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Australian Channel swimming record to fall
19 September 2016
According to the official monitor of English Channel swims, the Channel Swimming Association, more people have climbed Everest than swum the English Channel. On Bucketlist, a site dedicated to things to do before you die, 96 members rate an Everest climb as against eight for a Channel swim.
Long distance swimmer and coach Chloë McCardel (above), who is setting out to break the Australian record for solo English Channel swims this October, would find such pieces of information interesting.
“The financial cost for a solo swimmer is nothing like climbing Everest, which I think is about $100,000 Australian. A channel swim is a $20,000 investment if you were coming from Australia and training up for two years,” she tells me from her English Channel base where she is shepherding her latest solo swimmers and her own Channel record attempt.
The cost includes coaching, swim camps, accommodation, the flights to the UK and back and accommodation for a two-week stay and the crossing.
“It’s not cheap to swim the Channel, but there are more expensive things you could do,” points out Chloë, who now coaches Channel swimmer hopefuls and so knows a bit about what it costs from both the professional and personal perspective: she holds the world record for the longest unassisted ocean swim.
In October, Chloë is set to complete her 20th solo crossing of the English Channel, breaking Des Renford’s record of 19 crossings.
Friends with members of the Renford family, Chloë tells me she has their blessing for the attempt: “This is bigger than a personal achievement. It’s about national pride. The English Channel is the pinnacle of marathon swimming. It’s not just an Australian thing. It’s popular in the US and, of course, the UK. Every country in the world has a swimmer who has conquered the channel.”
The Sport of Channel Swimming traces its origins to the latter part of the 19th Century when Captain Matthew Webb made the first observed and unassisted swim across the Strait of Dover swimming from England to France in 21 hours and 45 minutes.
Chloë estimates her swim will take about 9-10 hours if the notoriously fickle conditions are okay.
In 1927, the Channel Swimming Association (the CSA) was founded to authenticate swimmers claims to have swum the English Channel, and to verify crossing times. Chloë, who is a CSA approved swim coach, has coached 57 solo and relay swimmers, and says it’s a 60/40 men and women split taking on the challenge.
The English Channel is where you come to test yourself. It is about how far you can test the human mind, body and spirit. It’s not about the clock or other competitors.
Speaking from experience Chloë can tell you just how arduous crossings can be. The water temperature normally sits between 12 degrees Celsius and 16; there can be huge waves and jelly fish; there are currents and tides to battle; cargo ships, ocean liners and ferries to dodge; you swim in the pitch black for hours where your mind goes to all sorts of places.
“You can’t have any negative self-talk, any self-doubt in those tough times of cold and pain,” says Chloë of the swim renowned for its psychological difficulty.
“If someone is interested in swimming the Channel, then I arrange to meet them in person or on Skype to talk to them about their motivations; their approach to training; their lifestyle. I want to know if they have a family and job responsibilities, because a Channel swim is about life phases, about knowing where a person is up to in their life and what time and energy they have to invest in a Channel swim,” says Chloë.
From the initial coaching phase, which provides swimmers with direction, the relationship becomes something much deeper – a friendship develops based on trust.
“I am there for all the steps and the growth in confidence which, when they hit that French shore and stand up and look around, is at its pinnacle. That’s a very special moment for everyone,” says Chloë.
“Twice, I didn’t complete the triple crossing,” says Chloë of her 2011 and 2012 attempts. “But failing, for me, is not losing; real failure it’s not trying again, which is why the 2015 triple crossing was amazing.”
The swim, which is three continuous crossings, took Chloë 36 hours 12 mins and it’s that time in the water that takes its toll. The longer you are in the water the greater the risk of hypothermia and so in multiple crossings it is the likely reason for an incomplete swim.
“The worst bit is when you are in a really bad place and you don’t know if you can complete your crossing. It’s where you’re thinking I hope I can hold myself together because I am getting so cold,” she explains.
Holding yourself together in the end comes down to your crew support. Every 30 minutes a member lowers down a ‘feed’ – usually a liquid - a warm liquid because it is so cold. You drink while treading water which is the closest thing to a rest but, which Chloë points out, is not really a rest because swimming is less tiring than treading water.
The ‘feeds’ provide energy and warmth and sustain you, but what people don’t realise is they provide a physical connection to another human who cares about you.
“It’s hard to explain what it is like and what it means but the connection with someone who cares sustains you, and it’s every 30 minutes, which if you’ve been out there for hours is so important. To look up and see your person there and know they are looking after you and that they care and believe in you, the impact of that on your success can’t be over-estimated,” says Chloë.
She goes on to explain that part of preparing for a successful channel swim is knowing you can let go and be flexible because “you can’t micro manage a channel swim crew. You have to be able to hand over your trust for your whole entire swim to the crew on the boat. Some people really struggle with that.”
Chloë believes finishing the swim is often a life-defining moment for people and the rush that comes with it can’t be replicated in day-to-day life.
It's that buzz that continues to drive this swimmer to keep testing herself.
You can watch Chloë’s crossing through her Facebook page, here.