Swimming the Channel

Many describe swimming the English Channel as the Everest of swimming; in fact more people have successfully climbed Everest than have swum the channel. The first successful Channel crossing was by Captain Mathew Webb in 1875. The first female, Gertrude Ederle, made it across in 1926. Since then, thousands of people have made attempts, and according the records kept by the CS&PF, there have been 1,331 swimmers who have successful solo crossings.

I have done a lot of reading on the Channel since I decided to swim across it…. these are the key things that stick in my mind as I contemplate the challenge ahead….

  1. It’s a long way! The most direct route is 21 miles (34km) but as the tide changes every 6 hours depending on where you are when it turns you could end of swimming a lot further. The average swim time for a crossing is 12-14 hours…but the longest is 29 hours! When you set off you are aiming for Cap Gris Nez. If you miss this point, you have to go further to hit land, and with the ebb and flow of the tide this could add a bit of distance to the journey.
  2. First, you need to book an escort boat for your Channel swim, and your pilot will assign you a slot in a tide. Generally there will be 4 swimmers per tide, in positions 1 through 4. The person in position 1 gets to swim first, then position 2 and so on. A tide is usually 8-10 days, so I will need to be in Dover, England, ready to go when I get the call from the pilot saying the weather & conditions are prime. The most popular tide to swim is a neap tide as opposed to a spring tide. In a spring tide the water is a lot higher and moving faster, which can make it more difficult and requires perfect weather. I will most likely swim on a neap tide, but again, it's all about which tide windows and swimmer positions are available. 
  3. It's cold! And you are not allowed to wear a wetsuit. The average temperature during the Channel swim season is 58-62 degrees. The risk of hypothermia is real, so cold acclimation and preparedness is key. A little extra body fat is also a big help…. that’s where the ice baths & ice cream will come in to play.
  4. Open water swimming is all about the conditions. Weather, tide, current, and temperature are going to happen how they will. I can’t control the conditions. I can control my preparation but on the day. I could get perfect, still conditions or, I could get a rough day with 3 foot waves.
  5. Conditions & Tides present new challenges like NIGHT SWIMMING! The start or finish could be at night/early am and very dark. This is something I will practice. 
  6. No sharks! YAY! The cold-water is a challenge, but it means it is too cold for sharks in the Channel. I will encounter jellyfish, but I will attempt to limit my interaction with them. Me & Jellyfish, not friends. 
  7. It is the BUSIST SHIPPING CHANNEL IN THE WORLD! 600 tankers & 200 ferries and other sea vessels cross the Channel each day and they have the right of way. Swimmers have to swim around them.
  8. Preparedness! Physically prepared, but also just as important, mentally prepared! Both are why I've been planning and training 2 years in advance!

Fast Facts

Number of Swimmers:  As of 2013, 1,430 swimmers have completed a total of 1897 solo swims. Number of American Swimmers:  Based on records kept since the first solo swim in 1875 by the English Channel Swimming governing bodies, Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF), less than 300 Americans have completed a solo swim of the English Channel.

Average Age of Solo Swimmer:  33 years
Average Time for Solo Swim:  13 hours, 23 minutes and 4 seconds.
Average Channel Water Temperature::  57-62 degrees Fahrenheit

First Crossing/First Man:  Captain Matthew Webb, 21 hours 45 minutes, August 24, 1875.

First Woman:  Gertrude Ederle (USA), 14 hours 39 minutes, August 6, 1926. 
Queen of the Channel:  Alison Streeter (England) has made 43 successful crossings.
King of the English Channel:  Kevin Murphy (England) has made 34 successful crossings.

Fastest Crossing:  Trent Grimsey (Australia), 6 hours, 55 minutes on Sept. 8, 2012.

Fastest Woman:  Yvetta Hlavacova (Czech Republic), 7 hours, 25 minutes and 15 seconds on August 5, 2006.

Oldest:  August 2004, George Brunstad (USA), 70 years 4 days; his time was 15 hours 59 minutes.
Oldest Woman:  August 8, 2010, Susan Oldham (Australia), 64 years 10 months; her time was 17 hours 32 minutes.
Youngest Boy:  Thomas Gregory (England), 11 years 11 months*, 11 hours 54 minutes on September 6, 1988.
Youngest Girl Samantha Druce (England), 12 years 118 days*, 15 hours 27 minutes in 1983.
Longest One-Way Swim (England to France) Jackie Cobell (UK) 28 hours 44 minutes, 24/25 July 2010.

* A minimum age limit of 16 years for solo swims has since been introduced.