Will You Try Again?

Sunday 10/10/10

The piercing sting of disappointment has faded to a dull, periodic twinge. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to swim on the first day of my window. That gave us six days of touring in England before our scheduled flight back. Each morning, the dreary realization that I hadn’t made it to France would leak out in diminishing squirts of anguish. By the time we reached Lands End on the extreme southwest tip of England, I was almost dry. That was a good thing. Otherwise, I’d have found myself in the middle of the Dolphin Club locker room, gushing out an uncontrollable and embarrassing puddle.

I still would not trade this year-long experience for anything (except maybe a successful swim.) Every milestone was fresh and exciting. Writing about the quest accentuated and deepened each aspect. And that’s one of the problems with giving it another go. I worry that a second attempt would feel less like an adventurous lark and more like a tedious chore.

And then there’s the cost. With pilot fees, registration costs, and kennel charges for the critters; $5,500 is out the door before even thinking about travel and lodging. Circumstances smiled on us this year, but the state of the economy doesn’t promise continued good fortune.

Probably the biggest deterrent to another try is psychological. I had a good deal of confidence going into the swim. I felt extremely well prepared and had regularly visualized success. The possibility of not making it a second time raises the prospect of dread and what fun is that? One man faltered on his third attempt this year and the short note he offered the Channel swimming community was redolent of heartache.

But, if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that some things are unpredictable. I maintained adamantly that a solo English Channel attempt was not in my future right up until the time that it was. So, the best I can say is that I currently have absolutely no plans whatsoever for a redux assault. On the other hand, I am going to start a strengthening program for my gluteal muscles. It certainly can’t hurt.

Surfing to France

Tuesday 09/28/10

We form a two-car convoy in the dark, scrupulously obeying the speed limit on the A20 to Dover. Jackie Merovich and her fiancé, Larry Heine, are in the trailing car. Darcy W, Lindsay, and I occupy the lead car. Lindsay and I trained our GPS to recognize the location of the Dover Marina on Sunday. Given the female voice, we’ve named the device “Roxanne.” She is cooing directions in the background. For once, we know how to get where we’re going in England and we ignore her. Just another slightly embarrassing example of our “belt and suspenders” mentality when it comes to this expedition.

We roll through two roundabouts and take the three o’clock exit at the third, turning immediately into the Marina parking lot. The harbor office is ominously dark and quiet and the guest dock is empty except for the semi-permanently moored harbor pilot boat. Not for the last time, I have spasms of doubt and anxiety that I’ve misunderstood the rendezvous instructions and we’re actually meeting at 1:30pm on Tuesday instead of 1:30am.

The crew unloads the supplies from the cars as Lindsay and I climb the stairs to the harbor office. No glimmer of light shows through the window and the door is locked. I suppress a surge of panic as Lindsay knocks lightly. After a pause, she knocks a little louder. It’s now 1:00am and the guest dock is still empty. Finally, Lindsay says, “OK, here comes somebody.”

Clearly grumpy, the night harbormaster opens the door in his stocking feet and unceremoniously shuffles to the reception desk. When we tell him we’re here to board a pilot boat for an English Channel swim, he says that all of the other boats have already left. He asks for our pilot’s name and boat name. When we tell him Reg Brickell and Viking Princess, he gives a brief nod of ascent indicating that he believes we are not trying to scam him for long term parking privileges.

We pay for two blue parking passes. He tells us to place them on the dash of our cars and that they’re good for twenty-four hours. His frosty countenance repels levity so I resist telling him that I hope that twenty-four hours is long enough. It’s a shame. This made Reg and Ray laugh on Sunday and I’m loathe to give up on a good joke until it’s slightly tattered.

When we get back to the cars, I call Reg on his cell phone to make sure we have the time right and to tell him about the harbormaster’s comments about the other groups. Reg assures me that all is well and that the other boats will be taking a scenic tour of the Channel. He tells me that we will take a more direct route and he will meet us at the guest dock shortly.

Feeling better, we trundle our supplies down to the pontoon. The water is high, so the descent is easy. We’re set to go and watching the harbor debris stream past at 1:15. At 1:30, I resist the urge to call Reg again. I know that I’m nervous and don’t want to act like a panicked groom any more than necessary.

At 1:45am, the Viking Princess steams around the corner and pulls into our location. Crew, crew supplies, swimmer, and swimmer supplies are loaded and aboard in five minutes. Reg expertly spins the trawler around and we head for Shakespeare beach, stowing and organizing gear as we go.

Lindsay uses a safety pin to attach an orange glow stick to the back of my suit. Ray asks her to add another green one as a backup. I advise her to be sure to pin the green stick on the starboard side. I’ve now gotten Ray to laugh twice at my jokes. That’s not bad for a man whose jokes are often not funny.

Fifteen minutes later and fifty yards offshore, I eschew a ladder entry. My inclination is to dive headfirst but better sense prevails and I jump. I remember the story of Bill Burgess jumping onto some large fish over a century ago on one of his Channel tries and it just seems silly to court disaster so early in the attempt.

The water is very high and the beach rocks hardly hurt my feet. I’m sure adrenaline is disguising the pain. I trot well clear of the water and raise both arms in triumph in the glare of the high-powered spotlight beam from the boat. The time is 2:10am, the horn blows, and I charge back into the sea. I’m thrilled to get my shot to become a Channel swimmer.

The first few minutes in the water, I try to heed the advice of other successful crossers. “Smooth your stroke out and enjoy the experience.” I’m definitely enjoying the experience. Smoothing my stroke is a work in progress.

I reach the pilot boat and we begin our pas de deux across the Channel. The Viking Princess is a full-fledged fishing trawler and has a brilliant array of marine floodlights all blazing away. There will be no problem spotting my feeding bottle.

Shortly, I get into a rhythm and settle in for a long night and day. At the first feeding, I chug everything down in less than twenty seconds and strike out again. A couple of hours into the swim, true to Reg’s prediction, the north wind is pushing the waves in my direction. The surfing feeling is exhilarating and I have the euphoric certainty that I WILL REACH FRANCE! The waves are large enough to rock the pilot boat dramatically from side to side. It doesn’t look like good news for the crew. But the surface of the water is smooth and I feel like I’m zooming.

By the sixth feeding, I’m hoping for dawn to break. The crew spike my feed with instant coffee. It tastes a little weird, but the caffeine jolt comes at a good time. I look over my right shoulder from time to time and the Dover lights don’t seem to be receding. The first ache makes its debut in the front of my left shoulder. After a while, the left shoulder ache dies away and a right shoulder ache replaces it. The doubts creep back.

Dawn doesn’t exactly break. Rather, a lumpy, leaden grey slowly infuses a cloud-laden sky. The shoulder aches have disappeared and now it is the quadriceps turn to bark. What is this? I haven’t had these aches before. In a while, the quad ache dissipates and I’ve found a new tool: Aches come and aches go. I christen it the “Marcelli Tool.” Some years ago, I was commenting to the Dolphin Club Commodore, Lou Marcelli on the high turnover rate at the club. He replied in his trademark gravelly voice, “They come and they go, Larry. They come and they go.” Seems to be the same way with aches.

Four hours into the swim, the crew adds a dose of liquid ibuprofen to my feed. It tastes just awful. Immediately, my stomach feels bloated and uncomfortable. That’s it. I’m going cold turkey on anti-inflammatory medicine.

About eight hours into the swim, Lindsay appears at the rail and gives me the “GO! GO! GO!” sign. This is the only sign we use other than the air horn for feeding. I don’t want to know how long, or how far, or where I am, or what time it is, so we have no signs for that. My job is to shut up and swim. The hurry up signal is to take advantage of favorable current conditions or to combat unfavorable conditions. This appears to be the “take advantage of the slack” condition.

When I try to speed up, I start kicking harder and suddenly, the hip flexor pain goes away. I visited a physical therapist a couple of weeks ago to try and understand this pain and see if I could do something about it. She said my glute muscles were not doing their job and the hip flexors were having to take up the slack. Unfortunately, I’d waited too long to embark on a strengthening program without jeopardizing the Channel attempt, so I’m swimming with a weak butt. Apparently, kicking harder forces the glute muscles into action and gives the hip flexors a break. Shortly, Lindsay gives me the slow down sign.

By now, I’ve used the Cliff Golding trapdoor tool multiple times. Then, unbidden, a slide show of faces and names of the many people who have offered support and encouragement begins playing in my mind. As I swim, the slide show gets longer and longer as new names and faces appear. I dig deeper.

Just before the twelve hour mark, I can see France clearly in the haze. Lindsay calls me to the side of the boat and tells me that Reg says a tide race is just ahead and I’ll need to sprint for about an hour to break through. She asks if I can do that and I reply, “I have to swim fast?” She nods her head and I put my head back down. I try to think of this as a series of 400 yard intervals that Coach Val regularly assigned me. I kick harder and pull harder. In about 15 minutes, my legs give out. The glutes have called it a day and the hip flexors are toasted. I’m trying to keep my torso level and “swim downhill.” Lindsay told me later that it was more like I was imitating a submarine. I’m swimming six inches lower in the water and rotating dramatically to breathe. I’m still pulling for all I’m worth and grunting into the water on every stroke.

Lindsay calls me to the side of the boat once more. She tells me that Reg says that I’ll never break through the tide race at this speed in which case I’ll be pushed along until the current switches and then be pushed right back to the same place about six hours later. She said that Reg was willing to keep going if I was, but finishing was extremely unlikely. I knew that she would not have relayed this information to me if she didn’t agree. By this time, I was in automaton mode and could barely think. I did get a picture of a young dog trying to get through his critter door when it’s blocked on the other side by a piece of lawn furniture. The dog just keeps bumping into the flap and going nowhere. I can imagine that will be my predicament. I’ll be going nowhere, only sideways.

I decide to come out. A flitting notion passes through my head that I should shout, “Then give me the crystal methadrine! We’ll beat this tide race by hook or by crook!” But drug humor stopped being funny twenty-five years ago and I’m too addled and depressed to pull it off properly.

I gingerly and painfully climb the stern ladder. On deck, I dry my head, pull on my fleece beanie, dry my torso, pull on a cashmere sweater/shirt, and don the bulky, warm Dolphin Club swim parka. I climb down the ladder into the forepeak where I take off my wet swimsuit and pull on some warm-up pants and thick socks. I lay down on the bench and cover up with whatever warm detritus is lying around. Lindsay brings me a big hunk of Gouda cheese and an apple. Without the whey and ibuprofen, I am not bloated at all. Instead, I’m ravenous. Within seconds of quenching the hunger pangs, I’m fast asleep and don’t wake up until we return to the Dover guest dock.

We give Reg and Ray the pilot presents of small-batch bourbon that we’ve toted over from the U.S. I shake hands with the Brickells and offer my thanks. Reg asks me how long we’ll be in England and tells me he’ll make up a chart for me showing my swim track. Lindsay drives the car back to the hotel.

The disappointment is crushing. I had dearly hoped for a fairy tale ending, but this is not a Disney movie. This is the Channel. Still, the consolation prize is not insignificant. The outpouring of support and well-wishes has been utterly heartwarming and makes me treasure the friends that I have. The experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained along the way will enrich my memories for as long as I have a memory. All in all, I have to say, “This has definitely been worth the effort!”

Meeting the Pilots

Sunday 09/26/10

The tide is just starting to flood from its lowest point and the boats are stranded on the mud in Folkestone Harbor. Directly across the street, people are milling in a small throng outside the Ship Inn. Sunday at noon is visiting hours in Folkestone and a few pints lubricate the conversational gears.

Lindsay and I thread through the crowd at the entrance to the bar. This is clearly a very local watering hole but the individuals make way with a smile and small nod. The requisite ancient mahogany bar runs the length of a side wall. A trio of servers behind the bar engage in a cheery bustle with the clientele; greeting, gossiping, and drawing pint glasses from a broad selection of porters, stouts, lagers, and ales. We are here to meet our pilot, Reg Brickell, and are not sure what he looks like. I stroll through to the empty back room thinking that my sheer Americaness will provide adequate identity, but no one intercepts me.

At the far end on the serving side of the bar stands a genial and substantial gentleman in a flowered Hawaiian shirt. I ask him if he might be acquainted with Reg Brickell. He gives me a bemused look and waves his arm in a flourish to the person seated on the bar stool in front of me. We’ve found Reg and his brother Ray.

Lindsay had been apprehensive that I was wearing an earring to the first pilot meeting. Not to worry. Reg and Ray both sport gold hoops twice as large as mine. Once they’ve arranged to supply Lindsay and me with Sunday refreshment, we have a chat. Reg and Ray live in Folkestone. Six years older than Ray, Reg has been piloting Channel swimmers for about forty years by his estimate.

The elder Mr. Brickell first set foot on a fishing boat when he was three years old. His mother handed him across to his dad, making him the first crew to board the newly purchased Bristol trawler. By Reg’s account, he has been there ever since. A newspaper article with a photograph of a younger, buffer Reg graces a prominent position on the wall of the Ship Inn. He and his dad are straining to hoist a twelve foot shark off the trawler and onto the dock. Neither Lindsay nor I can guess the species of the shark, but it’s certainly not a leopard or a nurse. We decide not to ask Reg where they caught it.

Reg tells us that the weather looks promising for Tuesday. He says that the wind is forecast from the north at 6-8 km per hour which makes for favorable swimming conditions. One of his swimmers described the experience as akin to surfing to France. We will jump on a high tide which means the probable starting time will be midnight on Monday. He says he’ll wait until jump time to study the current conditions and decide whether to start from Shakespeare Beach or Samphire Hoe.

Ray Brickell insists on paying for the next round. The brothers refuse to immediately accept the remainder of the piloting fee. I start to get the impression that they consider it bad luck to do any business beyond the deposit until the customer boards the boat for the expedition.

We leave the bar in a euphoric state not entirely attributable to the superb Irish stout. Once again, we have had an experience that mere money can’t buy.

How Old Are You?

Tuesday 09/21/10

Today is my birthday and we're flying to England.  If I succeed in the attempt to swim the English Channel, I will be fifty-eight years old and the oldest member of the Dolphin Club to do so.  When I was in my twenty’s, fifty-eight seemed inconceivably ancient for a human being.  Fittingly, my sense of scale was stunted in the other direction as well.  World War II was a distant conflict and the Revolutionary War was nearly prehistoric.

My cognizance of time is much expanded now.  Roman history is relatively fresh compared to the days in 9000 BCE when England was still attached to the European land mass and the “English Channel/La Manche” was simply a large, watery indentation north of the Bay of Biscay.  And, thanks to the Dolphin and South End clubs, I know many vibrant and active people in their 70’s, 80's, and even 90’s.

John Selmer successfully swam the English Channel when he was fifty years old.  Duke Dahlin advanced that mark when he was fifty-five.  Sunny McKee just completed the Ironman Zurich Switzerland triathlon at the age of sixty-one.  Margaret Curtis ran the Pikes Peak Marathon last August in the time of 9:34:00 at the age of seventy.  This is just a smattering of age-defying athletic accomplishments of Dolphins selected from a potpourri of triathlons, double-century bike rides, and marathon swims.  The South End club has its own, commensurate list.

This is not to diminish achievements of the mind.  David Perlman of the San Francisco Chronicle is still writing incredibly lucid and fascinating science articles at the age of ninety.  But, swimming the English Channel is an athletic endeavour and the physical context dominates.  Somehow, the age-awareness deepens and enriches my perspective on “this mortal coil.”  And it makes me doubly determined to make every effort to reach France.

Last Pool Training Swim

Thursday 09/16/10

Coach Valeriy Boreyko handed me a personalized pool workout schedule for the last time before I leave for England. Except when occasional business travel has interfered, I’ve swum at the USF pool every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 am since last November when Duke Dahlin first shepherded me into the masters program. Today’s workout was relatively light. A year ago, swimming 3,200 yards in a pool would have counted as a monumental occasion. Today, it was barely a blip on the training radar screen.

At this point, my new stroke is thoroughly ingrained and Coach Val is all smiles and thumbs-up. He regularly gives me a wry look after a workout and says in his Russian accent, “I want complain.” Then he breaks into a grin, shakes his head and says, “But can’t complain.” Today, he advised me once again regarding the importance of taking measures to stay well. He wished me good luck; we shook hands; and I walked to the parking lot with a strange sense of leave-taking. The feeling was not like I’m going to England for a two week vacation. It was more like I’m relocating permanently to South Africa or India or the back side of the moon.

From USF, I drove the few blocks to Ralph Wenzel’s bakery. He came out from the back in his white chef’s coat grinning widely. I told him how much I appreciated all of his support in helping me prepare for the Channel attempt. I also wanted him to know how much I enjoyed his company in the process. Ralph was his usual gracious self and agreed that it has been a profound experience and one that he will treasure for years. We talked a bit about how well the remodelling project is going at his bakery. We shook hands multiple times and he offered several forms of encouragement. Once again, the leave-taking bore an aura of momentousness and finality.

I guess this is the way it’s going to be. Until we head for the airport, most everything related to swimming is going to seem like a final big deal. Perhaps that’s fitting. Regardless of how it turns out, this experience has already been extraordinary.

What Are You Packing?

Wednesday 09/15/10

The most cumbersome piece of equipment we are packing is a three gallon, insulated water cooler. We discovered several training swims ago that constantly heating, mixing, and pouring a nutritional dose every thirty minutes was burdensome and error-prone. Premixing the maltodextrin powder with hot water and storing it in the water cooler affords push-button ease and nearly eliminates a potential source of frenzy and panic at feeding time. Conditions aboard a pilot boat in the English Channel are notorious for decimating a non-professional crew with seasickness. Operating a galley stove and managing a steaming tea kettle is a herculean challenge in this circumstance. Push-button convenience could possibly save a swim.

Stuffed inside the water cooler is a full tin of maltodextrin powder. If the swim takes twenty hours to complete, we will have complex carbohydrate fuel left over. Four, swim-tested, BPA-free water bottles and two twenty-foot lengths of Dacron line with marline-whipped ends are stuffed around the tin. We also have a dozen sachets of GU in the “chocolate outrage” flavor. I’ve found that the chocolate taste and a few slugs of plain water provide a dessert-like intermezzo when occasionally interspersed with the regular feedings.

Tearing open a GU sachet with shivering, sea-slick hands can be irksome, though. To address this, we included a roll of duct tape in the gear. Tough, flexible, and water-proof, the tape wraps around the water bottle at the top of the sachet. The swimmer simply tears the sachet off the bottle, ripping the neck open in the process and making the contents slurp-able. Darcy W discovered this trick when piloting a marathon swim in Florida a few years ago. It’s really diabolically clever.

For the boat, Lindsay is bringing foul-weather gear including calf-high sailing boots. A surprising amount of water can wash over the decks of a fishing trawler. Cold, sloshy shoes are no fun after a few hours. And sometimes the skies over the Channel can open a gushing spigot. The swimmer may barely notice, but the crew endures a dreadful downpour. Murphy’s Law dictates that if this happens, it will happen during a feeding when the crew is most exposed.

Both Lindsay and I enjoy a morning cup of coffee. Perhaps that is an understatement. We both require a morning cup of coffee. Neither of us drinks caffeinated beverages later in the day, but our bodies demand that initial jolt. In the best of circumstances, we have not discovered England to provide reliable sources of brewed coffee. In our case, we may be rising at 2 am to catch the favorable tide and the chances of finding a 24-hour coffee shop are dismal. So, we are packing sachets of Starbucks instant coffee. We plan to buy a hot plate and tea kettle in England. Hopefully, biorhythm assistance at the fateful time will be assured.

Also in England, we will buy a hard-sided case to hold swimmer feeding supplies and crew food and drink. We found that soft duffels involved too much scragging around. Cliff Golding defines the verb scrag as “to look utterly clueless in the pursuit of something you can’t find—in the dark!” Speaking of dark, Lindsay is packing three flashlights—one for each member of the crew. These are small, waterproof, LED torches with brand-new batteries.

I will have a small bag containing only swim gear. It will hold two pairs of dark goggles and two pairs of clear goggles with a waterproof LED light pre-threaded through the back of each strap. All straps are pre-adjusted and all goggles have been tested for at least four hours in the Bay. Battery-operated and chemical light sticks with safety pins will round out the swimmer illumination gear. The bag will hold two swim hats in case one rips apart mid-swim. Fortunately, I have very little problem with chafing, but do sometimes rub a spot on my right shoulder raw on my jaw line. The bag will have a stick of Body Glide to help protect the shoulder and a razor for scraping away beard stubble at the last minute before jumping off the boat. Other than this dab of Body Glide, I will use no grease. For one thing it’s a goopy mess and gets all over everything. For another, no evidence exists that it provides any protection from the cold other than psychological.

I won’t be using sunscreen. I tan rather easily and my skin has turned nut-brown from all of the open water swimming this summer. We had a very bright sky the day of the ten-hour swim and my back and shoulders didn’t burn at all. Oddly enough, the only sunburn I’ve gotten during long swims is on my face between the swim cap and the goggles. The water must reflect and amplify the sun’s rays on the face.

We will have a separate “post-swim” bag with the gear I need when I get back on the boat. It will have a flashlight attached to the strap to avoid scragging around in the dark. I wanted to pack a pistol to use on myself in case I don’t reach France, but Lindsay vetoed that idea. She said it would be better to wait until we returned to the U.S. where the firearm laws are more lenient. Instead, the bag will have a towel and a wool beanie packed at the top. This way, I can immediately dry my head and get something warm to cover it. Fleece pants, warm shirt, fluffy socks, slip-on shoes, and a very warm swim parka round out the contents of the post-swim bag.

Assembling this gear has emphasized the expedition aspect of this undertaking. It’s sobering to contemplate. The test swims have proven invaluable for physical, logistical and psychological preparedness. The blog postings of other swimmers have been immensely helpful. Arguably the most comprehensive and detailed information source has been the Channel Swimmers Google Group. The accumulated facts, wisdom, and opinions stored in its archives comprise a treasure trove for the English Channel aspirant. And the periodic rants and raves can be exceptionally entertaining. In any event, my motto since embarking on this adventure is, “I’m determined to be prepared.” Thanks to the support and encouragement of Lindsay and so many others, I feel I’m as prepared as I possibly can be.

Don't You Get Bored?

Monday, 09/13/10

A man with an impossible name has studied and written extensively on the subject of happiness and creativity. Mihály Csikszentmihály is probably best known for coining the word “flow” to describe a psychological state of peak performance. He created a dual axis chart which has skill level plotted on one axis from low to high. The other axis plots challenge level from low to high. As one might expect, when the skill level is high and the challenge level is high, a person can experience a “flow state,” being fully engaged and energized.

On this chart, Mr. Csikszentmihály adds apathy, worry, anxiety, arousal, control, relaxation, and boredom. This is a pretty good list. I’ve experienced all these emotional states while swimming. But I’d add fear and anger even knowing it would disturb the symmetry of a beautiful chart. While fear and anger might not belong on a chart of emotional states related to happiness and creativity, they definitely belong on a list of feelings experienced during cold, open water swimming.

All Bay swimmers experience fear. This is a generalization based on extensive private study over more than twenty years. Even the toughest, most stoic swimmers have admitted being scared occasionally. Close encounters with seals and sea lions provoke a fear response. When the pinnipeds start biting and scratching, the fear factor increases. Swimming in contaminated water, colliding with stinging nettle jellyfish, jamming a hand into a submerged plastic garbage sack, dive-bombing brown pelicans, and getting swept into a barnacle-encrusted piling are dependable fear-inducers. Just getting into the cold water in mid-winter can scare swimmers with the prospect of hypothermic catalepsy.

I experience fear and anger in rapid succession when faced with a narrow racing shell streaking through Aquatic Park at ten miles an hour. The anger really ratchets up when the rower shouts out “watch where you’re going, ***hole!” as the oar dips inches from my head and the shell zips past. This is a sure cure for boredom.

Boredom most often strikes on relatively short, one and two mile swims around Aquatic Park. On a clockwise loop around the cove, it usually kicks in just past the Goalposts. I start thinking, “how much longer?” “Am I really up to a second loop?” A year ago, this oft-recurring ennui made me seriously question how anyone could possibly swim steadily for hours on end without succumbing to terminal boredom.

Now I savor the vast irony of not having once been bored on the long training swims. Each one has represented a new milestone in my swimming career, generating doubt about its potential success. Each one began with worry and anxiety which typically lasted for about ten to fifteen minutes. Then, I’d get into a rhythm and begin to relax, concentrating fully on my stroke mechanics. Sometimes, when the exquisite light, the clear water, and the soaring scenery conspired, I’d experience the state of arousal that accompanies the aesthetics of a wilderness experience in an urban setting. At times like this, I’ve enjoyed a relaxed and peaceful meditative state that a Buddhist might describe as “no-mind.” This alone has made the whole project worthwhile.

Of course, the good times don’t last. Usually, especially after five or six hours, the predominant emotions return to worry, anxiety, and fear. I worry about which ache, which twinge, or which cramp might become so overwhelming as to cause me to quit. I fear the self-condemnation that would ensue. This fear is such a useful tool to keep me going that I've named it “la muerta pequeña." Cliff Golding’s mental technique of clearing debris away from the metaphorical “trap door” is another handy invention to deal with the anxiety.

Lindsay and I leave for England a week from tomorrow. The first day of my window is a week after that. The last thing I’m worried about in the attempt to swim the English Channel is boredom. I’m just too worried and anxious for boredom to stand a chance.

Ten Hour Bay Swim

Sunday 08/22/10

The Mr. Magoo is knifing straight towards me. Racing on a broad reach under its trademark green spinnaker, the J105 sailboat is making nearly seven knots. Its favoured path to the next racing mark is directly between the two pilot boats guiding my ten hour swim. The driver of Mr. Magoo seems intent on teaching us a well-deserved lesson in the “rules of the road.” In general, boats under power must give way to boats under sail and the racing vessel is standing on to plough through the middle of my two pilot boats, presumably rehearsing a few well-chosen epithets to shout our way as it rips past and crushes me in the process.

Like the pseudonymous cartoon character, the crew of Mr. Magoo may have comically impaired eyesight. The orange and yellow signal flag, OSCAR, is flying from both pilot boats. It telegraphs that a person is in the water and vessel manoeuvrability is limited. Admittedly, the signal flying from the spreaders of our sailboat is small and easily mistaken for a yacht club insignia. However, the large flag streaming in the 15 knot wind from the stern of the Arias is clearly visible.

On the other hand, marine signalling is not a subject of widespread knowledge. While the seamanship of racing sailors includes areas of extreme competence, my experience is that signal knowledge is not necessarily one of these areas. The silver lining in this potential collision cloud is that the Mr. Magoo crew is uniformly decked out in foul weather gear costing well over $1,000 apiece. The suit of sails is costly and the boat itself is expensive. A used J105 goes for $135,000. Deep pockets are in abundant evidence and Lindsay should be compensated quite well in a wrongful death settlement.

At this point, we are a little more than seven hours into the swim. I started from the Dolphin Club beach at 6:40a with Reuben Hechanova piloting in the Arias. Swimming west on the dying ebb, we met Gary Ehrsam at Gas House Cove. He was driving his Hunter 30, the Catana, and was carrying Darcy W and Lindsay as crew. They were delighted to finally be travelling on a pilot vessel boasting a fully functional head. With both radios crackling, we continued west to the Wave Organ and then turned around and headed back east.

Reuben kept me in mid-channel all the way around the city front. As a right-side breather, the various landmarks of the San Francisco skyline glided past: Coit Tower, Transamerica building, Bank of America building, the Ferry building, the new Rincon Hill residential skyscraper. After two and a half hours of swimming, I cruised south under the Bay Bridge yet again. For some reason, the sense of mystery and majesty this crossing evokes had not abated.

Ralph Wenzel is sitting this one out, so I was swimming by myself for the first time during a long training swim. The sense of solitude was new and gave me confidence that this was a terrific dress rehearsal for the English Channel. As we passed by AT&T Park, the sun was well up in a cloudless sky and the wind had yet to make its entrance. I remained nervous about completing the entire ten hours, but so far no body parts had revolted.

Four hours into the swim, we’re over a mile offshore from Hunter’s Point. Lindsay gave me a small dose of whey with my feeding. We tried administering ibuprofen in tablet form this time. I shook the pills out of a feeding bottle and two of them bounced out of my hand and into the bay. At the next feeding, the pills stuck inside the wet bottle and refused to come out at all. We’ll just have to stick with the noxious liquid stuff.

At the five hour mark, Reuben guided me around the green and red markers that stand sentinel at the entrance to the South Bay Channel. We were a little south of Candlestick Park and the wind had picked up, churning the water into a brown, lumpy froth. My stomach was feeling bloated and various body parts were starting to squeak. Peter Perez taught me to relieve hip flexor pain by bending a leg slightly and dragging it through the water for a few strokes. Of course, this slows the swimmer down, but the relief is instantaneous and lasts for a while.

At the six hour feeding, I bent my right knee up to 90 degrees and immediately, my hamstring seized in an excruciating cramp. It felt like I’d been shot through the back of the thigh with a high-powered rifle. This felt serious. I was terrified that this would end the swim. The panic-induced paranoia rapidly extrapolated to forecast a failed English Channel attempt. I immediately straightened my leg, hoping to clear the cramp. I chuggged down less than half my feeding in order to get swimming again right away. After a few minutes, the pain went away and I was left with the uncomfortable but endurable ache of hip flexor distress. I could deal with that the Jens Voigt way. I told my body to shut up and do what I wanted it to do.

Shortly after the seven hour feeding, the Mr. Magoo makes its appearance, maintaining a constant bearing straight at me. As it closes to within 100 meters, Gary Ehrsam snatches the air horn and gives five short, urgent blasts. The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea specify, “When vessels in sight of one another are approaching each other and from any cause either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in doubt shall immediately indicate such doubt by giving at least five short and rapid blasts.” This signal is often heard around San Francisco Bay. It’s usually issued by a large container ship encountering some pleasure vessel in mid-channel. In contrast to the politely formal language of the International Regulations, the clear and unvarnished interpretation is, “get the hell out my way or I’ll smush you like roadkill!”

The signal works. Mr. Magoo luffs up and sweeps past closely on the port side of the Catana. Half of the crew is giving us the stank-eye. The other half is gesticulating in shock and amazement at the swimmer in the water. For now, Lindsay will just have to make do with a live husband in lieu of a large settlement.

Eventually, we round the corner at Pier 39 and head west. At the Jeremiah O’Brien, the horn sounds for the last time. I’ve been swimming for ten hours and five minutes. What a sweet sound! I hurt all over. Worst of all, my stomach feels grossly bloated and distended. The crew ask if I want to keep swimming to the club beach. It’s only about twenty minutes away, but I’m ready to stop the torture and find I’m really eager to see the doggies. I struggle into the Arias behind Reuben and we chug back to the club dock.

I don’t feel quite as bad as I did after the eight hour swim, but it’s a close call. Some kind soul brings me a mug of hot, sweetened tea to drink in the sauna. It tastes good, but kicks the nausea over the precipice. I race to the bathroom to puke. Whey solids are in clear evidence and it’s obvious that the lactose sealed off the digestion process as effectively as a cork in a bottle. No way is the whey going to make the trip to England.

Back home that evening, Lindsay makes some plain white rice with a little salt, pepper, and grated Reggiano parmesan. It really hits the spot. Once again, the martini tastes as medicinal as the liquid ibuprofen. I go to bed early, but can’t easily get to sleep. My whole body is sore and my stomach is queasy. I’m still lying awake at nine o’clock and thinking about Suzie D’s recent swim across the Catalina channel. It took her 18 hours and 36 minutes. I lay there realizing that I’d still be swimming. In fact, I’d still be swimming until one o’clock in the morning! This thought gives me a perverse feeling of comparative comfort and I drift into a light slumber.

Two weeks later and I’m finally recovered. The stomach pretty much recovered overnight and the muscle soreness was gone in a couple of days. But several days passed before I felt like lifting weights again. Emotional stability took even longer. I have a fairly mercurial temperament anyway, but this was freakish and reminded me of teenage. One day lethargy. Another day exuberance. Least charming were the splenetic periods. I suppose Jens Voigt would say something like, “Shut up, hormones, and do what I tell you to do!”

The last long training swim is behind me, though. I’m back to swimming regularly in the old swimming hole for relatively short distances and enjoying the experience immensely. I’m anxious about completing the Big Swim, but feel I’m well-prepared. More than anything, I’m absolutely determined that the next long swim I undertake will end on land.

Have You Gained Weight?

Monday 08/09/10

Common wisdom proclaims that people with a higher body mass index are more impervious to the effects of cold water. In our weight-obsessed society, this topic generates vociferous discussion. A very amusing example is the furor aroused when a gentleman posted a query on the channel swimmers Google group regarding use of a wetsuit in the English Channel for a charity relay. One response labelled wetsuits as “textile steroids.” However, not a single person challenged the inverse relationship between body fat and susceptibility to cold.

Of the twenty Dolphin Club members who have swum the English Channel somewhat less than half gained weight for the attempt. Tom Keller is an example of someone who poured on the pounds with glee. He delighted in the prospect of adding a scoop of ice cream to his double cheeseburger. One multiple channel crosser tsks at the folks who don’t gain weight. She says, “We have a saying for those people—too vain, no gain!” By my observation, though, more than half of the successful swimmers headed to Dover toting no additional body baggage.

According to three studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine, all fat is not created equal. In one of the articles, the research team led by Aaron M. Cypess writes, “The adipose-tissue pool in mammals is composed of at least two functionally different kinds of fat: white and brown.” The fat is brown because it is filled with mitochondria. These tiny organelles live in animal cells and function as the “energy plant” manufacturing ATP. When activated by a cold environment, brown fat can burn substantial numbers of calories. Leslie Kozak conducted a study on mice that lost forty-seven percent of their body fat by being kept in a 41 degree room for a week while eating more than normal.

Some people have extended this notion to conclude that brown fat creates heat and keeps the body warmer in cold water. Another extrapolation is that exposure to cold does more than activate brown fat, it actually creates it. Proponents of this belief traipse through the winter months in shorts and flip-flops. My brief review of the literature supported neither of these notions but the thought is still intriguing.

At six feet tall and 180 pounds, I’m sandwiched between the endomorphs and the ectomorphs. My weight has only varied within a five pound range in the past year, usually dropping after a long swim. Until recently, I haven’t worried about the water temperature in the English Channel or my body fat percentage. Twenty-two years of swimming in the Bay have lulled me into a sense of security regarding cold water and sixty degrees has long seemed positively balmy. The eight hour swim cracked that confidence a little, but I still believe that resistance to cold is mostly related to the fat between the ears. Perhaps the ten hour swim will further challenge this belief.

In the meantime, vanity continues to play a determining factor for me in avoiding weight gain. BUT, I have some scientific support for my complacency. When patients have a heart attack, they apparently benefit from 24 hours of induced hypothermia. This led a research team headed by Joost Jimmink to conduct a study entitled, “The influence of body composition on therapeutic hypothermia.” Dr. Jimmink and his team found that, “The time to reach target temperatures seems not to be influenced (or at most only partly) by body composition.”  Yet another argument to just "shut up and swim."

Eight Hour Bay Swim

Tuesday 07/20/10

The tide book is predicting that relatively little water will move in and out of San Francisco Bay today. Less than 4 feet will rise on the flood and only 1.3 feet will recede on the subsequent ebb. This raises the possibility of attempting a swim that has long tickled my fancy. Several years ago, Laura B told me about one of her Channel training swims. She nonchalantly mentioned swimming to Oakland and then around Treasure Island and various other landmarks. I was stupefied at the time. However, today seems like a good time to undertake a similar swimming tour of the Bay.

A maximum flood current of 2.8 knots is supposed to flow at the Golden Gate Bridge at 7:25am. If we jump at 6:30am, we can ride the end of the flood maybe as far as AT&T Park and then loop around Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands. Depending on the conditions, we may even be able to circle Angel Island and have the weak ebb current help us back to Aquatic Park.

Reuben Hechanova is the Dolphin Club boat captain and he will be piloting the Arias for the first four hours. Ralph Wenzel will be swimming with me. Lindsay and Ralph’s nephew, Ben Sathis, will crew for the whole time. In what is now an almost practiced manner, we help Reuben load and launch the pilot boat. Ralph and I wade into the water and once again stroke for the Opening.

The Arias catches up with us part way down the breakwater and I chuckle to hear the crackling radio announcing our “marine event.” The flood current is still flowing and Ralph and I swim in tandem past Pier 39. Reuben takes us out to mid-channel to catch the maximum possible current. The soaring San Francisco skyline slides by on our right and we stroke under the west section of the Bay Bridge at mid-span. By the time we reach the end of the South Beach Harbour breakwater, we’re on our fourth feeding and encounter the early stirring of a weak ebb.

We turn east and curve toward the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Construction is active on the replacement bridge and the engineers ask us to swim further east to avoid falling debris. None of us are wearing hard hats so it seems like good advice. The new bridge is actually starting to look like something. It’s easy to imagine the graceful, soaring towers eventually dressed in a geometric array of suspension cables. This memory is definitely one for the archives.

In spite of the surrounding beauty, I’m starting to feel pretty crummy. I’m cold. My hands and feet have been hurting for a while, now. My belly feels like I’ve swallowed a slowing inflating balloon. The liquid ibuprofen burns my throat, scores my stomach, and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Various body parts are whining. My brain is starting to question the wisdom of this whole project.

Jens Voigt is a professional cyclist. He is one of the best rouleur (all-round) riders on the tour and has won two stages in the Tour de France. He provides a living example of determination and fortitude. In this year’s race through France, he crashed repeatedly. Once, with his own bike smashed beyond repair, he borrowed a child’s bicycle to avoid being picked up by the “broom wagon.” He eventually caught up to the grupetto and retrieved one of his spare bikes to finish the race and earn the right to continue to Paris. When a reporter asked him about the pain he replied, “Sometimes you can hear like your body start talking to you. It goes, ‘Ohhh! I can’t do it anymore, I can’t do it anymore.’ And then your mind goes, ‘Shut up body and do what I tell you to do!” Later, another reporter asked him, “Jens, one more time. What do you tell your legs?” Voigt turned from signing an autograph, grinned and declaimed, “Shut up legs!”

Just after four and a half hours in the water, Barry Christian arrives in a zodiac to change places with Reuben. He brings a crew change.  Jackie Merovich replaces her boyfriend, Larry.  From my torture chamber in the water, I barely notice.  I summon an image of Jens Voigt and his dry, sarcastic sense of humour to force myself to keep going. The six hour swim was so much easier. Eight hours is starting to seem an unreachable goal. Ten hours looms as impossible. The English Channel menaces like an insane and ludicrous nightmare. I begin to imagine scenarios where I just abandon the whole quest. I rehearse my excuses to friends and family. I calculate the forfeited expenditures. I tally the financial commitments the crew has made and how much it will cost to compensate them. And then it’s time for the next feeding. Saved by the air horn! I remind myself to just swim from feed to feed.

We’re now officially in “the Slot.” On a typical summer afternoon, the sun pounds down on the baked East Bay hills and creates an outdoor furnace. As the hot air rises it generates suction, dragging cooler air from the San Francisco Bay. The headlands that frame the Golden Gate Bridge form a natural Bernoulli funnel, accelerating a cold air mass toward Berkeley and beyond. The turbo-charged wind and the unchecked fetch from the open ocean typically create a lumpy, chaotic mess in the Slot. This afternoon is no exception. The wind is blowing 25 to 30 knots and the waves are four to six feet high at a six second interval. And, of course, the waves have breaking tops. The wind-generated current completely erases the small ebb and Ralph and I creep slowly up the Slot past Angel Island to Pt. Blunt.

Life on the pilot boat is a sodden, spine-pounding scramble. Lindsay stops recording and stashes the video camera in a water-proof pouch. The crew pump vigorously on the bailer. The sea is pummelling boat and swimmer alike. A couple of times, I reach out for a stroke and a breaking wave spins me completely around my axis. This is actually good news. Concentrating on timing my stroke to the breaking waves and avoiding swallowing the salt water distracts me. The other pains don’t exactly diminish but they blur into a tattered miasma.

Eventually … blessedly … the final horn sounds. We’re part way back to Alcatraz and the Bay is in an uproar. Ralph and I struggle over the pontoon sides and into the heaving craft. We wedge ourselves into the bow to distribute the weight and endure a jarring, icy trip back to Aquatic Park. Barry is threading his way expertly at no more than ten miles an hour, but the periodic, precipitous drops from the top of a wave into the trough of an oncoming successor are unavoidable and drenching. With each slamming impact, I barely suppress another grunting “unhhhh.”

On the drive home from the Dolphin Club, I slouch uncomfortably in the passenger seat.  Halfway there, I implore Lindsay to pull over to the side of the road where I spew three loads of projectile vomit into the gutter. Charming. Someone sagely advised checking your dignity at the door when you attempt the English Channel. That evening, I’m reminded of the aftermath of the five hour swim. Lethargic and demoralized, I barely touch my dinner or my dinner cocktail. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly described drinking a well-made martini as “sipping a cold cloud.” Tonight, it just tastes like frozen medicine to me.

A week and a half later, I’m almost fully recovered. The specifics of the anguish are now hazy, but I’m wary of the remaining trauma. On the other hand, Lindsay and I have a grand time sticking pins in the San Francisco Bay chart to mark our latest trek. We amuse one another all week with our horror stories during cocktail hour and the gin once again mimics Mr. Roosevelt’s “cold cloud.” We’re planning the last long training swim for ten hours on August 22nd. And this time, we will not be anywhere near the Slot.

Six Hour Bay Swim

Wednesday 06/23/10

I’ve been sick. I haven’t swum since last Thursday when my throat first started feeling scratchy. Since then, I’ve been napping heavily and chugging Nyquil at night to keep the wracking cough and congestion at bay. Someone trying to cheer me up suggested that I think of this time as “an enforced taper.” Very funny.

Ralph Wenzel and I were scheduled to swim in the Bay for six hours on Tuesday, but Lindsay convinced me to put it off a day. That was good advice. The extra day makes me feel better, but I’m quite jittery about suddenly attempting a long swim. On the other hand, delay would jeopardize the remaining Channel training schedule. Feeling so rotten has tapped a pessimistic vein and once more in this long preparation process I wrestle with the demons of doubt. Suzie D, a multiple Channel crosser, calls these moments a crise de coeur.  Finally, I decide to just shut up and swim. The temperature will be four or five degrees warmer than it was for our five hour swim. That alone should compensate for whatever physical infirmity the illness has meted.

At 7:30a, Ralph and I join Darcy and Lindsay on the dock to help Paul Brady load and launch the Arias. The women then clamber into the inflatable with Paul at the helm.  For this excursion, Lindsay and I have premixed the maltodextrin powder with hot water in our old, blue, two-gallon water cooler. The new system allows the crew to simply push a button and squirt a dose of feed into the BPA-free bottle each half hour. This eliminates the necessity to juggle half a dozen bottles; makes it possible to supply a warm feed; and avoids a messy mixing and measuring process. The remaining feeding task is to mingle additives such as apple juice, liquid ibuprofen, and whey protein at the designated times. We use a large ice chest to hold the crew lunch and drinks, the spare water bottles, and alternative feeding material. We found it much easier to quickly grab the necessary item out of a hard-sided container than rummaging around in a soft sack on a pitching watercraft. Any suspicion we might have harboured that this project was not a learning process has long dissipated. We are thoroughly convinced that repeated rehearsals in all facets of the campaign are valuable.

Shortly after 8a, Ralph and I leave the beach at the Dolphin Club and crab into the flood tide to reach the opening at Aquatic Park. We turn the corner and shoot down the side of the breakwater. The volume on the Arias’ radio is cranked up and the speaker crackles loudly. San Francisco Bay Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) is communicating with a commercial tug. “Roger, Yankee Hotel. Your deviation request to proceed westbound in the eastbound traffic lane south of Alcatraz has been granted ... And there’s a marine event: Two swimmers in the water from Aquatic Park to Candlestick Point accompanied by the Dolphin Club Arias. They’re monitoring 14 and working channel 71.” For the rest of the swim, pilot Paul Brady keeps VTS informed of our progress. When we reach the Russian guided missile cruiser docked at Pier 17, the VTS controller warns us to remain at least 100 yards clear. The Japanese training vessel, Kashima, has no such qualms. It actually cruises by us and the cadets lining the side smile and wave.

The temperature is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, markedly warmer than our last long swim. It’s still a little chilly, but balmy in comparison. When we turn the corner at Pier 39, it warms up yet another couple of degrees. By the time we pass under the Bay Bridge on our southbound leg, the temperature has climbed to 58 or 59. I shake and shiver some at the second feeding. Shortly after that, I completely forget about the cold. This is a walk in the park compared to our five hour freezing ordeal.

Opposite Hunters Point, we turn around and head back. We have reached slack tide and the natural back-eddy filling India Basin grips us in its maw for a half hour. Eventually, we escape and the building ebb current sweeps us back north. Three and a half hours into the swim, my upper thighs start aching. At one point, the pain is bad enough that I start dragging my legs through the water without kicking. I can’t do this for very long since my lower half rapidly sinks. I resume kicking just hard enough to stay level in the water. At the four hour feed, Lindsay spikes my mixture with a little whey protein to provide some fat and adds 600 milligrams of liquid ibuprofen. Shortly afterwards, the pain in my thighs disappears.

At Pier 19, we pass another security zone—this time for an American military ship. The zone extends 100 yards off shore and I am at least 20 yards beyond that. However, as we pass, burly men dressed in dark colors begin to bristle and posture until we slide by.

At the six hour mark, we’re opposite Pier 27 again. The ebb has strengthened and Ralph and I both feel fine. We know it would be satisfying to finish back at the club beach, so we agree to keep going. A Hornblower ferry is carting a horde of tourists to Alcatraz. On some unheard cue from the captain, the throng on the upper deck give us a cheer and wave excitedly as they motor onward to visit the prison.

Having achieved our goal, I am starting to emerge from that long-distance meditative swimming zone. I stop concentrating on stroke mechanics and begin to think of non-aquatic obligations. These thoughts whirl for about fifteen minutes until I stop swimming and suggest that we pack it in. There are a couple of things I’d like to get done before 5p. Later, I learn that Ralph has an appointment with his insurance agent at 3:30p.

Back in the shower and sauna, Ralph and I are feeling mighty good. We marvel at how much better we feel than we did after the five hour swim. I’m excited to think that Lindsay and I have the feeding sorted out. One measure of Ralph’s outlook is that he readily agrees to accompany me on the next swim for eight hours.

This open water swim represents the final “t” that I have to cross in order to be officially qualified to attempt to swim the English Channel. The Channel Swimming Association requires an affidavit signed by two witnesses attesting to an aspirant’s swim of six hours in water 60 degrees or colder. Adherence to this mandate is based on the honour system.

Last April, Jacques Frederik started a firestorm when he published an entry on the Channel Swimmers Google Group. He freely and very publically confessed, “I, for instance, didn’t do the 6 hour swim and got a personal friend at a national swimming body to sign the document. Instead, I wanted to focus on the Channel swim and build it up mentally and physically mainly in the pool.” When the inevitable admonishment sprang forth, he went even further and demanded that people “spare me your moral issues and patronising.” This expression of petulance predictably fanned the flames. Mike Oram had probably the most vituperative response. He wrote, “It’s not the moral issues and patronising you should be spared from. You are a liar - and a self-centred, vain, conceited cheat with little or no morals.”

For my part, I can’t imagine faking the six hour swim. In order to feel that I have done everything I can to be prepared, I’m planning an eight and a ten hour swim in the next two months. In fact, just a few years ago, the CSA demanded a ten hour qualifying swim. My perception is that Monsieur Frederik not only cheated the system—he cheated himself. It doesn’t sound like he tried to enjoy the process of preparation and celebrate the journey. In fact, he admits “after my Channel swim, I was so sick of swimming that I stopped for some time.” Regardless of whether I ultimately stand on France or not, I don’t expect that to be my reaction. Rather, embracing the odyssey has been unbelievably fulfilling. It has also made me care more about swimming than I would have ever thought possible.

The First Woman (Part II)

Tuesday 06/29/10

Ms. Ederle returned from England to both cheers and jeers. Much of the reaction split along the schism that prevailed in 1925 related to ideas of a woman’s proper place in the world. The cheers celebrated Trudy Ederle’s massive effort as a testimony to women’s athletic potential and an example of the true grit of the female gender. The jeers lamented the coarsening of the female ideal, the threat that athletic endeavour presented to potential motherhood, and the prospect of an emasculated race of men. And the simmering tiff with Jabez Wolffe fanned the negative flames. In her influential monthly column in the Washington Post, Dorothy Greene wrote, “the whole matter is not worth a fiftieth of the publicity which it has received, and we are tempted to agree that ‘woman’s place, though it may not be in the home, is certainly not in the English Channel.’”

The swimmer, though still young, was no longer a child. The WSA had shaved a year off of Ms. Ederle’s age, but she was actually nineteen and ready to strike out on her own. Helen Wainwright once again led the way. She accepted an offer to be a spokesperson for American Tobacco Company. She appeared in a magazine ad proclaiming, “We swimmers have to keep in strict training. When I first got started a veteran swimmer advised me that I could smoke Lucky Strikes without affecting my wind or throat. I tried them and found he was right. They’re great! They have never affected my throat and they taste fine.”

Like Ms. Wainwright, Trudy Ederle didn’t smoke. Unlike Ms. Wainwright, she refused to endorse any product she wouldn’t use. Still, the lure of independence offered by turning professional beckoned and she knew the WSA was disinclined to sponsor another Channel effort. Forgoing amateur status, she and several of her compatriots, including Helen Wainwright, took positions as iconic swim instructors at large hotels in Florida. And, a motoring enthusiast, Ms. Ederle found a product she could endorse—the Reo Roadster. She was well on her way to financing another attempt at the English Channel on her own.

The true financial breakthrough came from the newspaper industry. It was becoming obvious to publishers that stories which lent themselves to serialization sold papers. The Scripps-Howard chain had already snatched up Lillian Cannon with exclusive rights to the story of her coming attempt to swim the English Channel in the summer of 1926. Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune-Daily News immediately did the same with Trudy Ederle. According to Gavin Mortimer in The Great Swim, “On May 29 Ederle, accompanied by her father, signed a deal with Patterson’s organization. She would write regular dispatches from France and Patterson would pay her $5,000 with an additional $2,500 if she was successful.” Joe Patterson sent Julia Harpman and her husband, Westbrook Pegler along to ghost-write the dispatches and to protect the newspapers’ exclusive.

For this attempt, Ms. Ederle hand-picked a support team in which she had complete confidence—her father Henry and her sister Margaret. Henry Ederle provided a loan and helped negotiate a contract with Bill Burgess for ten thousand francs including a retainer to guarantee that he train Trudy and no one else. Margaret helped her design a new pair of eye goggles that they hoped would work better than those the year before. Rounding out the team, Joe Patterson hired Joe Corthes and the tug Alsace to provide escort exclusively to Ms. Ederle until she achieved her goal. Mr. Patterson considered the cost of three hundred francs per hour a small price to ensure that no other Channel swimmer had access to the vessel.

For this iteration, Ms. Ederle chose to make home base in France. On June 10, 1926, she and her entourage checked into the small Hotel du Phare in the little village of Cape Gris-Nez. This was no resort. It lacked electricity and running water. According to Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl, “If someone insisted on a bath—which seldom happened—Mrs. Blondiau and the chambermaid would heat water in huge iron vessels on the kitchen range and carry them upstairs to the tub on the second floor.”

On reaching France, the first order of business was to confront Bill Burgess for violating his contract and agreeing to coach Lillian Cannon as well. Gavin Mortimer relates, “Burgess apologized and explained that … Cannon’s newspaper had paid him twenty thousand francs, and what with the collapse of the French economy because of its war debt to America, he needed the money to prop up his garage business. Of course, if Gertrude’s newspaper were to match what Cannon was paying him, he would be delighted to coach only her.” Eventually, Ms. Ederle grimly agreed and laid down her own set of rules. She insisted that he not try to convince her to use the breaststroke, that he not try to interfere with her stroke rate, and that he absolutely had no authority to pull her from the Channel unless she, herself, requested.

About this time, Jabez Wolffe was looking for work. The public tit-for-tat with Gertrude Ederle had soured his reputation and none of the women aspirants cared to contract with him as a coach. He had heard of an American swimmer named Clarabelle Barrett. She was renown not only for her open water swimming prowess, but also for her size. She was six feet two inches tall and weighed two hundred and twenty pounds. Rumour suggested that she had sailed from New York on July 3, but three weeks later she had yet to appear at Cape Gris-Nez. Lacking newspaper or other financial support, she was conducting her undertaking on a shoestring. She had taken quarters in Dover and planned to swim from England to France. This left Mr. Wolffe fruitlessly prowling the environs of Cape Gris-Nez searching for large women on the chance he might meet Ms. Barrett and offer his services.

The weather and temperature combined to thwart most attempts at swimming the Channel until late in the season. Finally, on August 1, Clarabelle Barrett began her assault from Dover. The New York Times, thanks to its London-based correspondent, Alec Rutherford had the scoop. As Gavin Mortimer says, “It was a tale of indomitable resolution in the face of relentless adversity, a story guaranteed to stir the hearts of Americans.” As so many before, she came excruciatingly close to her goal before fog and tide beset her. Nearly cleaved by a passing steamer in the fog, she finally gave up after twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes.

News of Ms. Barrett’s near success spurred Trudy Ederle to action. On August 6, she entered the water in France covered in three layers of olive oil, lanolin, lard and vaseline until she looked like a “basted chicken.” She was wearing the goggles she and her sister had created which were sealed the night before with a serendipitous amount of candle wax. She was also wearing a shocking two-piece bathing suit, designed and sewed by her sister, to eliminate the horrible chafing associated with women’s swimsuits of the day.

Onboard the accompanying Alsace were Henry and Meg Ederle, Ishaq Helvi, and John Hayward of the London Daily Sketch. Mr. Hayward traveled in his capacity as the official British witness. Julia Harpman allowed no other reporters on the tug. As told by Gavin Mortimer, the remaining stranded newsmen were furious. They understood that, “She was within her rights to protect her paper’s exclusive, that they understood as fellow reporters, but she had intentionally deceived them by allowing them to believe they would be welcome on the official escort tug. Now, at the eleventh hour, she was marooning them on the beach and sailing away like some eighteenth-century pirate.”

Three hours later, the beached reporters had caught up with the swimmer as she made good progress in the calm sea. They had cleverly seized on the realization that Lillian Cannon was not swimming that day. Ms. Cannon allowed them to borrow her chartered vessel, La Morinie, and sailed with them to watch Ms. Ederle conduct her swim.

By mid-morning, the weather started to turn. The wind began to blow from the southwest and the waves began to get rougher. Bill Burgess began to worry. Glenn Stout in Young Woman and the Sea records that, “He thought now of the packet he had stashed in the pilothouse, the papers he had drawn up. Burgess had been afraid that the weather would turn and that he might have to stop the swim and take Trudy out of the water, but all he had heard for the last two months, from Trudy and Meg and Henry Ederle, was that once Trudy started to swim, she would not stop, and no one, absolutely no one, was to touch her and take her from the water, no matter what, unless she called for help herself.” The papers were a release for Henry Ederle to sign absolving Mr. Burgess of responsibility.

As they approached the Goodwin Sands, Bill Burgess and Joe Corthes, the tug pilot began to fear for the safety of both the swimmer and the boat. They called Mr. Ederle into the pilothouse and explained that the responsible course was to return to France. The alternative was to swim into the current for a time to circumnavigate the sandy barrier, but the current was too strong, the wind too stiff, the waves too tall, and the light was beginning to fail. Henry Ederle chose to keep going. His daughter was swimming strongly and even seemed to be enjoying herself. He was not going to thwart her wishes. With a snort, he signed the release.

This sparked a loud argument among the seasick passengers. In the confusion, someone whose identity is lost to history leaned over the rail and shouted, “Come on out, girl! Come on out!” Trudy Ederle famously rolled on her back and shouted back, “What for?” Effortlessly, she had created a catch phrase to spark the imagination and inspire Americans for some time to come.

As Glenn Stout writes, “In an instant the unconquerable Channel was subdued, and the weather, while still atrocious, didn’t matter anymore. With each stroke of her arms and kick of her legs Trudy was taming the Channel. There wasn’t any question about it, not any more. Trudy wasn’t coming out of the water, and if she didn’t come out of the water, she was not going to fail.”

Finally at 9:40p, she walked out of the water onto a Kingsdown Beach that was alight with the bonfires and flares of the people assembled to greet her. She was the sixth person and the first woman to have swum the English Channel. She also owned the record. She had bested Enrico Tiraboschi’s time by almost two hours.

After visiting her grandmother in Bissingen, Germany, she and her family returned to New York City to a ticker tape parade. The incessant press of gargantuan crowds and whirlwind tour of events took their toll. She broke down in exhaustion and rested for a day before returning to her rigorous schedule of luncheons and meetings.

Before her manager could lock down the various lucrative offers that flowed her way, Mille Gade Corson became the second woman to successfully swim the English Channel. Although Ms. Corson was one hour slower, she was a mother of two children. Shortly after this, Arnst Vierkotter set a new crossing record of twelve hours and forty minutes.  The pile of offers meant for Ms. Ederle were withdrawn and replaced with smaller ones.

Still, Trudy Ederle made a decent living capitalizing on the fame of her historic conquest of the English Channel. Later in life, she taught deaf children to swim. She died at the age of ninety-seven in New Jersey having never married—her one opportunity probably sabotaged by deafness. Before she died, she told a reporter, “I have no complaints. I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars.”

The First Woman (Part I)

Monday 06/21/10

Depending on the historical source, Henry Ederle had nineteen or twenty-one brothers and sisters in Bissingen, Germany. Seeking more opportunity in 1892, he immigrated to New York City at the age of sixteen and found work as a delivery boy in a small butcher shop on the Upper West Side. He certainly embodied the classic immigrant success story. Twenty-two years later, he owned a thriving butcher shop of his own, dabbled in investments, and kept a summer cottage in the Highlands in New Jersey. It was here, at a pier in Sandy Hook Bay, that Mr. Ederle taught his three children to swim.

In 1915, most swim instruction was exceptionally primitive. Mr. Ederle’s innovation was to apply his skills learned wrapping meat at the butcher counter to create a harness out of cotton clothesline. Trussing his youngest daughter, Gertrude, he strolled onto the Patten Line Pier near their home in the Highlands and spooled out the line below. Snugging up the rope, he encouraged “Trudy” to enter the water from the beach. The clothesline acted like training wheels on a bicycle. Within minutes, Trudy was performing a vigorous, thrashing dog paddle without assistance from her dad. She was in heaven. As reported by Glenn Stout in Young Woman and the Sea, she would later say, “To me, the sea is like a person—like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.”

Perhaps part of her affinity for being immersed in the water sprang from her diminished hearing. When she was five years old, an attack of measles left her with an ear infection and hearing loss. In noisy settings with a gabble of conversations, she became confused and distracted. Although she was outgoing and lively with her family and friends, around strangers she appeared shy. She regularly retreated to her private world through swimming and reading—spending hours in the open water at the Highlands or burying herself in dime novels of the day.

In one of several fortunate coincidences, 1917 was the year that Charlotte Epstein created the Women’s Swimming Association in New York City. Trudy’s mother, Gertrud (spelled without the trailing “e”), immediately recognized the opportunity and signed up all three of her daughters. Ms. Epstein had cleverly positioned the WSA as an ancillary and subservient arm of the Amateur Athletic Union. According to Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl, “Epstein got the AAU not only to accept women’s swimming as a sport but to allow swimmers to wear suits they could compete in.... American women would compete in swimming in the 1920 Olympics for the first time, and they would do it mostly in the black silk racing suits of the WSA.”

In another fortunate coincidence, Louis de Breda Handley was the swim coach for the WSA. An Italian immigrant and champion swimmer in his own right, Mr. Handley co-invented the “American crawl” stroke. Known today simply as “freestyle,” this is the stroke he taught to swimmers at the WSA. Far superior to the popular “trudgen” and “Australian crawl” strokes, the WSA competitors used the American crawl to dominate the 1920 Olympic swimming trials and then the Olympic swim events themselves.

Practicing three times a week at the WSA pool in the winter, Trudy Ederle was mastering the new crawl stroke but showing little interest in competition. It was her sister, Margaret, who registered her for a three-and-a-half mile open water swim from Manhattan Beach to Brighton Beach in 1922. Organized by Joseph P. Day, the swim featured the WSA Olympic swimming stars as well as Hilda James of England. The Liverpool native carried the reputation as Europe’s greatest woman swimmer. The stellar quality of the competition made no impression on Trudy Ederle. Now sixteen years old and perfectly content in open water given her Highlands experience, she finished nearly a minute ahead of her closest competitor and burst upon the swiming scene. With her youth and unforced charm and modesty, she quickly became the new face of the WSA.

By 1924, Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller were the stars of the U.S. Olympic swim team. Although she won three medals, Ms. Ederle’s performance along with the rest of the women’s contingent suffered from mismanagement of the team logistics in Paris. She nevertheless returned to great acclamation, but any thrill she had ever mustered for pool competition waned dramatically.

Charlotte Epstein of the WSA had new plans, though. Given the lull between Olympic years, she saw an opportunity in the English Channel to keep the WSA in the newspaper headlines and attract donors. No woman had yet swum the Channel and she convinced the WSA board to authorize a $5,000 budget for the project.  They assigned Ms. Epstein to make all the arrangements and accompany the swimmer in the attempt.

Fifty years after Matthew Webb swam the English Channel, only four other men had replicated his feat. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Dover Express, considered the doyen of Channel swimming at the time, estimated that the number of attempts since 1875 exceeded 1,000. Jabez Wolffe single-handedly contributed at least twenty-two and maybe as many as forty failed attempts to this number without a single success.

In 1911, Bill Burgess finally became the second man to swim the English Channel after several failed attempts of his own. It took him almost an hour longer than Captain Webb. Shortly after Mr. Burgess’ success, the Great War threw a wrench into the works of further efforts for several years. After the war; after the mines were cleared; and after the world economy finally began to rebound, 1923 represented a break-through year for Channel crossings. Three men more than doubled the ranks of successful swimmers. One of them, Enrico Tiraboschi, finally bettered Matthew Webb’s time by more than four hours with a time of sixteen hours and thirty-three minutes. He set the new mark swimming from France to England for the first time, a route widely deemed to be much easier than starting in Dover given the more favourable landing conditions.

Charlotte Epstein and Louis Handley believed that they had a swimmer who could not only become the first woman. They believed that she could best the time of Mr. Tiraboschi by as much as two hours. They believed this woman was Helen Wainwright. Biographer Glenn Stout muses that, “this was a measure of just how far Trudy’s star had fallen, for Wainwright, despite all her talent, didn’t have nearly as much experience as Trudy in open water.”

Fate intervened when Ms. Wainwright slipped while exiting a trolley and tore a muscle in her thigh. Once again, Margaret Ederle immediately began a campaign to convince her younger sister to take up the challenge. Trudy Ederle was the obvious choice to the press and the coaches to provide a backup. The WSA board authorized additional funds to take two swimmers.

While making the arrangements, Ms. Epstein had the choice between two well-credentialed coaches for the endeavour. Jabez Wolffe was based in England and could certainly boast vast, if unsuccessful, experience. Bill Burgess, the other obvious choice given his success in 1911, was based in France. Ms. Epstein believed that the best course of action was to train in England and then attempt the crossing from France. She went with Mr. Wolffe.

Before leaving for England, Ms. Wainwright slipped again and reinjured her thigh leaving Trudy Ederle to travel alone with her chaperone, Elsie Viets. Louis Handley had carefully structured Ms. Ederle’s training agenda both in America and during her preparation in England. With the help of Margaret Ederle, he had convinced the young woman that she was prepared to succeed and filled her with confidence. This set the stage for a dramatic showdown with the cantankerous Mr. Wolffe.

Although he was Jewish, Jabez Wolffe had the strict, thundering style of his fellow Scot, the pinched and decidedly protestant John Knox. Mr. Wolffe continually berated his young charge and constantly drilled her on the dangers of the English Channel. He even introduced the notion of man-eating sharks. He berated her stroke and recommended the breast stroke. He lambasted her stroke rate of twenty-eight per minute and suggested eighteen or twenty as more suitable for the Channel distance. He tried to interfere with the training schedule Louis Handley had given her. He condemned her effort to teach herself the ukulele outside of training hours as fatuous. He insisted that Ms. Ederle accept deep, vigorous massages to “harden” the muscles and make them immune to fatigue.

With the backing of Ms. Viets, the aspiring Channel swimmer resisted all of these entreaties with the possible exception of being frightened about the potential for sharks. According to Glenn Stout, “to Trudy, Wolffe was ‘all wet.’ … Although Trudy was generally shy, when it came to swimming she knew her stuff and wasn’t afraid to express her opinion.” By the time they moved camp across the Channel to Boulogne, France, the battle lines were deeply drawn.

On August 17, 1925, Ms. Ederle began her attempt from a rocky outcrop at Cap Gris Nez. During the crossing, she and Mr. Wolffe continued to spar. He continually chided her for swimming too fast and insisted that she stop every thirty minutes for chocolate and beef tea. Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl says, “Trudy would later talk about her distrust of the beef broth and Wolffe’s insistence that she drink it. It gave her a warm, burning sensation, which made her think it might be wine or liquor. Wolffe would tell her it was just juices of genuine beef, but this butcher’s daughter knew what beef and its broth tasted like, and it tasted nothing like this.” Many experts at the time believed that doses of whiskey or brandy helped to warm the blood and stem the effects of cold water. However, Ms. Ederle simply didn’t like alcoholic beverages of any kind and firmly refused Mr. Wolffe’s efforts to get her to imbibe during training. Some historians even allude to the possible addition of opiates or barbiturates.

In any case, Ms. Ederle swam swiftly for close to nine hours to get within six and a half miles of the English coast. Then, in a moment that remains controversial, Jabez Wolffe ordered Ishaq Helvi to “grab her” or some command to that effect. Mr. Helvi was a large, gregarious Egyptian who had become friends with Ms. Ederle during her stay in France. He was a Channel aspirant himself with multiple attempts under his belt. He was in the water acting as a pacer at the time and once he touched Ms. Ederle, the swim was over—her attempt a failure. Although she returned to America a celebrity, the Channel remained unconquered by a woman that year.

The Mental Stuff

Monday 05/31/10

The mystery is solved. Cliff Golding is the Channel swimmer who taught me about the psychological tool for surviving an attack of debilitating doubt in the middle of a long, cold swim. Fortunately for me and the rest of the marathon swimming world, he recently updated his handbook for swimming the English Channel and posted it on the channel swimmers chat site.

According to Swim Trek, "in 1981 Mr. Golding was a twenty-six year old, very contented endurance athlete. Then he took up Channel swimming and ruined his life.” His handbook belongs on the “must read” list for swimmers preparing to attempt a solo English Channel crossing. It covers almost every practical aspect of the swim from boarding to re-boarding the pilot boat. He has graciously permitted republication of this material.

Alison Streeter, MBE, has completed forty-three successful solo crossings of the English Channel, more than any other woman. For this accomplishment, she carries the title, “Queen of the Channel.” Ms. Streeter has famously declared that “Channel swimming is 80% mental, 20% the rest.” In light of this piece of wisdom, I have excerpted the following psychological tips from Mr. Golding’s handbook:

“Now the heavy bit!

There will/might come a stage when you way are out of your comfort zone, having exceeded the longest time previously spent in the water and think the task is now beyond you. Or you might think this early in the swim. Or it might happen when a lot of swimmers hit a rough patch – around the 5-7 hour mark. This is normal. I say again – this is normal!!!!! Oh yes, this is so normal!

I have two hard learnt theories pertaining to Channel swimming. The first is that women are inherently mentally tougher than men! There you go, I’ve said it – and not for the first time! I don’t wish to be too general, but when a man goes to the edge and topples over he can fall into an abyss of despair and stress. If others have witnessed this mental implosion the situation is exacerbated ten fold as far as he is concerned. If a man boos his leg off and calls for his mummy then it can be game over! I never booed or cried for mum in my early days of Channel swimming but I did implode mentally in spectacular fashion and this mental falling apart was, for me, shameful and insurmountable (mad, hey?). Women, on the other hand, are different. Not always, but, in most cases, when a women falls over the edge, she boos her leg off and then gets on with it with a, “So what? Never seen a girl cry before?” defiance.

The shame and insurmountable odds I referred to lead to the second theory which applies to both men and women. I believe we all have secret doors in our heads. When we do long, meaningful swims in training or, ‘on the day’, we can crash headfirst into these secret doors when our task seems beyond us. They are double, triple bolted and have huge mounds of debris in front of them. This debris is not the debris of the swim or the day but of our other, day to day, life. It took me 5 years and 6 Channel attempts in the early nineties (doh!) to realise that I could shift this debris and break down the doors.

The first time I pushed through the ‘secret door’ was one of the most empowering, most enlightening experiences of my life. My whole world, my whole existence, seemed calmer and friendlier. It was then that I realised it was OK to be shit scared, that this gut wrenching paralysis was surmountable. Indeed, instead of fearing fear I saw that it was actually something to acknowledge and embrace and respect. And, guess what? You CAN go beyond your previous limits and succeed - ‘cos, if I did …………!

The reason for this quite revealing section is to tell you that when it hits you (some people deny ever feeling scared or mentally bereft during their Channel swim but I don’t believe a word of it!) let it happen. And don’t be surprised if it hits you early on and more than once. If it does, just move the debris again and open the secret door.

Each swim I do I get hit by the demons again. They don’t announce their arrival, it can be after 1 hour or 6, but once they hit me it’s full on. They burrow and forage and worm their way in, feeding on my fear and trying to get me to quit. And they talk to me!!! 'Go on,' they say. 'The ladder’s just there. Touch it, feel the warmth of a helping hand. We have hot soup and warm clothes and a bed for you to sleep in.' They’re buggers the lot of them. I despise and hate them. Sometimes they gain ground and I have a torrid time but at least I know what to do now.

Be assured, you will be scared - in training, in the lead up and, especially, on the day. Slow or fast, young or old, you will have doubts and wonder what ever inspired you to take this crazy gig. But, crucially, you are not alone. Everyone, to one degree or another, is going through the same angst, I promise. You CAN push through the pain and self doubt. Just unlock the secret door!

When you land it is amazing. Your life will change from that moment – guaranteed. Whatever journey you have taken to get there, and whatever trials and tribulations you encountered on the way, to achieving your dream, you now have the right to call yourself a Channel swimmer. WOW! How cool is that?


Five Hour Bay Swim

Monday 05/17/10

The forecast calls for rain. Dark streaks of charcoal smear the western end of an already grey and gloomy sky giving credence to the forecast. We can actually see the sky because it’s 9am and well past daylight. In a departure from routine, we’re not planning to start swimming until 10am. Oddly, a winter that was warmer than usual has been followed by a spring that’s colder than usual. Lately, the water’s been pretty danged chilly in the early morning. We hope to encounter slightly warmer conditions in the middle of the day. Regardless, it promises to be a cold five hour swim in the Bay.

The plan is to use the end of the Dolphin Club dock as a base of operations. Ralph Wenzel and I will swim “mostly coves” and return periodically to the dock for feedings. This way, we avoid the logistics associated with a motorized pilot craft. We also gain the advantage of being able to easily warm the water in the club kitchen for the feedings. Perhaps as important, we’ll be able to involve the entire crew scheduled to assist on the boat in the English Channel.

Lindsay C, Darcy W, and Jackie M will take turns providing kayak pilot coverage for us. That will afford everyone the opportunity to become familiar with the progression of my swim stroke over time. Each crew member will also get a chance to prepare the feedings. Popular conception portrays crossing the English Channel as a long and lonely venture--the isolated swimmer struggling against the dynamic sea. It may be true for some. It’s not true for me. I am fortunate to have a committed and supportive team.

As Ralph and I are undressing in the locker room, we get a report that the water temperature this morning was 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The report does nothing to calm our nerves. This swim is the longest either of us has ever attempted. All of us, swimmers and crew, are plagued with various levels of performance anxiety. Forefront in my mind is my failure to complete five “coves of death” a week and a half earlier. I’m tucking the sting of that defeat into my psychological tool bag. Having it there doesn’t relieve the anxiety, however.

Jackie M launches the Sweet Lorraine, the kayak we’ll be using for pilot coverage. She paddles toward the Opening. Ralph and I shake hands, wish one another luck, and wade into the water to follow Ms. M. Our first leg is a trip to Fort Mason and back. The water has warmed slightly from the early morning. Still, the temperature varies between 52 and 54 degrees, depending on current flows and upwellings.

By the time we reach the Opening, we’ve settled into a steady rhythm. When we reach the second pier at Fort Mason, we take a wide turn and head back with the building flood current. With almost six feet of visibility, the water is quite clear. The wind is negligible and the surface is reasonably calm. We’re feeling good. We’ve been swimming for forty-five minutes when we stop at the dock for our first feeding.

Using warm water to mix with the maltodextrin powder is a definite improvement. It doesn’t exactly warm me, but it also doesn’t send an inner chill coursing through my body. In another modification, Lindsay has added a small dose of apple juice to the mix. It cuts the gumminess of the plain mixture and offers a small fructose boost. I try to keep the feeding time to twenty seconds or less and chug down 300 ml with some leaking out the sides of my mouth.

For the second leg, we swim a large, clockwise cove. Stopping again at the dock, we refuel and head back for a counter-clockwise tour of Aquatic Park. As we stroke for the Oprah, Ralph shouts a suggestion that we swim on the east side of Hyde Street Pier. I agree and we thread our way through the piers. Lindsay C is taking her turn in the kayak and sees us disappear behind the Thayer. She didn’t hear our agreement to alter course and spends a few frantic minutes searching for us until she realizes where we went. She meets us at the Alma and escorts us the rest of the way around the cove.

At the next feeding, I’m feeling cold and uncomfortable. With the extra curlicues, we’ve been in the water for almost two hours—longer than my abbreviated swim the fifth of May. I was worried that coming back to the dock regularly would exacerbate the desire to cut the swim short. I was right to be worried about that. For the first time today, I trot out the “la muerta pequeña” tool. It works. I glug down another feeding and we set off for an “outside-inside.”

By now, the flood current is really piping down the side of the breakwater. It’s noticeably rougher water and we shoot east. At the “creakers,” we spin around to face the flood and creep back along the inside of the concrete wall. When we reach the dock again, we’ve been swimming two hours and forty-five minutes. Ralph shouts out loudly, “Over the hill, Larry! We’re over the hill!” The crew members on the pier laugh at the unintentional double entendre as it relates to our progress in this swim and our ages. The best response that I can muster is a bland nod of the head and a widening of the mouth that looks more like a grimace than a smile. I concentrate on feeding as fast as possible and striking out again.

We set out on another clockwise loop around the cove. Just past the Flag, I pull out the “tunnel tool.” The cold has permeated my body and the achy, odious physical sensation is flooding my consciousness. I again imagine looking for the trap door in a dark, icy tunnel. I sling the pile of debris that’s blocking the door out of the way until I break through to a second wind. This is not the first time I’ve used that tool today, but it comes at a fortuitous time.

Darcy W is taking her turn in the kayak. Just past the Goal Posts, she begins screaming. Ralph is also screaming. I don’t realize that the shrieks are coming from my friends. I see what I think are children on the Muni Pier and I think they are warning me away from their fishing lines. It’s not until I see a massive white turbulence three feet in front of me that I realize the alarm signals a swarm of sea lions. They are stealing bait from the fishers on the pier and at one point they have me boxed in a thicket of swarming pinniped flesh. I have just geared down into “tunnel mode” and ignore them. The part of my mind that can still think rational thoughts decides, “What can be done anyway? They’re ten times faster than you. Just keep swimming.”

The sea lions are only interested in the bait, not me. Ralph saw them early enough that he veered into the middle of the cove to avoid them. We rejoin at the Repair and continue stroking. Back at the dock, we feed quickly. In honor of our marine mammal friends, we decide to abandon the counter-clockwise cove in favor of another outside-inside.

After two more loops around the breakwater, we’ve been in the water for slightly more than four and a half hours. Ralph exclaims, “This is it, Larry! Just one more!” I don’t need a tunnel tool. I don’t need a “la muerta pequeña” tool. I can smell the barn and it smells good. We finish with a Flag, Bad Becky, Flag and back to the beach. We shuffle onto the sand after five hours and five minutes.

We spend a long time in the shower. We’re so cold that we’re not really shivering. In the sauna, we compare notes and agree that we’re both hurting. My skin quickly feels seared even though I’m not warm on the inside. I move to a lower bench and that helps some. After dressing, we congratulate one another and make plans to swim again the next Monday.

The rest of the day, I feel out of touch with my body. Lindsay insists that I eat some dinner and I find that I’m hungry and didn’t know it. I nurse part of a single, small martini and look at the Giants on the television. The game barely registers and I go to bed early.

It takes me a little over a week to fully recover. For the six hour swim, we’re absolutely going to find warmer water. That will make a six hour swim seem much easier than what we’ve just endured. The Central Bay is four or five degrees warmer. We’ll probably start at the San Mateo Bridge, swim past AT&T Park, around Treasure Island and back to the Dolphin Club. This will mark the completion of prerequisites for attempting a solo English Channel crossing with the CSA. Given the outcome of this most recent milestone, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been that I’ll be prepared.