In August, Esther Guy joined a team of ladies to swim to France as part of a relay, to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK.
Here’s a journal of the event…
girls ALIVE Channel Relay
Wednesday 4th August 2021
The Team (in swim order):
- Rona Lucas
- Esther Guy
- Rebecca Johansson
- Jenny Davidson
- Sarah Clarke
- Sarah Brownwood
Coach: Amanda Sharples
Observer: Lorraine Mackie
Pilot: Eddie Spelling (with crew: Son Mike and Son-In-Law Rob)
Variable 3 or less, increasing 4 at times.
Smooth or slight.
Actual Weather on the day:
Clear skies & sunshine, 21 degrees, water temperature 17 degrees. Calm waters in-shore but very lumpy in the middle.
Tuesday 3rd August
Left Surrey in two cars, Esther with Sarah B, Sarah C & Jenny and Amanda with Becca and Rona. Arrived in Dover and checked in to Travel Lodge in time for a team dinner. Early to bed with alarms set for 5am.
Wednesday 4th August
Met in hotel reception to head to the marina.
Amanda & Esther dealt with parking permits, the rest of the team met our observer, Lorraine.
Headed onto the quayside to board Anastasia
So many bags! Passed up to the crew and then climbed on for the safety briefing as the boat left the marina. Two border force jetskis were blocking the exit so lots of horn blasting to get past!
Saw Sammy the seal bobbing around just outside the harbour walls.
Sea was calm and so it was a gentle trip around to Shakespears Beach where Rona dives beautifully off the side of the boat and swims to shore.
The boat’s horn blasts (but Rona doesn’t hear it) lots of waving and shouting to signal that it’s time for her to swim! Rona powers towards the boat and begins her hour with the sun rising in the sky and the nervous chattering of the team. Music is turned on, 10 hour Spotify playlist on shuffle!
Solid swim, luckily without any dramas. Rona is breathing bilaterally so every sixth stroke we can cheer, wave and encourage her on. Lots of thumbs up and clapping.
It’s such a clear day that we can see France but it’s a very long way off!
Lorraine finds the laminated time sheets, which show 45, 30, 15 and 5 minutes to go. Rona has asked just to be shown the 5 minutes sheet, which we do with an abundance of cheering and waving, to which she smiles and acknowledges with a wave.
This is Lorraine’s first time observing a relay team and so for the first changeover the pilot’s son Mike takes charge.
Esther is up second and he talks Lorraine through the process of waiting until there’s a minute to go, undo the safety chains, and send the swimmer carefully down the ladder to the platform at water level. With a few seconds left he signals Esther to jump in and calls Rona to the boat. Esther swims around the back of Rona, careful not to touch her. Mike had said to wait until it’s okay to swim so there’s a few strokes of breaststroke until he gives the all clear and she changes to front crawl.
Conditions are good for Esther’s swim, however a goggle malfunction means that from about the 15 minute marker water is inside them and the boat is now just a white blob with nobody visible on board! The goggle straps continue to roll up Esther’s hat and with 5 minutes to go she removes them altogether as is worried that she won’t be able to see the call to come in.
Swimming without goggles is fine, we’ve done it plenty of times before, the difficulty is what to do with the goggles, tuck into the costume, set them free in the sea or hold on to them? Decided to hold but took some wriggling around to get the lenses into a position where they weren’t filling with water and adding drag!
The call to come in is a welcome relief to the goggle drama.
Back on the boat it takes a couple of minutes of sitting to calm down and release the adrenaline. Amanda thrusts drinks at Esther and demands quick dressing!
Becca enters the water with her lovely long stroke and rhythmic leg beat, Esther & Amanda decide it’s like the glockenspiel instrument, very soothing.
The white cliffs of Dover are still visible but fading slowly. It’s surprising how busy the channel is, there are ferries all the time and lots of tankers. Also during Becca’s swim there was a Border Force boat towing a rib, apparently a regular sighting on these trips.
The seaweed is increasing and a huge floating mass of weed and debris floats past on the opposite side of the boat. The sun is glistening on the water, it’s really calm and beautiful. The WhatsApp group is pinging wildly as our supporters wake up and wish us all the best.
Becca is called into the boat and Jenny takes over with her elegant stroke, we all notice how much her technique has improved in the last year. She looks efficient and streamlined in the water.
There are lots of jellyfish visible but Jenny manages to avoid them, it’s like a computer game, but without the electronic music!
The swell is starting to build, photos and videos don’t do it justice but we can tell from training that Jenny is having to work hard during her swim.
The boat is rocking and rolling and Rona now feels poorly, she takes to the front of the boat where she dozes in the sunshine.
Following a swimmer changeover the team is split between those at the back of the boat supporting the person who has just got out of the water and the others are sat up front encouraging the swimmer in the water.
The boat is alongside the swimmer at all times and the engine ticks over gently, now and then the pilot uses a little thrust and the swimmer finds themselves at the back of the boat looking up at Lorraine. A dozen strokes later the swimmer is peaking around the bow of the boat feeling super fast, only for the thrust to take you to the back again. It’s a constant hour of cat and mouse!
Amanda spends most of her time at the back doing amazingly in her role as coach / mother-hen. She has the swimmers bag in front of her and is rummaging for clothes, whilst also thrusting food and drink at them. Refuelling is so important but not sure any of us got that part right, mostly we didn’t eat enough, despite bringing ALL the food with us!
Time is up for Jenny as Sarah C takes over, there’s a few strokes of breast stroke as she catches her breath and then into her beautiful front crawl. Sarah has been really nervous about her speed compared to the others but her hour in the sea proves these fears to be unfounded.
Unfortunately there is a LOT of seaweed during Sarah’s swim, at one stage those on the boat can see her heading for a massive patch with no way of avoiding it. Our cheers and waving becomes manic, it’s probably obvious to her that something nasty is on it’s way, but she powers through, barely missing a stroke.
Her next challenge is a jellyfish, which stings her thigh, leaving a nasty mark and a bit of pain. The ammonia pen was worth buying after all!
Until now all swimmers have been on the port side of the boat, which is where Eddie prefers them as it’s next to the pilot’s window, however there is the choice to swim on the other side if we want. Sarah B is left-handed and therefore spends her hour on the starboard side, breathing towards the boat every second stroke.
Sarah has a textbook stroke which is long and elegant, it might look to some that she’s not trying but the efficiency of her pull through the water means that she speeds away and continues a consistently quick pace for the duration of her hour.
Sarah goes into the zone and at one point Lorraine is worried that she’s too far from the boat. She asks Esther to encourage her back. Lots of waving and shouting does the trick.
Of all the swimmers Sarah B seems to be able to chat whilst swimming, there’s lots of comments from her about weed, jellyfish, asking how long is left etc although she never misses a stroke!
The swell is picking up now and Sarah C is now feeling very poorly with some sickness over the side of the boat. Becca also has a headache and joins Rona to nap up front.
We try to demonstrate to the WhatsApp group how challenging conditions are but don’t mention the casualties as we don’t want to worry family and friends.
It’s time for Sarah to come in. The rib boat being towed behind means that there’s a long line in the water and Sarah has been advised to duck under it carefully to avoid rope burns.
That’s a complete team rotation done and so it’s Rona’s turn to get back in, returning to port side once again.
She has spent almost five hours laying down feeling really bad so we all appreciate how hard this is going to be. It seems that the water is refreshing though and from the boat we’re impressed that Rona’s second swim is as strong as the first, with lots of smiles reassuring us that she’s doing okay.
Time for Esther once more and by now the waves are lumpy and the boat is rolling. Luckily we’ve done lots of training in washing machine conditions and so whilst hard work the waves aren’t too scary.
The sun is now high in the sky and is behind the boat so from the water Esther can just see the silhouettes of her teammates. There’s lots of cheering and encouragement from the front of the boat, which feels odd as Esther hasn’t changed anything about her stroke but then she impales a huge jellyfish with her right hand and everything becomes clear! The jellyfish leaves a sting down two fingers and onto her wrist but it feels like a stinging nettle injury, so not unbearable.
It’s Becca’s turn to return to the sea and despite mentioning a slight headache she seems fine.
Less than ten minutes into her hour Becca switches to a single breaststroke, a sign that something is wrong. She is then horribly sick into the water. All aboard gasp and feel immediately sorry for poor Becca. Amanda reminds us not to show our horror and instead we plaster smiles to our faces and shout words of support and encouragement. Later Becca mentions her confusion at our smiling throughout her misfortune!
Twice more Becca is sick into the water and all on the boat fight back the tears as we feel totally helpless. The pilot is aware of Becca’s sickness and agrees that we can offer her a drink to rinse her mouth. Amanda removes her shoes and climbs down the ladder, we call Becca over, who initially refuses, perhaps she thinks her swim is being abandoned? We make it clear that she’s allowed to take a sip and that the relay is not in jeopardy. A quick mouth rinse and Becca resumes her front crawl once again. Whilst a little slower than her first swim we are amazed in her strength to continue when she must be feeling absolutely terrible. Such a warrior!
Jenny’s hour can’t come quick enough, we all want Becca out of the sea and taken care of. The waves are still pounding and Lorraine suggests that Jenny switches to starboard to get some shelter from the boat.
Sarah C is still being sick, Rona is lying asleep on the front, Amanda and Lorraine are taking care of Becca, so Esther & Sarah B sit up front to cheer Jenny from the side.
Despite all that’s going on everytime Jenny makes eye contact there’s a massive smile and she appears to be having a great swim. Later Jenny tells us that her second hour flew past.
The sun is behind her as she swims making for some great pictures and videos to look back on later.
Time for Sarah C once again and as before she remains on the starboard side.
Sarah went into her hour feeling very rough indeed but you would never have thought so judging by her second swim. She stays close to the boat, a little too close at one point when we lose sight of her under the bow.
Esther is cheering her on from the side rail (as there are very few places left on the boat without casualties!) From this angle the eye to eye contact is VERY intense. Esther cheers Sarah on with every breath towards the boat, hoping that it might help just a little bit.
The pilot is checking Becca as he’s concerned for her well being, she is slumped over a bucket on the floor at the back of the boat, fully dressed with dry robe but still cold, not like Becca at all. He tells Amanda that Becca needs to be sitting upright and suggests we move her to the front of the boat. She’s propped up at the bow and forced to nibble a ginger biscuit, it seems to help.
Lorraine says that the pilot is very worried about Becca and doesn’t think she’ll be able to swim again. This means that if we don’t finish in the next three hours (Sarah B, Rona, Esther) then the event will be abandoned. So much pressure.
He tells Sarah B that if she gives it everything she’s got we could still make it.
Time for Sarah B to give it all she’s got. Still on the starboard side and with the sun glistening on the slightly calmer sea, Sarah powers into her hour.
Each hour Lorraine has been making a note of our stroke speed, she shouts to Esther that before her swim Lorraine told Sarah she needed to increase by two extra strokes per minute, Lorraine is very pleased that Sarah has actually increased by three, proving that she’s giving it her everything.
Esther sits at the front to cheer Sarah on but she rarely looks up, instead clearly focussed on her stroke. Lorraine comes forward and tells Esther & Amanda that we’re 800m from the shore, a quick look around and France does seem very close all of a sudden!
The pilot takes Rona downstairs to talk her through the landing process and Mike is released onto the rib boat to warm it up.
Sarah B sees the rib being used and starts imagining all sorts of worst case scenarios. She is pleading with her eyes for us to give the 5 minute shout but there’s still 9 minutes on the clock so we can’t say anything just yet.
Excitement on board is building as landing the relay is suddenly a reality but Sarah B is unaware of any of this.
There’s a bit of disappointment that we can’t all swim to shore together, Eddie had said this would be possible if we landed on the beach but the tides mean that we’re at the cap and therefore a rock landing is too dangerous for multiple people.
Sarah is called towards the boat, which she does with huge relief and immediately bursts into tears (from the immense effort and turmoil of emotions).
Rona dives off the back, salmon like, and sprints towards the coast. Amanda has to tell her to calm her windmill arms, later likened to a wind up bath toy, as it’s too far to sprint.
Anastasia bobs out at sea and Mike follows Rona to shore on the rib boat. All on board chatter nervously. We try to take photos but she’s too far away.
Mike stops Rona before she’s at the rocks and we all wonder what’s wrong, later we’re told he was warning her of the rocks close to the surface as we’re landing at the part called Dragon’s Teeth. The rib bobs a few metres out and Rona does the last bit by herself.
We see her climb a rock then fall down, then she’s up again and the boat horn is sounded followed immediately by our cheers!
Lorraine announces an unconfirmed success of 12 hours 13 minutes. That’ll do nicely!
Rona swims back to the rib boat and Mike returns her to Anastasia. She wobbles up the ladder and empties her swimming costume of French pebbles for us to keep as memorabilia of the day, crazy lady!
Eddie says it will take 2.5 hours to get back to England, but that time flies past. The champagne cork is popped and the bubbles flow. We are chattering wildly and giddy with excitement. Becca has perked up a bit but Sarah C is still feeling very rough.
The sun is setting and as we approach the white cliffs of Dover we have a lovely view of the castle up on the hill.
The lighthouse warns of the harbour wall approaching and a green light signals our entry into the marina. Sarah’s phone rings and her husband tells us to look to our right, on the harbour wall are Sarah’s family and friends with placards and cheering wildly.
Anastasia moors where she started and we unload our bags, still heavy with the food we didn’t eat. A bottle of wine and biscuits are presented to the crew and to Lorraine. She says that we are a team she will never forget for our spirit and all the dramas of the day.
We head back to the Travel Lodge in time for dinner and last orders at the bar, but nobody has the energy for booze. We want hot food and our beds.
Thursday 5th August
The arrangement is to meet at 8.30am for breakfast. Esther is downstairs first and waits a long time alone until realising that her phone is still on French time and that she’s an hour early!
The team joins for food and drink, a quick song of Happy Birthday to Esther, some lovely presents and then it’s time to check out and head for home.
What an emotional, challenging, enjoyable event. We made a terrific team and feel honoured to have supported each other to complete the challenge together.
We did it. We swam the English Channel!
A MASSIVE THANK YOU!
Thank you so much to everyone who sponsored us.
Our chosen charity for this event is Bowel Cancer UK, who support and research to save lives. All donations will go to this amazing charity to educate the public and professionals about the disease and campaign for early diagnosis and access to best treatment and care. We need people to stop dying of bowel cancer.
All donations make a difference and our fundraising page will remain open for a few more weeks. If you were inspired by our achievements and would like to give some money then we’d be very grateful.
We hope you enjoyed our journey!