On September 18th 2010 I became the 69th Australian to swim the English Channel. My official time was 9 hours and 40 minutes.
The following documents the experience on the day.
At 7.30pm on the Friday night my phone rang and it was my Pilot, Paul Foreman. I had only met Paul a few days earlier. He was direct and always straight to the point. “Cameron. You are on. See you at 4am at the car park.” Paul had called me every night at 7.30pm for 5 days running to tell me whether or not I would be swimming the next day. There was no chat about the weather this time, it was all business. I tried to ask a few questions about the forecast, but he was not giving away too much. “You just worry about the swimming and I will take care of everything else. The conditions will be what they will be”.
It was at this point that the reality of everything began to sink in. It was now time to prepare.
I spent the next 2 hours running through checklists and making sure that I had everything. Mum was on the vegemite sandwiches, Dad was mixing my drinks and Laura was making lunch for the crew. It was a real team effort with everyone helping out. I went to bed at about 9.30pm that night and tossed and turned for a few hours before eventually getting some much needed rest.
In the morning I woke at 3am and began to get ready. The crew Mike and Chris had arrived during the night and were ready to go. They had both answered the call for help, when my original crew members were not able to make it. I had never met them before, but they were more than willing to answer the call. Mike had driven down from London after work on Friday night, while Chris had travelled for more than 4 hours to make it. It was a huge effort by both Mike and Chris and I could not have done it without them.
I packed the car and went through my checklists. I tried to eat breakfast, but could not stomach much at all. It was now 3.40am and it was time to go. I said my goodbyes and jumped in the car with the team.
We arrived in the car part at 4am to see that we were not the only ones up. The weather had not been favourable for a few weeks and there was a backlog of swimmers all waiting for the window. There were 10 boats leaving, with swimmers from all over the world going through their preparations. Paul had asked me to be there early as he knew it would be busy. He wanted to get away early, but never wanted to be the first.
It was dark and only 8c. The wind was still blowing at around 14knots, but expected to ease during the morning.
It was in the car park when someone approached me and asked if my name was Cameron. Paul had previously mentioned that he had someone who wanted to be on the boat to watch. His name was James Turnbull. He had driven down from London just to be on the boat. He had been up since 2am. I would later learn that James intends to be one of the first people to swim the English Channel and climb Mount Everest in the same year. Now that’s a challenge.
We made our way down to the dock where there was a line of boats. I was introduced to the official observer from the CS & PF and everyone introduced themselves to each other, not knowing what lay ahead or how long the day would be. It was at this moment that my nerves where getting to me. I was very edgy and increasingly emotional. I remember people asking me questions and just nodding responses. It was also very cold and I was doing my best to keep warm. I sent my last email to some good friends, while Dad contained his nerves by loosening my shoulders.
Paul then fired up the engine and it was time to go. I turned to Dad and shook his hand. I do not remember what he said, but I am sure it was something inspirational that he had saved for this very moment. All I remember was that he was just as nervous and emotional as me. Dad desperately wanted to be on the boat with me living every moment, but he has trialled every known sea sickness medication and was not up to the journey. It was going to be a long 10-14 hours for him as well.
The boat pulled away from the dock and we headed out of the Marina and into Dover Harbour. We were heading for Shakespeare’s Beach, which was a short 10 minute ride away. I stood at the back of the boat and did some light stretches.
It was not long before we arrived at the start and Paul yelled out, “It’s time to get ready lad.”
I already had my Speedos and swim cap on, ready to go. It was still very dark and it was mandatory for all swimmers to wear 2 lights. I attached one on my bathers and one on my cap.
The challenge now was to apply the wool fat quickly enough that I did not get cold. I turned to the boys (all of whom I had met in the last 3 hours) and asked who was going to put the rubber gloves on and grease me up. James eventually put his hand up and stepped forward.
The grease I used is an anhydrous lanolin (commonly referred to as wool fat), which is a yellow waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals. All I can say is it does not smell that good and the chemist always gives you a strange look when you ask for the largest tub available. I used wool fat to prevent chaffing under my arms and neck. I also covered my chest and shoulders to help keep warm. I am not convinced that wool fat does in fact keep you warm, but it was something I liked to do.
The hardest part of applying the wool fat is that it is very thick and difficult to spread, in particular, when it is rock hard due to the cold and pulls every single hair on your body. James did an excellent job and I was now covered in wool fat. I turned on my lights and I was now ready to go.
It was pitch black and the air temp was 8c. I was standing in my Australian Speedos and nothing but my “Cameron Industrial Commercial” swimming cap to keep me warm. I could hear other boats around but could not see much.
I jumped in the water and proceeded to swim to the shore. It was so dark that the crew had to shine a light onto the beach to show me where to go. In these first few moments all I was worried about was how cold the water was. I had spent months training in the coldest water I could find and this was the first real taste of the English Channel. I swam towards shore and the water kept getting colder and colder. I swam with my head up to tried and keep as warm as possible.
I eventually made my way onto the rocky shore line and was given the all clear to start. The rules state that you must be clear of the water in order to start the swim. I took a deep breath and walked into the water to start my swim. There was no turning back.
In the first few minutes my mind was racing. How are my shoulders feeling? Did I put on enough wool fat on? Is my body warming up? Are my goggles on properly? Are they too tight? Will I get a headache? Are there any fumes from the boat? Is it affecting my breathing? Are the lights annoying me? Is the wind going to die down? I hope the tracker is on? I hope I don’t get sea sick? I hope I am not going too fast? I wonder if my mates are watching? I hope my Dad made it home ok?
It was not until around 15 minutes into the swim that my mind stopped racing. There was nothing more I could do other than roll the arms over and swim from England to France.
The water was a dark brown colour and did not taste the best. The conditions were bumpy with the swell pushing me around. I was also running into pieces of seaweed and the occasional piece of debris. It was not pleasant, but something I had to deal with.
In the end, the first hour had gone really quickly. I had eventually managed to settle into a rhythm and relax. I had my first feed of a vegemite sandwich and 350ml of endure optimiser and was feeling good.
I made my way to the end of the second hour and was feeling good. There continued to be some swell around, but it was not bothering me too much. I enjoyed another vegemite sandwich and 350ml of liquid; although this time I had a Leppin Electrolyte.
It was at this moment that I noticed the sun was starting to light up the sky. I was really excited when I found out my swim would start early in the morning. I liked the idea of getting a few hours under my belt before sun came up, just like a long drive to Noosa in the holidays where my Mum would put Richard (my brother) and myself in the back seat before driving hours along the Newell highway.
It was also part of the dream. I had seen photos of swimmers with the sun coming up and always thought this would be how it would work out. It was at this moment that I really started to enjoy the experience. I was swimming the English Channel.
The sunrise also triggered a number of thoughts in my mind. I spent the next few hours working my way through all the different people that had sent me messages of support. It was not just my family and friends who had been willing me on. I had received messages form patients of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, who had heard about my swim and wanted to thank me personally for raising a few dollars. I also receive emails from a number of friends who told me stories about their families experience own with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and how much it meant to them. In a way it made me think that no matter how hard it got out in the swim it would be nothing compared to what some people go through.
The first of the shipping lanes is a 1km wide stretch that sees more than 200 ships pass through every day. I knew I was getting close as the water was getting choppy from all the wash. I could also see the ships out of the corner of my eye, although only when breathing at the top of a wave.
I knew it was really important when swimming for long periods not to waste energy putting your head up and looking around, but I could not help it. I was so excited to see all the large container ships and had long thought about the moment I would encounter a large ship up close. I was also a bit nervous about what might happen and had read stories of swimmers having to tread water waiting for ships to pass. I did not want this to happen.
It was also at this point that my body started to hurt for the first time. I did not know whether putting my head up regularly had caused it, but my lower back was beginning to hurt. It is not something you think will cause pain when swimming, but holding your body flat for extended periods of time puts a strain on your back and stomach.
I also started to hear the words of my physio, Jerry, who has constantly reminded me to do more core exercises. I had done some, but clearly not enough. I just tried to think of everything other than my back and ignored the pain as best I could.
It was also at this time that I started to feel sea sick, with the wash from the container ships creating a rough stretch of water. I had been sea sick before and I knew it was the one thing that could stop me. It was my Achilles heel.
It was only 2 years back that I had pulled out of the Bondi to Watson Bay swim due to sea sickness. I also had bad experience training at Bondi earlier this year, where I was not able to continue after getting sick. All I can say is that vomiting while swimming is not pleasant, in particular, when gravity is not there to help the process.
Luckily I had trialled various sea sickness tablets in the months leading up to my swim and after 30 minutes the nauseous feeling went away. This was great relief as it wasn’t the way I wanted to end this adventure. A big thanks must go to Scott for supplying me with his best sea sickness tablets from Canada. I would later have another dose of sea sickness tablets, just to make sure.
The separation zone is the stretch of water between the 2 major shipping lanes. The water is shallower and on the odd occasion slightly warmer. The water on the day of my swim was around 16c, with the water in the separation zone warming only slightly.
I had been swimming for about 4 hours and was starting to feel it. I had made a good start, but was concerned that I had gone out too fast. My stroke was starting to slow and the reality of what my body was going through started to bite. I know when I am going through a tough patch when I start gritting my teeth (literally) and counting strokes. It is not a good place to be when you know you have 6 hours or more to go.
It was at this time that I started to draw on certain people for motivation. I had spent the weeks leading up to the swim writing what to think about in these moments. It was my way to mentally prepare and have thoughts front of mind when needed.
My mind would often return to all the different people who motivated me in the weeks leading up to the swim, in particular, good friends that had sent me motivational emails and videos. I imagined each of them at different stages sitting on the boat cheering me on. It was a way to zone out and pass the hours.
I would also turn to those that are no longer here. I remembered my Great Uncle Harry, who in 1917 made the journey across the English Channel only to lose his life in the WW1 battlefields. I thought of my Grandfather ‘Dah’, who would always take me swimming at Noosa as a young boy. I also thought of my late teacher, Mr Tim Gates, who had a real passion for swimming and was the reason I completed my first ocean swim. I had no doubt they were all up there looking over me, making sure everything went to plan.
I had pushed though the 6 hour mark and all was going well. I had completed a number of 6 hour swims leading up to the big day, so I knew I would get to this far. I did not know what to expect from here on, or how my body would react.
By the 6 hour mark I had consumed 6 vegemite sandwiches and around 2 litres of fluid. I had stuck to my plan and only on the hour. My stomach was holding up ok, but I was not sure how many more salt water soaked sandwiches I could handle. I had not yet had any supplements, Gu’s or painkillers.
Over the next 30 minutes the going was getting tough. I was swimming ok, but could feel my body slowing down. I knew I had made good progress, but had no idea how far I had to go. I stopped for a moment to adjust my goggles when James asked me if I wanted some chocolate. I simply nodded as he placed a handful of chocolate buttons in the net and passed them out to me.
It was something that only another distance swimmer would understand. You can go for hours eating all the right foods, but sometimes you get cravings for something sweet. I don’t know whether it is the sugar rush or getting rid of the salt water taste in your mouth, but all swimmers used chocolate at some point in a long swim. I grabbed a handful and stuffed as many in my mouth as possible.
As I was treading water next to the boat Paul came out to talk to me for the first time. “Do you want to know how far you have to go?” I had previously said to Paul that I do not want to talk about distance until I was at least two thirds of the way across. I had a mouthful of chocolate, so I simply nodded in response. “You have 7 to go lad. 7 to go. Keep this up and you will break 10 hours”
I was a bit stunned by this news as I had prepared myself for a swim of between 11 and 13 hours. I did not expect to get anywhere near 10 hours, let alone under! I now had something to keep me focused. I spat out the remaining chocolate and got back into my swimming.
I spent the next 30 minutes calculating how long it would take me to get there. The only problem was that I could not work out why it was going to take me 3.5 hours to swim 7km? I know I could swim 1km in around 15-17 minutes, but had to account for the tides. I soon realised that 7 to go meant 7 miles to go not 7km. I would later learn that he meant 7 nautical miles, which is ever further!
At my next feed I was keen to hear an update on how much progress I had made and was told I had 5.7 miles to go. This was not what I expected to hear. I had been swimming for 45 minutes and only travelled 1.3 miles. How could this be? This was a real low point in my swim. I was starting to get tired and my left shoulder was starting to hurt. I was starting to think about how far to go and was not holding my mind together.
I yelled out to my crew to get the pain killers. I had a 500ml bottle of water on the boat marked PAIN and I had told my crew that I may call on this at about the 7 hour mark. It was a pre mixed concoction of paracetamol and aspirin designed to take the edge off. My shoulders and lower back were really hurting and closing my mind to this pain was a constant focus.
The guys tied the PAIN bottle to the rope and threw it down to me. I grabbed the bottle with both hands and had around 250ml. This was the equivalent of 2 panadols and 2 aspirins at once.
The pain killers worked quickly and I was soon able to get back into my rhythm and focus on getting to my next feed. I slowed down my pace and reminded myself that it was all about getting to France in one piece. The time was irrelevant.
I was now in the second of the shipping lanes. The sun was shining and both the wind and swell had eased. The conditions were now perfect and the French Coast was within site. I was feeling better after the pain killers and was again enjoying myself.
I could now see several container ships that had passed by. I felt their wash from a distance, but was not close enough to notice them. I was almost disappointed as I had thought about how exciting it would be if a container ship passed in front of me. I had no idea what was about to happen.
I was swimming along wondering when my next feed was going to be when I noticed the crew on the boat starting to move around. I was not sure what was going on and just assumed they had decided to all get up for a stretch. I then noticed Paul waving at me from the cockpit and he appeared to be telling me to slow down. Slow down? Why the hell would I want to slow down? I put my head back down and kept swimming.
Paul then pulled his boat up closer than normal and was clearly trying to tell me something. It was at this moment that I stopped swimming and looked up. A container ship at full speed was passing directly in front of me.
I am not sure it is appropriate to write down the words that came out of my mouth, but it is fair to say I was a little bit shocked. I have since looked up the details of the ship and discovered that the Cosco Hanjin Fuzhou from Panama is 343 metres long, 45 metres wide and at the time was carrying more than 1000 shipping containers. It was an awesome sight.
I was treading water looking up in absolute awe of what was in front of me. At first all I could hear the quiet noise of the water being pushed up as the bow ploughed through the water. This soon changed to the loud grinding of the engine, which I could feel vibrating through the water. It was at the moment that I started to worry about what I needed to do.
I could see the bow wave starting to come towards me and I instinctively decided to swim directly at the wave. It was like I was out the back at Bondi Beach, as a large set of waves came through. I swam over the first 2 waves and spontaneously decided to dive under the last (and largest) of the 3 waves and pop out the other side. The wave was large enough to propel me out of the water and it was at this moment that I gave the crew a shout. It was great fun and was an absolute highlight of the day.
I then panicked. I had made it though the bow wave, but could only see white water around me. I was worried about being sucked under or pushed around and swam for a few strokes with my head out of the water just to be safe. I soon realised there was nothing to worry about and put my head back down and angled back towards France.
I spent the next 30 minutes wondering if my crew had got any photos of the container ship. I would later learn that Mike had captured the moment on video and shared it with those following my swim on twitter.
I had now made it into French Waters and could clearly see land. The water was now becoming clear and I was no longer concerned about the cold. I was heading directly towards Cap Gris Nez in France and could see the lighthouse clearly.
The light house was where Laura and my Father would be waiting. They had both made the journey over to France on the car ferry and were going to meet me at the finish. It was great knowing someone would be there to meet me at the finish. It was during this hour that my body was starting to hurt. I had been swimming for over 8 hours and had no idea how my body would handle the next hour or so. I did my best to relax and keep the arms rolling over.
The Blue Zone is the patch of water closest to land. It is where the sea goes from dark blue to light blue on the map. My pilot had said it was his job to get me into the Blue Zone and then the rest was up to me.
I was 500m from the French Coast with the lighthouse at Cap Gris Nez towering above me. I was swimming strongly, but not going anywhere. I was being pushed from the coastline and was not able to break through the tide. I began to remember reading all the blogs and stories about swimmers who has made it this far and failed. I started to worry that my pilot had made me swim too straight. I began to worry about how much time this would add to my swim. I was looking up every few strokes and starting to tire.
It was at this point that I made the decision to put my head down and swim 100 strokes without looking up. This was my way to re focus on just swimming. I completed my 1st 100 with no progress. I did it again. No closer. I repeated this process 17 times and only looking up to the coast once I had completed another 100 strokes. It was at the end of the 17th 100 that I realised I was getting close and I could now see the rocks at bottom. I was going to make it.
The last 100 metres was a bit of a blur. I had played the final moments over and over in my mind 100 times before. I had watched you tube clips and viewed photos of other swimmers standing up on the rocks with their hands in the air. I had no idea how I would react.
I was landing on the rocky coast line that lay below the escarpment known as Cap Gris Nez. It looks bigger and more rugged than it did on Google earth. I approached the shore, but struggled to find a way into shore. I was climbing over rocks, but my legs were jelly. My back was also starting to cramp and I was worried about falling over on the rocks.
I eventually found my rock, got to my knees and stood up. It was a bizarre feeling. I was more relieved to be able to stand up rather than overwhelmed with joy. I was expecting to be emotional or jumping for joy. I was neither. It was all a bit surreal.
I then looked up and could see Laura (my girlfriend) 30m away. She was jumping over the rocks to come and meet me. I could also hear my Dads voice. He was standing up on the cliff yelling out and waiving enthusiastically. It was great to have them there as I had often thought about them during my swim.
There I was standing on a rock in France. I had made it. I had swum the English Channel.
Laura eventually made it over and found me precariously balancing on my rock. I had spent almost 10 hours in 16c water and was still covered in a large amount of wool fat. I was not looking my best. I still managed to sneak a kiss and a hug for my efforts.
I do not remember much other than I was starting to get cold and had to say goodbye to Laura to swim back to the boat. I had spent a total of 3 minutes on French Soil.
I took my cap off and tucked it into my Speedos and jumped back into the water. My boat was 200m off shore and I wanted to get back before I started to get too cold. I was also worried about my body cramping up. I jumped back into the water and swam slowly back to the boat.
I arrived at the boat and climbed up the ladder. I had made it. It has been my dream for a long time and here I was.
I looked at my crew and quietly asked what time I had done it in. The official observer looked and me and said my official time will be 9 hours and 40 minutes. I was in shock. I could not believe it. I would later learn that my time would be the 5th fastest time of the year.
Paul fired up the boat and we started our journey back to England. The distance between England and France is 34km, so the boat ride was going to take around 2 hours. I had read all the blogs that said most swimmers get sea sick on the return journey. I was hopeless on boats and was sure to be one of them. It was definitely my lucky day as I didn’t feel sick and made it all the way home without incident.
The ride home was made extra special when I was able to cruise past my training partner for the past 12 months, Duncan Adams. Duncan was attempting to swim the channel on the same day and we pulled up next to his boat to offer our support. He was looking strong and only had an hour to go. We had trained for hours together and his support during the tough sessions had made a massive difference to my preparation. I could not have done it without him.
Once past Duncan and other swimmers in the water, I was able to quietly chat with everyone on the boat. I had only met my crew hours before the swim and really wanted to get to know them. They had each played a very important role on the day and I will forever be indebted to each of them for their support.
We eventually arrived at Dover and we unloaded our gear. We were back at the car park having done what we had come here to do . It had been a long day for all and everyone was keen to get home.
In was now time for a beer. The White Horse Hotel is a traditional English Pub in the town of Dover. The pub has a strong link to English Channel swimming with the walls covered by the names, times and countries of those that have gone before. I had dreamed of putting my name up on the wall, but refused to visit until I had completed my swim. I did not want to jinx myself.
At 5pm on the day of my swim I walked into the White Horse, still wearing my Speedos. I had been standing on the rocks in France only 2 hours before and was still feeling ok. I asked the barman if I could have a pen to write on the wall. The barman looked at me and said, “have you done it lad?”. I just smiled as Mike and Chris proceed to tell him about our day.
I looked around at all the names, all the people who had gone before, from all over the world, all with very different stories. There was not much room left on the walls and I did not have the energy to aim for the ceiling, so I put my name on the door.
The Channel Swimming Association and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation maintain the official records for all swims across the English Channel. My name now appears as the 69th Australian and 1153rd person to swim from England to France. My official time was 9 hours and 40 minutes. This ranks me 5th out of the 80 solo crossings completed in 2010, 10th out of the 70 Australians (4th Male) and 121st out of all 1598 crossings. I have always maintained that my goal was to complete the English Channel and that swimming a time under 12 hours would be a bonus. The conditions on the day of my swim were pretty good and the channel Gods must have been looking over me. The English Channel is about getting from one side to the other. The time taken is of no importance. The channel is also full of people with their own stories. Mine is a very simple one. I have always been a reasonable swimmer. I was just silly enough to tell my mates I could do something that they have not done. I did not think about the English Channel until 2008 when I was inspired by a lady that I have never met swimming the Rottnest Island swim. Maybe it is time for me to get in touch with her and let her know that she made a difference to my life. I hope in some way this story has provided you with some motivation to go out and do something. It does not have to be the English Channel. It can be anything that challenges your mind and body to do something that it has never done before. It has been an amazing journey and something I will never forget.I would like to take the opportunity to thank absolutely everyone for there support. Please visit my supporters page to see who has helped me along with this journey. I would also like to thank the more than 250 people that have helped raise more than $48,000 for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.