A guest post by English Channel soloist and open water swimmer extraordinaire, Donal Buckley ...
You can leave the English Channel, but the English Channel won't necessarily leave you. It's an obsession and quest, that like most of these type of adventures is difficult to explain. So English channel swimmers fall back on some of the simple facts.
Since Captain Matthew Webb first swam the Channel (on his second attempt) 136 years ago in 1975, (insert map), just over 1200 people have completed a solo English Channel swim with 22 completing the task of over-and-back, and five completing a three-way. Known as the Everest of the Sea, in the 50-odd years since Sir Edward Hillary climbed Mt Everest, about 4000 people have summitted the eponymous mountain.
In the 35 years since Ironman started over 300,000 people have successfully completed an Ironman triathlon. The Channel is typified by cool (cold depending on where you live) water, averaging 15 to 16 degrees Celsius, highly changeable weather in very short time, even with modern forecasting, and unpredictable tidal currents. And the worst and hardest part doesn't arise until the last part, until you are already exhausted when the real battle begins. It's like a race where you have no idea where or when the the finish is. It tests you mentally far above more even than physically. Renowned adventurer Lewis Pugh said recently of it, "The English Channel is the perfect stretch of water to truly test the human mind." Good luck cannot get you across but bad luck can stop you getting across. Sudden weather changes, hypothermia, delayed tides, sea sickness, jellyfish and shipping traffic can all contribute. And all that is just for very experienced sea swimmers for whom these are not normally problems.
The historical failure rate is about 65% but in recent years that has actually become the success rate, but the rules remain the same, a single swimming cap, goggles, "bathing costume" and nothing that would retain body heat.
The swim season generally starts in early July and lasts until the end of September, just three months, with soloists swimming on the neap tide. However with neap and spring tides alternating every two weeks, that means the actual period available is half that time, about 6 weeks. Into this period must be factored bad weather when the Channel can become quite extraordinarily rough, far rougher than a cursory glance at a map would indicate. (This is a very short video clip of Shakespeare beach, the traditional starting place, I took during 2011 season). The two governing federations, the CS&PF and the CSA between them have about 12 pilots boats. To get a good "slot" (a first or second place option on a seven day tide window) you now must usually book from a year to three years in advance with a specific pilot. All this means that even making the decision to attempt the Channel is a significant undertaking, rarely taken likely, except by those who underestimate the difficulties. But once you start telling people. "I'm going to swim the English Channel", you realise the impact of those words on others, how they have permeated the world's culture crossing all languages and boundaries, as a ideal of toughness and challenge., and how many people say they dream of it.
Many channel swimmers say the Channel changes you. I certainly have found it so. The reasons for swimming are as varied as the swimmers. I cannot explain fully why I decided to attempt the Channel. Legendary swimming researcher and coach "Doc" Councilman said of the Channel, of which we, the Channel community, have many sayings and aphorism, "it only hurt once. From start to end."
For we are a community. From knowing no Channel swimmers I now know dozens. I know as a Channel swimmer that I could travel anywhere in the world and if there is another Channel swimmer there, I'll be welcomed, and visa versa. For this is one of the by-products of a Solo swim, becoming part of an extraordinary worldwide community. the chance to stand on the beach in Dover and see and talk to legends like Kevin Murphy, King of the English Channel, Freda Streeter, most successful Channel coach and mother of Alison the Queen of the Channel with 43 crossings. To meet the greats of the swimming world and the Aspirants, all there because of the obsession and the dream and goal of swimming this one piece of sea water, that should you succeed sets you forever at the pinnacle of your sport.
You can follow my ongoing articles about open water swimming at loneswimmer.com or on Twitter @donalbuckley, (where I also follow @simplyswimuk).