Debbie Cox – Channel Relay Swim 2018

July saw me complete a channel relay swim complete with Jellyfish…. However 3 months ago I did not know I was going to do this!

Let’s start from the beginning….. Last year I dabbled in the sea swimming swims with the club – loved being in the sea… however the jellyfish then struck back and that saw me deciding not to swim in the sea as this is a massive fear for me.  Then I completed Portsmouth sprint tri – but the swim part took me about half an hour – as I had worked myself up so much about the swim and what could be in the water, I couldn’t relax – I was physically capable of a quicker time but mentally struggled.  With this in mind I thought I want to get better and improve for next year…. So whilst it was winter and nursing a knee injury from falling off my bike, I thought I would work on my open water swimming whilst the fish and jellyfish were on their holidays in warmer waters!  I found a friendly open water swimming group in Hill Head (shack sharks) and commenced winter swimming – without a wetsuit – I loved it.

One weekend (12th May) one of my shark friends suggested a swim in Durley as a change of scenery, I had nothing else planned so thought why not it’s a sandy beach and was promised lifeguards to look at (they weren’t there).  So I got in with the others and went for a gentle swim, I got to 45mins and thought I would take it up to an hour as that was a nice number and having a lovely swim.  I stopped the Garmin (if its not on strava it doesn’t count right?) attempted to get out of the water – my friend said – “are you cold?, are you injured?” I said no – so she said right get back in and swim for another hour….so after a quick swig of hot ribeena I turned around and swam for another hour… it was at this point she said you have done a 2 hour qualifying channel relay swim well done – the temperature was 11.6 degrees.  So I thought ok great but that is completely irrelevant to me….. the next thing I know I’m being told that someone had dropped out of a team and they needed a replacement….. Apparently that was me!  I was a bit cold and probably not thinking straight so after quickly checking with work the dates worked… agreed that a spontaneous channel relay in July was a good challenge even though I was surprised they thought I was good enough! As I am not a strong or natural swimmer.  A week later it sunk it to what I had agreed to – too late to back out! And July – Jellyfish season!!!

In June we did a training day on a boat in Poole Harbor to practice the changeover, jumping off a boat and getting back on – as there are strict change over rules and you DO NOT TOUCH THE BOAT! There was also some team building as I was a new addition to the team – the team were lovely and instantly bonded.

We all went back to our lives and training – mine wasn’t ideal – due to the short time span and personal circumstances, but I knew I could swim for an hour – with the odd break for a chat or two ;-).

Then 3rd July arrived and our tidal window opened….the waiting began – I imagine it was like when you are pregnant and know you are going to have a baby soon but not sure when it will happen! It was excruciating – will it or wont it happen…. we kept getting weather updates that the weather was going to close in towards the weekend – as we were slot 4 with 3 soloists in-front of us we were likely to swim at the weekend – so I thought it was never going to happen because the weather wasn’t meant to be good! Then the soloists started going out on the thurs one after the other and then on the Saturday we got the ok – we had to meet at the boat in Dover at 4am on the Sunday!  We went Dover on the Saturday stayed in a hotel and had dinner and a glass of wine together before the swim.  After a poor nights sleep we got up at 3am and went to the harbor to meet our boat – Sea leopard, our pilot – Stuart Gleeson (who I had messaged about the jelly fish situation in the channel in the weeks prior to us going as I was very worried about this!) and our CSA observer to ensure all the rules were followed and it was a ratifiable swim – Tracy Clark (they were a great team – I didn’t realise how great until the swimming started!).

An excited team, we set off on sea leopard bound to Samphire Hoe where our swim would start. The boat stopped, Tom (swimmer 1) dived off and swam to shore – where he cleared the water (after making sure he got his Garmin signal!) arms in the air, Tracy sounded the horn indicating the start and Tom entered the water started swimming for his hour – our channel relay crossing had begun at 5:05 am Sunday 8th July 2018.

The swimming was going well, we saw a beautiful sunrise, changeovers were going well everyone was relaxed and happy, spirits on the boat were high – out of interest I asked what Tracy looks for during a crossing – she said she looks at water temp for each swim (our temp ranges from 17.5 – 18.2) , stroke count, makes notes about what is happening or if anyone says anything funny/interesting, co-ordinates, sea state etc – was quite interesting and she was very knowledgeable about the channel and has completed some amazing swims herself including a solo channel crossing – inspirational lady. I started to feel a bit sick not sure if it was the sea, eating too much or nerves.  Tom, Russ, Andrea and sue all swam their hours and very well, making good progress/distance.

Then after 5 hours, it was my turn swimmer 5….we saw the first ‘ugly’ compass jellyfish during Andrea’s swim and a couple more during Sues – one a few mins before I had to get in.  I jumped in as instructed to by Tracy swam to where I should be whilst waiting for sue to exit the water and being told I could start swimming.  As soon as I got into the water I panicked because of the jellyfish – I didn’t know I was going to react the way I did – I knew I didn’t like them but didn’t realise how terrified they made me.  With the teams support and Tracy who kept shouting at me to swim I swam (of a fashion!)  I stopped a few times during the swim at the sightings of lots jellyfish – ugly compass ones (the big ones with the long ugly tentacles) , not so ugly compass ones (less tentacles and smaller) and varying sizes of moon jellyfish.

There were different levels – some were very deep and looked like little white cartoon characters (big ugly compass ones) some were on the surface, some were just underneath you and some a bit deeper but very visible! I freaked out multiple times during the swim and all I wanted to do was get out – it was the most terrifying hour/swim of my life – I swam quite close to the boat – (not touching it! – they like you to be 1-2m away) – it was a security blanket to me, and I just kept looking at Tracy will all her knowledge and experience I trusted her and if she tells you to swim you swim!! Physically the swim felt good but it was mental torcher.  Finally the hour was up and I could get back onto the boat – remarkably I didn’t get stung.  I got back onto the boat and cried – not sure if it was out of relief, fear or the stress of the swim!  I was quite embarrassed as I don’t like to cry in-front of people but couldn’t help it and about something that most people will think is silly!  However Tracy and some of the team members came over to me and was so lovely and reassuring.   She gave me some advice on how to get through the next swim – it was as simple as close your eyes – she made me promise I would do that as when I got my act together I was actually a nice open water swimmer – coming from her with all her experience meant a lot and boosted my confidence, she also said she would sit on the boat next to me throughout my next swim – something she did not have to do but I was glad she did.  My team mates were also amazingly supportive.  Kat (swimmer 6) completed her hours swim despite a bad shoulder and leg and that was the first rotations of swims completed and we were making good progress across the channel.

It was Toms turn for the start of round 2… the jellyfish came out to play again… but he just swam through them – compass/moon – didn’t phase him at all – my hero!  Again we went through the swimmers and it got to my turn again – we were now in the French shipping lane and the jellyfish had been dying out so was feeling slightly better about getting back in – pep talk from Tracy about closing my eyes.  I jumped in swam to the point again, was told to start a few strokes of head up…. I then closed my eyes and started to swim only opening them when I breathed and to check were I was in relation to the boat and true to her word Tracy sat on the edge of the boat and supported me for the whole hour.  And I swam – I didn’t stop – only once or twice for a second as I missed a breath due to the waves.  I swam for the whole hour and cracked out a good swim – my best and strongest hours swim ever – felt comfortable and enjoyed it, covered a good amount of distance – nearly 6K according to Toms watch – tide assisted.

I took us from the French shipping lane to French inshore waters past the 3 mile bouy – this made the team happy!   This time when I got back into the boat there were no tears, the swim felt good – all because I closed my eyes! Tracy and the team then reported it was like a different swimmer that second swim – it as a good swim and they were proud as they could see how difficult the first swim was.  Tracy then told me that there were 4-5 compass jellyfish that swam next to me that I didn’t see –  thankfully!   We completed the second rotations of swims and started the process again.  By this point it was more like a party on the boat – we had music a great atmosphere, the sun was shining  – we could see/smell the French coast getting closer – however the tide was about to turn and there was a risk of getting swept past the cap which would add a good three hours more of swimming.  However Tom pulled out another great swim and it was looking more likely we would land rather than get swept around the cap – things were looking good, we knew we were going to finish as long as we didn’t touch the boat or get the changeovers wrong! Russ was in again next and then Andrea went in for her third swim – we knew this was the swim that would land us – it was a beautiful view of the cliffs, the time before sunset, calm waters – magical.  We landed at Point Du Ride near Audinghen at 19:52 and Andrea collected pebbles for us (channel swimmers/relays tradition!) – We had completed the channel relay in a time of 14 hours and 47 mins.  We were channel relay swimmers – it was an amazing atmosphere. The boat turned around and took us back to Dover whilst we had a toast of champagne to celebrate – it felt like a long journey back!!

It truly was a roller-coaster of a day – but also one of the most amazing days with some amazing people – who I now consider amongst my good friends who I didn’t even know 3 months ago – once in a lifetime  experience (even though it was never on my list of things to do in my life – just happened by accident – sometimes saying yes to things can create amazing things!), almost life changing – I am stronger then I think I am and better than I think I am.  I am however determined.   I am proud of what I achieved as I am not the strongest or the best swimmer and terrified of jellyfish – do I like jellyfish more now – no – think I will stick to winter swimming.

I had a great team around me – team mates, observer, pilot and friends – who were all amazingly supportive – including you tri lot!

Remember: anything is possible and never give up

Debbie Cox