We form a two-car convoy in the dark, scrupulously obeying the speed limit on the A20 to Dover. Jackie Merovich and her fiancé, Larry Heine, are in the trailing car. Darcy W, Lindsay, and I occupy the lead car. Lindsay and I trained our GPS to recognize the location of the Dover Marina on Sunday. Given the female voice, we’ve named the device “Roxanne.” She is cooing directions in the background. For once, we know how to get where we’re going in England and we ignore her. Just another slightly embarrassing example of our “belt and suspenders” mentality when it comes to this expedition.
We roll through two roundabouts and take the three o’clock exit at the third, turning immediately into the Marina parking lot. The harbor office is ominously dark and quiet and the guest dock is empty except for the semi-permanently moored harbor pilot boat. Not for the last time, I have spasms of doubt and anxiety that I’ve misunderstood the rendezvous instructions and we’re actually meeting at 1:30pm on Tuesday instead of 1:30am.
The crew unloads the supplies from the cars as Lindsay and I climb the stairs to the harbor office. No glimmer of light shows through the window and the door is locked. I suppress a surge of panic as Lindsay knocks lightly. After a pause, she knocks a little louder. It’s now 1:00am and the guest dock is still empty. Finally, Lindsay says, “OK, here comes somebody.”
Clearly grumpy, the night harbormaster opens the door in his stocking feet and unceremoniously shuffles to the reception desk. When we tell him we’re here to board a pilot boat for an English Channel swim, he says that all of the other boats have already left. He asks for our pilot’s name and boat name. When we tell him Reg Brickell and Viking Princess, he gives a brief nod of ascent indicating that he believes we are not trying to scam him for long term parking privileges.
We pay for two blue parking passes. He tells us to place them on the dash of our cars and that they’re good for twenty-four hours. His frosty countenance repels levity so I resist telling him that I hope that twenty-four hours is long enough. It’s a shame. This made Reg and Ray laugh on Sunday and I’m loathe to give up on a good joke until it’s slightly tattered.
When we get back to the cars, I call Reg on his cell phone to make sure we have the time right and to tell him about the harbormaster’s comments about the other groups. Reg assures me that all is well and that the other boats will be taking a scenic tour of the Channel. He tells me that we will take a more direct route and he will meet us at the guest dock shortly.
Feeling better, we trundle our supplies down to the pontoon. The water is high, so the descent is easy. We’re set to go and watching the harbor debris stream past at 1:15. At 1:30, I resist the urge to call Reg again. I know that I’m nervous and don’t want to act like a panicked groom any more than necessary.
At 1:45am, the Viking Princess steams around the corner and pulls into our location. Crew, crew supplies, swimmer, and swimmer supplies are loaded and aboard in five minutes. Reg expertly spins the trawler around and we head for Shakespeare beach, stowing and organizing gear as we go.
Lindsay uses a safety pin to attach an orange glow stick to the back of my suit. Ray asks her to add another green one as a backup. I advise her to be sure to pin the green stick on the starboard side. I’ve now gotten Ray to laugh twice at my jokes. That’s not bad for a man whose jokes are often not funny.
Fifteen minutes later and fifty yards offshore, I eschew a ladder entry. My inclination is to dive headfirst but better sense prevails and I jump. I remember the story of Bill Burgess jumping onto some large fish over a century ago on one of his Channel tries and it just seems silly to court disaster so early in the attempt.
The water is very high and the beach rocks hardly hurt my feet. I’m sure adrenaline is disguising the pain. I trot well clear of the water and raise both arms in triumph in the glare of the high-powered spotlight beam from the boat. The time is 2:10am, the horn blows, and I charge back into the sea. I’m thrilled to get my shot to become a Channel swimmer.
The first few minutes in the water, I try to heed the advice of other successful crossers. “Smooth your stroke out and enjoy the experience.” I’m definitely enjoying the experience. Smoothing my stroke is a work in progress.
I reach the pilot boat and we begin our pas de deux across the Channel. The Viking Princess is a full-fledged fishing trawler and has a brilliant array of marine floodlights all blazing away. There will be no problem spotting my feeding bottle.
Shortly, I get into a rhythm and settle in for a long night and day. At the first feeding, I chug everything down in less than twenty seconds and strike out again. A couple of hours into the swim, true to Reg’s prediction, the north wind is pushing the waves in my direction. The surfing feeling is exhilarating and I have the euphoric certainty that I WILL REACH FRANCE! The waves are large enough to rock the pilot boat dramatically from side to side. It doesn’t look like good news for the crew. But the surface of the water is smooth and I feel like I’m zooming.
By the sixth feeding, I’m hoping for dawn to break. The crew spike my feed with instant coffee. It tastes a little weird, but the caffeine jolt comes at a good time. I look over my right shoulder from time to time and the Dover lights don’t seem to be receding. The first ache makes its debut in the front of my left shoulder. After a while, the left shoulder ache dies away and a right shoulder ache replaces it. The doubts creep back.
Dawn doesn’t exactly break. Rather, a lumpy, leaden grey slowly infuses a cloud-laden sky. The shoulder aches have disappeared and now it is the quadriceps turn to bark. What is this? I haven’t had these aches before. In a while, the quad ache dissipates and I’ve found a new tool: Aches come and aches go. I christen it the “Marcelli Tool.” Some years ago, I was commenting to the Dolphin Club Commodore, Lou Marcelli on the high turnover rate at the club. He replied in his trademark gravelly voice, “They come and they go, Larry. They come and they go.” Seems to be the same way with aches.
Four hours into the swim, the crew adds a dose of liquid ibuprofen to my feed. It tastes just awful. Immediately, my stomach feels bloated and uncomfortable. That’s it. I’m going cold turkey on anti-inflammatory medicine.
About eight hours into the swim, Lindsay appears at the rail and gives me the “GO! GO! GO!” sign. This is the only sign we use other than the air horn for feeding. I don’t want to know how long, or how far, or where I am, or what time it is, so we have no signs for that. My job is to shut up and swim. The hurry up signal is to take advantage of favorable current conditions or to combat unfavorable conditions. This appears to be the “take advantage of the slack” condition.
When I try to speed up, I start kicking harder and suddenly, the hip flexor pain goes away. I visited a physical therapist a couple of weeks ago to try and understand this pain and see if I could do something about it. She said my glute muscles were not doing their job and the hip flexors were having to take up the slack. Unfortunately, I’d waited too long to embark on a strengthening program without jeopardizing the Channel attempt, so I’m swimming with a weak butt. Apparently, kicking harder forces the glute muscles into action and gives the hip flexors a break. Shortly, Lindsay gives me the slow down sign.
By now, I’ve used the Cliff Golding trapdoor tool multiple times. Then, unbidden, a slide show of faces and names of the many people who have offered support and encouragement begins playing in my mind. As I swim, the slide show gets longer and longer as new names and faces appear. I dig deeper.
Just before the twelve hour mark, I can see France clearly in the haze. Lindsay calls me to the side of the boat and tells me that Reg says a tide race is just ahead and I’ll need to sprint for about an hour to break through. She asks if I can do that and I reply, “I have to swim fast?” She nods her head and I put my head back down. I try to think of this as a series of 400 yard intervals that Coach Val regularly assigned me. I kick harder and pull harder. In about 15 minutes, my legs give out. The glutes have called it a day and the hip flexors are toasted. I’m trying to keep my torso level and “swim downhill.” Lindsay told me later that it was more like I was imitating a submarine. I’m swimming six inches lower in the water and rotating dramatically to breathe. I’m still pulling for all I’m worth and grunting into the water on every stroke.
Lindsay calls me to the side of the boat once more. She tells me that Reg says that I’ll never break through the tide race at this speed in which case I’ll be pushed along until the current switches and then be pushed right back to the same place about six hours later. She said that Reg was willing to keep going if I was, but finishing was extremely unlikely. I knew that she would not have relayed this information to me if she didn’t agree. By this time, I was in automaton mode and could barely think. I did get a picture of a young dog trying to get through his critter door when it’s blocked on the other side by a piece of lawn furniture. The dog just keeps bumping into the flap and going nowhere. I can imagine that will be my predicament. I’ll be going nowhere, only sideways.
I decide to come out. A flitting notion passes through my head that I should shout, “Then give me the crystal methadrine! We’ll beat this tide race by hook or by crook!” But drug humor stopped being funny twenty-five years ago and I’m too addled and depressed to pull it off properly.
I gingerly and painfully climb the stern ladder. On deck, I dry my head, pull on my fleece beanie, dry my torso, pull on a cashmere sweater/shirt, and don the bulky, warm Dolphin Club swim parka. I climb down the ladder into the forepeak where I take off my wet swimsuit and pull on some warm-up pants and thick socks. I lay down on the bench and cover up with whatever warm detritus is lying around. Lindsay brings me a big hunk of Gouda cheese and an apple. Without the whey and ibuprofen, I am not bloated at all. Instead, I’m ravenous. Within seconds of quenching the hunger pangs, I’m fast asleep and don’t wake up until we return to the Dover guest dock.
We give Reg and Ray the pilot presents of small-batch bourbon that we’ve toted over from the U.S. I shake hands with the Brickells and offer my thanks. Reg asks me how long we’ll be in England and tells me he’ll make up a chart for me showing my swim track. Lindsay drives the car back to the hotel.
The disappointment is crushing. I had dearly hoped for a fairy tale ending, but this is not a Disney movie. This is the Channel. Still, the consolation prize is not insignificant. The outpouring of support and well-wishes has been utterly heartwarming and makes me treasure the friends that I have. The experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained along the way will enrich my memories for as long as I have a memory. All in all, I have to say, “This has definitely been worth the effort!”
10 months ago