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The Channel Swim according to Michelle

October 2, 2007

It has been just over a week since I swam the English Channel.  In some ways it seems like it was just a dream.  I don’t have any bruises, scars, etc that leave a permanent mark of the event.  I still have to pinch myself to remember that it did really happen.


As promised, here is my account of the swim as I remember it.  I know a lot of people mention that they remember every nuance of the swim.  Unfortunately there are phases of the swim that are a fog for me.  I’m sure with time and some settling the fog will burn off and I will see things more clearly.    


Friday night I ate my weight in pasta with red sauce, rashers and mushrooms.  I thought that I was going to explode or at least sink when I entered the water the next morning.  My crew just kept ensuring that I wouldn’t and that I would need the energy.  Then it was a normal night, I read my book and went to bed.  Surprisingly my nerves were not getting the best of me.  I know that I was more quiet than normal with the weight of the task at hand.  I guess in some way I always thought of me swimming the Channel as a job that I must accomplish.  The crew had their job of monitoring and feeding me.  Reg and Ray had their job of guiding me across the Channel and keeping me safe.  And the CSA observer had the job of making sure that I followed every rule and regulation.  My job was to swim the best that I could.


Saturday morning we drove down to Folkestone Harbor to meet with Reg and Ray.  After parking, we quickly met Mikey the CSA observer assigned for the swim.   He was a very jovial fellow who was quick with a joke and a laugh.  I remember one of his first questions being “Is this a drunken bet or a lifelong dream?”  I can’t imagine taking on the Channel after a drunken night bet.   I think even then most people would be lucid enough to say “Are you nuts?”  Nope I explained that I was completely sober when the decision was made and still completely nuts!


We took off from Folkestone around 7am just as the sun was beginning to rise.  It was a beautiful sunrise and I was hoping that it was a prediction of the weather to come.  I asked if I should start getting ready.  Again Mikey came back with a quip “You have 20 minutes.  It all depends on how long it takes for you to get ready.  You know the reason that women live longer than men?  It takes them longer to get ready!”   Hmm…this was going to be an interesting swim.  Even with 20 minutes, I decided to get ready.  I got on my cap and had Jane begin the process of lubing me up.  I received the thickest layer of rashguard that I had ever used.  I know Jane was making sure that I was completely covered to prevent any pain from chaffing.


At 7:30ish am we arrived at the take off point of Samphire Hoe.  Since I was ready and everyone else was ready, we decided to get the swim underway.  Now I know that my aunt, uncle, cousin and Martin Sandham were coming to see me off, but I couldn’t wait for them to arrive on the beach.  I was ready to go and like I said I had a job to do and it was time for me to get started.  While I was perched on the side of the boat, I realized that I had my goggles on my head.  I quickly removed them to hang on as I have read plenty of stories where the swim began with the swimmer losing their goggles first thing from jumping off the boat.  I guess during this time that I was removing my goggles, Ray had Reg rev the engine.  Apparently there was an extremely large jellyfish that I would have jump onto.  As Ray stated “It had tentacles reaching back to Dover”  Thankfully I didn’t see this jellyfish and I didn’t get a personal introduction.  The jellyfish were a main concern as I haven’t been properly stung and wasn’t sure just how I would have reacted.  After I was in Ray used the anchor to move the jellyfish out of the way so I wouldn’t proceed to swim back into it.  


I began my swim into Samphire Hoe.  As soon as I arrived on the rocky beach, I made sure my toes were out of the water and I turned back to the boat.  I remember just waiting for the horn signalling the start of the swim.  I didn’t wave or do a little dance I just began my part of the job…swimming.  On the horizon at the start we could see at least 4 other boats that were escorting swimmers (Note: I was eventually told that there were 9 boats out that day with swimmers per Mikey).  My mom’s first note on the white board was Living the Dream.  This promptly put a song in my head with the word Dreaming/Dream.  Even now I can’t remember the song.  I have eliminated some possibilities. It wasn’t the following:

  • In my dreams
  • Dream a little dream of me
  • California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & The Papas
  • Dreaming of me – Depeche Mode
  • Dream Weaver – Gary Wright
  • The Impossible Dream

However, I still can’t remember it, but then again I don’t really know if the title of the song includes the dream line that was repeating through my head. .  After approximately 11 minutes into the swim, I had my first yelling at the crew.  My mom had the white board held up and I kept thinking that there was something for me to read, but there wasn’t.  Yet I still kept looking at it.  I finally yelled during breathing “PUT THE WHITE BOARD DOWN!”  It was harsh and I know this, but it was frustrating as I was altering my stroke to read absolutely nothing on the board. 


The first hour into swimming and I felt really good.  The sun was further up in the sky and I was beginning to feel the warmth it was providing.  I had seen some jellyfish, but they were way beneath me and I figured that Reg was true to his word; I wouldn’t be stung during the swim.   The first feeding went quickly and was purely liquid.   I made sure that Jane told Mikey the grasshopper joke as this provided me with endless chuckles throughout the week (Thanks Barb!).  (Note:  Apparently it didn’t translate well as the English don’t have a drink called the grasshopper. Oh well.)


The second hour came and went with me still singing the now elusive Dream song.  My mom had put the IZ song Somewhere over the Rainbow on the white board, but this did nothing to knock out the Dream song.  I thought I’m going to tell them the song at the next feeding, but I never did.  Unfortunately in the second hour, I took an odd stroke and my neck popped.  I promptly started getting a headache.  Of all the times for me to tweak my neck.  Fortunately it wasn’t my atlas going out.  However, it was still causing a headache.  This made me a tad more than crabby especially since I was coming up to my dreaded 3rd hour.  The hour from hell for me regardless of what swim I’m doing.  At the second feeding, I asked for Advil due to my headache.  That and I remembered that I had forgotten to take some at the beginning.  (Note: I wasn’t to have Advil until the 3rd hour and then in 4 hour increments afterwards).  About the time that the headache started, the dream song evaporated. 


Now my mantra in my head was “Ignore the headache.  It will go away”.  This was also followed by my traditional “1-2-3-breathe. 1-2-3-breathe.”  The next feeding came much sooner than I expected and I was ecstatic as I figured I was through my dreaded hour.  No such luck, when I asked if it had already been an hour I received the reply that it had only been 30 minutes.  They had decided to get the Advil in as soon as possible.  I was thankful and disappointed.  That meant I had 30 minutes left of mental wrestling.  I believe that it was in this last 30 minutes that Mom wrote the movie Billy Elliot.  I began to hum the song where he is dancing through the streets, Town Called Malice by The Jam.  This lead me through the next 30 minutes.


The feedings were now coming at 30 minute intervals and always included a liquid mixture with the option of some solids, either peaches or Clif Shot Bloks.  Now my thoughts turned to getting from feed to feed.  I was starting to chant 25, 25, 25, breathe, 25, 25, 25, breathe.  25 stood for 2.5 hours and I knew at the next feeding it could change to 30, 30, 30, breathe, 30, 30, 30 breathe.  My goal was to make it through until I was chanting 50.  At this point, I knew that my remaining time would be in the single digits…9 hours, as long as I was on schedule. 


Hours 4-8 are pretty much where the fog starts to occur.  I know that I was counting jellyfish.  I saw 8 and had a 2 close encounters when I stopped counting.  I poked one of them.  Luckily on the top and wasn’t stung and I swerved around another one.  It was a close call if I do say so myself.  I asked during feedings if I was on track for time and received a yes you’re doing great keep it up.  From the white board I remember seeing the following comments:

  • Just keep swimming.
  • Comfortably Numb
  • Thumbs up!
  • You’re faster than me – there was a fish accompanying this one.
  • Anyone for Frogger
  • Stroke rate 64-66
  • Another one bites the dust


Apparently, the last comment was in regards to me passing the other swimmers that were out that day.  During one feeding, I received a comment “You are just about to pass another one”.  At this time, I wasn’t really concerned about other swimmers.  All of the swimmers out there were giving their personal best and each of us was on our own journey.  We each were experiencing different pains, different waves, different mental struggles and different paths.  Even though there were 9 of us out there (including relays), we might as well have all been in different waters as the Channel doesn’t treat any swimmer the same.  It wasn’t a race, we all just wanted to finish.  During these hours, my left shoulder went from hurting to shifting over to my right shoulder.  I really only remember my right shoulder having the pain though as that was how I relayed the information back to Jane on the boat. 


It was during the 5th hour that I became aware that I may swim faster than expected.  I thought I was halfway, but was told that I wasn’t.  This was pretty disheartening since I was told I was on track for time.  At the next feeding, I turned to Ray who was on deck and asked “Am I really not halfway yet?”  I was whining and knew it, but I so needed to hear that I was over halfway as I knew I had already made it through the first shipping lane.  Ray looked at me and thankfully said “You are over halfway love”  OH JOY OF JOYS!!!!


It was around this time that the winds began to pick up.  They were coming from the SW and were doing exactly what I hated…bouncing off my head.  But I knew that this was part of the job and I had to swim through it.  Reg did an excellent job of positioning the boat so that it cut down on the waves and wind that I had to contend with.  For this I’m eternally grateful.  And thankfully the wind gods decided after 2 hours that they were tired and abated.  I was back to swimming in relatively calm seas with rolling swells, which makes for a pretty enjoyable swim.


Between hours 6 and 7, I had a small detour during the swim.  We had apparently reached the other shipping lane and a tanker was not responding to calls.  We were heading into it’s path or it was heading into ours.  I don’t exactly know who has the right of way.  In my mind, BIG tanker wins.  Apparently Reg tried to radio the tanker and Ray set of flares, but they weren’t receiving any response.  This required us to do a large circle.  We turned back towards England and then circled back towards France.  All the while I was in the middle of the large circle.  Reg was trying to protect me from the waves and the wake.   We successfully avoided the tanker and got some pretty good pictures of it as well.  The swim was back on course.


At my 8 hour feeding, I finally asked how far away was France.   I received the response 3.5 miles.  And then Mikey said “Look it is right there”.  OH CRAP!  I had been doing my best to avoid looking at the French coastline as I didn’t want to experience the mental challenge of seeing it for the next 6+ hours and not getting any closer.  I’m sure that my mom, dad and Jane all wanted to slap Mikey as they knew I didn’t want to look.  My response “Now I just need to get there”.  Jane replied “You’ll get there.  OK this is the hard part Kiddo.  You are tired, you hurt and this is the tough part.  Just keep with Reg and you’ll get there.  He wants you close because of the tides.”  I put my head down and the mantra soon became “Keep with Reg” breathe “Keep with Reg” breathe.  It was also at this time that I began to sprint.  My stroke rate jumped to 68 per minute and held steady.  I knew that this was where I had to power through the tide that was pushing me away from the beaches of France.  After 30 minutes, I received the response that I was doing well and to keep it up.  Again I was back to sprinting and my mantra.  It was also at this time that I received tons of feedback on the white board from all of your comments on the blog.  The comments were coming so fast that my mom actually couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t read them fast enough.  One hour of sprinting had passed and I was hitting the wall.  I couldn’t keep up anymore.  I had started to trail behind the left corner of the boat into the sunshine.  (Note:  I knew when I was next to Reg and the boat when I was in the shadow of the boat.  When I was in the sunshine I knew I was trailing behind or drifting too far away).  It was at this point that I lost it.  Nobody was at the back of the boat where I could see them.  I had been sprinting for what seemed like forever.  I was no longer seeing the comments and I was starting to falter badly.  I only had the energy for one shout “I’M DYING!!!!”  After yelling, I quickly saw Mikey run into the wheel house.  And then I felt bad.  I wasn’t dying, but I couldn’t keep up and I was struggling.  I had a brief thought that I they were going to touch me ending the swim.  In actuality, Mikey ran back to the wheel house to have Reg cut the engine as when I yelled I completely stopped swimming and they were concerned about the engines.   Jane quickly came back and yelled “5 more minutes until a feeding”  In my mind I thought “OK 5 more minutes of sprinting and then we need to talk”.  Off I began to swim again.


At this feeding the conversation went something like this:

Jane -“You’re golden.  1 mile to go”

Me – “Really one mile?”

Jane – “Yes, one mile.”

Me – “Can I stop sprinting now?”

Jane – “Oops, yeah you can stop sprinting”

Me – “OK, one mile”


I returned to my stroke rate of 64-65 and I stopped powering through as hard.  I began to relax.  The messages on the white board kept coming and some of them were making me cry.  I knew that I was going to do it.  And it was only 1 mile.  I had done plenty of those in competition, what was one more.  I began to see Ray getting the dingy ready to guide me in.  I saw my parents in the floral swim caps.  And then I saw the perfect sign…Jane flashing me her wetsuit.  I knew then that I was close.  Jane was only going to show the wetsuit when it was a sure thing.  I stopped for one last conversation.   Jane could get in and swim in with me the last bit, but we needed to stay together.  She was concerned that she would slow me down.  And as much as I wanted Jane standing on the French beach with me, I knew I just wanted to finish.  As I began to swim away from the boat with Ray guiding me in the dingy, I really knew that this was it.  I had accomplished my goal.  My dream was coming true.  I began to see the ripples of the sand beneath me and then I began to feel it beneath my hands and feet.  In true open water swimming style, I waited until I was grabbing and pulling myself along the bottom before I stood up.  I grabbed a small shell in the process.  Then I stood up and started to run!  YES RUN!  I was going to finish this thing in style.  I ran all the way in laughing, crying and laughing some more.  I was running as fast as I could towards the beach and the French people on the beach.  I began to also think I better run faster so they don’t touch me before I exit the water.  They were clapping the whole time.  Once my toes passed the water, I turned and waved to the boat and then I heard the most beautiful sound…the boat horn.


I know you’ve heard that you can only be on French soil for about 5 minutes before being considered illegally entering the country.  I didn’t time myself once reaching France, but I was eager to get back to the boat to the people who helped make it a success.  The French people asked where I came from and said congratulations.  I said thanks and “I’ve got to go”  I swam back to Ray and hopped into the dingy.  Then we were back to the Viking Princess. 


There were hugs and congratulations all around.  I told Reg “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a 12 hour swim, but I hope a 10 hour one is all right”.  To Mikey, I said “We didn’t make it back for lunch, but we will make it back in time for the pub.”   I quickly shed my suit and cap for warmer clothes and went back on deck.  My mom gave me some seasickness pills and some Advil.    To everyone’s credit on the boat, none of them got sick…I did however.  All of the undigested liquids decided they had had enough and were coming out.  I was the only one to get sick on the boat (twice 🙂 ).  We enjoyed a great boat ride back and a beautiful sunset to cap off the event.  


On a side note, I was the last swimmer in the water that day and the first swimmer out.  To my knowledge, all the swimmers and relays out that day were successful. 


Swimming Notes:

  • Do hang onto your goggles when jumping off the boat as they will shoot off and be lost if you don’t.
  • Do test your swim suit, but then make sure that you wash it well to get out all the sand.  I didn’t do this and the sand did cause some interesting rubbing.  Although I guess I could just consider it a cheap spa treatment.
  • Do use a white board if the messages are short and very dark.  They can provide some much needed amusements.  However avoid long messages as they are very frustrating to try to read in the 3 seconds your face is out of the water.
  • Do learn to bilateral breath.  It gives you flexibility on positioning with the boat.  Plus it keeps you evened out.
  • Do grab anything (shell, rock, twig) that you can when you land in France.  Shove it in your suit so that it doesn’t get lost in transition.  That little pebble will represent something amazing forever. 
  • I recommend 2 brands of products for skin protection. 
    • Headhunter Rashguard – I had absolutely no swimsuit chaffing when using this product.  Ok there was some chaffing due to the sand in my suit, but that was my own damn fault.  I had no neck, arm or groin chaffing where I used Headhunter rashguard.  Thank you to Anne Cleveland for recommending it.
    • Blue Lizard 30+ sunscreen –  This stuff just cakes on you and contains zinc oxide.  It withstood the long training sessions and helped to protect against skin damage.  Again no sunburn when I used this product.  I found if I applied before putting on swimsuit in morning (usually 30 min – 2 hrs before swim) and then applied another coat before swimming I was good to go. 
    • No I’m not currently sponsored by these products I just think that they are that good. 
  • Do swim from feed to feed.  It mentally breaks down the swim into manageable parts.
  • Do train in cold water.  Colder than you think you can stand.  After training in 50-52 degree water the 62-64 of the Channel felt like taking a luke warm bath.  Beautiful!
  • Don’t look at France or England.  You can see both of them for a very long time without seeing much of a difference.  Put your head down and get on with the task at hand.
  • Do share the experience with friends and family.  It just enriches the entire adventure.


PS. I’m still working on obtaining all the photos.  I will post these as soon as I can.


10 Responses to “The Channel Swim according to Michelle”

  1. Kristy says:

    nice recap michelle – thank you for taking us along on your dream…it was a pleasure rooting you on and being apart of your day. congratulations and welcome home!

  2. Leroy says:

    V.Leroy has a tear in his eye. well done little lady 🙂

  3. sarah juncker says:

    Michelle you are truly amazing. This sort of endeavor is not for an amazing athlete. . .it is for an amazing athlete with an affinity for mental and emotional challenges. Congratulations! I loved reading your account. Goosebumps, tummy flips and tears accompanied my read–that tells me you are a wonderful writer as well as an incredible swimmer. Thanks for including all of us in your dream. What’s up next!??!?!? 🙂

  4. joanne neis says:

    Congradulations! Only a parent of two swimmers can really know all the work and what an accomplishment swimming the English Channel must me. I have gone across the English Channel in a boat and I thought that was long. I enjoyed reading your story. Will look forward to the pictures. Joanne Neis

  5. Sybil Fisher says:

    Absolutely Beautiful Michelle! I loved your version, your thoughts and experiences and way to smoke it! You brought tears to my eyes with your ending. Just like that movie “On A Clear Day”. When you haven’t seen anything but water for hours, that moment you touch sand/land is the grandest.
    Congrats again…fantastic.

  6. Colorado Support says:

    Sniffle, sniffle, tear, tear, that was brilliant thanks for writting it.

  7. Pat Brown says:

    what a wonderful experience..which you will always remember. You are a phenomenal young woman and I am proud to know you…love you always.
    Pat B

  8. Shanna says:

    great recap – gave me goosebumps more than once when I was reading it! I’m so, so proud of you! Big hugs!

  9. LynnScearcy says:

    I’m a friend of your mom’s and have been out of the country for a few weeks…..what a treat to read your summary!!!

  10. Elaine (Lipovsky) Collins says:

    Michelle, You are my hero!! Thanks for sharing your amazing adventure.. hats off to you!!!

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