Swim Report: the English Channel


On 12 August 2019, after an unsuccessful attempt the previous summer, I swam the English Channel from Abbot’s Cliff to Cap Gris Nez in 12 hours and 2 minutes, landing at La Sirene just east of the point.


My brother, Andrew King, was my crew. The swim was escorted by pilots Marilyn (Maz) Critchley and Simon Ellis of High Hopes, with observer Graham Proctor ratifying the swim for the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. I’m so deeply grateful for the support and encouragement of Andrew, Simon, Maz, and Graham, on the water, and my family, friends, and our community of swimmers and aquatic adventurers at home in Canada and around the world. Thank you all so much!

The swim was near the end of our neap tide (8–14 August), after several days of storms and strong winds. I had arrived in Dover on Wednesday, August 7th only to find my intended accommodations had fallen through (without Expedia telling me) so I scrambled to find a reasonably cheap alternative. The room I found was in St. Martin’s House, just behind the fabled White Horse Inn. John, the concierge, is a wonderful Kiwi who had, it turned out, cycled through Hamilton, Ontario years ago on one of several cycling and surfing adventures. When my brother, Andrew, arrived the next day, John helpfully shifted some bookings around to get us in a room on the upper floor with two separate beds, which is where we stayed until the morning of the swim.

Andrew has crewed for me on several swims (English Bay, Boston Light), including my failed attempt at the Channel last year, when we stayed at a great airBnB room up on the hill behind the train station. That time, the walk to the docks was considerably longer, much earlier in the morning, and our stay in Dover together was a bit of a whirlwind, ending in intense disappointment for me. I’d been in Dover for a full week earlier, but in July I seemed to find fewer swimmers around, and those I did meet were staying outside of Dover.




This trip, we had several days waiting out the weather, and we stayed closer to the harbour and below the castle. I think we both warmed to Dover more than last time (especially Blake’s pub). We met a few other swimmers ‒ a fun relay team from Oregon, who were also staying at St. Martin’s House ‒ but in general my experience of Dover this year was the same as last: unless you actively seek out communities of swimmers, you probably won’t find them simply by hanging out at the beach or the pub (the exception, perhaps, being weekend mornings at Swimmer’s Beach). Dover may be one of the great, storied centers of the marathon swimming universe, but it isn’t Yosemite’s Camp 4 from the 60s and 70s, where you’d (allegedly) wander up, hang out, and find a climbing partner for epic adventures. Of course, Camp 4 isn’t the old Camp 4 of legend. Perhaps it never really was?

I suspect my judgement here says more about me than Dover or Yosemite. I’m something of a solitary creature in how I approach my training. I love my swimming tribe, to be sure, but I don’t train with a team, and in the open water I often swim alone (I know, I know). There’s a scene in the recent documentary, Free Solo, where Alex Honnold describes his youth: he would take road trips to climbing spots, but was too shy to meet other climbers and ask about partnering up, so he’d simply climb alone, free soloing routes. I’m in my 50s, but that scene still resonated (a bit painfully) for me. I love being a part of these communities of wonderful, passionate, like-minded people. I try my best to give back and help others in their adventures. But even now I still find the joining part the hardest. I doubt I’m unusual in this. One thing that comes with age, I suppose, is the learned ability not to stress too much about the parts of yourself you cannot change. You can grow to love a place for what it is, and what it grows to mean for you, while still reveling in our shared myths, however distant they are from your own experiences. I think I love Dover now.



I also didn’t worry much about logging long swims during our wait in Dover. I only swam a few times in the harbour: 5k, 3k, and 2k. These were short and relaxing sessions, although one of them involved torrential rain and a strong cross-shore wind. There were no jellyfish this time, which was a relief. I kept up my stretching, and shoulder and core exercises, tried to rest and not worry about the weather, and avoid the temptation of downing pints at the pub.

I watched Free Solo several times, and the soundtrack has been an important part of my preparation over the final few months leading up to Dover. I took a lot of inspiration from the scene in the film where Alex Honnold backs off the Freeblast slab on his first free solo attempt. “Maybe I just suck.” The contrast between that scene and the final pitches of his successful push a year later, paired with a haunting and recurring theme from the soundtrack, is incredibly powerful. It strikes me as not necessarily a happy or joyous scene, which is what you might expect. I find it contemplative, melancholy but beautiful.

Swimming, not climbing. Back to Dover. On Sunday morning after breakfast, we wandered down to the swimmer’s beach at the harbour, where Simon Ellis and Marilyn (Maz) Critchley, our pilots, were chatting with some of the folks from the Dover Lifeguard Club, who swim in the harbour on weekends, along with the storied Dover Channel Training swimmers and volunteers. The latter group, currently led by Emma France, was formally begun in 1982 by Freda Streeter, who has coached and inspired so many channel swimmers over the years, including her daughter Allison Streeter, current queen of the Channel with 44 solo crossings, and the first woman to cross the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. Simon confirmed what we’d hoped: the forecasts showed a decent window the next morning and afternoon, with winds picking up, but out of the west, so in the right direction. We were a go for Monday morning, and at a reasonable hour, aiming for a 9am start.



The night before, we prepared the feed bottles in our room, adding just the dry powder then leaving the bottles to fill in the morning before heading out. Andrew slept in an AirBnB room just up the hill that we’d booked beforehand, so I had the room to myself to rest, sleep, prepare.

I had expected to sleep well, but nerves got the better of me. I don’t remember being this concerned the night before the first attempt, but then, we were up before 4am last time, and that failure was weighing heavily on my mind, as much as I tried to remind myself that my training this time was solid: more distance, more time in cold water, long ocean swims in the 15–17C range, more body fat. I remember calling Kim back home, wondering if I really wanted to do this, or any other long, colder swim. I remembered how disheartened I’d felt with the cold and exhausting pace for the four hours or so of my first attempt. I remember thinking how badly this sucked, how completely done I was with swimming.

I eventually slept, and woke around 6am, feeling nervous but reasonably well-rested. Andrew arrived shortly after and we set about mixing the feeds we’d set up the night before. In all we had eleven 650ml bottles with about 220–250 calories per bottle (using a mixture of Generation UCan plain starch, their vanilla protein mix, and a dash of their lemon-lime electrolyte powder), a litre of boiled water in a thermos (which would be refilled on board High Hopes as needed), and a smaller 300ml thermos bottle for warm broth every few hours — a plan we quickly abandoned during the swim: I’d hoped the broth would be something of a comfort food, but the saltiness was nauseating after a few hours in the channel; instead we used that bottle for a diluted mouthwash rinse later in the swim.



Everything fit in a 30L top-opening drybag. I applied a first layer of high-SPF sunscreen before suiting up and getting dressed. We boiled some more water and had porridge and bananas for breakfast, along with a cup of tea. Andrew had loaded up on food and drink for the voyage the day before, at the Marks and Spencers just down from the hotel, so by 7:15am we were good to go, and walked through town down to the pier, with our drybag and a small backpack.



The port was bustling with other swimmers and at least one fishing charter, everyone taking advantage of this one swimmable window among otherwise-discouraging forecasts. We found Maz, Simon, and Graham moored by the gate and ready to push off. After a few preliminaries involving passports, paperwork, and the ground rules on-board, we were ready to sail. We played one song before setting off: Swim Until you can’t see Land by Frightened Rabbit (a song both deliriously happy and heartbreakingly sad, because you can be both).




The trip out to the start was bumpy, and as we approached Samphire Hoe and Abbot’s Cliff I began to get prepared. This time we’d brought surgical gloves so Andrew could help apply one more coat of sunscreen, a liberal layer of 40% zinc cream, and a covering layer of vaseline. I was much more nervous this time than last, and still was harbouring doubts, I expect, but we’d arrived at the tail end of a small flotilla of other boats, and there was no time to linger.

We’d pulled in close to the shore. I climbed down the ladder, rode the surf in, had a quick pee, then the horn sounded and the clock was running. I waded back in and started swimming.



The first few minutes were rough but I eventually found my rhythm with the long swells, which stayed with us for most of the crossing, and were harder on the boat than the swimmer! The temperatures were in the 17C range for much of the swim, although an hour or so of heavy rain caught up with us after about seven hours on the water, dropping the air temperature significantly.



For a couple of hours during the deluge, while the air and water temperatures dropped, I am certain I was riding a slight but significant push from out of the west, which made the lower temperatures at least a bit more bearable. By ten hours, the rain had subsided, the water was a bit warmer, and Cap Gris Nez seemed tantalizingly close. I was a bit dismayed at significant shoulder pain that had picked up around six hours or so, but two supplements of 1000mg of ibuprofen over hour seven gave me some relief by hour nine.






There was a moment (perhaps several) during the rainstorm when I was shivering rather violently, affecting my legs and kicking. This is how I’d felt in the slightly cooler water last year, during my aborted attempt. If Andrew and Simon hadn’t been there, I worry I may have given up. This time, however, Andrew’s firm resolve and Simon’s heavily sweetened tea did the trick, and we stuck with sweet tea instead of our regular mix for the duration of the colder spell. As sunset approached we were back in somewhat warmer water. I found a stable rhythm again and we returned to our planned nutrition, although I was drinking less each time, with more warm water. I felt okay with that. We’d also ramped up to feeds every twenty minutes towards the final push, which Andrew and Simon didn’t announce but I certainly wasn’t complaining!




The last stretches of water approaching France are infamous in Channel lore: fate can turn what should be a few minutes of swimming into hours of struggle across unforgiving tides and currents. Maz and Simon had timed the tides perfectly: we’d pushed through the slack of the first tide, made the Separation Zone in time to ride the next tide down toward the Cap, but my fumbling during the storm had cost me vital minutes and now, in the final stretch, the tide had turned again.

If I could fight the mounting surge for a hundred meters or so, I’d be in sheltered inshore waters and free to swim to shore at La Sirene restaurant, just up from the Cap proper. If I missed that, we’d be facing a commercial mussel field between us and the French shore, which would have meant following the tide north, landing further up at Wissant, adding up to an hour to the swim. I did as I was told and swam hard! In the video footage, it looks like I’m standing still. Thankfully, however, the gambit worked, and as the sun set, Simon, Andrew, and Graham told me to swim in to the beach.





Before I’d left for England, a good friend of ours, Titi, who now lives in Holland, had announced that she’d be there when I landed. As sweet as that was, it seemed unlikely: it’s hard to plan a precise landing point, and the sought-after Cap Gris Nez landing is pretty much inaccessible to anyone hoping to greet incoming swimmers. The La Sirene beach, however, is easily accessible, and I was delighted to find Titi and her brother (with Champagne!) as well as several other well-wishers (although most were waiting for another swimmer) at the shore, including Frédérique Vandrepote, a delightful enthusiast and fellow swimmer who regularly greets crossers as they emerge from the surf.






My understanding has always been that swimmers are granted ten minutes on shore before returning to their boat. I’m not sure if this is in fact the case, but regardless, I knew I faced a brief swim back to the boat, and so after sharing some wonderful moments on the beach with friends old and new, I swam back out to High Hopes.







The ride back to Dover was just shy of three hours and after a few minutes of euphoria I was a mess for the better part of the voyage. My stomach was in bad shape after twelve hours. I spent much of the return trip above decks next to a bucket. Not pleasant, but not unexpected. As we approached Dover harbour I was feeling exhausted, but stable. Maz and Simon have a delightful tradition of printing up and framing a map for successful crossings, right there on the boat, which marked a wonderful end to a long, grueling, but ultimately rewarding day.




We left High Hopes around midnight. I was exhausted, but the walk back along the harbour was manageable. Less appealing was the steep walk up to our AirBnB room below the castle, so we stopped in first at the Premier Inn (no vacancies), then the Travelodge, where we splurged on a room with two beds and the promise of breakfast in the morning! I rinsed out the bottles and hung out wet gear while Andrew ducked up the hill to retrieve our remaining gear from the AirBnB. He managed a few hours of sleep before his train back to London and Gatwick.

I was a mess of emotions once Andrew had left. I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours, and found myself crying out of the blue. I have no idea why. I certainly wasn’t sad, but it wasn’t clear to me that I was happy. I wasn’t sure how to process what I was feeling, but the prospect of staying alone in Dover didn’t seem appealing, so I checked out and worked my way up to the St. Martin’s House to say goodbye to John. I ended up chatting with the Oregon swimmers, still waiting for a window to swim. I hoped they had the good fortune we’d had, but they also seemed realistic about the vagaries of Channel weather: they were experienced swimmers, and clearly knew the game.




I then stopped by the pub that Simon had pointed me to, not far from where I’d stayed in Dover last year: Les Fleurs, where the owner has taken up the tradition started by the White Horse Inn, of letting swimmers sign their names on the wall. This involved buying a pint, which I was more than happy to do, and gave me the chance to chat with an Aussie swimmer, Matt, and his crew. Matt is coached by famed Channel swimmer Chloë McCardle. It turned out me, Matt and Chloë had been swimming the same day, with Chloë finishing her thirtieth crossing (in ten hours!) and Matt and I reaching France at a similar pace (roughly twelve hours). From Les Fleurs I worked my way to London, seeing old friends in Balham and Bath before flying home via Reykjavik.

We call it solo swimming, but of course we’re never alone: we depend on our friends and fellow swimmers, on pilots and paddlers, lifeguards, trainers, physiotherapists, our families and neighbours. Coming home to friends at GLOW swimming, LOST swimming, and Solo Swims of Ontario helped me put my feelings in perspective, reminding me how special it is to be a part of this community of swimmers and adventurers, at home and around the world.

It seems arbitrary to single out anyone, but I’ll do so nonetheless, for helping me work through my failed swim last year and to train for another attempt at this iconic swim: my dear friends and mentors Madhu Nagaraja and Lynn de Lathouwer-Rodgers, who keep my training on track and my head in a reasonable place, enduring my complaints and self-doubts with kindness, but firm resolve to kick my butt into gear. Marilyn Bell, Liz Fry, Ned Denison, Marilyn Korzekwa, Caroline Block, Qing Li — accomplished and inspiring channel swimmers, each of whom reached out to help me work through my failed attempt, and to focus on returning to the Channel a stronger swimmer. My parents, especially my mother, whose swimming accomplishments continue to humble and inspire me. And Kim and our kids, who endure my indulgent hobby with good cheer, and sometimes paddling along. I’m so very grateful.

What follows are more detailed explanations of the swim and the planning, equipment, and training that led up to it. I don’t think there’s anything controversial here, although some of what I say about nutrition might inspire debate! I’ll get it all down in case any of this is useful to other swimmers thinking about a channel attempt.

Equipment and Logistics

Our aim for this swim, as with my previous attempt, was to keep equipment and crew size to the barest minimum. I wanted a feeding system that Andrew could manage with minimal effort, but that was flexible enough to adapt to changes during the swim. And everything had to fit in carry-on luggage! That gave us about 20–30L of volume to work with, and it was more than sufficient.




The morning of the swim we filled eleven 650ml Nomader collapsible silicone sports bottles with Generation UCan starch and a dash of their lemon-lime electrolyte flavouring. The bottles all had a small steel blender ball inside, to facilitate mixing on the boat, as I find that the starch tends to settle more quickly than other products I’ve used (on the other hand, it mixes far more easily than some). The bottles fit in a 30L MEC Scully drybag backpack with a wide lid, which was easy to secure on the boat deck, even through a rainstorm and high swells.

For feeding, we used a floating throw rope (a North Water 4-bailer heaving line) secured to the gunwale railings with a carabiner. We started with the system I’d used earlier for Lake Ontario, filling a 350ml Thermos bottle with a flip lid for each feeding stop, and attaching it to the line with a tight neoprene sleeve. We’d fill that to about 280–300ml, then top it off with boiling water from a 950ml Klean Kanteen thermos bottle. This worked fine in calm waters, but we eventually lost the small bottle in the swells. We resorted to the backup plan which we should simply have started with: linking a silicone bottle directly to the line with a carabiner, and opening the screw-top lid to just enough to keep it closed while floating. This was much simpler, and my original concern — that my cold fingers would fumble with the lid — were unwarranted. We also had another backup bottle that we ended up tossing in along with the other bottles, filled with diluted mouthwash to use before each feed. I’d been sceptical of this beforehand, thinking I’d just soldier through and accept that revolting feeling of salt water mouth-and-tongue. We started with the mouthwash rinses after about eight hours, and now I’d swear by it.

Channel rules are simple: an unassisted swim wearing trunks, cap, and goggles. Ear plugs, sunscreen and grease or vaseline are permitted, but not much else, so my other equipment demands were modest. I wore a TYR nylon/spandex square-leg suit and a Speedo ‘elastometric’ silicone cap, which is a bit thinner and stretchier than most silicone caps I’ve worn, but has a slightly textured interior to prevent slipping (another problem I find with some silicone caps). For longer swims I’ve come to swear by Blue Seventy goggles, and for the entire crossing I wore a pair of yellow-tinted Vision goggles, with a green light on the strap (I just had to remember which way to turn the light to activate it, as we approached the French shore toward dusk). As backups I also had a pair each of the mirrored and clear Element goggles. I wore Mack’s silicone earplugs for the entire swim, and before the start I applied a high-SPF sunscreen beneath a generic high-concentration (40%) zinc cream over most of my exposed body, additionally covering my back, shoulders, face, neck and chest, and any likely chafing points, with plenty of vaseline (two small tins were more than sufficient).

Nutrition

The plan was simple: warm feeds, about 300ml, at the first and second hours, then every thirty minutes for the duration of the swim. We planned on getting two feeds per 650ml bottle, and mixed two packets of UCan resistant starch in each bottle earlier that morning. I consumed a full bottle before the start. I packed enough Generation UCan packets for about 14–16 hours of swimming, given the ratios we’d planned in mixing the bottles, and depending how much we diluted each feed with hot water. Each packet has about 30g of resistant starch, which amounts to roughly 110 calories. The vanilla protein packages include whey protein and have about 170 calories per package. While we didn’t measure those out precisely, I estimated that each bottle would provide between 200–250 calories per hour.


That may seem on the low side for caloric intake during a marathon swim in colder waters, especially for those using traditional carbohydrates like maltodextrin (CarboPro, Maxim). Generation UCan is a resistant starch: still a carbohydrate, but it is absorbed more slowly, passing through the stomach and small intestine before being digested in the long intestine. These starches occur naturally, but the manufactured starch produced by Generation UCan is marketed as not spiking insulin levels. There is some plausible evidence supporting this specific claim, largely involving research on diabetes therapies and obesity diet protocols, although it isn’t at all clear that the evidence is relevant to endurance athletics, least of all marathon swimming in colder water.

To be sure, there are swimmers who try these kinds of swims while keto-adapted (not necessarily in full ketosis, but having trained their bodies to transition without much fuss between glycogen and ketones as their primary energy source … if this terminology means nothing to you but you’re curious, look up Jeff Volek on the Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance to get a sense of the terrain, or simply google “keto” and “endurance”). For these swimmers, the idea behind using Generation UCan is the promise of steady insulin levels, the hope being that the body will keep burning fat as a fuel source even as it benefits from also taking in carbohydrates. At least one successful channel crossing (by Dan Simonelli) has been completed in this fashion.

What science there is to date on keto-adapted endurance athletics doesn’t yet have clear lessons for training regimens, and is limited to small-sample studies of ultra-endurance runners, ironman triathletes, and cyclists — activities radically different from unaided cold-water marathon swimming. For me, I think I needed more conventional sugars during my swim, especially when the water and air temperatures dropped for a few hours mid-crossing. If Andrew and Simon hadn’t switched my feeds to tea with heaps of sugar for that stretch of the swim, I’m honestly not sure I could have continued, given how violently I was shivering. The sweet tea helped this time, in a way it hadn’t last year. Indeed, while everyone is different and endurance performance is intensely personal, I can share my experience with keto-adapted training and swimming: I’m convinced it was one big (but not the only) factor behind my failed channel attempt in 2018. That’s probably as much a fact about my body type as it is about the diet approach per se, but my cold tolerance was definitely much less after my aborted experiment with keto, and remained that way for far longer than I imagined it would, even after I’d returned whole-heartedly to carbohydrates.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try low-carb/high-fat approaches if they work for you, and it doesn’t mean I won’t stick with UCan: some people hate the taste, but I find the chalky texture preferable to the subtle but lingering sweetness of maltodextrin, and the price difference isn’t so great as to inspire me to switch products just yet. I also found that I was fine with just 2 (and a bit) packets per hour, so long as the water temperatures were above 17C, and I’d rather under-feed on carbohydrates than overfeed. Still, after this swim I definitely won’t be using UCan alone for future cold-water swims: for my physiology and body type, I think I need more fast-acting sugars when swimming in water below 17C. I’m going to experiment with combinations of resistant starch and sugars, especially as I look to colder marathon swims, like the North Channel.

Training

There were several elements of my training and especially diet that I’m now convinced thwarted my first attempt at the English Channel, but it wasn’t just the experiment with a low-carb high-fat diet in the months leading up to my summer of 2018. I also emphasized more intensive pace-work in the pool, at the expense of long, slower open water swims, especially in colder water (12–16C). My reasoning at the time was that, cold or not, a faster swim is a warmer swim, so I emphasized getting stronger and faster.


This time, I instead focused on slower, longer swims, both in the pool and in open water. I made a point of getting to salt water for some long training sessions (at Jericho and Kitsilano beaches in Vancouver, as well as some shorter swims at Wreck beach), and I pushed longer and harder in cold water above 10C here at home in Lake Ontario. My workouts are available at my Garmin Connect public profile. Above is a summary graph of my training volumes for Lake Ontario, my failed channel attempt, and this year’s successful crossing. I think more volume still would have been better, but short of becoming a (late career!) professional swimmer, I’m not sure I could have managed too much more volume. In future swims I will try to eke out a bit more by way of training volume, but also focus on maintaining faster paces in interval work. I also think strength training is vital, especially as we age: I maintained a yoga-based stretching routine, some weight lifting, regular cord/band work for rotator and subscapular strength and stability, and matt work emphasizing core strength.

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