A Different Journey: Swimming the English Channel
(This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the St. Bernard's Gazette, and
was written for boys at the St. Bernard's School and their parents)
On August 6, 2006 I slipped into the English Channel at Shakespeare Beach, Dover, England. My destination
This was to be my second attempt to swim the Channel. On August 6th, 2003, I swam for over sixteen
hours before leaving the water, exhausted and making no forward progress. I was four miles from Cap Gris
Nez, France. I was told I had missed the tide that would sweep me into the French coast and would have
to swim another eight hours before the unforgiving currents of the Channel would let me in.
As a boy I was enchanted by my grandmother's stories of Channel swimmers, such as the American
Gertrude Ederle, in the 1920s heyday of the sport. 'Gerty', the first American and first woman to swim the
English Channel, succeeded on her second attempt, and was given a tickertape parade on returning to New
York; Calvin Coolidge called her "America's Girl".
Later I would read of the gallant Captain Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the English Channel in
1875, who struggled mightily through twenty-two hours of breaststroke (the Australian crawl had not yet
been introduced), succored only by brandy, beer, and cod liver oil. He had earlier abandoned one attempt
when his support boat came close to capsizing. As he was about to give up on his second try, his close
friend "Boy" Baker leapt into to the water to keep his spirits up by swimming beside him. After finishing he
was lionized throughout Britain, feted by the Prince of Wales, and profiled in many stories for boys.
These are stories of heroes, although there is a downside to the heroic. Ederle paid for her feat with total
deafness. Webb eventually paid with his life: plunged into obscurity and penury, he accepted a $10,000 bet
to swim across Niagara Falls to support his family. He is buried not far from where his body was washed up
on shore. He is remembered for the words, "NOTHING GREAT IS EASY", which would eventually find their
way onto his pilot's tombstone.
Since the 19th Century the rules for swimming the Channel have remained essentially unchanged: one suit
(bare shoulders and legs), one cap, one pair of goggles. No fins, no wetsuits. Since Mt. Everest became
littered with oxygen canisters and the detritus of wealth, swimming the English Channel has become the
purest - and perhaps the most challenging - individual athletic endeavor in the world - the cynosure of all
swimmers who want to reach for something noble.
Boys, therefore, understand intuitively why I would want to swim the English Channel. They respond with
variations of one word: "Cool!" Inevitably, adults, though, ask the question: Why?
My first response is, "Because I can." If you have a gift, you use it. Prior to 2003, I had completed a
variety of open water swims, including two around Manhattan. I was good at staying in cold water a long
time. I would have preferred to pitch for the Yankees, but I could never find the plate. So there it is.
But this response is often followed with, "Yes, but why?"
Friends and acquaintances have said to me, "I don't understand why you are doing this, but what you are
doing is incredible." Maybe this, after all, is the answer. I want to do something in my life that is incredible.
Training began in earnest in January 2006. Mileage would peak at around 28 miles per week. I would seek
out cold water and cold water swimmers wherever I could find them. I would swim in the Cove at La Jolla,
CA (water temp: 60 F). I would participate in the first ever swim around Alcatraz Island in San Francisco
(water temp: 57 F). In July, 2006 I would swim for eight hours from the Verranzano Bridge to Sandy Hook,
NJ - and back. (water temp: 68 F - too warm!).
I arrived in Dover in late July. I was worried by my inability to find cold water during the summer (the water
in Kennebunkport, ME was 68 F on July10th). But in Dover I started doing practice swims from the stony
beach described in the first stanza of Matthew Arnold's famous poem, Dover Beach, and I was reasonably
happy and confident.
I waited - and waited - for the weather to clear in the Channel. Waiting is said to be the most difficult part
of the Channel swimming experience. (It is not.) On the night of August 5th, my boat pilot said to be ready
the next morning.
I hit the water on the morning of August 6th at a strong pace - perhaps too strong - turning my arms over
at the rate of 67 strokes per minute. I drank 250ml of a carbohydrate drink every 30 minutes from a bottle
on a rope dangled over the side of the boat - my New York friend and I had practiced this drill countless
times in New York harbor. If I touched the boat - or if anyone touched me - I would be disqualified. At four
hours, I ate a Twinkie. The water temperature in the Channel was 64 degrees.
At five hours I began to tire. The first mate of the boat had just said to me, in an offhand way, "You're
going to make it, just keep swimming." Alarmingly, I felt no sense of elation, no "I'm going to swim the
English Channel!" As one swimmer wrote, "The coldness of the water chills the dream and petrifies the
At eight hours I felt exhausted and spent. I was as angry and frustrated at my crew as an eight-year old
whose parents are not paying enough attention to him. Don't they know how I am suffering? I was an
eight-year old, spun back in time by the complete withdrawal of comfort.
At nine hours, I asked how much time I had left. This was a fatal error: I should have asked how far along I
was. I had made excellent progress and was only six miles from France. The pilot replied, "Six hours" (the
approach to the French shore is slow and long). I yelled, "I only have one or two hours left in me, I'm
coming out." Without demur, a ladder was put down, which is like waving a bottle of water at a man
crawling across the desert. Within minutes, I was out. Shaking my head, I only muttered, "I am not a
Inevitably I am asked if I am going to try again, and to adults I say, "There are other swims." But I am
intrigued by what I would say to a boy, for to a boy that answer would not suffice.
I have two thoughts. In my journal leading up to the swim I wrote, "I am happier than I have been in years,
and I attribute that primarily to the new discipline of swim practice." After the swim the consoling thought
was what a terrific experience the seven months of training had been. Quite simply, I was closer to being -
mentally, physically, and spiritually - the person that I wanted to be.
My first thought, then, is that it turns out that what is important - in this life - is not the destination but
the journey. It turns out that it doesn't matter that much whether you get to the other side or not! What
does matter is trying to do your very best. A boy, then, might say that I do not have a valid reason for
The second thought follows from the first. It can be found in a famous talk that Winston Churchill, an Old
Boy at Harrow, gave to the students, on October 29, 1941. It is depicted in a cartoon I have scotch-taped
in my office: a pelican has captured a frog in its oversized lower beak; the frog is about three-quarters
done for, but has somehow managed to get its skinny arms out of the pelican's mouth and around its neck,
which it is throttling. The pelican's eyes are popping out in surprise. The caption reads, "Never, never,
never, NEVER - Give Up!"