The tide is just starting to flood from its lowest point and the boats are stranded on the mud in Folkestone Harbor. Directly across the street, people are milling in a small throng outside the Ship Inn. Sunday at noon is visiting hours in Folkestone and a few pints lubricate the conversational gears.
Lindsay and I thread through the crowd at the entrance to the bar. This is clearly a very local watering hole but the individuals make way with a smile and small nod. The requisite ancient mahogany bar runs the length of a side wall. A trio of servers behind the bar engage in a cheery bustle with the clientele; greeting, gossiping, and drawing pint glasses from a broad selection of porters, stouts, lagers, and ales. We are here to meet our pilot, Reg Brickell, and are not sure what he looks like. I stroll through to the empty back room thinking that my sheer Americaness will provide adequate identity, but no one intercepts me.
At the far end on the serving side of the bar stands a genial and substantial gentleman in a flowered Hawaiian shirt. I ask him if he might be acquainted with Reg Brickell. He gives me a bemused look and waves his arm in a flourish to the person seated on the bar stool in front of me. We’ve found Reg and his brother Ray.
Lindsay had been apprehensive that I was wearing an earring to the first pilot meeting. Not to worry. Reg and Ray both sport gold hoops twice as large as mine. Once they’ve arranged to supply Lindsay and me with Sunday refreshment, we have a chat. Reg and Ray live in Folkestone. Six years older than Ray, Reg has been piloting Channel swimmers for about forty years by his estimate.
The elder Mr. Brickell first set foot on a fishing boat when he was three years old. His mother handed him across to his dad, making him the first crew to board the newly purchased Bristol trawler. By Reg’s account, he has been there ever since. A newspaper article with a photograph of a younger, buffer Reg graces a prominent position on the wall of the Ship Inn. He and his dad are straining to hoist a twelve foot shark off the trawler and onto the dock. Neither Lindsay nor I can guess the species of the shark, but it’s certainly not a leopard or a nurse. We decide not to ask Reg where they caught it.
Reg tells us that the weather looks promising for Tuesday. He says that the wind is forecast from the north at 6-8 km per hour which makes for favorable swimming conditions. One of his swimmers described the experience as akin to surfing to France. We will jump on a high tide which means the probable starting time will be midnight on Monday. He says he’ll wait until jump time to study the current conditions and decide whether to start from Shakespeare Beach or Samphire Hoe.
Ray Brickell insists on paying for the next round. The brothers refuse to immediately accept the remainder of the piloting fee. I start to get the impression that they consider it bad luck to do any business beyond the deposit until the customer boards the boat for the expedition.
We leave the bar in a euphoric state not entirely attributable to the superb Irish stout. Once again, we have had an experience that mere money can’t buy.
11 months ago