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Captain Matthew Webb

"Nothing great is easy"

The English Channel

At approximately 21 miles at its shortest distance, stretching between England and France, the English Channel is probably the most well known and sought after swim that many endurance swimmers seek to conquer.  It was first swam by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875 and since then only around 2000 or so have been able to replicate this - though not while drinking rum, which I believe Mr. Webb did!  It is often called the 'Everest' of swimming, but less people have achieved this than those who have summited Everest.  Being one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes, complete with its challenging tides, cold water and ever unpredictable weather it's no easy feat, even for experienced open water swimmers..  

In 2017 I had just completed my first 10km swim, in a wetsuit, before I declared that I wanted to swim the English Channel.  I was probably on a bit of a high after completing the swim, but I genuinely thought that with a few years training I could get myself ready.


There are two organisations that ratify English Channel attempts, the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CSPF).  There is a story as to why there are two, but essentially they do the same thing albeit with a few minor changes in their policies.  I opted for the CSPF and started to check out how I go about attempting the swim.  

The process is similar with both organisations.

  • Finding a Pilot - The CSPF has their own registered pilots.  You contact one of these and effectively charter a boat and they are responsible for navigating you from England to France.  There is generally a 3 year waiting list to get a slot, but you can sometimes get one earlier if you are lucky.  It's probably worth contacting a few as they will have differing availability.  The pilot will give you their availability for each of the years they have planned up to and, once you've picked your block, you pay a deposit and that is pretty much it until around October before your swim year.  This transaction is between you and the Pilot, CSPF don't get involved with contracts between swimmers and pilots.

    • The pilots availability will be in the form of:

      • a 7 day 'window', such as 21st August to the 27th August​

      • A slot number within that window.  Pilots can take up to 5 swimmers within the 7 day period, dependant on a number of factors, such as weather and swimmer speeds.  If you are Slot 1, then you are first to go.

      • Whether that window falls on a Spring or Neap tide.  I was always told to pick a Neap tide, but I'm not sure if it is any easier than going on a Spring tide. 

  • Completion of swim registration - At some point prior to your swim year you'll be contacted by the pilot to confirm your intention to swim so they can update the CSPF.  Around January of your swim year the CSPF will send an email confirming your swim dates and updated medical assessment templates.  You will also need to pay CSPF registration and observer fees.  The observer is someone that will watch your swim, taking notes and ensuring you stick to the rules.    

  • Having a Medical - You need to have a medical carried out during the year of your swim.  I found it a bit of a nightmare to get this sorted out as my local GP wouldn't do them.  Ones I had found that could do them for a reasonable price, around £60, were about a 3 hour drive away, so I opted for a university sports centre in Edinburgh which cost over £100.  This cost could shoot up if you need to have an ECG or other enhanced tests on your physical fitness. 

  • Completion of qualifying swim - whether you are swimming Solo or as part of a relay, you need to complete a qualifying swim.  For a solo, its a 6 hour swim in water that is below 16 degrees celsius.  For a relay it used to be a 2 hour swim, but this has changed.  Your qualifying swim doesn't have to be in the sea, but it needs to be validated by someone who has watched you swim for the full duration and has measured the temperature of the water to ensure it is below 16.  

Once all the above has been completed, its a case of sending in all the required documents to CSPF and then waiting until your swim window.  I would think that during this time some training will be taking place, and that is something I talk about elsewhere in this site, and probably numerous hours watching the swim trackers on both the CSA and CSPF websites, watching all the swimmers achieving their dreams!

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