So, your daughter, girlfriend or sister comes to you and says she wants to swim for around 15 hours non-stop in very cold water across the busiest shipping lane in the world. Oh, and this shipping lane is on the other side of the world. She’s crazy, right?
Well, that’s what happened to Andrea and Gwyn Williams, and until I talked to Andrea that would have been my reaction. With more insight though I realise crazy is not the right word. Dedicated, passionate, obsessive maybe, but a truly crazy person would surely not be able to carry out the detailed planning and organisation necessary for the attempt.
Andrea and Gwyn’s daughter Ceinwen is planning to swim across the English Channel in August this year. She’s doing it because she wants to, it’s a challenge, and to raise funds for the fight against breast cancer. Her fiancé’s cousin is battling the disease, having been diagnosed at just 24 years old. To date Ceinwen and her supporters have raised around $35,000.
Ceinwen (pronounced Kine-win, Welsh, believed to mean precious gem or beautiful) is just 31 years old, and described by her mum as a ‘pocket rocket’. She’s been involved in competitive swimming since she was a child, but it was not until she started distance swimming that she started to excel. She’s only small, at 156cm, and that’s a disadvantage in shorter races, but less so in long distance swims.
Swimming across the English Channel is not just a matter of getting in the water and heading for France (most attempts are from the UK towards France). It’s a serious undertaking, with a history going back well over 100 years. The first successful swimmer was Matthew Webb in 1875. More people have climbed Everest than have swum the Channel.
Apart from being physically fit enough to swim the distance, there are all sorts of logistical hurdles to overcome. As suggested on the Channel Swimmers’ Association website, the three Ps are essential, Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. Ceinwen has been preparing her attempt for about 3 years.
She trains, of course, mostly in the Swan River. This is because the ocean in Perth is too warm for much of the year, and she needs to acclimatise herself to the 15 to 18 degrees she will encounter in the Channel. There are plenty of jellyfish in the Swan, but rarely sharks as there are in the Indian Ocean. There are occasionally sharks in the Channel, but not often. Cold is the major enemy; being very slight Ceinwen loses heat quickly. Putting on a few kilos would solve that, but then she would have more weight to propel through the water, so she has to strike a happy medium.
The crossing is around 34km in a straight line, but because of currents and trying to get across the shipping lanes Ceinwen will swim around 40km, between Dover and Cap Gris Nez. Another difficulty is there is nothing to aim at. From Ceinwen’s viewpoint in the water, all she can see is her pilot boat, so that is the only way she can know if she is swimming in a straight line. She may well be swimming in the dark, if that is the best time to start then that is when she will start. No light means no horizon, nothing to swim towards.
She is not allowed a wetsuit or flippers, just conventional bathers, cap, goggles and earplugs. She can also cover her body in grease to help insulate herself against the cold and prevent chafing.
I was surprised to learn just how many people attempt the crossing each year. The peak season is July and August, the northern summer, but it’s also possible in June and September if the weather is good. That gives a maximum season of 16 weeks. For your swim to be an official achievement you have to be accompanied by an accredited pilot boat, of which there are 25. Each swimmer gets allocated a boat for one week, during which time they have to hope that the conditions will be right for the swim. That comes out to 400 attempts each summer, and apparently the slots are filled well in advance. The fee payable to the pilot boat alone is around £2,500, which is non-refundable. There’s obviously a big impact on the local economy around Dover, with swimmers and their support groups booking accommodation.
Coming from Kalamunda in Western Australia, the major part of the cost for Ceinwen is travelling to the UK and staying there. Her family is going with her, and Andrea is discreet about the total cost of the venture, but estimates in the region of $15,000 to $20,000.
Ceinwen does get to eat during the swim, but must feed herself, as no one else is allowed to touch her. Andrea has come up with a way to give her daughter a range of food and drink each time, by hanging a basket from the end of a long pole. Choices will include warm sweet rice pudding, bananas, hot sweet tea, baby food, and fresh water. Not surprisingly, given that Ceinwen is surrounded by salt water, savoury food is not popular. Mouthwash helps to counteract the effects of the salt. She is also allowed liquid Nurofen, which acts as a muscle relaxant to help prevent cramp. Other drugs are strictly forbidden, and Ceinwen is subject to random drug testing like other athletes.
Psychological support is very important during the swim. Some of the first effects of approaching hypothermia are mental rather than physical, so Ceinwen’s support team must be aware of her mental state and keep her motivated. Andrea is preparing banners that she will hold out of the boat at intervals with motivational phrases and encouraging images. Pictures of different wedding dresses feature here, as Ceinwen’s next major challenge is getting married. She has already done the Milford Track in New Zealand and the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, hopefully she will have swum the Channel, so what else is there?
Julie Livingstone 2011
PS This article was written before Ceinwen attempted her swim. She made it, and she and other swimmers in her group raised around $50,000 for Breast Cancer.