wOw’s own Sylvia Marino swam the English Channel in a five- woman relay she’ll never forget
We had been sitting in Folkestone for four days, waiting to get the call that the weather had cleared and we were a go. The five of us — all members of San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club, with full time jobs and families – decided to embark on adventure to swim the English Channel as the Club’s first all-female relay team. Following the Channel Rules of only wearing a regular swimsuit (or less), a swim cap, and goggles, with nothing to aid in flotation or warmth, we were determined to conquer what is known as the Mount Everest of open water swimming.
None of us are Olympic-caliber swimmers. Lisa, first in our rotation, is training for a solo English Chanel attempt in 2013. Bonnie, a lifelong speed swimmer, was in second position. Miriam and Suzanne started as triathletes in 2008, and quickly fell in love with the open water. I took my first swimming lesson in 2003 after battling postpartum depression, feeling the need to do something physical and with a goal. I’m not fast, but a workhorse that keeps going.
We knew that no other swimmers – solos or relay teams — had attempted a crossing that week due to weather, so our first possible day on the water would be Sunday or Monday. After that, our one-week window would close, as unfavorable tides would take over until the next window opened later in July. Many people train for years and make the trip to swim on their scheduled date, only to be turned away due by poor conditions. With swims booked years in advance, most cannot uphold the level of training required wait for another window to open. Our call finally came on Saturday evening to report to Dover Marina the next morning at 5:30 am.
Lisa, our first swimmer, started off Shakespeare Beach in Dover at 6:12 am on Sunday, July 10 – Britain’s Memorial Day. Every 60 minutes thereafter, a new swimmer in our fixed rotation would enter the Channel. Depending on where you were in the order, we had assigned jobs – one person watching the swimmer in the water so as not to lose them to swells, one person warming up the swimmer who had just exited the water (hot drink, helping them into dry clothes), one person getting ready to swim and a swimmer getting warm from being in the water. Instead of feeding on the expensive sport gels and drinks we’d brought, I ate cheap gingersnap cookies and hot water. We ran pretty much like clockwork (When you have a team of women ages 41-53, what else can you expect?)
The conditions throughout the day were Force 3-4, meaning we were in winds up to 17 miles per hour with waves, whitecaps and swells regularly in the 3-6 foot range. The water temperature was steady at 58-59 degrees, warmer than the San Francisco Bay. Our spirits were always high, even when a teammate was seasick. No one ever wanted to quit, and once in the water, we gave everything we had for 60 minutes.
Over the course of the day, we saw and came close to many cargo ships and large ferries. I stopped counting early in the day after 60 ships. We celebrated as we crossed the lanes, moved into French waters, swam over the Channel Tunnel (I had the pleasure of swimming across this), watched Dover disappear and saw no coastlines until France begin to appear on the horizon.
From my first rotation to my last, I felt natural. Every time I swam, I had the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” in my head. There’s a rhythm in the sea: the rise and fall of the swells, learning how to swim with the boat on your right. The water itself was stunning, filled with floating jellyfish and plankton that glowed. It was like staring into a galaxy. At times I had to remind myself to breathe and check my proximity to the boat, because I wanted to keep my head down and watch what was happening below.
During the second rotation, I discovered the velocity of the English Channel behind me and at times found myself swimming out ahead of the boat — feeling like we were in a race and I could actually win it. Another swimmer said getting out ahead of the boat made her feel like a dolphin, as we would surge up and out of the water with the swells. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to be so small in such a vast body of water moving at such great speed.
As we went into our third rotation, we began to calculate how far we were from landing. Soon, we could see a truck on a road above the cliffs outside of Calais. I was the last swimmer in the rotation, heading into what is frequently termed “the graveyard of dreams:” the last few miles where the tidal lines push, pull, tug and create a force, leaving you to fight to move forward. Often, solo swimmers are left exhausted and quit. With passing strokes, I could see the sun setting behind me under my right arm; when sighting forward, I could see the moon rising over the white cliffs. I started to count the windows on the houses along the beach. My hour was up, having broken across the tidal line of nearly 3 miles.
Finding ourselves at the top of the swim order, our first swimmer went in and, in 24 minutes, made quick work of the last part of our nearly 31 miles at sea. With the moon above, we could see her stand on the beach in Sangatte and raise her arms. The horn blew and we were now English Channel relay swimmers. Above the beach, a lone silver firework went off. Perhaps a backyard party, perhaps planning for Bastille Day; we will never know. In the moment, we simply stared in awe and took it to be for ourselves.
The ride back across the Channel lasted three hours. In that time we texted and called family and friends, hooted, hollered, high-fived and then collapsed in exhaustion. Making it back to our hotel rooms by 2 am, we popped the champagne and toasted our success and families before crashing for a well-deserved rest.
As is tradition, those who successfully cross the Channel can sign their names on the wall at the White Horse Bar in Dover. The walls are covered in the “who’s who” of open water swimming. We finally found a place in a corner where — in at least one small corner of the world — we have been immortalized.