Swimhalers Cross Channel Swim

A Swimhaler takes the plunge - Photo courtesy of Graham Carlow - © 2016 - www.grahamcarlow.com

A Swimhaler takes the plunge - Photo courtesy of Graham Carlow - © 2016 - www.grahamcarlow.com


On August 31st 2016, setting out from Shakespeare’s Cliff, situated between Folkestone and Dover in Kent, Dave Shephard and Phil Couch – aka, the ‘Swimhalers’ – started their relay swim of around 32 km (21 miles), which due to tides and wind can be as much as 50 km (31 miles), to the finish line at Wissant on the north-west coast of France.

Not just an incredible long distance challenge, this swim took place in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes; the English Channel sees no fewer than 600 tankers, 200 ferries and many other smaller vessels passing through it every day.

English Channel swim facts:

More individuals have managed to climb Everest than have succeeding in swimming from England to France. The fastest swim of the channel is a little over seven hours, while the slowest is nearly 27 hours.

The deeper significance to the Swimhalers’ cross-Channel adventure was that Phil and Dave were swimming in memory of Antonia Thomas, and raising awareness and essential funds for Asthma UK.

Unfortunately, despite endless training and preparation, the two endurance athletes were thwarted at the final hurdle by stormy weather. 

Below, Dave goes into more detail about the day the Swimhalers came within reaching distance of completing the world’s most famous open-water challenge.

Phil and I are somewhat battered and bruised and, in truth, absolutely, abjectly gutted.

The morning of Wednesday the 31st August was a stunner, the channel calm and sun on our backs. We set off from the beach next to Dover Marina at the same time as Yaron, a wonderful Israeli swimmer on the sister ship Gallivant.

I’ll not forget this guy, he looked like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, sat at the back of the boat with his swimming robe on, dripping with grease, surrounded and fussed over by his team. The look of determination and fear on his face was extraordinary. He’d been training for two years for this and had been sitting patiently in a Dover hotel for over 10 days waiting for a weather window. I couldn’t help wondering if he knew something we didn’t.

The water was flat, our terrific bunch of friends and crew, Graham CarlowRachelle Healyand Scott Rodger (Fran Witt), in good spirits. Mike from Leadership Challenges, had scooted all the way over from Wiltshire to wave us off with the promise of being dockside for our triumphant return.

It’s bizarre when you start because you still have to go through a stage of purging all the doubts and forgetting about the distance and the cold etc, not to mention the tragedy that unfolded on our boat only a couple of days before, when Nick Thomas, Channel swimmer, tragically passed away. I tried to just focus on my stroke and think positive as we entered the sea.

I began to feel good in the second hour, while Phil was swimming like a dream. We made it to mid-Channel in great time and we were on target for our 10- 12-hour objective. Our observer, John was cock-a-hoop! “We’ll be back for last orders at this rate,” he quipped. Even our pilot, not the chattiest of fellers, seemed content. “Good strong swimming, that’s what we like to see”.

Then the wind began to pick up at about 6-7 hours in. We’d been warned there may be some chop in the French shipping lane onwards, but within a couple of hours it wasn’t chop, but sodding great big waves that were slinging us all over the place.

We’d trained for rough seas but we also knew we could only sustain that kind of swimming for a finite amount of time. It began to get brutal – the swimming equivalent of wrestling a gorilla. We were in sight of our landing point by now, with 9 hours completed and the buildings in Calais were clearly discernible. But the wind just kept picking up while the tide was doing zip to help us get to where we needed to be.

With the high sea came inevitable sea sickness. Two of our crew started feeling dreadful and most damagingly, so did Phil. He couldn’t hold down food or increase his energy and we needed bags of that. Swimming was just comical. We’d hug the side of the boat to protect ourselves from the worst of the waves, then I’d breathe and look up to see the boat keeling right over on top of me in the swell.

What was only a couple of hours swimming began to look more and more like 6-8. I got in the boat and looked at the shore and thought if that bugger isn’t closer when I get out in an hour, we’re going to have to seriously rethink. And it bloody wasn’t!

We were suddenly down to about 1.5 knots while the wind notched up to 24mph. We heard that Gallivant had turned around to head back to Dover, the weather beating the formidable Yaron after 10 hours.

All these things start to undermine your positivity and doubt creeps in and, in my case, the chill. I suddenly started feeling bitterly cold in the water and shaking uncontrollably because of it. Phil was running on empty, and being very sick while the crew were hurling too.

It all went a pear-shaped; we weren’t making progress, it was getting dark and there were murmurings from the pilot’s mate about not being able to see us in the dark in the rough sea. I knew we didn’t have 8 hours swimming in us, certainly not in this. We simply weren’t moving.

After a painful consultation with Scott and Phil we decided to pull the plug. I burrowed myself dejectedly down below while Phil was in a pretty dreadful state up on deck, while the boat charged into Calais harbour to take shelter.

We finally stopped around 7.30pm but the wind didn’t die down until about 1am. Our observer pointed out that even if we had had a 6-man relay team we would never have got through. Bugger!

I know it’s easy to say this, but seeing the messages of support and well-wishes, the sensational sponsorship, seriously, it was wonderful.

Thank you to you all.”

Having swum over 1,000km training for the cross-Channel attempt, Dave and Phil gave everything to the challenge, and managed to raise over £5,000 for Asthma UK to date.

To see more photos of this amazing challenge view this Gallery.