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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.


  1. Sydney - I watched most of the swim on the tracker. Great effort and determination!!! No one can ever take away your swim. Most people never ever try the "impossible". You and Qing are in a class by yourselves.

    Kim Bierwert - Smith College

  2. I'm sorry your weather was so crappy! That definitely makes a huge difference, especially with a shoulder injury. Getting crashed around is no good for an unstable shoulder.

    I think you definitely made the right choice in getting out. It's not worth the risk of losing your senior season, or perhaps even having to stop swimming altogether, just to make one swim. It's easy for your brain to retrospectively downplay the pain and risky conditions and make you doubt your choice. Don't let it be insubordinate. ;-)

    You did amazingly well, and there is no doubt in my mind that you would have made it with even moderately good weather.

  3. Thanks you guys, it was quite an experience despite the outcome and I am happy I at least got the chance to try. Maybe some day I will have another go...

    Btw Clara, I keep forgetting to tell you, but Eric remembers you quite well. He said he was extremely impressed with your energy and positive mood during and after the swim. Actually, he said you probably went out dancing afterwards :)

  4. Great work Syd and very inspiring! Your accomplishment to swim that far makes and Ironman feel like a sprint. Congrats on your attempt and your courage to take on such an incredible endeavor!

  5. I'm wearing your shirt right now. Also, Jesus and I last night were watching the tracking online and we were both kind of freaking out. Jesus wanted to call you and I stayed up later watching. Good Job. :)

    I'm SO glad you are safe and that you are coming back to me. (Can't wait to leave so cal) I think I'll take 16.512 P/F just cause I think Rocket Propulsion with you and wimmer will be epic. Don't ya think?

    Sydney, I MISS YOU. Can't wait to see you at school.

  6. Sydney, this is absolutely amazing and you should be incredibly proud of yourself. I wish I had half the strength and determination that you have shown. Are you going to try again?

  7. Sydney,

    Did Qing Li make it? A great effort on your part and a very wise choice to stop when you did.

  8. I am proud to be associated with both of you, if only through Diving at MIT in the early '70s. Congratulations. I hope you get your next shot at it, if you want it.