St Albans Sirens Swim the channel (Leanne’s Report)

I’ve still not really processed the fact that, less than a week ago, I swam from England to France as part of a four-woman relay team. I wasn’t planning on writing a “race report” – it wasn’t a race – but feel I need to do something to help me process the 12hours 20minutes of team swimming. Plus the preceding months!

As a child, and a competitive swimmer, I’d always had a slight inclination that I may want to swim the Channel one day. However, swim training 6days a week as a youngster turned me off swimming. Fast forward many (many) years and, after signing up for the 2019 Dart 10km on a whim, I “discovered” open water swimming. It reignited my passion for swimming; the longer and wilder, the better!

Moving to St Albans in Feb 2020 meant leaving behind my beloved Brockwell Lido. So I was overjoyed when I discovered the Cottonmill pool, and St Albans Sub Aqua club and signed up for winter membership. I joined Tri Force triathlon club too. So much excitement to come. But, as we all know, March 2020 marked the end of “normal” and into lockdown we went.

Swim opportunities were few and far between over the next few months. Events I’d entered were cancelled; Dart 10km, Big Welsh Swim, Swim Serpentine. As soon as Boris said we could, I was back in the lido, and also Merchant Taylor’s Lake, hosted by Active Training World, and the Blue Lagoon with Tri Force. I met my future fellow Sirens, Saleema, Allie and Tamsyn, and bonded over cold water dips and dreams of longer swims. The training was good, but I needed something to aim for.

Roll on 2021. So much promise but COVID wouldn’t let us get back to normal, new or otherwise. Saleema had a 2021 solo Channel slot but lockdown and being in land-locked Herts (plus the small matter of a new baby) meant she wasn’t able to do the necessary training. Luckily for us, she asked Allie, Tamsyn and I if we wanted to join her for a relay. Within an hour of asking, the St Albans Sirens were born.

I will admit that I was quite blasé (read: naive) about what I’d signed up to. I very much saw the relay as a toe in the water in preparation for a solo attempt. I had no doubt I could swim for an hour, laze about on a boat (in the sun, topping up my tan) before popping back in the calm, blue seas for another hour. And repeat to France. The reality was quite different!

To qualify for a Channel relay, swimmers need to do a two-hour swim below 15.5deg. Whilst my fellow Sirens breezed through this on a sunny day at Merchant Taylor’s lake, I found the cold water unbearable and was back on land, shivering under my dry robe after just 70mins. Just like Goldilocks, my next attempt was too warm – an early heat wave took the Blue Lagoon to a balmy 17deg. Third time lucky and I headed down to Dover to try and catch the sea before it tipped over the magic number. I had amazing support from Allie who very kindly decided to redo her qualifier (nothing to do with getting a coveted Dover Channel badge, I’m sure!). I also got to train with Emma France (what an appropriate name!), and the Dover Channel Swimmers, who are an integral part of the whole Channel experience! Two hours of swimming at between 14 and 15 deg and I’d got my qualifier, not to mention mild hypothermia. I will never forget shuffling towards a well known coffee chain in Dover harbour, wearing a dry robe and sliders, with sticking-up hair, glassy eyes and shivering convulsively. Luckily they are used to such crazy behaviour in that part of the world and no police were called.

Qualifier done, and now the only barriers to the actual swim were mental. I don’t advise wanna-be Channel swimmers to Google anything along the lines of “channel swim death” or “deadly jellyfish U.K.” Cold water swimming wasn’t getting any easier and I began to worry that, whilst my swim fitness was there, my head was going to let the team down.

Our swim window approached and we all developed an expert opinion on what a “good” shipping forecast looked like. We had the second slot so had resigned ourself to the fact we weren’t going to be going out on the first day of the window, which our newfound weatherwoman skills has identified as the best option. So it was a bit of a surprise when, after we all met for a relaxed Saturday swim at Merchant Taylor’s, Saleema suddenly shouted “WE GOT A TEXT”. Our coach, Tim from Red Top Swimming, said we were looking good for a 3am start that morning from Dover. And just like that, we were on for the Channel!

Cue a frantic Saturday afternoon spent doing last minute shopping for food I blatantly wasn’t going to eat, trying to sleep and drying out my loaned kit bag which my cat had managed to wee in when I wasn’t looking (sorry Tamsyn!). At midnight, we piled on Allie’s party bus and headed down to Dover to rendezvous with Coach Tim and the Viking Princess II.

We were going out with the high tide which apparently meant bigger swells. Not being an experienced sea swimmer, I had no idea what this meant. 10mins into the short sail to the start and I had a better idea; like being in a washing machine. In the dark. Tamsyn, our first and fastest swimmer, suffered the most and was struck by awful seasickness before she’d even got to the starting line. At 3am, she bravely entered the dark, choppy waters from the harbour and we were off.

I was up second and my turn came round all took quickly. I was told that conditions were too rough for me to slowly lower myself into the water as planned and i had to jump. Leaping off a perfectly good boat into the dark, cold and choppy sea was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If it wasn’t for the fact my team were counting on me, and I’d paid in advance (such a Yorkshire woman), I’m not sure I would have even got wet.

The first 10mins of my swim were amongst the scariest and longest of my life. Every other breath, I inhaled more water than air. I found it really disorientating to sight off the boat, which either seemed to be too far ahead of me, or behind. I also couldn’t get into a rhythm thanks to the swelling seas. Eventually I calmed down, helped by amazing support from Saleema who never left the side of the boat, and endured, if not enjoyed, my first hour. I honestly had no idea how I was going to persuade myself to get back in for another turn.

The next three hours on the boat flew by. The sun came up, the sea calmed down and I started to warm up. After seeing Tamsyn get back in for her second swim, despite looking a vibrant shade of green, I knew there was no backing out. My second swim was much easier. I managed to get into my stroke early on and felt like I was swimming downhill – such a welcome feeling after the first leg. I did have a moment of thinking I was going mad when I was convinced I could smell bacon cooking. But I then glanced over at the boat to see coach Tim inhaling a bacon butty. I spent the rest of my second swim plotting what to eat when I got out. I was really pleased with my swim and felt like I’d put in a solid effort. I’d also got my team out of the SW shipping lane and into the edge of the separation zone. Also known as “poo mile”…sorry Allie!

The weather gods were really smiling on us and my third swim took place under 20deg of blue skies and warm sunshine. We were now in the part of the Channel where visibility was tens of meters deep and shafts of sunlight pierced the surface before drawing the swimmers eye down, down, down into the briny depths. Equal parts mesmerisingly beautiful and terrifying. I passed the time by counting my strokes and trying to get random songs out of my head. At one point, I became strangely convinced that we’d missed the tide and with it, all hope of reaching France. I have no idea how soloists spend hours and hours with just their thoughts in the middle of these same seas. Another sign a solo attempt won’t be on the cards for me. With 10mins to go (cue the now familiar “Hands in the air like you just don’t” care signal from the boat), I looked down and saw a HUGE compass jellyfish with tentacles fanning out behind it just a metre below me. I may have let out an underwater squeal. Thankfully it let me pass above it without incident and suddenly my time was up and Allie was back in for her third swim. Back on boat, Tim told me that I’d passed the buoy ZC2, a good indicator that we were on track and in to French inshore waters

Allie put in a cracking third swim and France was looking so much closer. We were also visited by porpoise and seals. Saleema went in for her final hour with strict instructions to leave everything out there. She did exactly what was asked and more and got us out of reach of the tides and between the headlands of Cap Griz-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez. The honour of making landfall in France went to Tamsyn, which was so well deserved after how ill she had been.
12hours 20mins and 59 seconds after setting out from Dover, Tamsyn cleared the waters onto Wissant Beach, the horn sounded on the Viking Princess II and we had done it! The St Albans Sirens were Channel Swimmers. There may have been a tear (I still blame salt in my eye). There was definitely jubilations. And champagne. We were also the first boat in of the day, which was of no consequence as it wasn’t a race, but still had a certain ring to it.

After the the closest I’ve been to abroad for the past two years, we were on our way back to the white cliffs of Dover, tired, but triumphant. It was a huge privilege to swim with the super strong women that were my fellow Sirens. Knowing that others back home had followed our journey had also given us so much motivation. Thanks to the generosity of our families, friends and colleagues, we have so far raised almost £5,000 for Surfers Against Sewage. This will make a huge difference to a small charity that works tirelessly to protect our seas, beaches and wildlife.
Our Channel journey is over, but I get to keep three great friends, and lots of memories. I’ve been struck by an unexpected case of adventure blues since finishing which a good friend described as “DOMs for the mind”. Writing this has helped me process just what we have achieved.

Although I am very excited to get back to warm baths and lazy days. Just the small matter of London marathon to get through first…

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