Countdown to the first day we can swim!

Monday, August 29, 2011

As I touch French land...

There was nothing else I wanted to do more. But after 16 hours and 48 mins of hell, I LOVED every moment of it!!! Hard to believe, I know. Attempting this swim was 20% mental, 30% physical, another 20% mental, and 30% insanity.
I want to apologize for not posting on the blog earlier. I have been so overwhelmed with everyone's messages of congratulation. And rather than giving a blow by blow account of the 17 hr swim, I want to express my thanks to everyone who have helped me on this journey and give some highlights. The observer notes will be posted on the Sea Leopard website ( See next post for observer notes. I will then put up another post on this blog that adds my thoughts and details if I feel it necessary.

So, first, as I have told some of you already, actually getting the opportunity to swim the English Channel is the cherry, the whipped cream, and the chocolate frosting of an amazing journey. This was a journey that allowed me learn and grow so much. However, despite the individual nature of swimming, I could not have imagined accomplishing this feat without the help of so many amazing people!! From big things (or for me, some huge things) such as the mental components to little details such as

footwear, I got great advice and words of encouragement from all over the world. It was the experience of a lifetime and a journey that I do not have words to even start to begin to describe.

Also, special thanks to my amazing crew. My captain Stuart, crewman, Stuart, and observer, Keith were amazing. They catered to all my needs, quite literally. Never having experienced such rough seas, my family and I put all faith in Stuart, Stuart, and Keith.

So, finally, in slightly non-sequential order, here are the highlights of my 2011 English Channel Crossing:

I want to begin and end with the finish because I believe this should be the part that is of greatest importance and should be, if all else is forgotten, remembered. I could not have imagined a better ending to the swim.

Just touching land before noon Friday August 26, the clouds and rain of the night before clears to reveal the red cliffs of Cape Gris Nez. I did not see the cliffs and light house until 2 hours before I landed. "Keep your head down, and get to france," Elaine had always said. So I did. As I strayed from the boat and headed into shallow waters, I closed my eyes, as I could see land on both sides by then. 20 paces, "ok I am in sheltered waters." Another 20 paces, "almost to the light house!" Land was just within arm's reach. As restaurant-goes wandered out to greet me and a seal willing joined me, the only thought on my mind was: solid ground never felt better.

Aside from the amazing landing, I probably saw the most amazing sunset of my life (this was unfortunately right before the weather took a turn for the worst, as if nature was mocking us). As the boat passed me slightly on my right, I saw the sunset behind the boat. The vividness of the red against the white cliffs of Dover was just as if I stepped into a National Geographic photo. I stopped to admire only for a few seconds, however, and turned my attention to the more pressing matter of getting across.

As many people know already, I have a terrible track record for swimming straight; this is mostly due to the fact that I swim with my eyes closed, or semi-closed. Well, unfortunately, in the middle of the English Channel, there are no lane lines to stop me from wondering away. Shortly after the sun dropped behind Dover, I got "a bit" confused. I took no less than 30 strokes in a circle and started to head back to Dover. I hypothesize that this was probably because of my predisposition to follow bright lights, like bugs. As I saw land off in the distance and my boat far away, I thought to myself, "where the hell am I?" and immediately following that, "oh...crap." Oops. I suppose it would not have been like me to not get lost at least one time during the swim. After this little incident, I switched to the right of the boat, so that the tide pushed me into the boat instead of away from the boat, and Stuart put a spotlight on me, so the crew could better see me.

The spotlight, perhaps, saved my life. Although I wore clear goggles from the beginning of the swim, because I have a tendency to swim with my eyes closed and the waves were so large, I had difficulty judging my distance from the boat, especially as the thunder clouds rolled in to create swells that made me, at times, think the boat might flip over on top of me. By shinning the light on me, I directed my focus and energy solely on trying to stay in the light. The pitch darkness of the water outside the light was Cold. Unfriendly. Fathomless. With the light, I washed away my thoughts of land, I forgot the bellowing wind, and I numbed my pain.

Throughout the swim, I was counting trees. "Treeing," a great piece of advice given by Coach Bill of MIT Master's swimming, is the idea triathletes use to forget about small things that go wrong during their race, and to channel all the negative thoughts into a tree. After passing that tree, they will forget about those thoughts and focus instead on what comes ahead. I can say that I counted a whole forest within those 17 hours. Not feeling well from the very beginning, I began to doubt my abilities to finish just one hour in. However, knowing what these negative thought could do to me mentally, I counted my strokes. "One, two, three, breath." "Ok, take a deep breath." "Tree, tree, tree." Whenever I started to again ask myself, "what if I don't finish," another tree went past.

While treeing was enough to calm my mind, nothing could calm my stomach. Sea-sickness afflicted my whole family. My mom was gone after an hour and as night fell, I began to take food orders from Stuart, Stuart, and Keith as my dad was down as well. While I did joke around a bit and tried to always bring a positive light to the terrible position that everyone was in, with a quick nod, smile, and thumbs up at the very least, my stomach turned and churned and I grimaced every time I took food. Three hours in, I finally could not hold it in. Ten minutes before the half hour tea break, I stopped short to "relieve" the pain. Vomiting did in fact, temporarily, relieve the pain. I suppose, as the second wave of sickness came about an hour later, I began to create a mind game out of these vomit attacks. Every time as I started to feel sick, I told myself, "No. Not until the next feed. No. Not yet."

Aside from the nausea, I have never been so cold for so long. Using a similar technique as I had with my vomit attacks, I told myself "I am getting hot tea next feed. Just go a little longer." The shivering was to the bone and did the tea actually work? I don't know. I estimate that I spent about a third of the swim shivering and another 2 hours after the swim to warm up. Tingling sensations ran up and down my limps; though I was not kicking much, my legs sent pulsations into the water as they seized up and shook uncontrollably. I knew day break would give me strength though. From hours 6 to 11, approximately 1am to 6am, when the water, air, and rain were the coldest, nothing more kept me going except that next cup of tea and the possibility of feeling the warm sensations of the sun.

After battling the sea-sickness, cold, lighting storm, and rocky shore, the most challenging part of the swim was the last five miles, as I already fully knew it would from my talks with the vice-chairman of the CSA, Clive. With my spirit bruised and my head spinning, as we headed towards the eleventh hour and light appeared, I began to see sea-birds, though still no land. I must be close!! However, as I swam on, the swells grew and fatigue set in. It became more difficult to stay at a good distance away from the boat and I struggled to to take my feed. I finally decided to ask where I was at. The answer I got: "Three and a half mile away. How long do you think it will take you?" Ha!! Three and a half miles? 6000 meters? That's just a two hour practice!! "Two hours. The waves are big!" I replied. "The swells will die down soon," I heard back. Well, long story short, the swells continued for quite a while and it took me five hours instead of the two I had hoped.

Hearing I was so close, however, gave me hope and renewed energy. I thought of everyone's support and the journey I had taken during this past year. I knew I could not have even actually tried to attempt the swim, forget about 3.5 miles from shore, without so many supporters. My goggles filled to the brim with tears (and it wasn't because my face got thrown into the edge of the boat). Though my shoulders hurt, my stomach churned, and the waves sloshed over me, it was the support of everyone that allowed me to find the courage and energy to continue to swim.
So as I finally come to the end again, I can't stress enough how thankful I am. Accomplishing such a feat surprises even me. My outlook on life has completely changed and I look forward to my next project, whether it involves swimming or not. So World, watch out, here I come!

Friday, August 26, 2011

How I Officially Crossed...Most of...the English Channel

For anyone following the tracker, you will know that I ended my attempt just 3 miles from cap gris nez. I got back to the hotel a few hours ago, took a bath (cause I haven't been immersed in water enough lately) and brooded about what went wrong. I have been awake for over 24 hours now but can't go to sleep so I'm going to write my account now.

I felt so on top of the world when I started that swim. The wind was higher than expected so the swells were large but I was on pace at 2 miles an hour and was loving every minute of it. From the 6 hour swim (in fact from every swim over 2 hours) I knew exactly when the shoulder pain would set in...around 1.5 hours. In the 6 hour swim it intensified around the 5 hour mark to the point where I could barely stroke with my left arm. I had been working on pull sets since I signed up for the swim and knew my shoulder endurance had improved, but still wasn't great. So I popped a few aspirin before the swim and had back up on the boat. If I could just hold 2 miles/hour I was looking at a 12 or 13 hour swim that would land me right on cap gris nez (the shortest distance).

There is a saying among channel swims to hope for the best but plan for the worst. Oh I wish all the hoping had worked. The large swells made all my support crew (my mom, dad, and sister) sea-sick. My mother, who doesn't normally get motion sickness, actually lasted till about 2.5 hours in but wasn't able to help the rest of the trip. Note: the pilot, Eric, officially designated them the worst support crew ever. Fortunately Eric and the first mate, Gary, filled in. Not ideal, but not a game ender. I just informed the crew on each stop when the next stop should be and what I needed. The worst part was I had lost the best encouragers. Eric and Gary were always upbeat, but didn't have quite the same connection.

As usual shoulder pain started 1.5 hours in. It's ok I told myself, maybe the aspirin hasn't kicked in yet. I will ask for more at the 4 hour mark if it doesn't get better.

The light began to fade at this point, and I have to say swimming into the night was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. I felt disembodied, isolated, and couldn't have guessed the distance to either shore had I wanted to. I realized it started to rain when Gary appeared in his bright red rain ensemble and the official observer, Steve, disappeared into the cabin.

At 4 hours I asked for more aspirin which was inserted into my gel pack. After my feed Gary also went into the cabin and I began to feel lonely. It sounds terrible, but I was almost happy when my family came to puke over the side because it meant I got to see a familiar figure.

The wind died down a little in the middle of the night while the precipitation turned from a drizzle into heavy rain. Made everything kind of blurry which enhanced the loneliness. It was very different than I had envisioned the swim. And then it started thundering and lightning. That was the only time I was actually scared on the trip, "Oh my God don't let me die...Eric will pull me out if it's dangerous, right?" I saw a bolt of lighting strike the ocean to my left, that was LOUD, but the storm ended without incident.

As the storm abated the wind picked up. Pilots don't like to take out swimmers when the wind is over a 4. This wind was a 7. Best wave pool ever, but not so good for my speed. Around 10 hours into the swim the sky began to lighten. "Feels like a problem-set all-nighter at school" I thought. My left shoulder was on fire by this point and was pinching in a way I hadn't felt before. "Keep going, keep going, the slower you go the more distance you have to swim in the end." Just slightly slower than my pace could add hours onto my swim since the shore falls off quickly from the cape on either side.

Around 30 min after dawn I started working some one-arm strokes to try to rest my left shoulder. Every feed I was asked how I felt, and every feed I said good or great. I did NOT want Eric to pull me out, so I was careful to only stroke one-arm when no one was on deck. At 11.5 hours into the swim, I asked Gary where we were.

"Only 20 yards from inland waters"

I didn't know what that meant at all, but it sounded good.

"So how long do you think that will take?"
"Probably around 5 hours"

What?!? How is that possible? Was I really that far from shore still??? Could I make it another 5 hours? I had been sure I could force through another 3, but 5? How was I so far off pace? I was expecting a delay of just a few hours, not a time almost half as long as what I had already completed. Just keep swimming, don't think, just swim.

Soon after that I noticed Steve had seen my one-armed strokes. $%+&. Ok, keep both arms going...why is he calling Eric? Stop looking at me! You have barely looked at me all night, stop looking at me now! Oh it hurt, I gave in and went back to some one-arm as they kept watching. At 12 hours they called me to the boat for what I thought was the scheduled feed, but they didn't have any food.

"Sydney," Eric said, "If you can't for sure make it another 5 hours, you should come in. The wind is just getting worse. Don't risk an injury or permanent damage and not make it anyway. The weather is terrible, don't feel bad about it."

I looked at Steve, he nodded. I looked at my mother, who had promised to be the one who would take no excuses. She said nothing, and I know she has NO problem speaking her mind if she disagrees with someone.

"It's the smart decision." Eric prompted.

Could I give this up? I had worked so hard! Why were they not encouraging me! They were supposed to say go! go! Don't you dare put a foot in this boat! Was it worth possibly ruining my senior season of swimming? Oh I was angry at them for bringing all my doubts to the surface. I didn't speak for a while, then nodded.

Back on the boat Eric showed me my progress. 20 miles in 12 hours, so 1.67 miles/hour instead of my goal of 2. Still when he pulled me out I was only 3 miles from shore! I had made it 20 miles, but somehow it would have taken me another 5 just to make the last three. The current was heading west quickly and was sweeping my past the cape. A little faster and I would have been swept into the cape, but as it was I would have had to wait until it reversed and caught the cape on the way back.

It was so close! Did I make the right choice? Could I have made it had I stayed in? I don't know, I just don't know. I am kicking myself for getting out, was I making excuses? I am absolutely positive I could have made it in calm weather. They say some days it is so calm the water looks like a mirror...I am insanely jealous of the people who get those days.

Last I heard Qing was still in, I really hope she makes it because it will be an extra epic swim.

Edit: Just found out that swells varied from 20 to 25 feet. Biggest wave pool I've ever been in for sure.

Also, Eric Hartley was an excellent pilot and did everything he could to ensure success.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

We Leave Tonight!!

The long wait is finally over and Eric has approved the weather for this evening! I am meeting him at the marina at 615 this evening (115 East Coast Time) so it looks like I will be setting off from Samphire Hoe around 7. The fast approach of the end of the neap tide means Qing is now swimming with Stewart so we get to swim at the same time, couldn't have worked out better!

I know many people have asked about trackers. Eric's boat, the Pathfinder, can be tracked at

Stewart's boat, the Sea Leopard, I will have to look up...

Hope to be posting soon about how amazing the swim went :)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Still Waiting...

The lots have been cast (or in this case the cards have been drawn) and the order is Sydney third and Qing fourth. The first and second swimmers have made their crossings so we are next in line, but due to windy weather it looks like the next possible day will be Wednesday. This is later than we expected, but the last day of neap tide is not until Saturday so there is still some flexibility.

On the plus side all this lead time has given us plenty of time to practice at the Dover Harbor and Folkstone Beach in waters that are the same temperature as the Channel. These waters are quite chilly to say the least, so I have decided to post the three stages of adjusting to cold water and the ways I have come to deal with it. They may sound kind of odd, but they work for me.

*incidently this graph describes the speed of my swimming as well since the colder I am the faster I try to swim to get warm

Stage 1: Initial Shock = OMG THAT'S SO COLD IT BURNS!!!
Coping mechanism - Lying to myself. My thought process is something like, "Yeah it burns, it burns because I am on fire!" If I just keep telling myself I'm actually really hot for some reason I feel happier.

Stage 2: Adjustment = Keenly aware of the cold water running over my body
Coping mechanism - Think of how much worse it was just a few minutes ago. Sometimes I pretend it is washing the fire away.

Stage 3: Steady State = Numbness
Coping mechanism - Actually at this point it is pretty easy to distract myself from any physical discomfort and enjoy the harbor. It is also a good time to just let my mind wander and relax a bit. While I wouldn't say I am "comfortable" at this point, the temperature is certainly bearable.

The next post should announce when I head out, thanks to everyone for their support! We could not be doing this without your help!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dover/Folkstone is beautiful!!!!....Take Two

This time I am serious...

Sorry for not updating earlier. I arrived late Monday night, had wifi issues yesterday, and then finally met up with Sydney today.

We have been practicing in the REAL thing everyday. I suppose it seems rather surreal being here and actually about to do it. After a year of planning and practicing, we are ACTUALLY going to do it.

Anyways, I'm not going to say much more now; I will provide details after the swim. Sometime the thought of swim makes my stomach turn. At night, before I fall asleep, I start freaking out slightly. Just like Sydney, my heat starts racing and adrenaline starts rushing through my veins.

We'll post the boat tracker as it gets closer to our swims.

So until next time...keep sending in your encouragement!! We appreciate it a lot and they keep us going!!!!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dover is beautiful!!!!...well, I wouldn't know

...but Portsmouth, NH was great!!

If anyone needs anything done to their passport I highly recommend Portsmouth: no one in line, friendly people, great beaches, and amazing seafood (it's a pretty great story, ask you about it if you are interested). After two, rather vexing and traumatizing, weeks of stress, I came out still alive and still in rather high spirits. I will be finally leaving for London out of Newark airport on Sunday. This was a good reminder to always factor in unforeseen events when planning!!

Anyways, going back to my original post, "What are YOU doing to prepare?!?" I have been SO AMPED for my chance to swim ever since I heard news of Mack and Emma's amazing successes 08/06 (13hr 5mins and 14hr 33mins, respectively) as well as the amazing Diana Nyad's swim from Cuba to Florida (although she didn't finish, I still have the highest respect for her and what she stands for).

To help everyone else be as amped as I am, I will providing my checklist for the things I plan to bring:

VALID passport..check!
Packed bags...check!
List of people to meet, places to go, and things to so...check!
My "can do ALL" attitude...check!
A big smile...check!
Beer money from Elaine Howley for afterwards at the White Horse Pub...check!

...lastly and most importantly, I need to remember to breath (this is very difficult for me sometimes :D)

Bon voyage!!! England Channel, here I come!!!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Leaving for England today!!!

This summer has gone by incredibly fast and I am leaving for England in just a few hours! We (my family) will land in London early Saturday morning and Qing + her crew will join us Sunday. This gives us a little less than a week to train in the Dover Harbor and acclimate to the water, just as a reminder our window is from August 19th-20th, but with our numbers 3 and 4 it is likely we won't swim in the first few days. We will keep you all posted and put up the boat tracking link once we know when we are swimming.

In other news the local news station WVEC aired a brief piece about the swim on last night's news. It can be viewed at . I think it actually turned out pretty well.