As most of my readers will already know, the team of Carol Cashell, Caitlin Desmond, Maeve Ryan, Lynne Lynch, Eoin O’Riordan and myself (collectively known as Crosóige Mara) successfully completed a 2-way relay crossing of the English Channel last Saturday. Our primary aim was to complete both legs but we also had a secondary target of breaking the Irish record for a 2-way relay. The existing record was 21 hours 12 minutes and was held by the Dublin Fire Brigade team, which included Tom Healy, the current Irish record-holder for a solo swim with a time of 9 hours 51 minutes. This was always going to be a tough time to beat, especially given that that team completed their first leg in just 9 hours 55 minutes! We were confident, however, that with the right training and a good day we could break this record…
After a reasonable enough waiting time of 5 days in Dover, our pilot Mike Oram told us that Saturday, 13 July would be the best day to attempt the swim. We were to meet him at Dover Marina at midnight with the aim of starting some time between 1:00 am and 1:30 am. At the marina we met Mike and his crew as well as our two CS&PF-appinted observers, Mike Ball and Jim Boucher. Once all of the gear was onboard and Mike and Carol had their “discussion” on the team’s speed and targets, we set off for the start point at Abbot’s Cliff on the western end of Samphire Hoe, the same spot where I started my solo.
As per the carefully considered plan, Carol was the first swimmer in the rotation and so she had to go ashore at the start point to officially start the swim. Mike shone the torch onto the beach, at which point a fox scampered back to the cliffs, Carol jumped in and swam to the illuminated patch of shoreline, where she cleared the water and signaled that she was ready. At 1:14 am, the siren sounded and Carol began swimming her hour. Carol swam about 3.9 km in her first hour, just above our target speed of 3.6-3.8 km/h.
I started to get ready after about 35 minutes, this was too early, and had a bottle of High5 Zero electrolyte drink and a High5 gel. The gel was a bad idea as it tasted rotten and upset my stomach during my swim. A slight goggle malfunction was irritating me also but none-the-less I got through the hour, my only night swim of the crossing. Caitlin swam the third hour, by the end of which it was starting to get a bit brighter, and Lynne swam the fourth hour. By the end of the fourth hour, about 4:14 am, it was officially day-time. Maeve and Eoin were delighted that they didn’t have to swim in the dark!
During Maeve’s first hour (4:14 am to 5:14 am), she caught up with and passed Neil Streeter’s “Suva”, which was escorting Australian swimmer, Libby O’Farrell. The two boats passed very close! About 5 hours later, Caitlin was back in the water for her second hour and passed Lance Oram’s “Sea Satin”, the boat from which I did my solo, which was escorting Rachel Hessom. Rachel was swimming the Channel as part of her Arch-to-Arc challenge, in which athletes run from Marble Arch in London to Dover, swim across the Channel (usually in a wetsuit but Rachel was going without) and cycle from their landing spot to l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Both Libby and Rachel were successful in their swims that day.
Mike needed some power from us as we passed Cap-Gris-Nex heading south. We needed to into land as quickly as possible to avoid going further south, where the land would drop away from us and the swim would effectively become longer. Maeve got into the water at 10:14 am and powered into France, finding the only easy exit point for hundreds of metres either side! There was great excitement on the boat as the elapsed time since the start of the swim was 10 hours 18 minutes 59 seconds, just one second faster than my solo time. However, this time was well outside the Dublin Fire Brigade’s split of 9 hour 55 minutes. I was thinking at this stage that the record was not within our reach. As the swim went on, though, it became clear that we would negative split, i.e. we would swim the second leg faster than the first, so breaking the record was a real possibility…
The return leg was pretty uneventful for the most part. Conditions remained near-perfect and we were able to get some sleep as well as stuff our faces with ginger nut biscuits between our swims. During the eighteenth hour, the pilot asked for some serious power for the rest of the swim. If the likely last three swimmers (Carol, myself and Caitlin) swam fast enough we would both break the record and land at Shakespeare Beach, an ideal landing spot. Once Eoin had swum the eighteenth hour, Carol jumped in and sprinted off – she was hitting up to 80 strokes per minute during her hour! This was bringing us closer and closer to England and the White Cliffs of Dover were becoming more visible. We needed to keep up this pace so the pressure was on for me to give a “power hour” as Mike calls it.
I leaped over Carol at 19 hours and bolted off, kicking hard. The SiS caffeine gel that I took before the swim was working – I was able to hold the sprint – and the carbohydrate drink was helping to sustain my speed. I kept as close to the boat as possible, where I would gain some assistance from the boat’s drag – a trick I learned from watching Trent Grimsey during his world record-breaking swim last year. Still, I was really hurting from about half an hour in. I was managing to hold about 80 strokes per minute also but every one was beginning to hurt. I got comfort from seeing Lisa hold up an orange jacket every 10 minutes during the hour, though. Some noise from everyone else on the boat was greatly appreciated also! As the sun went down I was waiting to see one of the crew put the ladder in position and Caitlin get ready to takeover, but it seemed to take longer than on my first three swims. Eventually, Caitlin did appear at the gate in her togs but, as far as I was concerned, took forever to jump in. When she did, I was incredibly relieved. Catching the ladder was a struggle but I caught it eventually, my hip cramping as I did so. We were so close at this stage, it was time to give Caitlin plenty of vocal and visual encouragement to get into the beach.
Caitlin did a great job of bringing us into Shakespeare Beach, where we swam the other day. When the boat couldn’t go any closer, Carol jumped in with her waterproof camera to take a few shots at the finish. Caitlin cleared the water 10 hours 10 minutes and 1 second after we left France, giving us a total time of 20 hours 29 minutes for the 2-way. Needless to say, there was great jubilation on the boat and plenty of patting each other on the back for a job well done. On the beach, Caitlin was greeted by her dad, Derry, as well as Maeve’s fiancé, Martin, and Lynne’s husband, Richie. The three lads deserve great thanks for putting up with us for the whole week and Derry deserves a special thanks for his great cooking, approved of by athletes!
Finishing before 10:45 pm meant that we could be off the boat and in the White Horse pub in Dover in time for last orders. It is a tradition after successful Channel swims that the swimmers write there names on the walls/ceiling of the pub for posterity…
Writing upside-down on a ceiling after a 2-way Channel relay is not so easy so Carol and I ended up sharing the writing! The spot that we were allocated was next to that of Nick Caine, a swimmer my own age from California who swam at the Cork Distance Week in 2009 and swam the Channel that year also. Next to our spot, I also wrote in Pádraig Mallon’s swim. Pádraig is from Newry in Northern Ireland and swam the Channel on 6 July in a time of 14 hours 47 minutes.
We have loads more photographs from the swim than the ones in this post. Keep an eye on our Facebook page to see all of the photographs from the swim and our few days in Dover. Don’t forget also that we’re trying to raise €10,000 for Down Syndrome Ireland through the swim – you can support this cause by going to our iDonate page and clicking on “Sponsor Me”. All donations are greatly appreciated.
Thanks to everyone for their support on Twitter and Facebook during the swim!