What Are You Packing?

Wednesday 09/15/10

The most cumbersome piece of equipment we are packing is a three gallon, insulated water cooler. We discovered several training swims ago that constantly heating, mixing, and pouring a nutritional dose every thirty minutes was burdensome and error-prone. Premixing the maltodextrin powder with hot water and storing it in the water cooler affords push-button ease and nearly eliminates a potential source of frenzy and panic at feeding time. Conditions aboard a pilot boat in the English Channel are notorious for decimating a non-professional crew with seasickness. Operating a galley stove and managing a steaming tea kettle is a herculean challenge in this circumstance. Push-button convenience could possibly save a swim.

Stuffed inside the water cooler is a full tin of maltodextrin powder. If the swim takes twenty hours to complete, we will have complex carbohydrate fuel left over. Four, swim-tested, BPA-free water bottles and two twenty-foot lengths of Dacron line with marline-whipped ends are stuffed around the tin. We also have a dozen sachets of GU in the “chocolate outrage” flavor. I’ve found that the chocolate taste and a few slugs of plain water provide a dessert-like intermezzo when occasionally interspersed with the regular feedings.

Tearing open a GU sachet with shivering, sea-slick hands can be irksome, though. To address this, we included a roll of duct tape in the gear. Tough, flexible, and water-proof, the tape wraps around the water bottle at the top of the sachet. The swimmer simply tears the sachet off the bottle, ripping the neck open in the process and making the contents slurp-able. Darcy W discovered this trick when piloting a marathon swim in Florida a few years ago. It’s really diabolically clever.

For the boat, Lindsay is bringing foul-weather gear including calf-high sailing boots. A surprising amount of water can wash over the decks of a fishing trawler. Cold, sloshy shoes are no fun after a few hours. And sometimes the skies over the Channel can open a gushing spigot. The swimmer may barely notice, but the crew endures a dreadful downpour. Murphy’s Law dictates that if this happens, it will happen during a feeding when the crew is most exposed.

Both Lindsay and I enjoy a morning cup of coffee. Perhaps that is an understatement. We both require a morning cup of coffee. Neither of us drinks caffeinated beverages later in the day, but our bodies demand that initial jolt. In the best of circumstances, we have not discovered England to provide reliable sources of brewed coffee. In our case, we may be rising at 2 am to catch the favorable tide and the chances of finding a 24-hour coffee shop are dismal. So, we are packing sachets of Starbucks instant coffee. We plan to buy a hot plate and tea kettle in England. Hopefully, biorhythm assistance at the fateful time will be assured.

Also in England, we will buy a hard-sided case to hold swimmer feeding supplies and crew food and drink. We found that soft duffels involved too much scragging around. Cliff Golding defines the verb scrag as “to look utterly clueless in the pursuit of something you can’t find—in the dark!” Speaking of dark, Lindsay is packing three flashlights—one for each member of the crew. These are small, waterproof, LED torches with brand-new batteries.

I will have a small bag containing only swim gear. It will hold two pairs of dark goggles and two pairs of clear goggles with a waterproof LED light pre-threaded through the back of each strap. All straps are pre-adjusted and all goggles have been tested for at least four hours in the Bay. Battery-operated and chemical light sticks with safety pins will round out the swimmer illumination gear. The bag will hold two swim hats in case one rips apart mid-swim. Fortunately, I have very little problem with chafing, but do sometimes rub a spot on my right shoulder raw on my jaw line. The bag will have a stick of Body Glide to help protect the shoulder and a razor for scraping away beard stubble at the last minute before jumping off the boat. Other than this dab of Body Glide, I will use no grease. For one thing it’s a goopy mess and gets all over everything. For another, no evidence exists that it provides any protection from the cold other than psychological.

I won’t be using sunscreen. I tan rather easily and my skin has turned nut-brown from all of the open water swimming this summer. We had a very bright sky the day of the ten-hour swim and my back and shoulders didn’t burn at all. Oddly enough, the only sunburn I’ve gotten during long swims is on my face between the swim cap and the goggles. The water must reflect and amplify the sun’s rays on the face.

We will have a separate “post-swim” bag with the gear I need when I get back on the boat. It will have a flashlight attached to the strap to avoid scragging around in the dark. I wanted to pack a pistol to use on myself in case I don’t reach France, but Lindsay vetoed that idea. She said it would be better to wait until we returned to the U.S. where the firearm laws are more lenient. Instead, the bag will have a towel and a wool beanie packed at the top. This way, I can immediately dry my head and get something warm to cover it. Fleece pants, warm shirt, fluffy socks, slip-on shoes, and a very warm swim parka round out the contents of the post-swim bag.

Assembling this gear has emphasized the expedition aspect of this undertaking. It’s sobering to contemplate. The test swims have proven invaluable for physical, logistical and psychological preparedness. The blog postings of other swimmers have been immensely helpful. Arguably the most comprehensive and detailed information source has been the Channel Swimmers Google Group. The accumulated facts, wisdom, and opinions stored in its archives comprise a treasure trove for the English Channel aspirant. And the periodic rants and raves can be exceptionally entertaining. In any event, my motto since embarking on this adventure is, “I’m determined to be prepared.” Thanks to the support and encouragement of Lindsay and so many others, I feel I’m as prepared as I possibly can be.

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