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Lured by English Channel's Siren Song

Swimmers brave 21 miles of rough seas and errant ships, insulated only by a layer of grease.

November 10, 2002|Thomas Wagner | Associated Press Writer

ABOARD THE OCEAN BREEZE — Over and over again, we had been warned of the many risks we would face while swimming the English Channel: hypothermia from the cold water, exhaustion from the high seas and strong currents, shoals of stinging jellyfish.

But nothing had prepared us for the near miss with a container ship.

Suddenly, it loomed up to the left, its mammoth hulk bearing down on our small guide boat, the Ocean Breeze, and Sophie, our youngest swimmer.

Kicking up a three-foot swell, the blue prow of the Daina was on a collision course with us, and there was little doubt about the outcome of a crash between our 38-foot boat and a ship soaring five stories up to its bridge and piled high with containers.

"What the hell is he doing?" shouted Dave Whyte, pilot of the Ocean Breeze. The Daina, sailing down the middle of the channel from north to south, was far outside the two main shipping lanes of one of the world's busiest waterways.

As a crewman raced to the port side of the Ocean Breeze and frantically signaled the ship with a hand-held searchlight, the rest of us shouted starboard, trying to tell Sophie to stop swimming.

Its horns blaring, the Daina swept past, missing us by about 50 feet, throwing out a wake that rocked Sophie and the Ocean Breeze.

Within minutes, our reaction had changed from fear to relief to laughter. As we listened over our boat's radio, a British Coast Guard officer rebuked the Daina for being out of the shipping lanes, and one of the ship's crewmen apologized in broken English.

For this 50-year-old American, who had put together a relay team to find out what it's like to swim the English Channel, it was the first of several times that day that I wondered: How, and why, does anyone do this?

*

More than 125 years after Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old sailor from Shropshire, England, officially became the first person to swim across the channel unassisted, more than 100 people follow his example each year. They swim as soloists or on relay teams, or sail aboard unorthodox craft such as gondolas and foot-powered dinghies.

Smeared with porpoise oil and consuming red meat for strength, coffee for stimulation, and beer and brandy for courage, Webb crossed the channel in 21 hours, 45 minutes, on Aug. 24, 1875, becoming one of the world's first international athletic stars. An overnight hero, he was honored with parades, speeches, cannon salutes, portraits and poems.

It was 1911 before another Briton, Thomas Burgess, became the second swimmer to make it, on his 14th try. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle, a 19-year-old American, was the first woman to swim across. She was rewarded with a ticker-tape parade back home in New York.

Today, solo swimmers -- who have graduated to personal trainers and high-energy drinks -- often go much faster than Webb did. American Chad Hunderby, the current record holder, crossed in 7 hours, 17 minutes in 1994.

But rarely do today's swimmers receive much recognition outside hometown newspapers or swimming publications and Internet sites.

*

As the crow flies, the English Channel -- where about 500 ships travel a day -- is more than 21 miles wide.

But for swimmers, the real distance between England and France is often much longer, with strong currents and tides pushing them in a large S-shaped path.

Soloists, who often suffer from numbness and disorientation, are sometimes swept far off course as they struggle toward France's Cap Gris-Nez peninsula.

Some give up not far from shore.

The human body loses heat much faster in water than on land, and at least two people have died of hypothermia while swimming the waterway.

This season, a relay team was disqualified when one of its swimmers was pulled out shivering uncontrollably after only half an hour at sea, 30 minutes short of the minimum required for an individual stint.

The Channel Swimming Assn., which monitors compliance with its many rules from guide boats, bars anything as wimpy as a wetsuit. Why? In honor of Webb's hardiness.

So swimmers often take the only precaution allowed: covering their bodies with pounds of grease in an effort to stay warm.

Despite that, less than half the soloists succeed in crossing. Some don't even get a chance during the four-month season, thanks to bad weather and high seas.

Because people on relay teams usually swim only two or three 60-minute legs, the five on our team didn't use grease, a move I came to regret.

Three men and two women, ranging in age from 17 to 62, we began our adventure just before 5 a.m. on a cold September morning, the first time in days that the channel had been calm enough for swimmers.

Our guide boat, the Ocean Breeze, idled about 60 feet off desolate Shakespeare Beach, between Dover and Folkestone.

"Let's get started," said Whyte, our no-nonsense British pilot. "It's a long way to France."

That was it. No ceremony. No pep talk. No cheers.

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