I’ve been sick. I haven’t swum since last Thursday when my throat first started feeling scratchy. Since then, I’ve been napping heavily and chugging Nyquil at night to keep the wracking cough and congestion at bay. Someone trying to cheer me up suggested that I think of this time as “an enforced taper.” Very funny.
Ralph Wenzel and I were scheduled to swim in the Bay for six hours on Tuesday, but Lindsay convinced me to put it off a day. That was good advice. The extra day makes me feel better, but I’m quite jittery about suddenly attempting a long swim. On the other hand, delay would jeopardize the remaining Channel training schedule. Feeling so rotten has tapped a pessimistic vein and once more in this long preparation process I wrestle with the demons of doubt. Suzie D, a multiple Channel crosser, calls these moments a crise de coeur. Finally, I decide to just shut up and swim. The temperature will be four or five degrees warmer than it was for our five hour swim. That alone should compensate for whatever physical infirmity the illness has meted.
At 7:30a, Ralph and I join Darcy and Lindsay on the dock to help Paul Brady load and launch the Arias. The women then clamber into the inflatable with Paul at the helm. For this excursion, Lindsay and I have premixed the maltodextrin powder with hot water in our old, blue, two-gallon water cooler. The new system allows the crew to simply push a button and squirt a dose of feed into the BPA-free bottle each half hour. This eliminates the necessity to juggle half a dozen bottles; makes it possible to supply a warm feed; and avoids a messy mixing and measuring process. The remaining feeding task is to mingle additives such as apple juice, liquid ibuprofen, and whey protein at the designated times. We use a large ice chest to hold the crew lunch and drinks, the spare water bottles, and alternative feeding material. We found it much easier to quickly grab the necessary item out of a hard-sided container than rummaging around in a soft sack on a pitching watercraft. Any suspicion we might have harboured that this project was not a learning process has long dissipated. We are thoroughly convinced that repeated rehearsals in all facets of the campaign are valuable.
Shortly after 8a, Ralph and I leave the beach at the Dolphin Club and crab into the flood tide to reach the opening at Aquatic Park. We turn the corner and shoot down the side of the breakwater. The volume on the Arias’ radio is cranked up and the speaker crackles loudly. San Francisco Bay Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) is communicating with a commercial tug. “Roger, Yankee Hotel. Your deviation request to proceed westbound in the eastbound traffic lane south of Alcatraz has been granted ... And there’s a marine event: Two swimmers in the water from Aquatic Park to Candlestick Point accompanied by the Dolphin Club Arias. They’re monitoring 14 and working channel 71.” For the rest of the swim, pilot Paul Brady keeps VTS informed of our progress. When we reach the Russian guided missile cruiser docked at Pier 17, the VTS controller warns us to remain at least 100 yards clear. The Japanese training vessel, Kashima, has no such qualms. It actually cruises by us and the cadets lining the side smile and wave.
The temperature is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, markedly warmer than our last long swim. It’s still a little chilly, but balmy in comparison. When we turn the corner at Pier 39, it warms up yet another couple of degrees. By the time we pass under the Bay Bridge on our southbound leg, the temperature has climbed to 58 or 59. I shake and shiver some at the second feeding. Shortly after that, I completely forget about the cold. This is a walk in the park compared to our five hour freezing ordeal.
Opposite Hunters Point, we turn around and head back. We have reached slack tide and the natural back-eddy filling India Basin grips us in its maw for a half hour. Eventually, we escape and the building ebb current sweeps us back north. Three and a half hours into the swim, my upper thighs start aching. At one point, the pain is bad enough that I start dragging my legs through the water without kicking. I can’t do this for very long since my lower half rapidly sinks. I resume kicking just hard enough to stay level in the water. At the four hour feed, Lindsay spikes my mixture with a little whey protein to provide some fat and adds 600 milligrams of liquid ibuprofen. Shortly afterwards, the pain in my thighs disappears.
At Pier 19, we pass another security zone—this time for an American military ship. The zone extends 100 yards off shore and I am at least 20 yards beyond that. However, as we pass, burly men dressed in dark colors begin to bristle and posture until we slide by.
At the six hour mark, we’re opposite Pier 27 again. The ebb has strengthened and Ralph and I both feel fine. We know it would be satisfying to finish back at the club beach, so we agree to keep going. A Hornblower ferry is carting a horde of tourists to Alcatraz. On some unheard cue from the captain, the throng on the upper deck give us a cheer and wave excitedly as they motor onward to visit the prison.
Having achieved our goal, I am starting to emerge from that long-distance meditative swimming zone. I stop concentrating on stroke mechanics and begin to think of non-aquatic obligations. These thoughts whirl for about fifteen minutes until I stop swimming and suggest that we pack it in. There are a couple of things I’d like to get done before 5p. Later, I learn that Ralph has an appointment with his insurance agent at 3:30p.
Back in the shower and sauna, Ralph and I are feeling mighty good. We marvel at how much better we feel than we did after the five hour swim. I’m excited to think that Lindsay and I have the feeding sorted out. One measure of Ralph’s outlook is that he readily agrees to accompany me on the next swim for eight hours.
This open water swim represents the final “t” that I have to cross in order to be officially qualified to attempt to swim the English Channel. The Channel Swimming Association requires an affidavit signed by two witnesses attesting to an aspirant’s swim of six hours in water 60 degrees or colder. Adherence to this mandate is based on the honour system.
Last April, Jacques Frederik started a firestorm when he published an entry on the Channel Swimmers Google Group. He freely and very publically confessed, “I, for instance, didn’t do the 6 hour swim and got a personal friend at a national swimming body to sign the document. Instead, I wanted to focus on the Channel swim and build it up mentally and physically mainly in the pool.” When the inevitable admonishment sprang forth, he went even further and demanded that people “spare me your moral issues and patronising.” This expression of petulance predictably fanned the flames. Mike Oram had probably the most vituperative response. He wrote, “It’s not the moral issues and patronising you should be spared from. You are a liar - and a self-centred, vain, conceited cheat with little or no morals.”
For my part, I can’t imagine faking the six hour swim. In order to feel that I have done everything I can to be prepared, I’m planning an eight and a ten hour swim in the next two months. In fact, just a few years ago, the CSA demanded a ten hour qualifying swim. My perception is that Monsieur Frederik not only cheated the system—he cheated himself. It doesn’t sound like he tried to enjoy the process of preparation and celebrate the journey. In fact, he admits “after my Channel swim, I was so sick of swimming that I stopped for some time.” Regardless of whether I ultimately stand on France or not, I don’t expect that to be my reaction. Rather, embracing the odyssey has been unbelievably fulfilling. It has also made me care more about swimming than I would have ever thought possible.
3 weeks ago