Channel swim training the wrong way – everything was wrong
It’s one week since my disaster and I still can’t make my mind out of it. Everything was very wrong. It was the worst moment in my life. I really shouldn’t have tried it at all before I am completely ready. I totally underestimated the difficulty of Channel swimming, thinking it’s not much different to swim 14-16 km along the coast.
Let me start with my motivation. The primary reasons I signed up to do the Channel were:
- as a fun and romantic once-in-a-lifetime thing to do in a working holiday in Europe.
- to become the first swimmer in Hong Kong to swim the Channel.
These 2 reasons were no longer valid since September 2020. Originally, a working holiday was the only low-barrier visa which I could apply to have an experience in living in Europe, but now, due to the breach of Sino-British Joint Declaration, we are offered BN(O) visa to emigrate to the UK. Therefore, I no longer need to rush it because there is no longer an age limit which I can stay in Europe. Afterwards, Chun Kong Mak swam it successfully and became the first Hongkonger to do so, which mean I can no longer be the one who write the history book.
I still motivated myself to do the Channel because I wanted to prove to the world that Channel swim training is possible in Hong Kong, as Chun Kong Mak did all his training in Czech Republic, and I want to prove that I am a strong swimmer as well.
However, I failed. I can no longer brainwash myself that I am a strong swimmer. In fact I am a weak swimmer. I don’t have the power to conquer the wind, waves, and tide. The wind, swells and waves have sapped all my strength away, so by the end I was just a powerless little dude, with the destination being decided by the vast amount of water in the Channel attracted by the sun and moon, rather than my tough mind. I started my Channel swim undertrained, and I failed. I’m now blaming myself of everything happened in the last 1.5 years, when I made nearly every decision wrong.
The main reason that I didn’t make it was that I couldn’t make the tide turn in time, and at the position I was ordered out, there was no chance for me to make landfall in the same tide and the crew didn’t think me I would last for another tide.
There were 7 solo swimmers on the day, 3 turned back early without reaching the separation zone, and 3 made across. I was the slowest one after the separation zone. The pilot told me that faster swimmers would make it across, and this statement was confirmed by the fact that all 3 who made across were faster than me. I believe that my failure is the same reason as Stuart Handley, who cited speed as a factor when he couldn’t make it across last year as well.
I compared my track to the last solo swimmer, Dmitry Petrov, who made across on Viking Princess II (congratulations!). He started at 05:00 and completed at 20:58. I started at 03:53 and was aborted at 18:17.
I entered the SW lane, 10 km from start, in about 3:24 after start, and he entered it in about 3:17. That’s not a huge difference. I was still ahead of him by an hour. However, after 13 km, my speed started to drop a lot. At 15 km, I was slower than him by 25 minutes. In the separation zone, about 18 km from start, the difference became 45 minutes, and he was only 20 minutes behind me.
My speed continued to drop in the NE lane. He overtook me at about 13:10, 21 km from start, which meant our time difference had widened to 67 minutes. The exit of the NE lane was about 30 km from start, and he passed there at 16:41, 49 minutes ahead of me. The tide turned at about 16:45, and he was close enough to fight against the offshore tide and made Wissant, through it really became a huge battle afterwards. At that moment, I was just at the edge of the shipping lane, and as I was a much slower swimmer and further away from shore (the further from shore, the faster the tide goes away from shore), and I couldn’t even stay parallel to shore. At the final moment, I was drifting away from shore rather than going towards it.
I was so foolish that I thought my mind could made up the deficiency in my training, and I was so naïve that I hoped for a calm day in the Channel for me to make across.
The following is the list, in order, the wrong decisions I made during the 1.5 years leading to my biggest failure in my life.
- In January 2020, I didn’t stick to my plan to register for the Channel. Initially, I used the qualification requirement as a test to book a slot or not. That meant if I could reasonably swim 6 hours in 16°C water, I would book a Channel slot. God forbid me to even try swimming in 16°C water in a warm winter, and I registered and just hoped that I would have the chance to try it in the next year. The result was that, in the next year, I didn’t even make the qualification.
If I was stubborn enough to stick to my plan, once I realised that I couldn’t even last 3 hours in 15°C water in 2021, I would give up swimming the Channel.
- By the time I made my booking, COVID was already widespread in mainland China and pool was already shut as a precaution. I should have waited for a few more months to see if it would disappear by summer like SARS in 2003. If I waited, when COVID became a global pandemic I knew I would not book that in 2021.
- The introduction of BN(O) visa in 2021 meant I now have a way to permanently emigrate to the UK, so I no longer needed to rush to do the Channel in the 2-year working holiday period. By putting a few years’ training in competitive swimming, I could become a much better swimmer to increase my chance of getting across. Moreover, I could have signed up a working holiday in Sweden if I did not move to the UK in 2021, such that I could experience 1 year of Nordic life before moving to the UK permanently in 2022. Furthermore, the history book had already been written by Chun Kong Mak, who became the first Hongkonger to swim across the Channel.
I asked my pilot to see if it could be postponed to 2022 but the answer was negative, also, no other pilots had any slots for 2022 as well.
My mind must be very wrong at that time that I still rather wanted to swim it despite my original motivations to swim the Channel no longer existed, and I could have done better in later years rather than in 2021.
- As the pandemic spread all over the world, the 21.5 km race, Vidösternsimmet, which I signed up was postponed from 2020 to 2021. I did a 16 km solo swim as a replacement which I didn’t perform well. Moreover, the closure order since December 2020 made me unable to conduct my 2nd training block, the most important one in my training programme to build my speed and endurance in forms of interval training in an outdoor unheated pool (expected temperature 15°C – 21°C). My mental health was so bad that I needed to visit a therapist, and as a result my Channel training was suspended with my decision deferred. Moreover, I tried to do the qualification but failed it as well. The bad performance in my 16 km swim, the inability to train resulting in mental problem, and the failure of qualification swim should all have alerted that I was not ready to swim the Channel.
The digital application of BN(O) visa started on 23 February. I knew that, if I wanted to make my April arrival in the UK in order to continue my original Channel training plan, I had to apply the visa immediately. However, I didn’t know how wrong my mind was at that moment. Maybe it was flooded by the excitement after I got a good result in the Cold Half that, I didn’t even think about that this year’s condition was nothing like in a typical Channel swim. It was a flat, calm and sunny day, with wind within BF 2 and water temperature 20°C. I really shouldn’t excited myself to continue my Channel training. Moreover, God had forbidden me to try the qualification the second time again. My wrong mind just told me to get to England where I had at least 2 months to build up to it. As a result, I applied for the visa.
I should have considered the bad performance of my 16 km swim and my failure of the qualification against my good result of Cold Half more carefully.
- After applying the visa, the next thing I needed to do was to decide a place in England to live. I was told that, most Channel swimmers train at Dover, with another group at Bournemouth. As Dover is just a small town without job opportunities my plan was to settle in Bournemouth. Bournemouth, although not a city in name, has the scale of a city of about 400000 population with limited job opportunities there.
Considering that I had already lost all my pool training in Hong Kong completely, I started to think about if there would be any way to catch up. What I needed was an unheated outdoor lido such that I could train at the correct temperature at my maximum intensity to train for my speed and endurance, and indoor pools are too hot for my purpose. The most well-known one is Tooting Bec Lido, located in South London near Streatham, which is 91 m long and not heated. There are also a few other options in London as well. In contrast, there are none in Bournemouth, and the only pools there are indoor pools, with Littledown the most important one.
Streatham is on the Brighton main line, connecting London Victoria and Brighton. Therefore, my alternative idea was to live in Streatham in London such that I could swim in that pool regularly, and take a train to Brighton for the sea.
I asked my friend Stephen Maloney about my idea and he told me straight that it was either Dover or Bournemouth, and Brighton would not work for me because there was no such community there. His point was all about the community. I then asked my mentor Simon Holliday and he told me to trust Stephen. There were Two further points which made me settle in Bournemouth. The first was that the cost of living was much cheaper in Bournemouth that the spending would be about £500 less compared to living in London each month (nearly enough for an additional Channel swim after half an year). The second was that when the pool closure order was lifted in April, I went back to the pool and tested my 1500 m time. Although the pool was no longer cold, I still got 2 minutes off from my previous best. This made me believe wrongly that by doing sea training alone, my speed could be improved.
I overlooked at least two aspects here for me to move to Bournemouth:
- I didn’t consider seriously enough the possibility of living in London and head to Dover for weekend training.
Assuming living in Streatham, it would take me about 2.5 hours one way to get to Dover on Saturday, and it would not even be possible for me to get there on time because trains do not run early on Sunday. Therefore it was totally impractical.
I asked Pip Barry exactly about this and he responded me he normally car shares with other SLSC members from the Lido on weekends. I found it ridiculous to sit in a car for 9 hours every weekend to travel between South London and Dover considering the normal driving time is about 2 hours and 15 minutes each way.
What I overlooked at that point was that, first, there is a hostel in Dover that I can stay there for the weekend, and it is cheaper than taking the high speed train home and back, which I didn’t even think about it at that moment. Second, I didn’t look at other lidos in London at that point. In particular, Parliament Hill Lido is not far away from the high speed train terminal that getting to Dover can be done within 2 hours, making it a much more practical option.
Furthermore, 2 hours 15 minutes is approximate time for a car to go from Tooting Bec Lido to Dover, but this is in typical weekday London traffic, and this trip can be done within 2 hours on a weekend.
- I got too excited when I took 2 minutes away from my 1500 m time to think that pool training was not important, but didn’t consider if I could sustain it long enough. The point of swimming in a pool is to make sure that I can keep to a time hitting the wall even when fatigue builds up after 2 or 3 hours of swimming, where a 1500 m test is not long enough to get fatigued. When I finally got back to a pool in August, I couldn’t keep my speed at all, dropping km by km.
- I didn’t consider seriously enough the possibility of living in London and head to Dover for weekend training.
- After I settled in Bournemouth, my acclimation came fast and I finally did my qualification in the first week of June. However, as training increased, I felt that I was very slow. I wanted to find a training partner who was at a similar speed with me to do extended swims, e.g. 10 km or more, but I couldn’t find one. Also, the Durley swim group wasn’t set up to do that. People just told me not to care about the speed.
As training went on, I started to record the loop I did while at Durley swim training, and every time I did that, I got slower and slower every hour. On a good day, perhaps I started at 2.5 km/h, then dropped to 2.3, 2.2, 2.1 in subsequent hours, and on a bad day, maybe I could only do 2.3 km/h even in the first hour, and dropped quickly below 2 after the 3rd hour. Moreover, as I ramped up the training in July, my body couldn’t sustain the workload and consistent fatigue forced me to take a week off time to time. If everything went well I should be targeting 50 km / week on average, and since the first and second training block was lost, I adjusted my training goal to be 40 km / week on average.
“Conventional wisdom (loneswimmer)” said that “For an English Channel/Catalina swim (40k+), there seems a reasonable, but FAR from universal, thought that 40 to 45k per week is required from the start of the relevant calender year.” My initial plan was to do 30-35 km/week in my 2nd training block which ran through the start of 2021, then increase to 45-50 km/week after moving to the UK. The pandemic did the best to destroy my plan. I only topped at 25 km/week in January while training for Cold Half.
Also, evmo said that “The two most common rules of thumb (and I think they’re pretty good ones) are: 1. Weekly training volume should be (at least) equal to your target swim distance, for at least several months. 2. At least one training swim of 65-75% of your target distance.”
After my first training block was destroyed by the pandemic, I still hoped I could do that in my second training block, to do 30-35 km/week in my 2nd training block, and also a 25 km rehearsal swim in the open sea in February in Hong Kong as close to Channel condition as possible. However, because I did badly in my 16 km benchmark swim, resulting in mental health problem, I didn’t proceed to do the 25 km rehearsal swim. Instead I trained for Cold Half instead in February but it was only 14 km. I should have done an unofficial double, like what Edie Hu and Alex Fong did before, to replace the rehearsal swim if I was really serious on the Channel, but at that time, my mental health was so bad that I didn’t want to think about the Channel at all and just wanted to get a good race result (which I finally did).
Back to here, I moaned to everyone at Durley that I was afraid I was massively undertrained, doing only 25 km/week, but people there didn’t think so and they provided example who got across on 25 km/week training. They thought that I trained enough or even too much. I had a huge self-doubt at that time. I wanted to correct it, but I couldn’t even sustain 30 km/week training. My training here topped at 28 km/week as a one-month average in July. However since then I was in constant state of fatigue, and I started to find rough water daunting rather than fun.
I only found out the reason that I was so fatigued was probably due to nutrition after my trip to London. I set my calorie tracker to weight gain mode targeting 70 kg by the time I did my Channel swim, up from 68 kg in May, and I consistently went over it, but my weight dropped instead. In my trip to London, there was so much good food that I gained 2 kg in my 4-day trip, and immediately afterwards I felt much better in my weekend Durley training. However, it was only one month left until my Channel swim so it was already too late to get my training done.
I toughed out a 7+6 hour weekend late August, 3 weeks before my slot. However, as usual, my speed dropped hour after hour. The first day I started at 2.5 km/h and ended up at 2.0 km/h in the 6th hour, but a final push brought me back to 2.1 km/h in the 7th hour, while the second day I basically kept only 1.9 km/h for the whole 6 hours.
My speed problem was never solved. As I had only 25 km/week of training, I had adjusted my expectation of my Channel swim. I no longer expected it to be nice and romantic. I expected it to be at least as tough as my undertrained 16 km week last year. I expected to have the same feeling and I just needed to keep swimming hour after hour until I reached land. I reported to my pilot that my speed would be 2.1 km/h only in normal conditions, maybe up to 2.4 or 2.5 km/h in calm flat condition (as I could keep that when there were no wind and waves).
I heard a saying that “speed doesn’t matter in the Channel, it’s telling the truth matters”. It’s because I was swimming across the tide which brings me up and down every 6 hours. The pilot can plot the most appropriate course knowing my speed. I trusted this saying, but I didn’t consider that if the condition was not like what’s forecasted, I might not be able to keep up my expected speed. This happened in training every time, when the water was rough my speed dropped much more than I expected.
I was well aware of what happened to Stuart Handley last year so the pilot agreed to take me out only in a neap tide. As a result, despite the sea was so calm on 12 September, the pilot didn’t take me out and went fishing instead, as it was still spring tide.
In hindsight, I should not adjust the expectation to myself to allow a suboptimal swim to happen after I knew my body couldn’t even sustain the optimal training, as it would be tough rather than enjoyable. I should give up at that moment instead.
- After the 7+6 hour weekend, I entered the taper stage. The training was over. I started to reduce the amount and rested more. The second half of August was weathered out completely, but as September came, the weather improved that people got out again. I checked the wind forecast every 6 hours and waited for my pilot’s call. The weather was good on 12 September but it was still spring tide, so the pilot wouldn’t take me out as I was too slow in his view to swim in a spring tide, and waited for 2 more days. The bottom of the neap was on 15 and 16 September. The pilot called me again on 12 September with a prospective start on 14 September and I started to get excited, thinking my suffering would be over by then and return to normal life afterwards. I had sacrificed so much this year to make it happen. If I could complete my Channel swim on 14 or 15 September, I would be able to fly to Norway to do a trail orienteering world ranking race in the coming weekend.
The final forecast was not good for 14 September with BF 3-4 wind and rain in the afternoon, so we waited for one more day. The forecast for 15 September was BF 3 and sunny. I was hoping for a flat calm day (i.e. BF 2 or less) because I was massively undertrained and didn’t have the strength to overcome wind and waves. I predicted that I could only last about 4-5 hours in rough BF 4+ conditions, therefore I thought the condition was marginal for me. The pilot thought it was an acceptable condition. Fearing the loss of my crew (they wouldn’t be available after 16 September) and hoping to fly to Norway once it was done, I trusted my pilot that it would be a good decision to start on 15 September and got to Folkestone without discussing further despite the forecast showed that 16 September might be even better (However, forecast changes often. It might become worse on the next day.) This was my final mistake in my decision making leading to my ultimate doom, not waiting until the weather forecast was truly calm.
10 boats were out on my tide, among which 7 were solos. Furthermore, there were 3 other boats out in the previous night, which meant all the 13 channel boats were out that day. The big fleet must mean that the forecast was actually good, If there were only a few boats or even only one out, that means the forecast might only be marginal. Some pilots are well-known to take swimmers out in marginal conditions, hoping that he is strong enough to overcome it and get across, but my pilot is a conservative one who only takes swimmers out when the forecast is good, and goes fishing otherwise, which is his main business rather than piloting Channel swimmers, leading to a low appearance rate compared to the others.
God decided to punish me for everything I did wrong in the past 1.5 years by blowing force 4, edging 5 wind into the Channel. 4 out of 10 boats, including 3 out of 7 solos, were defeated by the rough condition even before reaching the separation zone. However, I had a lot of rough water experience in Hong Kong so I just swam without complaining even a single word.
After fighting the waves and swells, my body was totally done. After 13 km my speed dropped like a cliff. Based on the training, I believed that I would only be ready for approximately 21-25 km, where fatigue would set in about 2/3 of the swim, so my guess was true. The Cold Half was 14 km and I felt my training was just right, where fatigue only started in the final hour. My final few months of training before the Channel swim was not much more than what I trained for Cold Half, peaking only at 28 km/week before the Channel compared to 25 km/week before Cold Half. Although the Channel is not a race, this was clearly not enough.
I lost my expected progress after the separation zone and in the French shipping lane. My crew gave me the ultimatum but my body was basically done at that point. Although I could theoretically keep swimming I just wasn’t going anywhere because my whole body was powerless, my strokes performed nothing underwater. Then the tide changed while I was still 5 km away from shore. I was washed away from the shore by the flood tide towards North Sea. I still wanted to buy time at that moment hoping after 6 hours the tide would change again carrying me back, but the pilot and crew ordered me out at that point. I got through the waves and swells, only found myself defeated by the tide when I was so close to achieving my dream. The final result was that, 5/10 boats, including 3/7 solos, completed the crossing on that tide. I was the last unsuccessful swimmer on that tide. By the time I was ordered out, there was still a swimmer ahead of me, Dmitry Petrov, fighting the tide to get in, and he finally succeeded about 1.5 hours after sunset. He had similar speed as me at the beginning, but his speed didn’t drop that much in the second half, that he could still come close enough to shore when the tide turned against him.
The harsh reality was that, I was a weak swimmer who didn’t have the ability to swim the Channel. I brainwashed myself that I was a strong swimmer despite all the above happened, but it simply wasn’t true. I regretted everything I did. I couldn’t calm down even after I flew to Norway, affecting my race performance afterwards.
Despite this journey being a complete failure, in these 1.5 years, I had gained the following:
- I had done my longest swim in life, 16 km in length.
- I had got some serious acclimation done, from just 3 hours in 15°C in Hong Kong to 6 hours in 14°C here.
- It would be possible for me to swim for 14+ hours or 30+ km if it was done in a calmer condition, because I wasn’t as tired as my 16 km swim at the time I was ordered out from the Channel after more than 14 hours, 30 km from England’s shore.
However, I also realised a lot my deficiencies as well by undertaking such a challenge:
- I was so stubborn that despite things weren’t in my favour, not going according to plan, I still wanted to try to correct it or even place my hope on luck, when it was no longer a sensible thing to do.
- I had found it that I was a neurodiverse person that I interact with others differently from typical people.
- Most importantly, my body was too weak to support my mind. I’m a really weak swimmer. I was trying to brainwash myself that I was a strong person but in fact I wasn’t, and now I have to face the reality that I’m really weak. The Channel was a good test to distinguish strong swimmers who had the power overcoming waves and tide, from ordinary people who wouldn’t last long when facing waves, swells, and tide sweeping them away from shore.
Unlike some of my other friends who didn’t make it across, I haven’t rebooked it yet and I am not going to rebook it in the near future, because I need to consider what will be the optimal thing for me to do, to avoid repeating all the mistakes I have done in the past 1.5 years.
- I no longer have any motivation to swim the Channel apart from completing my unfinished business. I’m no longer the first Hongkonger to do so. I can no longer prove that Channel training can be done in Hong Kong because I no longer live in Hong Kong.
- I no longer want to make any sacrifices in my further life. In particular, I no longer want to spend anything beyond the £4000 in direct cost. It’s already hard enough to save money for retirement, especially for IT workers whose skill sets may be rendered obsolete in just a decade. That means I will not do any Channel-specific training anymore. I’ll not take another half a year off of career just to prepare for another Channel swim. However, I’ll still do training for competitive swimming, and I’ll still be willing to take time off my career when I become an elite swimmer targeting for international races, in such case I may try to swim the Channel again.
- As I no longer have a time limit to swim the Channel, not being limited by a working holiday visa which can’t be extended, I can focus on my speed training, and only try again when I know I’m fast enough and have enough training in the year.
- I will need to work out if swimming the Channel will be compatible to my goal of becoming a high-level competitive marathon swimmer while having a full time job, and adapt my original 2020 plan in a different climate. In particular, I’ll need to find a job first, and think about where I live in order to access training opportunities. I’ll need to assess if the training I do for competitive swimming can prepare me enough to swim the Channel again. If not, I’ll not try again.
I hope that I can find a lifestyle such that by training for competitive swimming, I can be ready for the Channel without any other additional work from my regular training for 25 km races. If not I’ll not try the Channel again.
- And finally, I’ll probably sign myself up into waitlists for the current and next year only, when I find a lifestyle which is compatible to try the Channel again without sacrificing anything other than the £4000 direct cost, and find second hand slots where people give up, because I can’t plan for anything more than 2 years in advance. And since the pandemic, even 1 year is too long for me to think about.