can stand up and stretch your legs. You look at your watch: my god, have I really been flying for 14 hours? Surely not. That’s just too strange; my brain can’t process that. But, yes, the day’s gone and your watch proves it. You can’t quite believe you’ve spent so long in the air and you’d be hard pushed to remember much about it, but here you are, 14 hours later, so you guess you must have done. Channel swimming’s a bit like that (except colder, more painful and with worse food. Usually!)
Why do you do it?
I can never answer that question.