English Channel Crosser’s Open Water Message for 2021: ‘Find Inspiration in it’

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Photo Courtesy: Craig Lord

English Channel Crosser’s Open Water Message for 2021: ‘Find Inspiration in it’

By Kat Hall, Swimming World Contributor.

During the past eight months, most of us have had our athletic events, whether competitive or recreational, cancelled. As courts, fields, rinks, and tracks have closed, then slowly reopened, only to close again, it’s worth noting that during the pandemic the most consistently supported activity by authorities, including the United States Masters Swimming (USMS), has been swimming outdoors.

The uncoordinated governmental response to COVID-19 has caused so much anxiety and confusion about safety that many have made the agonizing personal choice to even pass on outdoor swimming competitions they may have planned. This posed particular difficulty for those swims with the greatest demand, those events so hard to get into that they take years to get off the wait list. Postponing would not only risk rescheduling to 2021, but, more likely, until 2022 and beyond.

One of these is the prestigious English Channel. Its popularity is best understood by the

fact that the nearly 2,000 swimmers who have ever completed it by themselves have spanned nearly every decade of life, ranging from 11-73 years old. Given its metonym, the “Mt. Everest of ocean swimming,” in fact, about 3,000 fewer people have swum the English Channel than have summitted Everest. Still as grueling as it was almost 150 years ago, when the first swimmer was recorded to finish, its average success rate is less than 50%. Those are not great odds.

The oldest and most established open water swimming event, the English Channel rules have also served as guidelines for all marathon swims and channel crossings around the world. An experienced escort boat, registered pilot, oversight by an administrative authority such as the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), official observer, and regulations down to the type of swimsuit and cap are just some examples of what’s required. Swimmers are not allowed to rest, hold onto or even touch a boat of any sort, and must have any food or drink tossed to them while they are swimming. Most importantly, they are not allowed to wear wetsuits or neoprene of any sort anywhere on their body, such as in a swim cap, gloves, or boots.

As if coordinating these components weren’t enough, the pandemic introduced many more variables, including international restrictions against Americans traveling to Europe. But in June 2020, four months after the first positive test was detected in England, the COVID-19 Governmental UK Guidelines officially allowed open water swimming again, and this was just enough of a silver lining for one man, Van Cornwell, to start planning his attempt.

Van is someone who paddleboards, scuba dives, rows, kayaks, surfs, and sails all along the Pacific coast, but he radiates the most joy while he is swimming. With the playful, carefree attitude of a little boy, no one would ever guess he recently turned 50. But as a former ultra-marathon runner, he also exudes intensity, a self-effacing reserve, and the focused calm required of any endurance effort.

“Training for marathon swimming and ultrarunning is similar,” he said. “There is a ramp-up required. And a thrill to working on longer distances that keep pushing you. But swimming is so much different than running. Your mind doesn’t stay on one thing. When you’re running you can get lost in thoughts. In swimming, there is so much to pay attention to. It’s much easier to get overwhelmed. You’re cold, wet, awkward, trying to remember how to coordinate your arms and legs.”

Van’s relationship with the water is so osmotic he has even slid into several species’ habitats. In Carmel, Van swam with a baby and mother whale, and in Hawaii, with a bale of sea turtles. A few years ago, he was just a few feet away from a sea lion snatching a leopard shark in its teeth just as it was breaching in the San Francisco Bay. It’s almost as if these creatures recognize Van as one of their own, just another marine mammal passing through.

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The English Channel wasn’t always at the top of Van’s mind, but when his dad suggested it to him in 2018, and kept encouraging him, Van put his name on the wait list. His marathon swimming network told him there was a slim chance would get in during the pandemic. They encouraged him to wait another two years. It would be an even longer wait for him to secure an official pilot and crew for the boat that would be accompanying him.

There was also the risk of coronavirus exposure. Flying to England would be an 11-hour international flight. Data has been scant correlating time spent on flights to outbreaks of disease, but some scientists have found the attack rate for COVID-19 among close contacts to be as high as 60%. Spending time in a shared, enclosed area like an airplane cabin with strangers who have unknown adherence to public health guidelines does not put the mind at ease. With a long incubation period, and asymptomatic transmission though, such an experiment linking flight data with COVID might be impossible to conduct, Van realized, so he figured he would do the best he could with masking, quarantining, and handwashing. There was also the chance that the French government, in order to control the coronavirus spread, would prevent swimmers from touching their shore (part of the official requirement to complete the swim) if cases surged during the week Van was hoping to travel.

Swimming the English Channel can be dubious for other reasons, even without an international public health crisis. The strait’s narrowest passage is still a soul-crushing distance of 21 miles, and some have died trying. Its water temperature usually falls in the low 60s, and being subjected to this for hours on end can cause hypothermia, loss of consciousness, and physiological damage. Then there are the currents. They usually change as swimmers approach the other side of the channel, and can work directly against them, like an unrelenting headwind blowing from France. For many, there is no guarantee they will even complete their first attempt, and the strongest of swimmers can spend thousands of dollars trying multiple times. Some may suffer for up to 20 hours if conditions are not optimal, and they may even be pulled out of the water against their will if observers deem it necessary for physical safety.

Finally, if there are strong winds, the swimmer will not even be allowed to start, so any expectations of planning ahead of time have to be put aside in complete allegiance to nature. All the physical preparation in the world can be at the mercy of poor weather, a sentiment alpinists and mountaineers must cope with all the time. Undertaking a Channel swim means not only subjecting oneself to the whims of nature, but embracing its unknowable limits.

The only thing Van realized he could control was his training. And anyway, this, to him, was the real joy.

“Many athletes get so much more out of a qualifying event or training activity than the competition itself. The lead up to the event is so much more gratifying,” he said.

For Van, that lead up was a swim in his favorite place on earth, Tomales Bay. About two hours north of San Francisco, it is a narrow body of water about 15 miles long, an inlet that collects water between the Tomales Point peninsula and the California mainland. As a primary source of oysters, it brings in large profits for the fishing industry. It is also a rich natural resource for protected species like seagrass, and, due the mixing of freshwater from creeks and saltwater from the ocean, a critical habitat for clams and shrimp.

About five miles from the mouth of Tomales Bay sits a tiny piece of land, Hog Island. In July, Van decided to swim an out-and-back course there that was almost 15 miles.

“I am lucky that the Round Trip Hog Island swim was close to my home. It is just a beautiful spot. There are great views, it is protected from vessel traffic, and the water is very calm.”

Despite the fact that there weren’t many waves or winds, the swim was not without risks that could have impacted his health. It’s not uncommon to start a marathon swim in the dark, in the middle of the night, when waters are most likely to be calm. Van began at 3 a.m. In the middle of the nearly 7 hours he was in the water, he encountered heaps of sea nettles, large jellyfish with long tentacles that send painful stings to paralyze their prey. He kept getting stung over and over, and though medical attention is rarely required from these types of jellies, there was a chance that he could have experienced an allergic reaction.

“I just kept going. I was swimming hard enough that I didn’t feel the cold, even though the water was about 60 degrees. But I was struggling a lot.”

When he finished, he reflected back on the other qualifying swims he had attempted that had gone worse than expected.

“Over the summer, I tried to swim from Giant’s Stadium, across the Bay Bridge, around Treasure Island, and down the San Francisco Bay around Angel Island, but the tide and weather got so bad I got stuck. It was very wavy, the tide was strong, and the whole course completely fell apart due to a wind advisory. I was so disappointed when my escort boat made me stop.”

As the summer came to a close, it seemed possible that Van was going to be able to aim for a Channel swim in September. With only ten days until his departure, his friend Susan dropped off a curated chemical concoction she had made at home that he could use for his skin while swimming. It was an impenetrable way to wish him luck. Providing protection from sun, stings, and chafing, it included the prosaic ingredients open water swimmers swear by: Vaseline, Desitin diaper rash cream, and Boudreaux’s butt paste (is it fair to call such a mixture “bad ass”?)

When Susan melted this potion in a pan as if it were a cauldron, she added just a hint of vanilla extract. It was a nice touch, the first time he wouldn’t reek of fish oil and water-resistant chemicals.

Everything was ready. But just as Van’s wife was putting her bags together, there was another setback. Her passport had expired. It was going to take 6 months due to COVID, they told her, and the USPS was short-staffed, overwhelmed, and in the throes of managing mail-in ballots for the election. Van couldn’t imagine traveling without his wife, but he sat tight and stayed cool. At the last minute, there was another stroke of luck. Her renewal arrived in the mail just a day before their flight.

Stressful moments like these represent just how easy it is for Van to channel immense inner calmness at any point in time. He didn’t even worry about driving on the opposite side of the street in the UK, even though he had never done it before. After a two week self-quarantine in Europe, which helped him adjust to the time change, he received notice that conditions were right, and he could swim.

It was September 11, 2020, the anniversary of a day when 3,000 Americans were killed in an attack in NYC almost 20 years ago. It was not the best omen. When Van got to the beach, there was no sand on the English Channel shore so he was not even able to have a beach start. Challenge after challenge confronted him, almost as a dare. He eventually had to crawl on top of a sharp rock for his official starting point, which was required by the authorities to be above the water line.

When he jumped in, everything fell into place. The water was smooth, conditions were beautiful, and the currents were mild. The temperature was hovering around a tolerable 64-degrees, and he definitely grew tired, but not exhausted. There weren’t even many jellyfish, which have bloomed in recent years due to climate change. Van didn’t get stung once.

“When I finished, I realized I had been swimming pretty fast. It would have been much harder if I had swum slower. I’ve been colder before, I’ve been stung before, and it was not a ‘near-death,’” he reflected on his English Channel crossing.

A “near-death” can include severe dehydration due to diarrhea and vomiting, swelling of the tongue, an inability to swallow, lung restriction, and bleeding of the skin.

Though he didn’t experience any of these symptoms, Van did report chafing from the saltwater, swelling in his face, nausea, fatigue, and shivering. In comparison, I realized I would not have tolerated this, and wondered what internal resources he had to work through the pain. When I found out the English Channel took him 12 hours, which is faster than the average time (completions have ranged from about 7 to 54 hours), I wondered what he was thinking about for such a long time. How did he regulate his emotions? What was getting him through all the physical suffering? What did he do to counteract the desire to get out and get warm?

“It’s not easy to just relax and not feel rotten. But I get into a mindset where I relinquish control. I create separation, detach from my body. I wonder, how is this machine working? I notice that it’s my body that feels this pain. I tell myself, ‘don’t become the pain. Observe it from a distance.’”

He also placed complete trust in his crew as experts, deciding he would not stop unless he was told, counting on others to stay vigilant for signs of hypothermia in him, like confusion or slurred speech. Deciding on this plan up front freed his mind altogether, allowing him to focus on his physical performance, achieve separation, and shift his attention instead to tracking his time with his watch, remaining mindful of his stroke rate.

Van’s mantra struck me. Don’t become the pain. With the heaviness of the world’s challenges overturning our daily lives right now, everyone is feeling some type of pain. Many of us have lost families, friends, and communities. But detaching from all the ways we may feel uncertainty, loss, discomfort, or pain, so that it doesn’t become us, so that it doesn’t overwhelm us, is the kind of thinking that we can all adopt right now. Practicing this detachment, we can do what Van did during his successful COVID crossing, and shift our attention to our bodies, away from harmful thoughts, in order to build inner toughness and recover more quickly.

The English Channel crosser’s message to those who are struggling right now? “Keep doing what you like and continue to find inspiration in it. You never know what lucky surprises are in store for you.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Loretta

    Wonderful article…so very inspiring!

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