What does it really take to swim the channel?
Swimming is part of the undulating ebb and flow of the life and people of Dover; athletes and adventurers come and go with the tides, travelling from countries as far afield as the USA, Australia and Japan to make the 21 mile swim across the channel to France.
The sea is an ever-present feature of the CHALKUP trail and has been a constant source of inspiration for the buildings and installations that contribute to the trail, providing much of the context and inspiration for Tonkin Liu’s Three Waves and for Alma Tischlerwood’s Start/Finish Line.
Dave Chisholm, an illustrator and cartoonist based in Kent, completed his first channel swim in 2008. He has completed three relays across the channel over the course of his lifetime. His name is proudly displayed on the wall at The White Horse pub, colloquially known as the channel swimmers pub, covered as it is from top to bottom with the handwritten names and swim times of those who have made the journey. Across the room from some chattering channel swimmers, I shared a cup of tea with Dave at the pub to discover more about the swimming community, and what it means for the town to have the English channel on its very doorstep.
When did you begin to start swimming seriously?
I was always involved in some sport, and became interested in the triathlon. There’s a very big, strong triathlon club in Deal – biggest in the country – and it was natural for me to join them.
And then I was suddenly in the water with people who were training for relays and I got interested in being in a team myself. I organised a swim and got in touch with all of the people; found out how it all works and getting a team together, training etc. We then did a successful six person relay in 2007 and then at that time I’d got the bug for it — and the coach said to me on the day, look, I think you could manage a solo swim. And I hadn’t even considered that. And that was a big moment for me.
I thought, ‘am I going to be the person who was always told that they could solo the channel, or am I going to do it?’
This isn’t going to happen again, this moment – I’ve trained up, I’ve got a coach, the channel’s there. So I decided to do a solo off the back off the six person relay, and spent a year training.
Then, I subsequently did two four-person relays and out of that generated the Kingsdown Crawlers – not really a club, more a group of mates that swim together. All good fun. It’s taken a big part of my life in the last ten years, and there’s a lot of interesting stories behind these signatures on the walls (gestured to the walls of the White Horse pub).
How did you find the actual channel swim?
I was terribly nervous, it would be impossible not to be. The swim is hard, but as far as I can tell, it either works or it doesn’t. The weather holds for you and it goes your way and things work out, — or it doesn’t. That’s how it was for me, but the success or failure is also in the training and whether you’ve put the work in, the mileage in, and whether you transfer from the pool to the sea and battle through the cold.
Those are the really hard times — the long and gruelling and lonely preparation. If you can get that right, you can swim. But you’ve got to get your mind focussed on the day, it’s a mental thing — a mental strength thing, you can’t give up, you must remain positive.
There was a sense of relief the first half of the swim, especially as I got out into the shipping lanes. You’re always wondering whether the weather is going to be alright, whether you’re going to be ill or injured. Really, my overwhelming feeling for about the first four hours was relief that I was in there and doing it. There was just this massive release of tension, but then you have to get on with the guts of the swim. No doubt it’s a really hard thing to do physically and mentally, but mostly mentally. There’s just something about the channel that makes it feel that way.
You must have had to train for an awfully long time — to really disappear for a while.
You really have got to build up. I trained hard for a relay, but after that you have to double the training, and then double again, and then add to that. You’re putting in a lot of mileage.
Did you find your background in sports science helpful?
I’ve always been involved in sport. I was a bobsleigh driver when I was much younger – captain of the British Junior bobsleigh team [under 26s], and that’s a very punishing sport if you make mistakes. A very frightening sport. I’ve been involved in off-piste skiing; I did the high route over the Alps in winter which is basically walking up and skiing down glaciers, and that’s very intimidating, a lot hard work, very high-altitude and very dangerous. So I’ve been involved in a number of challenges of that nature. But the channel swim is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by a long way.
Really? What is it that distinguishes it?
Mentally overcoming what seems to be an impossible task. One person out in the middle of the English Channel is a pretty small speck. And then physically it’s cold. When I started it was 15.5 degrees and I was in there for 15 hours and 41 minutes. There’s a limit to how much your body can put up with, and it will pack in. I might have lasted another hour, I might have lasted another two or three, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t have lasted that much longer before I went hypothermic.
But somebody was watching you?
Yeah, you’ve got the pilot of the boat, who will be very experienced. There are boat crew as well, and swim crew who are feeding you. And you have an official observer who the federation sends, who checks that your swim is done in regulation. You know , they want to check that it’s a real accolade and that your swim is done properly — not in a wetsuit or with buoyancy aids or that you got in the boat for a rest. They also have the authority to pull you out of the water if you can no longer make decisions for yourself, or if you start getting delirious, fatigued or hypothermic. You’re watched pretty carefully.
What kind of importance do you feel the swimming culture in Dover holds?
I think it’s a real part of the history. Captain Webb arrived in St. Margarets, he was the first man to swim the channel in 1875. He’s a figure that transformed sport, and he’s also known in history in general as a really iconic figure. It was 25 or 30 years until someone else swam the channel, and then 1926 before a woman swam the channel (Gertrude Caroline Ederle).
Captain Webb used breaststroke. Someone did the whole channel in Butterfly. You’ve got a real history building up here. The French authorities disallowed people swimming from France to England; you now have to swim from England to France. They’re worried about collisions in the channel I believe. So all swims start from Dover, either from Shakespeare beach or from Samphire Hoe. It’s a real part of the heritage and culture of Dover and brings a lot of people here.
There’s a community that work and train here, particularly weekends from the first weekend of May to the first weekend of October, with all of the swimmers down here and all of their support. Which means that it’s a huge part of the economy; you’d have to look it up, but it is quoted somewhere – how it’s ranked in terms of Dover’s industries. When you look at the numbers of people and the fact that they rent accommodation and do all of the tourist things as well, you realise how essential it is to the economy. After the White Cliffs, Dover castle, and the fact that the town is a ferry port, it’s probably one of the main things associated with Dover.
Do you associate swimming with groups, or do you find It a solitary sport?
For safety reasons it’s nice to swim in a group. It’s nice that people are keeping an eyes out – in the sea and on the shore. Then of course if you’re not doing a solo you’re doing a relay and training in a team, all meeting and training and planning together. But once you’re in the water, you’re alone – there’s no getting away from that. But in terms of the whole team work, there’s a very strong community ethic. The Channel Swimming Association have annual dinners in Dover and fill the Town Hall. They mention everyone who has swam the channel and give out awards, and people come from all over the world to attend. Over the last ten years I have been to about eight. After The Town Hall, many visit The White Horse pub. The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation is also very active.
So this pub has really become part of the culture then?
I think it was in about 2000 that someone wrote their name on the wall, then someone else came and did it. Since then it’s spread like wildfire!
Do you think that you’ll stick with sea swimming as your main sport focus?
It’s good at my age, it takes the weight off your joints, it gets me out by the beautiful sea. We swim out at Kingsdown. The wind and waves and sunshine – a bit of companionship – it helps you in mind and in body.
It’s my main thing now. I can’t see that changing.
Thank you to Dave for taking the time to speak to us.
Interview by Alice Bryant. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org