We were driving home from having swam the English Channel freestyle in 13 hours 42 minutes. My coach, Tom Watch simply asked me if I wanted to do it again. " Maybe a two way next year?"But I knew immediately, I could not face up to the additional training. I remembered one session where I had planned a short 4 hour swim. I arrived at Weymouth and entered the water, only to 'bump into' Kevin Murphy (King of the Channel). He had already been in for hours, training for a two way. As I finished my session and said goodbye to Kevin, he still had hours to do. The look on his face assured me, I just couldn't match up.
Tom suggested, why not backstroke.......it hasn't been done before.
It's odd really, but I knew immediately, I wanted to have another go, and backstroke would excite me sufficiently to struggle through another year of training. Just one problem, I hadn't swum a single stroke for nearly twenty years, and even then it was my third stroke. When I swam a medley, the backstroke always let me down.
However, the secret ingredient had already been tasted. I didn't even need to consider the difficulties and challenges that would come my way. I simply didn't care. I would swim the English Channel again, backstroke, knowing the challenges would come and be overcome. They did not matter and I didn't need to find out what they might be, nor did it cross my mind as to exactly why backstroke hadn't been swam before ,(or even attempted). I simply knew from deep down inside and come what may, I would swim in the Channel again, next year, and it would be backstroke.
The thing with new challenges is this: If you want to jump out of an aeroplane, don't worry about the training, the nerves, the obstacles. Just make the phone call to the Parachute Training School . If you want to swim the Channel, yes its tough, but just make the phone call and meet up with the people. Get on the track and stay on it. It may be long and there may be stops along the way. But one thing about a track is this: it usually will get you to a destination and often the journey will be faster than you think, if you stay on track.
Returning home, I spent a few weeks relearning to swim backstroke.It felt awkward for the first couple of sessions but very soon became second nature.The one thing that made it easy was simply a matter that I had already spent a year swimming some pretty tough stuff. I was fit, conditioned and ready for a new challenge. I had no need to build up swimming hours, learn patience or gain the additional resolve needed to train. I already had these in sufficient quantities. All I had to do was become comfortable swimming backstroke.It felt odd that I was even contemplating a Channel swim having not swam backstroke for so long. But I never questioned whether or not it was even possible. Training makes it so and impossible is simply just another persons opinion.
It wasn't easy. Or should I say, it got difficult once I transferred from the pool to open water in April. No matter how I swam, I could not get comfortable with the waves flushing over my face. Every small drop finding its way up my nose or down my throat .It seemed I was drinking the whole ocean simply by the affects of gravity, drop by drop through my nose and teaspoonful by teaspoonful through my mouth. Salt water simply pouring downhill to the back of my throat.
I tried everything. Nose clips just fell off within minutes. If attached more tightly, they hurt and still fell off. I tried packing my nose with silicon to assist the clip to stay put. It worked after a fashion. Until my body heat warmed up. The silicon then softened and got swallowed up through my nose into my mouth, and needed spitting out.
Looking back now, I was fortunate to be training alongside Trish Bayliss who was hoping to become the oldest female Channel swimmer. Her freestyle was a touch slower than my backstroke, so often I could at least settle into her pace and try to relax a little.
Training through the following months was particularly unpleasant, involving many bouts of sea sickness (something I had never experienced in freestyle). The sickness would creep up on me within an hour or so and it affected my resolve and strength. Doubts crept in as I worried how unpleasant the sessions would be if I were sick for hours. I could not concentrate on stroke rate and comfort, nor could I develop any sense of zen and find that special place of comfort for my spirit to dwell in peace whilst my body struggled with the physicality of such an unpleasant effort.
Gradually, the hours increased from one, to two, to four and still I was sick. Curling into a ball , face underwater, preferring to do the business under water than have to think about keeping my head clear and risk gasping more salt infested water into my stomach. After being sick, I would feel weak and disheartened, but Tom made me swim on.
One day a few weeks before the swim, I solved the issue. I simply stuck standard plasters ( the rough textured ones, not the smooth ones) across my nose and sealed the gap of my nostrils together. Then taped up my whole nose to ensure they all stayed stuck on.
In order to facilitate exhalations through my nose, I put the tiniest spot of Vaseline under my nose, where the plasters would not stick. I could now breath out through my nose but water could not enter. It made all the difference. Once fixed, the plasters would last the whole duration of my swims without needing to be reapplied. It looked odd, but mid Channel there are few spectators. I could now swim in a far more relaxed position and not care if my whole face were submerged by small waves.
It was so exciting swimming for Tom, and both Trish and I were seeking world first or world oldest status. Straight forward swims would never seem to match up again. The training was always difficult, generally becoming used to the hours, or to be more precise, comfortable and patient of the hours still to do before being allowed to get out.
One session early August had Trish arriving a couple hours late, but she spotted us and started to swim out to intercept Toms boat, Windsong. During the swim over, she had dropped her car keys which had been attached to her watch strap. We spent the next hour or so, swimming back along her route. After a while I spotted a glint in the sand and duck dived maybe 10 meters, I couldn't tell whether it was her keys, until I actually extended my hand towards them. A real stroke of luck. Later that day, Tom spotted a brown thing floating by and I got the blame. It wasn't me. Sometimes, things help a session to pass more quickly.
The following week, we were training as usual, but Trish had arranged some TV and radio for her swim. I had been roped in too, although from a different region, they had two stories to cover. I felt awkward with my plastered up nose and removed them, so I could speak if needed and not look too silly.
Tom is filmed from the wheel of Windsong as he looks over the side and waves me on, bellowing words of encouragement in a rather gruff tone. It prompts the question every one has to ask of a trainer. "Just why are coaches always so horrible?" "Well, if you're not cruel, you don't get the best out of them. It's a cruel sport this?"
After I was finished with the TV crews, I cruised around close in shore and an older gentleman swam out and approached me. He introduced himself as Gordon Chapman. He had been the first swimmer in 1951, that Tom had coached across the Channel and the 25th Channel swimmer ever. A spot of history, Tom's first and the latest in a rather long list of swimmers that had Tom to thank forever.
We spent a couple hours with this fun way to use up some training time and I must say, the coverage was fantastic. But is was soon time to get back into normal training routines.
The day arrived soon enough when we all met up at a Folkestone guest house and then those precious and unforgetable moments on 26th August, standing on Shakespeare Beach, all greased up. The cameras were there again, but this time they were intruding and expected interviews. I guess they needed ten minutes. Trish had arrived ashore before me and was in good voice. The last thing I needed was to stand around , being blow dried in the cold dawn breeze. I brushed off a question with a "We really need to be swimming right now" and off I walked into the shallow surf. Trish followed immediately. Today would be history making, if we both got across, the worlds oldest lady and the worlds first backstroke.
The swim caused a real stink.
Early in the year I had swam the Exmouth Fairway Buoy swim, a short sea swim, often used as the first meeting in the South West of the regions distance swimmers. It was a bit of a surprise to see that I was not the only back stroke swimmer, and a guy from Cheltenham was also laying his cards on the table, to be the first to swim the Channel backstroke.
Suddenly there was a race on, Scott and Amundsen all over again. Except one problem. I had booked my pilot boat the summer before, for a September tide. The Cheltenham guy, had booked his for early August and would get the first crack. Trish had booked hers for mid August.
It was difficult reconciling the fact another swimmer would have first crack at attempting the swim. I didn't get the full details of his swim, except he did not make it. I felt awkward feeling happy about that. But there still remained sufficient time for him to get in another swim, well before my tide. It was a worrying thought. It just seemed natural, that I go halves with Trish's boat and share her swim. Bringing my swim forward a few weeks before I was ready, was a bad plan (particularly as I had not registered this swim with the CSA) it was a last minute decision but needed to be implemented.
Looking back through the records of The Channel Swimming Association, it was clear many people had shared a pilot boat. Indeed, Tom had also coached and observed for others that also shared a boat. The rules of the Association were silent on the matter of shared boats and drafting had never been a concern in those days. Being registered to swim was though, and notifying the CSA your swim was planned as a record attempt was also a requirement.
Side by side we swam, escorted by our boat 'Accord' and the TV boat, filming. It was a relief when they turned back towards Dover after thirty minutes or so. Together we swam. As it was Trish's boat, she called all the shots. I fed when she fed, I swam at her pace, if she wanted to swim one side of the boat I followed.
The swim progressed for hours as we gently swam alongside each other. Swimming with a companion realy does make a huge difference compared with a solo effort. Then the gales came. Swells were higher than ten feet and winds exceeded F5, we were being battered. We had taken shelter in the lee of the boat and out of the wind. We would swim forward until we were ahead of the bows where we were then whipped with the sting of spray blowing off the waves. Then Accord would be put into gear and would slowly catch us, draw level and pull ahead. We would again be whipped as we fell behind the stern . Accord would then go into neutral and we would slowly overtake the boat and the cycle would start again.
This continued for a couple of hours but the writing was on the wall. Trish had swam her heart out and after twelve hours, reluctantly climbed back aboard Accord. Defeated by the weather? One thing is sure, had the Channel be gentler she would have stayed in for the last few miles and would have been crowned the worlds oldest female Channel swimmer. Her swim would have counted and mine would have caused controversy.
I was left in the water and encouraged Tom to take care of Trish while I swam on, rather than having to take care of us both at the same time. The pilot had said we were being taken further away from France by the minute in the storm. I suggested I had been swimming slowly and was cold, but had plenty of swimming left. I could now work harder , get warm and see what happens in the next hour. I stayed in. It was great, I had a five mile battle to get ashore and it felt like a simple training swim but with intensity. I swam my heart out . After an hour, I was much warmer and inspired with the battle. But, I was now six miles from France and it was clear the swim should be abandoned. Safety is paramount and indeed, coming ashore (even if I could get there) would be very risky in a storm, in the dark, and nearer Boulogne than Cap Gris Nez. This effort was the best training swim ever.
Trish and I huddled together for warmth in the cabin and spent a semi conscious few hours in the rather unpleasant boat ride back to Folkestone. Unaware the storm at sea was being matched by a storm in the offices of the CSA.
Without delving too much in the history , personalities, politics and reasons of what happened during the subsequent meetings and phone calls. The consequences were clear. No more shared boats and no more swimming side by side. Our failed swims had raised questions which once answered, were rule changers. Whilst all the previous swimmers that had shared a boat , swimming side by side and successfully making the crossing, had been ratified "Channel Swimmers", the practice was no longer judged to be acceptable and new rules were introduced baning both practices. It is now no longer permitted for two swimmers to share the costs of the swim, and swim side by side for the crossing.
We could always argue about safety or lack of revenue for the pilots if the habit of sharing boats were encouraged. However, the growing number of aspiring Channel swimmers were causing a back log of swimmers waiting as much for available boats as for good weather. Boat sharing by two swimmers (particularly equally paced training companions) swimming together on one tide seemed just one way to resolve the problem.
The fact that boat sharing had been an accepted practice for years seemed irrelevant. But for some reason, our failed swims had caused sufficient discussion to change the rules.
Obviously, there needed to be more boats, and now each swimmer would be required to pay the full amount. At about this time, some disharmony between the members of the CSA commitee, pilots, swimmers and other interested individuals caused a split.
The formation of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CSPF) eventually brought more boats to satisfy the growing business of escorting the ever increasing numbers of aspiring Channel swimmers and with variations to the rules between the organisations, a swimmer could now select which organisation they would choose to ratify their swims.
There remained to be answered the most awkward question of all.
If I had got across during my unregistered first attempt , my swim would not have counted. Then, if my fellow backstroke swimmer, in a subsequent couple of weeks returned for a second attempt, and succeeded, he would have been officially the worlds first backstroker, even though I would have been ( in reality), the worlds first.
This would have been a real mess and to a highly strung swimmer, I had given the question no thought whatever. I knew my swim would never have counted but would certainly have stood clear of water in France and claimed it to be an unoficial world first, had I of succeeded. Looking back, I wonder if Tom saw the problem and ensured I would not stay in long enough, just in case I got across. I hope so. Maybe the bad weather was fortuitous.
Despite a 'successful' swim, not counting, and the second persons successful swim counting, the second swimmer would always know his swim, despite being officially regarded as being the first, was actually the second. Both swimmers are robbed because of the need to abide by the rules.
I suppose then, some swims are not simply a matter of swimming.
The swims also have to jump through a number of hoops too. Sometimes the hoops are complicated, expensive and poorly designed. Others are in place to retain the integrity and transparency of the swims. Twenty years later, integrity is more and more being questioned and tested to the full. Rules change to incorporate new developments and sentiments, we the swimmers, often demand them. But at the end of the day, the English Channel still has to be swum, and Neptune punishes every one who thinks he is ready.
Whether the race was still on with the Cheltenham swimmer, I had no idea, except I still had my boat booked for September and properly registered with the CSA as a world record attempt,this time it would count.
6th September arrived. The tide was in Spring mode and many aspiring swimmers chose to stay ashore that day. Aboard Accord we motored out of Folkestone and followed a moonlight glow, past the tunnel workings and the twinkling lights, on towards Shakespeare beach. All greased up and complete with rather natty sticking plasters applied firmly in place. Channel swimming history in the making.
0225 Shakespeare Beach. Just the thought sends shivers up my spine. Air temp 54F water 62F. Within two hours, my gentle pace and the flooding tide brings us close to the Goodwin Lightship.This was not good news. I knew I was taking it easy but had no idea how the flood had taken over and had pushed me so far up channel. I had been suffeing cramp in my legs and would spend a few minutes cycling them rather than kicking them, in an effort to stretch them out. Sometime later we had moved inside the light and Ramsgate was directly astern.
0620 and I am told to stop and look at the sunrise happening behind me. What an awe inspiring site. Photos were taken (and my mum as a surprise, later copied a photo into an original oil painting. It's become a valued possession). The French coast would soon be visible in the brightening morning sky. I get sick and throw up in the water. This is worrying after so few hours thus swam, but simply has to be ignored and is soon forgotten.
0945, I am told I just missed catching a brown jellyfish in my hand. It's strange how the crew can see these things, but I had no idea. In all the swimming in the English Channel, I have never been stung, not once. Nicely in the separation zone now, with many boats either behind or in front. It was looking to be a great day. Tom yelled at me to get moving, I had been taking things too easily. I suppose, after the swim with Trish, I was aware that I could get across if I left enough in the tank for the final few hours.
I was beginning to suffer. It's an unusual torment. The body tired after a few hours, but the knowledge there are many more still to swim. I recognise that once I believel I cannot possibly make it, I am somewhere around half way. This is the hard bit. The mental torture of simply maintaining the struggle for a few more hours.
Although conditions were perfect, I had muscular pain and was cold. Nine hours in. The struggle made me feel I could not carry on and my thoughts were defeating me. I was desperate and felt I couldn't possibly make it. I suddenly thought of Tom McNally, the non swimming adventurer who sailed the Atlantic in a five foot homemade boat. (I had met him a few days earlier). He had been sponsored by Sector Watches. Their 'No Limits' philosophy popped into my mind and for an hour or so I repeated the slogan in my mind, over and over again, in time with my stroke rate. (left arm,
" NO", right arm," LIMITS"). I concentrated on wearing the mantle of a world champion, considering the ten second effort of the 100 meter sprint superstars. The negative thoughts were replaced by inspiration. I deserved my record and was going to get it, even if it took the rest of the day and into the night.
The English Channel really is everything that is said of it. Yes, a few hundred swimmers have got across but many (most) are ordinary people. We are not super fit athletes who can train every day. We are not superstars, not even swimmers in our prime. We simply have a dream to swim to swim the Channel and have to suffer everything it takes. The rest of the swim was painful but my mind was refocused. Dreams can come true if you make them.
For me, the Channel is about as tough as I could ever imagine. Tough enough that (if a little tougher) it would be too big a challenge and too much to suffer. Yet within my ability sufficient that I simply have to suffer and if I give it everything I have, I might just be able to maintain the suffering just long enough to get close.
The paradox is clear. Many much greater swimmers than I fail and
many succeed in times approaching half the time I would take. I wonder who is the better swimmer. I consider how the record holders would feel if they had to swim for ten more hours. If a top class swimmer can get across in under ten hours then surely they were good enough to swim for seven hours more. After all, I as a pretty rubbish swimmer had to swim for such a time, surely they could too? (Twenty years later the world record would be under seven hours, a full ten hours faster than my swim). I wonder how Trent Grimsey would have felt if he were told he had ten more hours to swim, after his record breaking swim? Surely he was good enough to do so, if required? I reckon he would cry like a baby, just thinking of it. So we cry too, doing it. We stay in far too long, we suffer. We are not good enough but something keeps us afloat, we swim. Enduring the hours, tormenting our souls. Body and spirit defeated, yet we still swim. There is always strength for one more pull. We pull.
I start to believe again and earnestly promise myself that I will never ever have to swim the Channel again. It really is too tough a swim for an ordinary swimmer like me. After today, I can hang up my trunks. I believe me.
Twelve hours swimming gets us four miles off the French coast. Four miles now seems insignificant after the many training sessions of similar distance. But it's a false comfort. Nevertheless, I hold the thought close. Only four more miles, maybe three more hours (it turned out to be five more hours). Sometimes it's all you need to know. If only I can keep swimming for a couple more hours, then I will be so close I could almost walk ashore. Even if I had to simply float ashore, I was going to have a great ending to the toughest day of my life.
Dover Coastguards radio for location check in. It seems the swim is getting a lot of attention now the final stages are being played out.
1.3 miles from the Abbeyville Buoy, the cliffs getting bigger and the monument on Cap Blanc Nez standing as high as I hope soon to do. But you can't see France when swimming on your back.
I have been here before, the time when I see the frantic working on the deck, to prepare the rubber Zodiac for the final escort inshore. Soon Accord stands off, and I am aware of the Captains mate and John Calder the CSA observer, coming alongside for the final twenty minutes. It's been a long swim, salt water fills my goggles and I avert my eyes.
I am aware I am swimming in shallow water and attempt to stand. I feel the sand under my toes but cannot stand. I swim a few more strokes on my back and try again. I can stand, but facing France I try to walk forward, but only succeed in walking backwards towards England. I fall over. I ceremoniously tear off the plasters from my nose and try again. I stand but cannot walk forwards at all, falling over every time. Soon enough though, I reach shallow enough water where I can crawl on my hands and knees. The water is now inches deep and a few moments later I will be clear.
Standing up but being unable to stand steady. I look back towards England, it is too far to see in the dimming light. I know it's out there somewhere. It's nearly half past seven at night and getting dark. I try to think how long the swim has taken, but cannot work it out.
I raise my hands above my head, but they are too heavy to celebrate. I have just become the first person in history to swim the English Channel backstroke. It's an odd feeling, me? How come it was me? Surely there's been a mistake. I am not a great swimmer, I am very average. Really, I am ordinary, but have just done something extraordinary.
Looking back to England again, I wonder how much more swimming I had left. Could I really swim back to the boat, or further still? It doesn't matter and I stop thinking, I need to rest. There are just the three of us on this deserted section of French beach. I quickly get into the rubber boat and we motor back to Tom on Accord.
Tom and John said something special. "We'll mark it on our calender 6th September 1993, the Haydn Welch day.....forever"
Worlds first backstroke 17 hours 2 minutes.
Thank you Tom Watch. Words will never be able to express how you have inspired my life. I will be greatful to you and your lovely wife Sheila, forever. Maybe you know that already and the words don't matter. It's all in the smile. Perhaps I should just say "Thanks Tom, you crusty old sea dog".
And thanks John Calder, for the diaries, cartoons and being the official CSA Observer.
And my training partners Paul Millet, Bob Holman, Marc Newman, Trish Baylis. We shared the salt water sores together.
Gosh, my eyes are watering.