Having read Mary’s narration of Tom swim across the channel I wanted to share this with friends on my blog. Tom’s effort demonstrates the power in us to finish a job, to fight until the end and that it takes a team and family support to get us across the line. Tom what a great effort – Mum and Dad & friends must be very proud.
It all began at the sound of the alarm at 12:30 am.
Knowing his son well Dad asked Tom to double check that nothing he required was forgotten. With Tom’s reassurance, we naively set off. Dad myself and Louise “Tom’s flatmate” in one car, Caroline and Oliday in another.
First stop marina office Dover. Naturally, Tom was clueless on how to get there. We arrived, on time at 1:30 am, after a few anxious moments. Unbeknown to us there were would be many more anxious moments.
It didn’t take long for Tom’s first “beany”. The skipper bellowed, “Welcome aboard passports please”. Needless to say Dad took one look at Tom, and without hesitation, grabbed Louise and scampered off the boat and to the car. He arrived 15 minutes later, panting, with the documents in hand. Louise had not brought her passport so we decided that should we be boarded by customs officials Louise would be Caroline. An illegal act of immigration added to the drama. Caroline and Oliday wished Tom luck and disembarked.
Our crew: Tom, Andrew, Louise and myself
Their crew: Captain Paul, Irene the observer, deckhands Ray and his son Sam.
Who was your coach? Answer “I don’t have one”
We cast off and motored out of Dover harbour past the white cliffs and travelled half an hour west in pitch-black water. Before jumping in Irene asked Tom some basic safety questions.
1) Who was your coach? Answer “I don’t have one”
2) Swim lights? Answer “Umm, I didn’t know I needed them”
3) Feeding bottles? Answer “Not Yet”
4) Have you done your 6-hour qualification swim. “Of course”. This lie was verified by non other than English Channel swimming expert Timothy Wiseman.
At 2:30 am I slathered Tom in a mixture of lanolin and vaseline.
Tom was so relaxed, singing and joking as he dived into black 14-degree sea. He was to pay the price for this disrespect. He was required to first swim to the English shore and stand unassisted. Time 0250.
Tom dived in and set off for France. Within thirty seconds he splattered and called for replacement goggles. Uncharacteristically he had a spare pair. The smiling bravado quickly disappeared. He was making 60 strokes per minutes and swimming at a fast pace. The black of the night disorientated Tom and he repeatedly swam away from the boat. His wayward swimming was costing precious time. He was feeding every hour, swimming confidently and comfortably. Into his third hour he grew tired, complaining that he hadn’t slept enough ( my fault apparantly) , developed seasickness and to top it off was given a “facial” by a stinging jellyfish.
Tom was making good progress and swimming at about 5km an hour. Things were going smoothly and he was feeding well hourly. Dad actually commented to me and that stage we could be in France at this rate in under 10 hours.
At about the four-hour mark Tom complained about being tired and we changed his feed to a high tech carbohydrate gel. He set off again but was stopping increasingly at shorter intervals and at one stage he was stopping every ten minutes.
Pilot Paul was becoming alarmed and asked permission to obtain some expert nutritional advice. He then radioed an experienced channel swimming coach. Most swimmers have these onboard but I think the crew were enamoured that he did not.
The crew thought that the nutritional regimen that Tom planned was hopelessly inadequate. Paul and Dad then mixed a large drink with Maxim (a carbohydrate powder) and forced Tom to drink 750mls. He set off swimming again but shortly afterwards violently vomited the maxim up. Dad and I were horrified whilst Paul and the rest of the crew had big smiles. Paul turned to us and said “perfect we have now got all that high tech crap out of him” he then passed Tom a banana and said “Nobody said this was going to be easy Tom”. I wanted to end this nonsense then and there.
Tom was then provided bananas throughout the swim and if he was “good” a treat of chocolate.
At 9:00am the crew then made themselves a healthy breakfast of reheated frozen pizzas and pies while we sat there cold and hungry. Louise spent the first 6 hours down on a bunk horrifically seasick and managed to fill a plastic bag with her gastric contents. Tom had neglected to let us know that we were required to bring our own food and drinks. Astoundingly despite the crew gorging on their cholesterol laden victuals at no stage were we even offered a cup of tea. Things became so desperate that I summoned up the courage to ask the captain if we could have a cup of tea. He begrudgingly agreed.
8 hours into the swim Tom was maintaining 60 strokes per minute, feeding well and in good spirits. To us an amazing achievement in itself.
This swim is far from a point-to-point and requires the swimmer to swim to France in a serpentine track due to the tides.
13-hours and things had markedly deteriorated. Tom was in a strong easterly tide and the cursor on our navman( it projects our course incorporating the tides) indicated that Tom was not going to get to France. Ray spoke to dad and suggested that we abandon the swim. His opinion was that despite Tom’s courageous valiant effort prolonging the agony was futile. At this stage Sam said to Louise “I have been doing this for years but I have never wanted someone to make it as badly as Tom”. It is hard to convey the despair we felt as parents watching our flesh and blood put it a herculean effort. He had got within 500 meters of France and yet not made it. The mood in the boat was extremely somber. I was in tears and dad told me to go down stairs so Tom couldn’t see my face. Meanwhile Dad watched Tom’s every stroke and put on his best poker face encouraging him the whole way.
Dad and I were then summonsed to a meeting at the wheelhouse. Paul told us he was going for a cigarette upstairs and on his return he made it clear that if Tom had not moved the curser on the navman he would have no choice but to abort the swim.
Miraculously ten minutes later Paul shouted “we are going to France”
I returned to the lower bunks crying and prayed to Nan and Kate. Dad went upstairs and told Tom to get a “f****** move on” . The captain eventually came downstairs and said that Tom had slightly moved the cursor and we will push on a bit longer. Every soul on that boat willed Tom to swim.
Miraculously ten minutes later Paul shouted “we are going to France”. Tom had beaten the tide and “only” had to swim a straight 1.5 miles to Francais. In fact the tide was helping us along. At this stage Tom was very weak swimming at half a km an hour although, amazingly, his swimming technique didn’t alter.
He received a standing ovation from all of us on board but he couldn’t register what was going on. He had seen France go by agonisingly close twice to our grim faces, yet here he was a mile and half away and we were all smiling and clapping. We told him he could take his time now. As long as he kept swimming he would make it. Tom even took time out to do backstroke and breaststroke without any abuse from us. Please don’t underestimate this last mile and half . For after 14 and half hours in the water it was still no mean feat. However we knew the terrible tides could not beat us. It is hard to convey the sense of exhilaration on the boat particularly after we had been in such despair.
I swam up next to him and he said, “I love you mum”
Tom was obviously exhausted so we played our last psychological card with myself changing into my bikini making sure he could see me. There was still 500 meters to go and dad was asking me to jump in the water but even though I knew I was a decent swimmer I knew I couldn’t make it that far. That might give you a view on how difficult this swim was.
Finally with about 200 meters I jumped into the frigid waters, Tom wasn’t saying much but the look on his face said it all! I swam up next to him and he said, “I love you mum” to which I answered “I love you too my darling”. We swam into shore together. Tom, just as he did in Dover !5 hours previously, stood up on that French beach wobbly but unassisted.
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