The 21-mile crossing of the English Channel is the open-water peak for challengers such as Clearwater Beach lifeguard Ron Collins.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published September 9, 2004
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Portrait of a long-distance swimmer: Ron Collins on Clearwater Beach. "When it comes to long-distance swims, there is only one that matters and that is the English Channel."
[Photo courtesy of Ron Collins]
The day before his Sept. 5 attempt, Ron Collins takes in the view from Dover, the English side of the Channel. The famous white cliffs are in the background.
They call it the Everest of open-water swimming.
"It doesn't matter how many times you have swam around Manhattan or across Tampa Bay," Clearwater Beach lifeguard Ron Collins said a few days before he would attempt to add his name to the record book. "When it comes to long-distance swims, there is only one that matters and that is the English Channel."
The 21-mile crossing (as the sea gull flies) from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez, a headland between Calais and Boulogne, was first attempted by Matthew Webb on Aug. 24, 1875. Webb, a captain in the British Royal Navy, made landfall after 22 hours in the chilly channel waters.
"Nothing great is easy," Webb reportedly said of his ordeal.
Thirty-six years would pass before another swimmer would equal Webb's feat, although not for lack of trying. There were 70 attempts and 70 failures.
"There are longer swims and there are colder swims," Collins said. "But when you put it all together . . . the cold, the tides, the weather, the ship traffic . . . the Channel swim is about as tough as it gets."
In the world of competitive swimming, open-water (which usually means open-ocean) has a small but loyal following. And among open-water swimmers, Channel crossers are an elite few.
"More people have actually climbed Mount Everest than have swam across the English Channel," Collins said. "It is about as physically demanding a thing that you can do."
And like an Everest ascent, a Channel crossing is not without its dangers.
"People have died trying to swim it," Collins said. "It can get rough out there and hard for the support boat to keep track. Sometimes people just get lost."
In the summer of 2001, a 37-year-old Swiss man disappeared 16 hours into the swim when the seas picked up off the coast of France. They found his body a week later near the Belgian port of Ostend.
But despite the difficulty, there have still been more than a thousand successful Channel crossings. At least 25 people have swum from England to France and back, and three have completed the seemingly impossible, the triple crossing.
"A good time is considered in the nine-hour range," Collins said. "But time really doesn't mean anything. Everything depends on the conditions."
Cold water, warm blood
When Webb swam the Channel in 1875, his swimsuit weighed 10 pounds. The Australian crawl, or freestyle as it would become known, was not yet the stroke of choice. He used the breaststroke and did not have goggles to protect his eyes from the sting of the salt.
"The sea is killing me by inches," Webb is said to have told his crew as he struggled to keep moving ahead with Cap Gris-Nez in sight.
Webb made his swim in August for obvious reasons. The water temperature in the English Channel is at its peak, the low to mid 60s.
"That is still pretty cold," said Collins, the first person to swim the length of Tampa Bay. "That is totally uncharted territory for me. I've swam in 58-degree water before, but just for a few hours."
Most people who fail to swim the Channel do so because of hypothermia. The human body can function in 64-degree water, the temperature this week off the white cliffs of Dover, but after three or four hours the cold takes its toll.
"Living in Florida, it is hard to prepare for something like this," said Collins who swims 3 to 5 miles a day with the St. Petersburg Masters Swim Team. "There aren't many places you can go to try to adjust your body to the cold."
Most open-water swimmers frown on the use of wet suits. The issue of whether or not they should be allowed on official Channel crossings led to a highly publicized rift within the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), established in 1927 to help guide and certify crossings.
A new organization, the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF), was formed by a veteran Channel navigator, Michael Oram, and Alison Streeter, "The Queen of the Channel." Streeter, a 39-year-old currency trader from London, has 40 Channel crossings to her credit. The only woman to have ever successfully completed a three-way crossing, Streeter swam the length of Tampa Bay in April 2003 to show support for the race that her friend Collins had started a few years earlier.
Timing and tides
Most Channel swimmers start about three or four hours before peak high tide.
Because the tidal flow is parallel to the coast and the traveling is at a 90-degree angle to the shoreline, the tides do not help or hinder swimmers' progress once they are well offshore. The navigator, or pilot, has the critical job of keeping the swimmer on track. "It is really important that (navigators) know what they are doing," Collins said. "If they don't calculate your swimming rate properly and are off just a little bit, it can men several extra hours in the water."
If a swimmer plans for a 10-hour swim, but is forced to make a 14-hour swim, the psychological effects can be staggering.
"It is a head game," said Collins, who began his open-water swimming career in 1997 when he persuaded a group of lifeguards from Clearwater Beach to join him for a swim from Gandy Beach to Picnic Island on a cool November day. "You are out there by yourself . . . you have a lot of time to think."
Judge Bob Beach of St. Petersburg, knows firsthand how timing can influence a swim. In 1980, Beach, then a 50-year-old circuit court judge and former U.S. long-distance national champion, was stopped just short of his goal by an outgoing tide.
"I was 2 miles from the beach," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "But I just couldn't make any progress against the tide."
Beach went on to become an accomplished masters swimmer and trains regularly with Collins, who splits his workouts between the pool and the warm waters off Clearwater Beach.
Collins, a computer expert with a degree from Virginia Tech, spent more than a year planning every aspect of his attempt, hoping to avoid the fate that befell Beach.
"I have this thing dialed in," said Collins, who operates a swimming Web site called distancematters.com. "I am not going to leave anything to chance."
Collins hired one of the best navigators he could find. "The support boat isn't cheap," he said. "You can count on spending $2,500."
With lodging, airfare and other related expenses, Collins said he will have spent about $5,000 for a chance to add his name to the wall of the White Horse Inn, an honor reserved for those who have conquered the Channel.
Distance doesn't matter
The fastest swimmer, Chad Hunderby, an American, crossed the Channel in 7 hours, 17 minutes in 1994. The slowest, Henry Sullivan, finished in 26 hours, 50 minutes in 1923. Collins hoped to be somewhere in between.
On Sunday morning, Aug. 5, while Hurricane Frances headed toward his home in Tampa Bay, Collins stood in the darkness on Dover's Shakespeare Beach waiting for his navigator.
"The pilot told me we would start at 2:30 a.m., so I was there at 2," Collins said. "We didn't get under way until 3:15. That delay would cost me."
Powered by Snickers bars and Gatorade, Collins set a brisk pace. But two hours into the swim, the 2- to 3-foot chop began to take its toll. "Let's just say I fed the fishes," he said.
Collins figured he would finish in about nine or 10 hours, but after 12 hours, when he still couldn't see the coast of France, he began to worry.
"It was cold as heck and I was hurting," he said. "I had never been in the water so long and kept gagging because the saltwater had made my tongue swell up."
Then the boat captain told him that he had missed the landing point and he would have to swim back the way he came if he wanted to touch French soil.
"That 45-minute delay cost me about four more hours in the water," he said. "But I just kept going."
Finally, 14 hours and 7 minutes after he started, Collins waded ashore. "There were three French guys partying on some rocks," he said. "They cheered me on . . . it was kind of cool."
His task completed, the 42-year-old became the first person from Tampa Bay to swim across The English Channel.
"It was slower than I wanted . . . there are grandmas who have swum it faster," he said.
But asked if he would try again, Collins said. "I doubt any time soon. But never say never, 'cause never is an awfully long time."