Skip to content ↓

Chalfonts Students Swim the Channel - A Parent's View (09/16)

On Monday 19th September we were honoured to watch three Year 12 students take on and conquer a swim across the English Channel. As a result I have been asked to try and put into words what we witnessed.

For see pictures and video clips or to make a donation visit their website

On Monday 19th September we were honoured to watch three Year 12 students take on and conquer a swim across the English Channel. As a result I have been asked to try and put into words what we witnessed.

For see pictures and video clips or to make a donation visit their website

My first effort took 3 pages just trying to express the extent of the training over the summer and the mounting stress of not knowing exactly when they would swim, but we must jump forward to 12:15 am and we are 300m off Samphire Hoe on the purple fishing boat Masterpiece and the reality of what they are about to embark on hits home.

For 16 years we have nurtured our children, encouraged them to experience as much of life as they can, in a safe and controlled environment. Scouts, Guides, sleep overs at friends, Netball, Rugby, maybe the Duke of Edinburgh awards. But, in a few minutes they will take on a challenge we know will hurt, exhaust them and maybe even break them. More people fail than succeed and a few have died! For the first time in our lives we are helpless, yet proud, excited and emotional beyond words.

Sammy is to go first and the boys were unanimous in that, after all it was her idea! She puts her lights on, one to the back of her costume one to her swim cap. The instruction comes from the Channel Swimming Association observer, “Time to go!” “What do I do?” Sammy asks. “Jump” is the reply! She laughs and launches herself off the side of the boat into total darkness. It feels like an hour goes by before we hear the splash.

She then sets off on a quick swim to the beach, the boys are cheering her on, looking into the darkness, a flash light is dancing around looking for her. “She is out, on the beach, yes she is standing” the boys shout out. The atmosphere on the boat is a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The observer focusses the light on her and then the horn is sounded. The swim has begun.

Sam is soon alongside the boat, the engine fires up, everyone cheers and we are off, into the gloom and heading towards France.

It’s calm, the moon is out, it’s dark. Sammy has to swim for an hour, after which she will hand over to Llewelyn, who will do the same and then hand over to Jamie and repeat, and repeat until one of them reaches France. Precisely where in France and when, is the great unknown. Its 21 miles straight across and the record for a 3 person relay is 9 hours 50 minutes, the longest 19 hours. They have a spring tide which means they will not swim straight across and a full moon will make the tides even stronger. In between lay challenges that will change hour by hour. The channel is full of jelly fish, many of which sting. Debris of dubious origin will be floating around, potentially much of it unpleasant and then of course they are crossing the busiest shipping channel in the world!

Half an hour in and they encounter their first enormous vessel, it’s at anchor, but still towers above them. They swim past it on their port side and very quickly realise they are being swept north at a tremendous rate. Looking on the tracking map confirms this and we can also see two other boats have left escorting other swimmers.

All of a sudden the calm sea changes, the wind comes up, the waves begin to build. For those on the boat it starts to get uncomfortable. Sammy is nearing the end of her first swim, Llewelyn is getting ready, Jamie is being sick!  On go the lights, Llewelyn stands at the back of the boat waiting on the instruction. It is vital he enters the water behind Sammy, does not touch her, swims past her, before she touches the boat and gets out. 1:26am on the dot, he is off, into the darkness, Go Llewelyn, swim, swim, swim! Sammy climbs into the boat. Its dark, its cold, she is cold. She has 2 hours to eat, drink, warm up and rest. That may seem like a long time, but it takes 15 minutes to get changed out of her wet costume. She has to be ready to go again precisely when she is told and in between ensure everything else has been accomplished.

The sea is rough, the waves are pounding and the boat is being tossed around. Sammy comments “It doesn’t feel this bad in the water”. It’s actually hard to stand and holding a warm drink is a challenge. We all look out into the darkness, Llewelyn’s lights are visible as the sea washes over him.

Come on Llewelyn, go Llewelyn, everyone shouting encouragement. It’s so amazing; they are swimming in the North Sea in the middle of the night, alongside the boat. The conditions continue to deteriorate. There’s dampness in the air; is it rain or just the spray from the waves? Pressing onward, the engine drones, Llewelyn swims, the supporters cheer. It’s nearly Jamie’s turn and he looks far from well, 2 hours of being tossed around in the boat are taking their toll, sea sickness pills are not quite doing their job. He is ready; next thing he throws himself off the boat and Llewelyn climbs aboard.

 It’s now 2:30am. After Jamie’s stint, Sammy is back in the water, then Llewelyn and then its Jamie’s turn again. Trouble is for the last hour and three quarters Jamie has been hanging off the side of the boat and hasn’t kept anything down since the services on the M20. “Ten minutes” the observer shouts. Jamie gets up, pulls on dry swim shorts and is by the side of the boat. With the two minute call he has swim cap on, pulls his goggles over his eyes and is away! Really? How did he do that? The look in Jamie’s parents’ eyes is a mixture of pain, pride and disbelief. The next hour is torture for everyone. At least daylight has broken which makes everything seem better especially with the sea calming as well. Jamie is hanging on, breaststroke is the preferred stroke, distance isn’t the objective. Survival is what it is all about.

What no one realises is that the tide is turning. No matter how well he swam he was not going to make any progress anyway. Llewelyn has eaten and is asleep, Sammy has turned to music to keep her sprits up. She is next and she is not looking forward to it.  

We hear over the radio that the two boats that left behind us have given up and turned back! I ask our pilot if he has had many groups of teenagers and he laughs. “I can’t remember ever having three 16 year olds, they are amazing” Still our swimmers carry on.

Swim, dry off, warm up, drink, eat, rest. Jamie’s time is up. Sammy goes for her 3rd swim. They rotate for another 6 hours, Swim, eat, warm up, sleep, swim….

The hours are ticking by. We get a visit from a low flying aircraft and the swimmers joke it is the truant officer looking for them.  Then we see land, but the tide is turning yet again. Our pilot tells Sammy she has to give it all she has got, to get in close to shore during her hour or they will get swept back north past their target of Cap Gris Nez. Off she goes, setting a real pace, her 5th hour and she is flat out. Fifty minutes pass, she looks up and asks if they are there yet. The sad fact is they aren’t, the tide has had the better of them, and they are heading north and slightly out to sea! “I’m broken, I can’t keep this up” she slows to a crawl, finishes her hour and hands over to Llewelyn. Stroke, follows stroke, he is counting every minute, exhaustion, cold, loneliness all setting in, yet he puts in his 5th solid swim and we can almost smell the land. The town of Wissant is 2 miles away, Jamie has 60 minutes. All of a sudden the end is a possibility and Jamie has dug deep and found new strength.

The beach is 300m away, it’s all but over. The boat has to stop. Sammy & Llewelyn want to join him. They are told by the observer that Jamie must finish on his own. If they go in after him, they must not overtake him or touch him until he is out of the water. Off they go, the tide is sweeping Jamie slightly south now, away from the beach and towards some rocks. Everyone watches, hearts beating, cheering, urging them on. Jamie is out and climbs onto the rocks. A small crowd have seen them swimming and have gathered above the rocks. The observer sounds the horn, it’s over, 14 hours, 42 minutes. Sammy & Llewelyn get there a few minutes later and climb out and join him. We can see the passers-by applauding them. It’s a good time, but what’s most incredible is that in that time they covered 49 miles!

They return to the boat, received well-earned hugs of congratulation and flake out. The return journey taking a mere 2.5 hours and in a straight line. As we chat the pilot turns to me and says “I can tell you now it’s over, I didn’t believe they were going to make it, that was as tough as it gets. That was gutsy and determined”

But they are Chalfonts Community College students, where Success is an Attitude, what else would you expect.