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  • Writer's pictureDarren Watson

And out of the blue - it happened, but not as expected!

I've been writing this blog for the past few weeks, hence why it is so late, but here goes!

On the 16th September I was chasing my pilot for an update on the weather for the following week and got a response asking if I could get down to swim for the evening of the 17th! Obviously I was taken aback by the offer, but jumped at the chance without thinking...stupidly!

Anyway, we got ourselves packed and drove down to Dover through the night getting to the hotel about 3 in the morning on Friday. I managed a few hours sleep, then was on edge for the rest of the day before we met up with the rest of the crew at the harbour.

The Swim!

Heading to the boat we bumped into the observer who would be on the boat ensuring I stuck to the rules as well as logging events from the swim. We got to boat, met the pilot and crew and loaded all our kit on to the deck. Once all settled and the paperwork was completed, we were off. The weather was looking good, it was warm and the water was calm, but it was getting dark quickly!

We left Dover harbour just after 8pm and headed to Samphire Hoe. I was feeling relaxed now, chatting to my wife and the observer, who was avidly looking forward to the sunrise. I then got the 10-minute call. I jumped up, got my trunks and hat on, quickly greased up and rinsed my goggles. By now it was pitch black and the boat crew were shining a light towards the pebbled beach of Samphire Hoe, I thought to myself that this was going to be an interesting experience!

I jumped into the water from boat, taking a few gasps to catch my breath as I normally do, took a few strokes to get my breathing under control and slowly made my way to the beach. After getting out, I turned to the boat and shouted out ‘I’m Ready’. I then asked the sea to ‘go easy on me’ to which I’m pretty sure it took slight offence and thought ‘no chance!’.

At 9pm I was off. I swam towards the right-hand side of the boat and started to ease into my swim. I spent the first hour getting used to the darkness, being next to the boat and trying to establish a nice rhythm. The sea was calm, and everything was on track.

Just over an hour into the swim it started to get a bit choppy. Trying to time my breathing right so I didn’t inhale a load of salt water was proving a challenge, and I had to keep correcting my stroke as the waves were lifting me up and twisting me around. With all this going on I was also trying to swim alongside the boat, keeping a distance of about 3 metres, which was proving difficult with the bright light that shone right in my face, blinding me on every breath. This experience started to throw my focus a bit, and I was glad to get to my first feed at the hour and a half mark.

I felt my first mental dip at about the 2-hour mark. I wasn’t expecting any dip as when I swam Windermere 2 months before I had felt nothing for the whole swim, so when it came it took me by surprise. If you have ever taken part in any endurance type events you may have experienced little dips in your mental state, doubting your capabilities or questioning why you are doing what you are doing. Well, this was happening to me now! I was really put off with the conditions, particularly as I was told at the beginning of the swim that the conditions were near perfect! I had a mini battle going on in my head with one side saying I’ve had enough and the other forcing me to continue for that little bit more, of which the former was currently winning. I was already contemplating on getting out! Now, I know myself and do forget sometimes, when I swim long distances, I generally get fed up by the 1.5-to-2-hour mark and know it would last for about half an hour, but I also sometimes don’t realise it happens. It felt like a long battle but it ended when I got to my second feed. 2 hours and 40 minutes gone.

I now had 40 minutes per feed for the rest of the swim so it should be a little easier to break down the task. After the 3rd feed, I had been swimming for about 3 and a half hours when I needed to go for a pee. I can’t pee while swimming, I have to stop and relax and let it all go before I can carry on, and there are even times when I just can’t get it out. This was playing in my head leading up to the swim, it was the one thing that would really let me down as I knew the longer I tried to pee I would be getting pushed back the way I came, and if I couldn’t pee I would be uncomfortable which would inevitably lead to me being frustrated. I waited to the next feed so that I could try and incorporate it with a planned stop. A lot happens during the feed, you get your bottle thrown at you and you need to gulp down your drink and eat your food as well as check-in with your crew and observer. Once I’d finished my feed, I turned my back and began to relax to pee, then a shout came over ‘are you ok?’ so I shouted back ‘yep, just having a pee!’. I was now conscious and I still couldn’t go, realising I was taking ages, then I heard ‘you need to get a move on’. ‘For fuck’s sake’ I muttered to myself, I turned over and started to swim.

The next hour or so came my second dip. My bladder was going to burst, and I had stopped two more times, trying to squeeze out something to relieve even the slightest bit of pressure, but just couldn’t do it. I was getting frustrated with myself and was extremely uncomfortable, I also knew that if I couldn’t pee my swim could be aborted as it’s deemed a safety issue for the swimmer. It was probably 5 hours or so into the swim when I had a pee! ‘Finally!’ I shouted in total relief, everyone on the boat cheered whilst I was probably peeing for a good 2 minutes before I got going. I was now comfortable, had my pee and was now on the way to get this swim nailed.

That feeling of relief was so good and my spirits had been lifted! The conditions were still rough and the waves seemed to be coming in from all over the place, and still swallowing some sea water every now and then. I kept trying to figure out what I needed to do to my swim stroke to help assist against the conditions, lifting my arms higher out of the water to avoid hitting the tops of the waves as well as lifting my head right out of the water to catch a breath seemed to do the trick. At this point in the swim I was thinking that I needed to see that sun rise which would tell me I’d been swimming for about 9 hours as well as give me something to view, like my crew!

That long awaited sunrise eventually came. After 9 hours of swimming in the dark I could see red across the horizon, slowly consuming the dark night sky and gradually bringing everything in to view. It seemed to take ages for the sky to fully brighten, but it gave an extra boost to an already tired body, not physically or mentally but more from sleep deprivation. My few hours of sleep in the past 60 hours or so was beginning to take its toll.

While I was swimming in the dark and stopping for feeds, I couldn’t really see my crew, just the light stick attached to my feeding line turning on, signifying for me to get ready, and the glow of a head torch looking over at me while swimming. The fact I could now see my crew was really encouraging and bought about a whole different perspective to the swim. I could see clearly, didn’t have to worry about being too far away from the boat and that light shining in my face had been extinguished and I could see France!

It was probably about 7am and for the next 3 hours I was just turning the arms and stopping for feeds when they came along. At about just after 10am, I was having my feed and was told I needed to pick it up for 40 minutes.

This was it, I thought, I must be at that point where I could be pulled away by the tide turning and needed to get further towards France. Ok, time to get this show on the road! I picked up my pace, I think changing from 40 strokes per minute to just over 50 and kicking my legs a bit more. The weather was still poor so trying to get any kind of lasting rhythm was tough, but I endured it for 40 minutes and stopped for my next feed. Another 30 minutes hard work, I was told. Off I went, trying my hardest and knowing it was all or nothing.

Then I stopped. I had swallowed some more sea water that made me gag quite heavily. I then gagged again and was trying to be sick. At this point I had my head face down in the water trying to get myself to stop gagging. Everyone on the boat was quite rightly worried, but I knew that my swim was likely over. My throat had swollen, and my Uvula had swollen that much it was practically lying on my tongue, causing the gagging issue. If there is one thing I’ve learnt as I’ve got older, it’s to listen to my body. Nothing is worth dying for, or at least becoming seriously ill! Better to live and to fight another day and all that! So, although it was an easy decision to make, it was a harder one to take but in that moment, while I was still submerged in the water, I finally told myself it was over and so made the swim back to the boat.

I had been swimming for 14 hours and 8 minutes and probably had another 3 hours of swimming to go and was about 5km away from shore as the crow flies.

Getting on the boat, I wasn’t really taking in much of what was going on. There was a lot to process and I focussed on getting my warm kit on, with my wife helping me. I knew people were talking to me, but I just couldn’t take it in. I then headed down into the boat and lay down on one of the beds.

We got back to Dover at just after 1pm, got our kit off the boat and said farewell to the boat crew and observer. After getting to the cars, we had a quick chat about the swim and it was only then that I found out that the conditions I was swimming in, particularly through the night, weren’t exactly perfect!

Would I do this again?

I’ve changed my mind about 6 or 7 times over the past few weeks as to whether I want to give this another shot or not. It’s an expensive and time-consuming challenge, adding to that the 3-year waiting list, is it really worth all the hassle? For some it probably is, for me I think I need a bit longer to think and decide if I want to or not.

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