Channel swim training the wrong way: the swim

Channel swim training the wrong way: the swim

All photos courtesy of my crew Deborah Vine unless specified.

It has already been a few months since I made my final training update on my Channel swim, and I have now made the attempt. Here’s is the report of it.

My booked tide was 12-17 September 2021. As I am a slow swimmer, the pilot had agreed that he wouldn’t take me out on a spring tide. Although the weather was good on 12 September, it was still spring tide so we waited for another two days for the tide to decrease, and aimed for a 14 September morning start. However, the weather was not good on that day, so we didn’t do it on that day and aimed for 15 September.

The weather forecast for 15 September, although not dead calm, was still good enough for Channel swims with BF 3 wind, so we started on that day. Then I booked the accommodation at Folkestone, and also a trip to Norway on the weekend for orienteering world ranking races because I could now make it after my Channel swim.

My pilot was Peter Reed on Rowena, based in Folkestone Harbour, and my crew members were two lovely ladies I met at Durley swim group, Ali Budynkiewicz and Deborah Vine. They were the people who understood me the most in the UK, and they were very experienced. Although I had a huge self-doubt due to all the missing training, they had full confidence on me that I was in a great shape to swim to France.

My feeding plan was extremely simple: 100 g of maltodextrin mixed with water until 400 mL.

We met at 03:00 15 September at the harbour and boarded Rowena. We were driven to Samphire Hoe, where I would start my journey of lifetime. The pilot boat came close to shore but did not actually reach it, therefore I was instructed to jump off the boat, swim to shore, clear the water and start swimming to France. As it was in the middle of night, it was so dark that I couldn’t see how far the starting beach was from the boat, but a beam of light was pointed toward shore that I could see the reflection and I was told to swim to it.

I took off all my warm clothes and became naked with only a swimsuit, goggles, cap and two lights on, made my most courageous push off in my life from the safety of the pilot boat into the vast darkness of the sea where I couldn’t even stand on a firm ground and my ultimate fate would be decided by the powerful movement of the salty water caused by the Earth’s rotation, and swam to where the light pointed at. I had no idea how far the shore was, but the pilot told me it was less than 50 m from shore. I just swam and swam and swam, then pebbles appeared under me. I swam until I touch it, stood up, walked out the water, and raised my arms. But it was just the beginning of my journey, that my aim was to experience that on French shore. All I needed to do was to walk into the sea, swim until I touch the pebbles under me, then walk out the water, right? Sounds easy enough. However, this seemingly simple journey eventually turned out to be the most horrendous journey of my life.

A lot of people found it scary to swim in open water, including even fast competitive swimmers as well. There were numerous forum posts on the Internet about their experience freaking out doing open water swims / triathlons where the poster was a lifelong competitive pool swimmer.

However I didn’t know how wrong my mind was. I was finding the open water a peaceful place to be, the further from shore the stronger my feeling. It is calm, it is romantic, it cleans my body and my mind, it allows me to fully shut my mind off that my brain becomes empty. I was never scared of the sea. I was only scared about getting hit by a boat, slammed to rocks by the waves, or getting my feet hurt by underwater obstructions when I stood up up.

I didn’t even think about the existence of sharks because they are so rare that the chance of being attacked is like winning the first prize of a lottery. I was scared about jellyfish though but those in the English Channel are just a mere nuisance, rather than those I encountered in the past which caused me tremendous pain for 2 weeks after getting hit by one (I suspect those were similar to the species in the North Channel). The sea temperature was a lovely 18°C, which was effective to bring away my body heat generated by swimming but not too cold to suck my core temperature away like a vampire as long as I keep swimming, allowing me to perform at my best potential. Finally, drowning simply didn’t exist in my mind because I am so used to the sea, moving myself immersed in the water is already like my second nature as natural as walking on land.

Even if the water is rough, I still enjoy the feeling being tossed by the swells. The sea is relentless and it is meaningless for me to fight it, so it’s just better to accept how miniscule I’m compared to the sea, and let myself being at the mercy of it. And the salt water is tasty too, although swallowing too much does get me sick as happened previously.

My journey started. I swam back towards the light of the boat, then kept about 20 m from the port side of it to maintain a safe distance. It was a way of no return. No matter how much I wanted to stop I would just stay in the water. The boat was a “kill switch”. As long as I continued everything would be done by the next day, and I could return to my normal life, fly to Norway to do my orienteering races, find a job, train for competitive swimming, etc.

My mind was initially empty, it seemed so long for me to even get my first hourly feed, how the heck could I swim for 16 hours to the opposite shore?! But as I was already in the water, giving up was no longer a sensible thing for me to do. I already knew that the journey would be tough and painful as I was massively undertrained (detail coming in the next post) but I had such experience already last year and still completed the swim so I knew I just needed to repeat it once more to get it done.

Then I tried to use some method to shift my mind away which I used before. In particular, I started to count 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 2B, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2X, 3, 3B, … in my head until it reached N796. This sequence was not some mathematical sequence, but the sequence of all bus route numbers in Kowloon and New Territories with full-day service. However, as I had already left the place for 5 months, the sequence in my head had already started to fade away. (The sequence where I live now would not work so well because it is too short to complete.) The first feed came. It was still in darkness and I continued counting it. After completing the sequence of Kowloon and NT, I counted the one for cross-harbour, then the one for Hong Kong Island, etc. When I counted to 73 in the sequence of Hong Kong Island and 970/971 for cross-harbour, I really wanted to cry at that moment because 73 was the route I used in Hong Kong to get to places in the past 3 years to do open water swimming with the groups there, and 970/971 were the routes I used to get to The University of Hong Kong where I worked, and also where my pool training was.

The route 73 starts from Stanley, then Repulse Bay, then Deep Water Bay. The scene where I swam with my best friends, idols and mentors, for example, Edie Hu and Simon Holliday, came in my mind. I really missed the moment when I swam with Isaac Yuen, Olivier Courret, Stefano Agostini, Li Ling Yung, etc. every week there. The bus continues to Wong Chuk Hang and Aberdeen. I usually had lunch there after swimming, and returned on the same route to do more on weekends. After Aberdeen, the bus starts to go uphill to Pok Fu Lam and enters Wah Fu Estate, and finally reaches the destination Cyberport, where my former workplace was, which is just 2 minutes away by minibus from the Sandy Bay pool where I did my pool training. I really enjoyed the moment training there in winter when it was only about 16-18°C. Then I started to condemn the coronavirus pandemic causing the pool to be forced shut in the winter of 2020/2021 making me massively undertrained now (which ultimate led to my failure in the Channel afterwards).

The route 970 starts from Cyberport, then climbs uphill to Pok Fu Lam and runs through the main campus of HKU. There is a stop called Fulham Garden which is next to the second residential hall village, where Flora Ho Sports Centre is located. There were 2 swimming pools in HKU, one at Sandy Bay mentioned above which is 50 m long, the other here which is 25 m long. Both were unheated outdoor pools. When one was closed for annual maintenance the other would stay open such that swimmers could practice year-long. (in further past there was an agreement that the university booked some indoor pools in private schools in the winter, but as the usage rate was low it was eventually scrapped) The 25 m pool was scrapped in 2020 as part of campus redevelopment programme, where a new business building will be built which contains a modern indoor pool, so now only the Sandy Bay 50 m pool remains at HKU. I also had memories in the scrapped pool as well, for example, in 2016 when a once-in-a-decade cold wave come to Hong Kong, I went to that pool to swim and the water temperature was 13°C at that time. I couldn’t stay very long and had to get out, and felt dizzy in the shower. I had no knowledge about cold water swimming at that time which now I know it is dangerous to have a hot shower immediately after cold water swimming. Also I was still not a serious swimmer at that time therefore I didn’t have useful data recorded from that point. The bus continues into the harbour crossing for Kowloon, where the city centre is. I really miss the city life and good food there a lot. In Kowloon, I could have cuisine all over the world, or even have a beef donburi at 04:00 in the morning in a 24-hour restaurant opposite my home. The orienteering club I was in trained there right in the heart of city. There was a bridge club as well. The underground runs until 01:00 after midnight and N-buses run all night.

Time flew and the second feed came. I had nothing more to count and my mind became empty again. Dawn came. After the third feed I started to see ships going from my left to right, that’s the English shipping lane.

The water was rougher than I expected, which I judged as Beaufort Force 4, possibly even 5 for a short period of time. There were large swells and whitecaps. The weather forecast predicted Force 3 only. However, I just carried swimming as I was used to such conditions already. I swam a lot in Force 4 when I was in Hong Kong.

Last time when I was out on sea to crew for Kate, the observer told me that the time needed to get to the English shipping lane was about a quarter of the completion time. I estimated my completion time would be about 15-18 hours while Ali thought it would be 14-16 hours. That meant if I could get into the shipping lane before 4 hours, I would be targeting a finish under 16 hours. At the 4th feed my crew told me I was in the shipping lane! That was a huge confidence boost for me.

swimmer in front of P&O ferry
The Classic Shot

Daytime had come, I continued to the 5th and 6th hour, and fatigue started to build up. Although under normal situations I expected fatigue to start on 2/3 of my swim but I was seriously undertrained so I had to suck it up. By nearly 7 hours I no longer see ships coming from left to right, and that would be the separation zone. I was mentally prepared to reach the separation zone in 8 hours, and start the countdown from there. The crew told me I reached separation zone at my 7-hour feed!

Fatigue was building up fast and I started to get effects of swallowing too much salt water after swimming for hours in rough water, a repeat of my experience in my 16 km last year. The symptoms of fatigue were:

  • My quads became stiff that I could no longer kick properly to aid my rotation (I use a 2-beat kick).
  • My back was tired.
  • My pull was no longer powerful.
  • I couldn’t push my arm far to the back to reach my legs.
  • I could no longer control my body nor hold my form.

And the effects of swallowing too much salt water were:

  • I got increased farting by first.
  • Then watery shit started to came out from my arse (diarrhoea).
  • Then my arsehole got painful because of all the watery shit came out.
  • I also got sore throat because of all the salt water swallowed.

However, I knew that I could get through it, as demonstrated by the 16 km swim last year. I counted up from 1 to 8 (number of feeds), then started to count down, hoping my suffering would end when it reached 0. However, the hour took so long to pass. It was a really long time from feed to feed. However, I was mentally prepared for all these already.

I entered the French shipping lane, seeing ships coming from the right to the left.

The fatigue and sickness continued to build up. The watery shit came out so frequent from my arsehole that I no longer bothered to pull down my swimsuit, and the fatigue in my quads was so intense that not only I couldn’t kick properly, but I also need to add in some breaststroke motion in my legs to relief them (while still spinning freestyle arms). Also, I couldn’t relax them enough to allow pissing while swimming continuously, that I had to stop to piss (failure to piss is a serious problem that can cause medical emergency and end a swim), but I still toughed out the 8, 9, 10 and 11 hours.

It’s at this point my journey became horrendous. At the 11th feed my lovely crew Ali told me to put in more effort in the next hour such that I could get nearer to shore when the tide would change in a few hours afterwards. However, what I knew about myself was that, I would get only slower and slower hour after hour as extreme fatigue built up and I would not be able to speed up under the extreme fatigue I was suffering now. But I also knew the fate of Stuart Handley last year which I must avoid to get myself to shore.

Deb & Ali
My lovely crew members Deborah (left) and Ali (right)

I responded by increasing my effort as if I was racing a 5 km (it was still a long way to shore that I needed to manage my expectation well), hoping by the next hour I could gain back some of my lost progress. The hour was completed and I took my 12th feed. Then Ali told me what I felt to be the ultimate curse to me. She told me to even put in more effort, concentrate on my stroke, get a longer push at the end. After an hour of swimming at a race effort I just responded that I couldn’t do that, and I had to go slow in this hour. I was really worried at that point already because the tide was going to turn soon, and if I couldn’t get far enough in, the journey would be over.

A further hour had gone and I took my 13th feed. At that time Ali made the ultimatum to me, that I had to give everything all out I had now. I asked when I could end my suffering by she couldn’t answer. At that point I could see the shore already and it really motivated me to end my suffering as soon as possible. I lied to myself that the shore would be within 5 km that I could end my suffering in 2-3 hours. I tried to swim as hard as I would do in a 3.8 km race afterwards. After maybe 40 minutes I thought I was stopped by the crew. Ali told me something which I heard words include “half a mile”, but she also told me that it would be 5 hours of fast swimming from shore at that moment. Then the word “fuck” appeared in my mouth. She asked me if I could stay for another 5 or more hours in the water. I told I didn’t know but I still had at least 2-3 hours left and I just wanted to try. I couldn’t process anything at that moment and thought that she was speaking “half a mile to shore” to me, while actually only after my ultimate doom I realised that she was speaking I was swimming only “half a mile an hour towards shore”. Having the words “half a mile to shore” in my head, I sprinted at fast as I could thinking that my suffering would end in half an hour, but the shore ahead of me didn’t appear closer over time.

The crew stopped me again about half an hour afterwards, and told me that because the flood tide was so strong that the 5 hours from the shore had now became 6 hours from the shore. All the curse words popped out at my mouth, and I told I would just swim very slowly onwards, and went into an energy-conserving mode. At that point I lost all hopes to make landfall within this tide already and just hoped that I could buy time and see what would happen hour after hour, until the tide turned me back 6 hours later or I reached my physical limit that I could no longer swim another stroke, and the crew jumped in and fished me out.

The crew didn’t allow me to do so. They ordered me to get to the boat saying it’s over. My journey was aborted. The pilot told me that I would not have a chance of landing at that point and the crew told me I wouldn’t last another 5-6 hours in the water.

Rowena FE75 track

I was defeated by the tide after 14 hours of swimming in rough condition. She told me I did really well as a few swimmers already aborted in the English shipping lane under the rough condition, however there was still a solo swimmer trying to get ashore by the time of sunset. Finally, 3 out of 7 solos completed the journey at that day. I really couldn’t accept that I ended up being washed away by the tide. I was ashamed of myself. I was a really weak swimmer and I immediately blamed myself of all my training went wrong with multiple wrong decisions taken, resulting in myself massively underprepared for my Channel swim.

The fact that my previously longest swim was only 7 hours and 45 minutes, and I toughed out more than 14 hours now, did not matter to me. The fact that I was less tired compared to the above did not matter to me. The fact that if the water was calmer that I would likely have already made across did not matter to me. The only thing which I cared was that, 3 faster swimmers made it on the day. The pilot told me that I would make it across if I was faster, and his statement was supported by the fact that all 3 swimmers who made it across were all faster than me. I was the slowest among all swimmers on the day who lasted past the separation zone. This proved that all my worries since last year was correct. I was worried that I was undertrained. I was worried that I would be swept the tide and ended up the same fate as Stuart Handley. This was the only worry in my Channel swim. I was not worried about the cold, jellyfish, wind, waves, darkness, feeding, etc., but my only worry became the reason of my total failure.

The next day, the weather was so calm in the Channel that I would have likely made it across, when there were no wind and waves hampering my progress in the initial 8-10 hours. But it no longer mattered now. I couldn’t achieve my dream in 2021. All the sacrifices I made in the last 1.5 years were a total waste for me. I sacrificed my career for one year, leaving my job at contract maturity in October 2020 hoping to have the winter for extended pool training 4 hours per day 3-4 days per week (which could not happen). I sacrificed the chance to go to Sweden for a working holiday, by emigrating to the UK such that I could get the best training environment and community. And I even sacrificed city life because I trusted my friend that I would need to go to Dover or Bournemouth for training. I skipped a lot of swim races having been told that lake swimming was not useful for Channel training, and the BLDSA sea swim race I wanted to do was full, that I didn’t race even once in the whole summer. All these sacrifices were worth much more than the £4000 needed as the cost of doing a Channel swim.

In the whole summer, I had a huge self-doubt that I was massively undertrained, and I couldn’t get enough training amount I desired because my body simply couldn’t sustain it. But the supportive community here in Bournemouth thought that I was training enough or even too much! They had no doubt that I had the ability to get across. In all my sessions at Durley I only went slower and slower hour after hour, but people just told me to not look at my speed. I was initially targeting 2.5 km/h and I couldn’t keep it, and I subsequently adjusted my expectation to 2.3, then 2.1 km/h which I reported to the pilot. In the final month, I was still foolish enough that I could hope for a calm day for me to get across, but it didn’t happen in reality.

I am not blaming anyone else other than myself because these supportive people did get across with much less training than I hoped to do so, so I believed they were sincere with me. However, there were a few things I had overlooked before trusting them, which I will explain in my next post:

  • What’s the swimming background before they signed up for the Channel? (I had only 1 year of training experience in a triathlon swim squad, and did ocean swims up to 14 km)
  • The pandemic shut all the pools during the winter 2020-2021, the traditional pool training season for Channel swimmers, which never happened before in history. They told me everyone swimming in 2021 is encountering the same, and living in Hong Kong I still had the sea to swim in even when the pools were shut, so I believed I was still in a relatively better position than the other 2021 aspirants living in the UK. However, I didn’t think it in absolute terms. I must still be in a worse position compared to if the pandemic didn’t happen, even though I was in a better position compared to people living in the UK. There were at least 4 swimmers training in Durley didn’t made it within just 2 weeks in September, despite traditionally having a high success rate of >90% or even 100% in past years.
  • How was the condition when they made it across? Was it a calm day, or a rough day like I encountered? People say that luck is a factor, but I don’t believe it as Chloë McCardel swam it for 41 times without a single failure, where the normal success rate for Channel swims is about 70%. For me, trying and failing is worse than not trying at all, because now I know that I am a really weak swimmer, and it was still affecting me in the race afterwards.

A takeaway is that, I just lacked that bit of oompff when I needed it. I had everything needed to get across the Channel in my mind, but just that bit missing. But, it’s only the result, getting there or not, matters to me. I’m a result-oriented person and consider the end result as the most important thing to me. The journey is just a mean to achieve my result.

I have not swum the Channel. I am not a strong enough swimmer to do that.

As the boat went back to Folkestone, I took my phone out, load the track which signified my failure, and I could see clearly that I was being swept away by the tide in the direction of North Sea rather than France at the final moment. I explained how I failed my challenge but people still congratulated me. I really couldn’t understand. For me it was the largest failure in my whole life. I only wanted criticism from people at that point, pointing out things that I might have missed in my consideration.

Here I really need to say thanks to my crew, Ali Budynkiewicz and Deborah Vine, who guided me through my journey in the final few months, and donated their time on Rowena to help me achieve my dream, and also to Marcus Wadsworth and all the volunteers running Durley Sea Swims as well.

I haven’t rebooked another attempt yet. I just want to get back to my normal life. I am not willing to sacrifice everything once more again. The original motivation to swim the Channel has lost completely. I am no longer the first Hongkonger to do so. I have emigrated to the UK so I won’t have a time limit to do that, unlike a working holiday visa which only has 2 years and can’t be renewed. I can no longer prove that Channel swim training in Hong Kong is possible as I no longer live there.

The Channel is still an unfinished business to me but I just want to do it as a side business while training for 10-25 km marathon swimming races, like what I originally thought. Multiple people have told me that the training are different, but I now no longer believe them. I just lacked that speed to beat the tide, and by training for a race, I can improve that. I will consider rebooking it if my life and work will allow training without sacrificing anything, which I will explain in my next post. But now, I need to get back to my normal life first, move to a better place, find a job and resume my career.

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