Street Swimmers Complete the Fastest English Channel Crossing

Cold Water Training
Cold Water Training

6 young swimmers from Street & District Swimming Club, raising funds for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, have completed the most difficult challenge in Open Water swimming with the fastest English Channel relay crossing of the year so far.

“Team Ichthyosaur” was put together by Street & District open water swim coach Kat Percival who herself has several relay crossings under her belt as an adult. The Ichthosaurs – named after the Jurassic marine reptile found in Street which the swimming club has as its logo – comprises Sophie (17)  and Matt Chillingworth (15) from Cheddar, Bobby Clark (15) from Langport, Jessica Hudson (14) and Charlie Cook (14) from Street, and Katie Waters (14) from Shepton Mallet, who are all friends and team-mates, training together in Street. Sharing this extraordinary journey has cemented a special bond as they have supported and helped each other to prepare for the biggest challenge of their young lives to date.

A Channel Relay involves swimming an hour each in strict rotation – without wetsuits. The distance between England and France is 21 miles at the narrowest point, but taking into account the tides, the swim could be over 30 miles. The team might have 2 or 3 swims each. Most accomplished competitive swimmers would be able to complete an hour of continuous swimming in the pool with a year to prepare. But the Channel isn’t anything like a pool; the main challenge is being to withstand the cold; on top of that is dealing with the waves and tides which can be several times faster than a junior can swim; the sense of isolation mid Channel; shoals of jellyfish; sea-sickness – even while swimming, and having to take another turn when your reserves are depleted from your previous swim and all you feel like doing is snuggling up in a sleeping bag.

The build-up for Team Ichthyosaur was not without drama, with a rollercoaster few days as the clock ticked down to the team’s designated tide.

The team had a long winter behind them, crammed with pool and cold water training - down as low as 8 degrees centigrade in the sea wearing just a regulation swimming costume; the children describe just getting into the water as ‘excruciating’. To start with the children were so cold when they got out of the water that they couldn't walk or talk and it took several hours to warm up - at which point they dreaded it but went back out for another swim. Gradually, time in the sea was increased from 10 minutes in March to an hour by June.

Team Safety Briefing, Pathfinder Deck, Dover Harbour, 12.30am
Team Safety Briefing, Pathfinder Deck, Dover Harbour, 12.30am

And on top of that, there was the fundraising to fit in. They held numerous cake sales, a sponsored spin class, a Christmas Fun Day at Strode leisure centre and another at Merriman Park, collected with buckets wearing just wetsuits in freezing rain for Glastonbury Carnival, and organised various sponsored events with the target of £6000 to raise.

Then the team had to complete a cold water 2 hour swim off the coast of Weymouth in order to be licensed for the Channel crossing. The four youngest members of the team really struggled at their first attempt succumbing to the cold at around the hour mark – and it went right down to the wire when they completed that most gruelling of tests right on deadline day.

But then confidence soared at the South West Regional Open Water Champs in Weymouth when the whole team came away with medals, and Bobby Clark, Jess Hudson and Charlie Cook were crowned regional champions for their respective age-groups. For the first time, there was talk of not just completing a Channel swim, but maybe of going for a quick time.

With just a few days to go, things took a turn for the worse as team stalwart Charlie Cook suffered a badly broken hand in a freak playground football accident. His surgeon instructed that after almost a year of preparation, he wouldn’t be able to swim; Charlie and the whole team were devastated. The Channel Swimming Association ruled that a substitute had to be found, as juniors are only permitted to swim in groups of 6 on health and safety grounds.

Finding a last minute replacement for Charlie with 3 days to go before the crossing was not straight forward, as the pool of young swimmers who have recently swum a qualifying swim and passed a medical is very small indeed. But Robyn Dyson (15), a young open water swimmer from Sheffield, had taken part in a relay earlier in the year and put her name forward to make up the numbers.

Then came the decision that there would be a challenging but incredibly exciting 1.45am night-time start. After barely any sleep, six bleary-eyed young swimmers stood on the deck of ‘Pathfinder’, the pilot boat that was to guide the team across to France, with two crew, two coaches, the team photographer, the CSA observer who would watch every stroke of the swim, and mountains of  equipment and provisions for the trip. Four other pilot boats headed out of the harbour at the same time in flotilla formation, carrying relay teams and solo swimmers looking to catch the same favourable tide that Pathfinder had been waiting for. It felt like a military exercise.

Sophie Chillingworth was nominated the first swimmer and she set a good pace in spite of the first of the jellyfish stings that would plague most of the swimmers; in the dark, the sting seemed to come out of nowhere and you had to deal with the shock as well as the pain, with stings to face, arms and torso.

Sophie handed over to Bobby Clark, who afterwards described the sense of panic you have to overcome, leaping off the boat into pitch black freezing darkness and swimming with no perception of where you are other than the light of the boat nearby - you couldn’t see your outstretched hand in the water in front of you. Panic dealt with, Bobby put in a big swim.

Matt Chillingworth was next, performing the regulation relay takeover with Bobby by the side of the boat. His first swim took the team through into dawn, as they made their way into the Northern shipping lane, before it was the turn of Katie Waters.

The second rotation followed a similar pattern, with the resting swimmers alternately encouraging the swimmer in the water, wrapping up in arctic clothing and devouring hot food to try to get warm, grabbing a few minutes sleep, or talking excitedly with the rest of the team on the boat. There was a period in the middle of the Channel where the French coast just appeared never to get any closer and the English no further away. The boys took a selfie for the injured Charlie Cook as a memento.

Tracking Crossing
Tracking Crossing
The Boys 'with' Charlie Cook Mid-Channel
The Boys 'with' Charlie Cook Mid-Channel

But things got exciting again pretty fast when one of the other boats was boarded by the French coastguard. It was a really hairy moment with the team willing the coastguard to be on his way, as one of our own swimmers had discovered they had an out-of-date passport and the swim could have been over… Luckily the French authorities decided that one boat checked at random was enough!

The tide was at its strongest around lunch time as Bobby and Matt swam their second swims. Katie’s second swim was strong and determined, with her earlier demons pushed bravely into the background. The whole team had maintained such good pace that by the time the sixth swimmer started the last leg of the second rotation, there was just a chance they would be able to make land before the 12 hour mark.

Swimming much more strongly with the finish now in sight, Jess was escorted the last hundred yards of the swim by Pathfinder’s launch-boat. With the CSA observer checking she made a regulation landing on French soli, the rest of the team on the pilot boat cheered into the French coastline. Mission accomplished. 11hrs 56 minutes – the fastest relay of the year so far – beating all the adult teams. And there was a lovely symmetry about it with all the swimmers swimming twice each to complete a zigzag 31 mile crossing.

Some of the team had dreamed about one day attempting the ultimate swimming challenge. The reasons for wanting to attempt what is in many respects a really tough and unpleasant experience sound a bit like the things that climbers say about Mount Everest: “Because it’s there to be conquered.” “Because it’s really difficult and few people our age would attempt it, but we believed we could.” “Because we know if we are successful it will be something that will be part of us for ever.”

In fact it turns out that in the last decade, more people have climbed Everest than have swum the English Channel. Having watched our youngsters go though the rigours of the last many months, you can see why!

The Street & District Swimming Club has been hugely supportive of the group. At the Annual Award night held at Strode this week, a special Chairman’s award was presented to each member of the team to recognise their achievement – not just in crossing the Channel, but all the training, preparation and sacrifice it involved.

Triumphant Team on the Stern of Pathfinder off of the French Coast
Triumphant Team on the Stern of Pathfinder off of the French Coast
Celebration Cake at Street & District Annual Club Awards Night
Celebration Cake at Street & District Annual Club Awards Night

The experience has been life changing for these local young swimmers. They have taken to a new level their appreciation of team work, determination and responsibility. And they have flown the flag for the club, and for their generation. One hope is that their story will inspire other young people to take up swimming either in the pool or open water (www. streetanddistrictsc.co.uk)

This whole year-long project would not have been possible without the generous support of the local community to whom the team would like to express their heart-felt thanks. As a result of this endeavour, the team is going to be able to hand over a big sum of money to Make-a-Wish, knowing that children in very different circumstances from themselves will benefit from their hard work and bravery.

The Team Ichthyosaur Make-a-Wish JustGiving fund currently stands at just over £4010.

Posted by Swim England South West on September 7th 2017

Loading... Updating page...