“Not what happens to you, but how you accept it is of paramount importance” – Sri Chinmoy - Indian philosopher and respected spiritual teacher (1931-2007)
After my first training trip to Dover mid-July and my second trip for more training prior to my tide beginning of August and then waiting endlessly due to the bad weather I had to leave Dover without a chance to swim. I came back on the 7th of September, in spite of the dreary prospects for that tide, hoping for a swim towards the end of the week.
7th of Sept. , back on the ferry to Dover
I had managed to keep a very positive inner feeling in spite of the weather, and when I arrived on Sunday, the weather started to change. Alison had three swimmers ahead of me (since I was carried over from the last tide they would have priority), but one dropped out and one went Monday or Tuesday. So we were talking about a possible swim on Friday or Saturday, where conditions seemed to be improving with the wind veering to northwestern and for Saturday, 13th, even sun predicted and a warm front moving in – perfect for the start of my triathlon, I thought. On Tuesday Marie-Therese, my helper from Vienna, came and we started to get everything ready.
Marie-Therese inspecting Rocco, Alison's boat, and looking forward to her duties as a helper and a great adventure, hopefully
When will I swim?
Luckily I didn't get Alison's first message in time. She had wanted me to go on Wednesday, when the wind was still blowing strong from the south. I met her on the boat, we talked, and Friday or Saturday seemed an option. On Thursday we happened to meet in the morning at the Dover Marina computer again where she was checking the weather charts. She didn't know yet if the Serpentine lady's relay would agree to swim Thursday night into Friday so I could swim after them but would let me know as soon as possible.
So I went for a last one hour swim in the harbour – desperately trying to acclimatise more since the water had gotten colder after the storm over the Atlantic and the air had gotten crisp, too. Then I wanted to just rest and eat as much as possible.
Coming out of the water after my last training swim, I saw I had missed a call from Alison. She wanted me to go that night, 8 p.m. at the boat, 9 p.m. start. It was a total shock. I immediately objected: only 7 hours to go, no proper rest for a 4 day triathlon etc. etc. A second helper for the boat was coming Friday only. Alison didn't accept any excuses. „You can do it! I want you to go tonight! We will feed you!“ She hadn't had a swimmer on Wednesday and no one to go tonight. Friday to Saturday seemed to have been given to another swimmer from the last tide (Cedric, as I found out just now, who made it! Congrats!). And the ladys' relay would swim on Sunday after they gotten everyone together.
A strong inner feeling
After I got home I meditated and had only one strong inner feeling: not to go, it is the wrong day for me, too early, too rushed. I thought swimmers could accept or reject an offer to swim, on the other hand you never know how the weather will develop, and I could understand Alison – not only moneywise, but wanting to get as many swimmers out as possible to allow them to get a shot at the Channel. And Cedric had to fly in from Jersey. I remembered the feeling of 1985: 100 % positive, eager to go – from start to end. Very different now.
So we got everything ready in a rush: some last minute shopping, visit to the bank, preparing the feeds, packing up everything since we were to be dropped off in Calais, getting some spaghetti into our nervous stomachs and one last hour of rest before the taxi would come pick us up and take us to the harbour.
Air temperature 15°Celsius
I updated my blog briefly and took a last glance at the BBC weather forecast. When I saw the air temperature of 15° C for the night and realised I would swim for 9 or 10 hours through the night, and the morning was to be overcast and not much warmer, I had a flash I was in for hypothermia. I just hoped it would not strike at night when nobody would see me turn blue. I prayed for a miracle, like cancellation of the swim or the predicted warm front rushing in, but it didn't feel very convincing. The only good thing: the wind was supposed to veer to northwesterly.
I felt like a sacrifical lamb, surrendered to its fate. Of course I could have not gone, but that seemed no option either. There was not much left of the positive anticipation I had had over the last months. It just felt wrong, wrong, wrong. Everything had been coming together so perfectly – my helpers, the van, the bikes, the money, even the weather forecast - only it was the wrong day. 11th of September! I wanted to start holding the World Harmony Run torch – but not with any political connections. The 13th had sounded great. Well. What an inscrutable cosmic game!
When we arrived at Dover Marina around 7:30 p.m. at nightfall (with quite a traffic jam due to the Channel tunnel fire) we saw that two other boats were about to go out: Neil Streeter on Suva with Paul Hopfensperger, better known as „Hoffy“, for a two-way swim, and another boy from Folkestone with Sea Satin. Helpers and observers helped us carry our exile-from-Egypt amount of baggage down to the boat. I was really happy to meet Hoffy and Beccy, along with Sam and Michelle – some well-known smiling faces in this drama. It changed my mood a bit, endorphines started to mix with the adrenaline, and when Alison arrived she sported her Zurich-lake marathon-swim T-shirt to show her oneness and was delighted to read the line on the back of my sweater „I swim in the sea of silver-light“ from a triathlon-poem by Sri Chinmoy.
While boarding my mood was getting lighter, we started taking pictures and joking around. Alison told us we would leave from Samphire Hoe because the current was too strong for Shakespeare Beach (it would carry us too close by the harbour) and we had 20 min. till the start.
Posing with Marie-Therese, helper, feeder, video-person etc. before the start
Posing with felow swimmer "Hoffy" Paul Hopfensperger ready for a two-way attempt
... and with Alison the Great, Queen of the Channel and my pilot in her Zurich lake marathon swim T-shirt
Havoc on the boat
When we left the harbour and turned towards Samphire Hoe the chop was so strong the boat seemed about to capsize. The bottle with the Maxim carbo concoction went overboard (Marie-Therese would find out only later), and the Channel grease had been swept from the table, just as everything else. After a long search it turned up in some dark distant corner. We were just grateful we had taken 2 sealeg tablets around noon and another one before leaving, so our stomachs were not affected.
The pilot checking the screen where the swim will be monitored
Greasing up on the way to Samphire Hoe from where the swim would start
In the middle of darkness
We greased up quickly, I then lit the World Harmony Run torch and stood on deck with it for a minute of silence, dedicating the swim (as part of the triathlon) to World Harmony. I had planned to to hold the torch again on the French coast and later at the trees planted during the World Harmony Run in previous years in Brussels and Heidelberg. Then I jumped into the water, swam to the dark shore, and when Alison blew the horn the swim officially started, around 9 p.m. Dover time. (Haven't seen the observer's report yet.)
Rough yet peaceful
The beginning was rough (see Hoffy's report). Alison had told me to stay close to the boat, it would protect me from the wind and waves would be less wild. Alison's boat is huge and brightly lit, so I felt very safe and protected and was not affected by the elements as much as Hoffy, I suppose. With the light from the boat I never had to swim in pitchblack water, unless I came too close to the tip of the boat. I did get into a kind of rhythm, tried to concentrate and actually felt quite peaceful. But I felt the cold.
Hoffy swimming in the dark with the green lightstick on his cap (photo pinched from his blog - I hope you don't mind, Hoffy!)
The water had gotten slightly colder after my last stay in Dover (15-17°C), and the air was colder than the water and I felt it was getting to me from the beginning. How long would I last? Also I could feel my bathing suit was not fitting tight. I had applied some grease under it, and since I was wearing my old worn-out suit, the grease increased its „bagginess“ and I could feel the cold water streaming by my body more than with a tight-fitting kind of warming double layer suit (which are permitted, sorry guys). I had received two new Speedo suits for the Channel, but while they were fine during 7 hour lake swims, they had started chafing my neck bloody after only 2 hours in salt water, never mind vaseline or grease. (Adidas suits are better, Rashmi told me, the Indian girl who had to leave Dover without even being able to make an attempt in 2 months!)
I remembered 1985, when I felt fine – only towards the end my helper had used the word „cold“ and immediately I had started to shiver. So I tried to cross the word „hypothermia“ from my mind and replace it by mantras like „warmth, heat, fire“ etc. I thought of the yogis in the Himalayas, drying their loin cloths soaked in icy water by their inner fire („tummo“ in Tibetan) after wrapping them around their body. I even tried to meditate – which under normal conditions does make you feel warmer. But it didn't really help.
I swam from feed to feed, at 30 minute intervals right from the beginning, which went basically very well, except for two bottles sunk into the Channel and some time loss when the bottles dangled too long in the air and Marie-Therese did not throw them in the water before me or didn't give me enough string. I mainly stuck to liquids (Maxim and fruit sugar with tea, juice, hot chocolate with soy drink or soup with oats, some canned peaches, and another sealeg tablet when the fumes and waves seemed to be getting at me.)
After the first few choppy hoursI had the feeling the waves were pushing me, at least they were not against us - until the 10th hour or so. To the west I could even see the moon peeping out of the clouds for some time, to the east the lights of Dover and Calais were lighting the clouded sky, but basically everything else was black and grey. No „silver light“. Not the beauty of the starry sky of 1985, no ecstasy, and no strong positive inner feeling like I know from other ultra events. More a feeling of patiently and doggedly and quite lonely fighting your way to your goal by just sticking in and knowing you have done similar distances before and it may be only a question of time.
Only few ships and ferries came into closer sight, and actually they looked quite pretty in the night with lots of lights all over, kind of Christmassy.
After around 6 hours I was halfway, geographically. Alison came out once or twice to shout „fantastic“ since I seemed to be making good progress. Until around 10 hours into the swim.
When the day broke it looked very gloomy as predicted, no trace of sun, just grey in grey. No temperature change. Suddenly the swimming became harder, the water seemed choppier. I had to stop more often for breath. I asked if I was in the infamous „washing machine“. The waves didn't look high but they were coming from all sides and breaking any swimming rhythm.
Daybreak near Cap Griz Nez - again Hoffy on his way, photo from his blog, probably by Beccy
On board it must have been worse than in the water. Marie-Therese said Rocco was rocking like she had never experienced it on a boat before, fried breakfast eggs and other things were flying around the cabin, she was fighting a lone fight with filling the bottles while trying to get a firm hold onto something at the same time, splashing liquid in all colours (tomatosoup, hot chocolote, tea and juice etc.) all over herself.
Rocco with myself swimming along - photo courtesey Hoffy and Beccy
Click to enlarge - France still far in the distance, the boat swaying, myself a tiny spot immersed in the grey vastness (photos by Hoffy and Beccy)
At the same time I slowed down. We had passed Cap Griz Nez and got caught by the current taking us back to Calais, too far away from the shore for a chance to swim in shortly. Alison felt it was no use telling me to speed up or sprint, so I never tried. I felt my arms getting weaker and could see on the video afterwards how I was slowing down. A small boat started circling us – Neil with Hoffy on their way back. A nice custom among Channel swimmers to show their oneness and respect, but I had no idea what was going on. I did not realise I was getting into hypothermia, I just kept asking for hotter and stronger drinks with more Maxim, but my speech got blurred and when, after 13 hours 40 min. or so Alison told me „I want you to get out“ I didn't even think of asking why. Marie-Therese had been concerend just as Alison, who hadn't wanted to make me give up, but I would have had 4 to 5 more hours to swim and Marie-Therese wanted me back alive. If it hadn't been for the cold, 5 more hours would have been no problem for me. So they did the right thing.
Looking a bit miserable
All cuddled up on the boat in warm old clothes a little later I realised how miserable I actually felt, and when I saw the photos afterwards I was quite shocked. I was breathing hard, very short-breathed, and my lungs felt like I was in for a huge bronchitis.
I don't know how much of a difference a day of more rest and food, swimming in daylight and a tighter fitting bathing suit would have made, plus some more inner support from all my friends who thought I was swimming Friday or Saturday. But this was not my day.
When I realised that Hoffy had only done a one-way, I thought it must not have been an easy day, which felt quite comforting. At the same time I felt sorry for Hoffy, who had trained so hard for his two-way swim! I had been convinced he would do it, but the Channel has smashed many dreams this year.
Alison dropped us in Calais and put in a big effort to find us a taxi. The whole crew was very helpful all the way - thanks a lot.
My helpers with the van and bikes arrived in the afternoon at our Hotel (again „Victoria“, what irony!), already informed, but totally positive and cheerful. They really helped me take the experience in a positive light and already promised to be back with me next year. Thanks so much!
My helpers: Marie-Therese, tired after a long night, Pragya from Nürnberg and Angela from Berlin, who had just arrived in Calais
After a warm bath and a couple of hours rest I already looked human and smiling again. I was amazed that my arms and shoulders were perfectly fine! After the Zurich lake last year I was so sore! We had some pizza, a good night's rest, and drove back to Heidelberg next morning. My lungs were fine again, thanks also to „rescue“ spray, but I wasn't sure if biking would have been the right thing now (I wanted to finish the triathlon anyway only if I did the swim). In Calais it was still cold, but dry, further into Belgium, however, it started raining, even pouring, and wouldn't stop until Heidelberg.
Happy again on the way back
Back in Heidelberg and ready to unload our Europcar-van
Well-deserved meal at the Waves Restaurant in Heidelberg
Only today, Sunday, the sun came out as predicted and as hoped for the triathlon that was to start on the 13th! We went running this morning, I felt like flying, but it doesn't hurt to have another year of training for the big event – maybe more efficiently and consistently now, with the emphasis for the next few months on more mundane things like concentrating on my work and earning some money.
We will be back
Although my feelings were mixed, I think it was a valuable experience with many different facets and aspects. We definitely felt a lot of blessings after it. And I am glad it did not leave any bad feelings about the Channel. I know I can do it again, not easily maybe, that would be disrespectful to the Channel, but I am sure it will allow me to „conquer“ it again, and to finish my triathlon. And it may become another great experience. As my teacher once wrote: "He/she who braves the Channel ... is an immortal friend of the Channel." (But friendships can have their ups and downs and be quite rough at times!)
Like others I also want to thank the beach crew in Dover again, Freda, Barrie, Irene and others, the boat crew and all my friends, especially from the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team around the world for their help, support and inspiration with this project.
I don't want to miss a single minute of the time in Dover, and I am grateful to have come into contact with a number of very special people. In a way I am even happy it is not over yet!
Three lessons I have learned:
1. Nover do anything against your inner conviction (but what was the option?)
2. Some things take more time and more attempts than expected.
3. Sealegs work great.
Back in Dover next year!
Finally a few more quotes from the illumining writings by Sri Chinmoy on the subject of victory, defeat, failure, success and progress. I have derived a lot of strength, guidance and inspiration from his writings ever since I have known him.
And one of my favourites:
Do not give up, do not give up.
The transformation-game of life
is not yet over.
- Sri Chinmoy
Some video footage to follow (technology...)
P.S.: Comment by Mike Oram: "If it feels wrong then it probably is wrong."