I was supposed to have an English Channel crossing this week as part of a team of 6 Total Immersion swim coaches! It would have been my third time but due to the co-vid lock down it’s not possible to swim this year so it seemed like a good time to share some of my learning.

What does swimming the channel involve?

Swimming the English Channel even in a team of six people is a challenge that requires some thought and preparation.

It’s 22 miles from Dover to Calais but due to the tide it’s not possible to swim in a straight line so most teams usually swim more like 30 or 40mile and crossing distances are usually estimated by duration rather than distance.

In the team you’ll swim an hour each in rotation and it’ll take about 12-18 hours depending on the weather, the tide and of course how fast your team is.

My first two teams both finished in 15hrs and we had a mixture of swimmers on the team. This means that the first three swimmers all had to swim three times and the last few swimmers all swam twice.

The actual physical challenge of the swimming doesn’t sound too hard but due to weather, the sea and the length of the day it’s not to be under estimated.

We choose to swim without wetsuits, just in our swimming costumes, goggles and swim hat. This is mainly because channel swimming originally started before wetsuits were commonly used. Wetsuits give a swimmer more buoyancy which means that you swim faster so we prefer not to have the extra help. They can also feel quite restrictive and means you miss out on the feeling of freedom in the water.

There are teams that swim with wetsuits and it’s not cheating it’s just different. The channel swimming governing bodies keep two lists of official crossings – with wetsuits and without.

The water will be about 16-18 degrees depending on the date of your swim. Being able to swim for 60min without a wetsuit and cope with the cold is one of the biggest challenges.

The next challenge is sitting on a boat for 5 hours in between swims. If you get sea sick it can be miserable. But if you don’t get sea sick and you love swimming then it can be a lot of fun hanging out with fellow swimmers! If you get sea sick be sure to try out your sea sick tablets several times before the day of your swim to see how you react.

The swim is led by an official channel swimming pilot from their 30 foot fishing boat which is fully equipped with all navigation systems and communications to keep the swimmer and boat safe.

How to book a channel relay swim?

Ideally find some friends who might want to do it with you. Ideally you’d have six people committed, but if I waited around for six people to commit I’d never have got it done. So I actually booked the slot and then found five people!

The next thing to do is to find a pilot.  If you know any other channel swimmers it’s useful to ask for a recommendation. Otherwise visit the Channel Swimming governing bodies either the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) or the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) websites and get the contact details of a pilot and make contact with them.

They’ll likely be fully booked for 2 seasons ahead but most pilots will work through their cancellation list in the autumn and release some slots then. You might not have a great choice of dates but rather than waiting 2 years for a slot this is a good option.

You’ll be given a 7 day window for your tide and you’ll need to be available for that whole slot. Some teams will spend the whole week in Dover but living in Coventry we’ve managed to wait for the call and travel down for a couple of nights.

You’ll need to pay the pilot a deposit of £1500 or £250 each for a 6 person team. The total cost is about £3,000 between the team.

All swimmers will also need to complete a medical which can usually be done with your GP or arranged privately. This isn’t usually available on the NHS and usually costs in the region of £60-£150.

Full details of the medical a full break down of current costs along with other booking details can be found with the governing bodies responsible for channel swimming, the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) and the Channel Swimming Association (CSA).

In Part 2 we’ll talk about training and preparation.