The English Channel

The information here is taken from the Channel Swimming and Pilot Federation website, www.cspf.co.uk

The English Channel swim is a 21 mile swim between the two nearest points of England and France.

The shortest distance across the Channel is from Shakespeare Beach, Dover, to Cap Gris Nez (the headland halfway between Calais and Boulogne). This distance is 18.2 nautical miles which is approximately 21 land miles or 34Km. Most of the England/France swims start from Shakespeare Beach or from Abbotts Cliff between one hour before high water and one hour after high water, although the pilots do start at other times and places, depending on the tide, the weather conditions, and the swimmer’s ability.

For roughly six hours the tide will take the swimmer ‘up’ the Channel, and then as the tide changes direction, the following six hours will take the swimmer ‘down’ the Channel. This up and down movement of the water is relentless and unavoidable.

When traversing the English Channel, the boat pilot pays respect to the aformentioned tides when heading for France, which means the tidal affect will be perpendicular to the direction of the swimmer. It is incredibly rare for a swimmer to ever be swimming with or against the tide.

The moon’s position relative to the earth and sun changes, creating different strengths of tide. The smaller tides are called neap tides, and the bigger ones are spring tides.  Historically, swimmers have made their attempts on neap tides, as the belief is that this reduces the effect of wind against tide. It also reduces the risk of the swimmer missing the land target of Cap Gris Nez in France.

The main risks associated with Channel Swimming include: hypothermia, inadequate training, overconfidence, inexperience, inadequate preparation and a lack of understanding of the challenge being undertaken. Educating yourself well before committing to swim the Channel is wholly necessary. The educational process involves mental and physical preparation and total commitment.

Channel swimming is an extreme sport which requires dedicated training on a consistent basis. A swimmer must mitigate their chances of risking life and limb when planning and participating in an English Channel swim.

The assessment of a swim should commence by acknowledging that it is part of a high risk sport. There is a need for a good support team who knows the swimmer and their limits well and who can make decisions for them while they are swimming.

The water temperature is between 59°F and 64.5°F (15°C to 18°C). The temperature is around 59°F to 60°F at the end of June beginning of July, then rises slowly to 64/65°F by the end of August beginning of September, then it usually drops by a couple of degrees before the beginning of October. There are however exceptional years like 1995 when the water temperature reaches 67°F (19°C). Try to train in temperatures around 60°F (15.5°C). There is no need to train in water that is too cold (below 55°F/12°C ) and do not convince yourself that if you are swimming in 70°F/21°C then it is almost the same.

The air temperature varies considerably depending on the weather and the hours of daylight. The longest day is around the 21st of June, giving daylight from about 0330 to 2200 hours. This decreases to 0600 to 1900 hours by the end of September. Body heat is lost from the parts of the swimmer exposed to the air (head and shoulders, etc.). The air temperature is higher during daylight hours, therefore the longer the day, the greater the period of higher air temperature, and the smaller the loss of body heat.

The normal body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C). Hypothermia develops when the body temperature falls below about 95°F (35°C). Moderate hypothermia can usually be reversed, and a complete recovery made if it is recognised and treated quickly. However, if the body temperature falls below 75°F (24°C), recovery is unlikely. The symptoms and signs of the onset of hypothermia are difficult to recognise to the inexperienced eye. They are basically bouts of shivering, disorientation, irrational behaviour, blueness of the lips, inability to concentrate or co-ordinate speech, and inability to respond to simple requests or questions. If hypothermia arises your team must do as they are instructed – your life may depend on it!

Feeding during the swim needs a great deal of thought on behalf of the swimmer and his/her team. Keep the feeding time to a minimum. (For example 3 minute feeds every hour for the first 2 hours then 3 min feeds every 1/2 hour will add over an hour to a 12 hour swim). Arrange the feeding pattern well in advance. The most common pattern is hourly feeds for the first 2 hours then 1/2 hourly feeds for the remainder of the swim. Your feed time should be less than 1 minute a stop. Try the different types of feed to see which suits you. These days most swimmers use a high carb feed like Maxim. You must however get used to these feeds well in advance as they have a high input and it can take some time for your body to adapt. Make sure you get the quantities right as too much at a time can upset your system. Almost every swimmer will go through a bad patch around the 5th, 6th, or 7th hour when the body starts to convert its own fat to energy. Understand this problem and try to train through it. It’s important for you to know this is going to happen.

My attempt is booked for the week starting 8th August, to coincide with the neap tide. So, its now down to keeping up the milage, staying injury free and positive in the last few months running up to the big day.

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