Chris Bond tells us about his experience of swimming across the English Channel, and how his battle against the waves lead him to a humbling reminder of the realities of cancer.
What does one think about when your body is freezing, you have hours to go, the fear of failure constantly on your heels and your arms and shoulders begging to quit? You remember that you chose to be there for all those individuals who are suffering a far greater 'unknown'. So you slap yourself harder and keep swimming.
When you sign up for a Channel Swim attempt, you take on so much more than just the swim itself. It is rightly thought of as the Mount Everest of the open water swimming world; the hours of work in the pool to begin with; very early starts and constantly attempting to overcome the urge to sleep throughout each training day. The weeks – then the months – pass by in lakes or sea and then ultimately, on the day, you are at the mercy of the boat skipper and the meteorological conditions and the sea. And so, after all of this and then a further three and a half week delay due to weather conditions, I finally found myself down at Dover Marina in the early hours of a cool October morning.
I was swimming in aid of Breast Cancer Now and in memory of an incredible friend, Shaunagh, who lost her four and half year battle with this disease earlier this year. Her daughter Cornelia spent months driving the Breast Cancer Now banner across the social and physical network and we had interest from all over the globe. She was equally determined to ensure this caught the attention of as many individuals as possible.
The weather had cooled in these recent weeks causing the sea temperature to drop drastically, one of the many dangers of having the final slot in the final tide sequence of the cross channel swimming calendar. After October 31st, no one is allowed to attempt the swim until the following year from May 1st. This was my final chance to complete the challenge.
A boat funnily named The Viking Princess chugged into view through the darkness and came to a halt by the quay side. We loaded the kit, food, fluids, various clothing and camera gear before the skipper explained what was about to happen: We would head west along the coast line to Sapphire Hoe beach where I would be launched off in the dingy with his crew mate, Ray, towards the shore. I would have to swim the last thirty or forty metres to the shore before I could finally begin. As the boat left the harbour the official Channel Swimming Association observer, Phil, ran through the essential rules and the criteria for quitting. I headed below deck shortly after to change into my swim gear. As I came back to the top it was evidently far cooler than any of us had imagined. Phil looked pensive...
I waited below deck as long as possible to maintain some body warmth until the engine slowed and a call from above signalled we'd arrived. My parents and support crew wished me well as I stepped down into the dinghy and we motored off into the darkness. The sea was clearly choppy but I pushed it to the back of my mind. Ray signalled for me to dive in. There are no words to describe that feeling. Soon I felt the pebbles beneath my feet and stood up and waded up the beach and awaited a second signal. With my ear plugs in and my swim cap on, I could barely hear anything and almost missed Ray’s shout. I made some last minute adjustments to my goggles and waded back in to the sea and began to swim.
A blur of adrenalin
Those first few moments were a blur of adrenalin as my mind raced through the months of preparation and work. And then I remembered why I was here. I was here because a great friend of mine had lost her battle to a dreadful disease and this was my tribute to her and all those in similar circumstances. My own battle, so it seemed, was only just beginning.
The first two hours were a physical battle unlike anything I've been through previously. I couldn't get into a rhythm due to the waves and my breathing was punctuated with mouthfuls of sea water forcing itself down my throat. I could hear the sounds of dolphins or seals below me, periodically jelly fish would float by along with large planks of wood and huge floating weeds which would entangle themselves around my shoulders. But there was no choice, it was forward or nothing.
I have swum many times in the sea and it's an environment I have loved since childhood, but I found that the tide was not with me as I continued to struggle for a decent breath of air. Slowly, the light seemed to change and the sunrise was upon us as the whistle signalled my first break. I tried to drink as much as I could while treading water during the minute break. Then it all continued; it was what I had prepared for. Getting into a rhythm with my breathing and swimming, I endured mile after mile after mile as my body would shudder periodically trying to stave off the cold seeping into my core. In return I would swim a little harder to maintain as much internal warmth as I could. More concerning was that my throat was burning due to the amounts of sea water and I knew this would at some point impact elsewhere. I soon began to halt my solids intake and was down to a mouthful of cargo fluid and some hot chocolate. It was sometimes impossible to take anything on board given that the sea water would flow into anything I held in my hand. Back home I had trained myself to swim for 12-15km on no food or fluids ‘just in case’, but I hadn’t banked on inhibiting my fuel stops this much.
My first glimpse of France
I hadn’t made an effort to see France but suddenly there it was. The sun had begun to set, displaying an extraordinary image over the horizon and choppy sea. We were now under three miles from the shore and incredibly the nightmare seemed almost over. I imagined family and friends watching the tracker online and wishing me well.
The boat had reached its southern most point and was now heading north shadowing the French coastline. As the dark engulfed us and the wind increased power, waves rose to over a metre with white caps. My body had given everything to get here and I could feel the shivering taking a much firmer hold internally. I treaded water; unable to talk because my tongue was so swollen and my throat burnt by the salt water; unable to swim with the waves battering me. My heart sank to its lowest point as after thirteen and a half hours of hard swimming in a cold sea with no energy left, I floated to the rear of the vessel and was lifted out.
I was mostly unaware of what happened next, as I was sat down inside the cabin and towels were thrown over me, clothes placed on me and shoved inside a warm sleeping bag. I had fallen into a hypothermic nightmare. My mother tried to give me some warm soup but I vomited over and over into a bucket. Someone massaged my heart and others hugged me and stood next to me trying to keep me warm. Eventually my temperature returned to 'workable'. Unbeknown to me I'd entered the water weighing fifteen and a half stone and climbed out weighing only fourteen. I was a mess, but a living mess.
A Dover hotel offered a night of aching, broken sleep, yet the next day I was able to take in a little of the achievement from the previous day. Essentially I had swum over to within 1.1 miles of the French beach where the skipper had set the finish on barely a litre of carbohydrate fluid, two small chocolates and a few slices of banana. Even by my standards this was pretty crazy! But the nightmare was clearly not over after I arrived home. I shivered then over heated constantly, my heart began to race and every pore in my body sweated throughout the night. I was admitted into hospital the next day. Barely able to focus, I listened to the sounds of the equipment monitors bleeping away and far-away conversations. I was moved to a different bed, and discovered it was in a cancer ward. As if life couldn't have come full circle any other way. These men who had no idea what fate awaited them and had no control over it. The same fate which Shaunagh had fought so hard against for the final four and a half years of her life.
An important reminder
Those of you who have had any contact with cancer sufferers will know that the degradation to the human body is often the hardest part for many to come to terms with. Watching the human body deteriorate at such speed, robbing the host of its former more colourful physical livelihood is a cruel thing to witness. But I lay there and looked at my neighbours, I knew this was the reason that I'd attempted to swim the channel.
No matter how terrible I felt, my aches and pains and frustrations were all in passing. I would recover, get my body back into shape and get on with life. I would be able to walk out of that ward while their uncertainty continued. The gruelling channel swim and my disappointment at not being able to finish could not possibly compare to the uncertainty of cancer. This reminder of human frailty was incredibly humbling. At the very least I felt happy that we'd raised awareness for this disease through Shaunagh's irrepressible memory.
And yes, I'd get back in the Channel tomorrow and do it all again for them.