From England to France The Attraction of Swimming the Channel

For mountain climbers, Mt. Everest is the ultimate challenge. For swimmers, it's crossing the English Channel. Every year, more and more people attempt the journey, but only one in five make it.

Gino Deflorian has already been swimming across the English Channel for eight hours. The sun is shining, the air is clear and the water is calm and flat, but the conditions are deceptive.

He is swimming freestyle as reliably as clockwork, consistently taking 54 strokes per minute. When he lifts his head to breathe, he can vaguely make out his destination on the horizon, Cap Gris Nez, a promontory on the French coast.

Deflorian is wearing a latex swimming cap, an ordinary swimsuit and goggles. His shoulders and armpits, neck and crotch are coated with lanolin, to keep his muscles flexible and prevent chafing. According to the rules, neoprene is not allowed. If he succeeds Deflorian, 24, will be the first Swiss swimmer to swim across the Channel.

The Rowena, a blue fishing boat accompanying him on his route, is chugging along next to him at 1.6 knots. Deflorian isn't allowed to touch the boat or a person. If he does he'll be disqualified and will have to get out of the water. An inspector on board pays close attention and keeps track of times, coordinates and Deflorian's stroke rate.

The captain's son is urinating over the railing at the boat's stern, and Gerard Moerland, Deflorian's coach, is sitting on a green camping chair on the port side, observing his swimmer. He ignores the ferries, the container ships and gigantic oil tankers as he focuses on Deflorian, making sure that he doesn't start slapping the water instead of gliding through it. If that happened, it would be a sign that something is wrong.

"Am I worried? Of course. Constantly," says Moerland. He looks at his stopwatch, and then he shouts: "Captain! Food!"

Pale Lips

It's time for a boost of energy, which happens every 40 minutes. As the boat slows down, Moerland tosses Deflorian a bottle and a bag attached to a rope. The bottle is filled with Coca-Cola and the bag contains a roll with Nutella. Deflorian turns over onto his back and allows his body to drift. He can hardly get the bag open, because his fingers, wrinkled and white down to the middle joints, are shaking so badly. His lips are pale.

The English Channel is brutally cold, although on this Tuesday in late August the water temperature is 16.8 degrees Celsius (62 degrees Fahrenheit). Water conducts heat 25 times as efficiently as air. The Channel is literally sucking the life out of the swimmer.

"Gino, how do you feel?" Moerland asks.

No response.


"It's getting cold," he replies. "And my triceps hurt."

"Okay. That's what we trained for. Just keep swimming."

Deflorian forces down the last bite and starts swimming again. He's swum 25,326 strokes since 9:25 in the morning, when he began his journey on a pebble beach at the Samphire Hoe park, directly at the Eurotunnel.

Deflorian keeps swimming. Now he's up to 25,410 strokes. Standing at the helm of the Rowena is the captain, known as the pilot, who is guiding him across the Channel. "He's gradually beginning to suffer," he says. "The demons of the Channel are trying to get to him."

Deflorian keeps swimming. 25,912 strokes.

The English Channel is to long-distance swimmers what Mount Everest is to mountain climbers: the biggest legend their sport has to offer. The strait between England and France measures 33 kilometers (21 miles) at its narrowest point. It's also one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, with about 500 ships passing through it every day. Swimming across the Channel is an extreme experience, a test of will and a personal challenge.

A Purgatory

It isn't an exclusive adventure by any means. By the end of 2012, 1,341 swimmers had conquered the Channel, and more swimmers attempt the crossing each year. There are about 300 in this year's season, which lasts from June to September, but only one in five swimmers makes it. There are eight deaths on record.

"The only thing that counts is getting there. That's the lesson the English Channel teaches you. It's a purgatory. If it were easy to make it across, it wouldn't do anything for you. When you've made it, you're a different person afterwards," says Kevin Murphy, the so-called King of the Channel, who has swum the Channel 34 times, more than any other man in history.

Murphy, born in 1949, was a fat child who wasn't good at soccer, so he began swimming instead. A row of certificates documenting his achievements hangs in the hallway of his apartment in Dover. He has swum across Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Scotland, and he has crossed the channel between Ireland and Scotland. "But you only get to be a real hero when you've tackled the Channel. It beats everything else," says Murphy.

He has had to be rescued from the water when he lost consciousness, he has had surgery on both shoulders and he suffered a heart attack. Murphy is a wreck. He hasn't swum in seven years. "Mentally, I can't handle the loneliness in the water anymore," he says. The Channel got to him in the end.

Those hoping to swim across the Channel must register with one of two organizations. Murphy is the honorary secretary of one of them, the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation. To receive permission from Murphy to embark on the swim, swimmers must provide proof of having swum for six hours nonstop in water at a temperature of no more than 16 degrees Celsius. The rule was established five years ago. "We're thinking of increasing it to eight hours," says Murphy. "Because of Susan."

'Possibly a Heart Attack'

He's referring to Susan Taylor, a British woman who died in mid-July, less than two kilometers from the French mainland and after 16 hours in the Channel. Murphy was her mentor when she was at a training camp on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca in April.

"I never would have thought that she would have problems." Taylor had to vomit because she was exhausted and had swallowed too much salt water, Taylor's brother, who was on the support boat, told Murphy. She wasn't far away from the French coast and didn't want to give up. She stopped swimming freestyle and switched to breaststroke, but after 10 or 12 strokes she said that she could no longer feel her legs. "She only took two more strokes after that," says Murphy. "I suspect it was hypothermia or dehydration, possibly a heart attack."

It's been nine hours and 20 minutes, and Deflorian is still swimming, 29,538 strokes so far. It's time to eat again. Eating is the only respite for the swimmer, whose body becomes a crisis zone. The cold is like a small rodent eating its way inside. There have been swimmers whose core body temperature was a life-threatening 31 degrees Celsius when they reached their destination.

This time the crew tosses Deflorian a honey-flavored energy bar and a sports drink, which consists of 90 percent carbohydrates. He burns about 800 kilocalories an hour, the equivalent of one-and-a-half bars of milk chocolate or eight-and-a-half slices of whole grain bread. "You can't eat enough to compensate," says trainer Moerland. "You need reserves."

Body fat is a swimmer's lifesaver in the English Channel, because it insulates the body, provides buoyancy and supplies energy. For weeks, most swimmers fatten up with an agonizing diet consisting of large quantities of bacon, pasta and nuts. Women are more successful at crossing the Channel, because they typically have more body fat than men.

Deflorian is 1.85 meters (6'1") tall and weighs 92 kilograms (203 lbs.). He has only 14 percent body fat. He isn't obese, just stocky and barrel-chested. "He's shaped like a whale," says Moerland, "but he could certainly use a little more fat around his ribs. The movement should keep him warm."

Painful Stings

"Everything okay, Gino?" Moerland asks. "Can you pee?"

"Yes, but it's hard to get it out."

When the undercooled lower abdomen becomes too cramped, the swimmer has trouble urinating. Swimmers are often forced to give up because their bladders feel like they're bursting and they can no longer endure the pain. Some become seasick while swimming in waves up to one-and-a-half meters high, while others contend with painful stings from the lion's mane jellyfish.

Moerland came prepared. He has brought along acetaminophen for pain, an antihistamine, caffeine to combat fatigue and cinnarizine for dizziness and nausea.

"Come on Gino, let's go!" Moerland shouts. Deflorian keeps swimming. 29,545 strokes.

In the one minute it took him to eat, he has drifted 120 to 150 meters away from the boat. The tidal current in the English Channel can range up to six knots and can flush away a swimmer like an empty bottle.

That's the reason why no one is able to make it France in a straight line, instead following a curved route. First the high tide pushes the swimmer in a northeasterly direction, and then the ebb tide pushes him back to the southwest. Swimmers who make it across the Channel have in fact swum at least 44 kilometers.

Deflorian is swimming near the bow of the Rowena, where the pilot can see him. For the swimmer, the pilot acts as a guide dog of sorts. He decides when the swim will take place and which course to follow.

Deflorian's pilot has been working as a fisherman for 40 years. He catches crabs, mussels and snails, but working with Channel swimmers is much more lucrative. He charges £2,300, or about €2,735, per crossing. In weeks when the currents are especially favorable, there are routinely three swimmers a day or more attempting to cross the Channel. The fisherman could never make that much money catching mussels.

Too Risky

There are 13 officially approved pilots. Some are booked four years in advance.

Deflorian has now been in the water for 10 hours and 25 minutes, still swimming at 54 strokes a minute. The sun is setting behind him, and in front of him there is a full moon above Cap Gris Nez. Seven other swimmers are in the water today. Because of restrictions imposed by the French coast guard, no more than 12 support boats are allowed to cross the Channel each day. Because the French coast guard believes that swimming across the Channel is too risky, it barred swimmers from starting the crossing on its coast 20 years ago, but it still tolerates swimmers coming from England.

Moerland is standing at the railing, waving his arms and shouting: "Come on, Gino, come on!" The pilot, glancing at the radar screen and the map on his monitor, says: "If all goes well, he'll be there in less than an hour. But if it doesn't and he hits a wall, the current will push him past the cape."

But Deflorian doesn't hit a wall, lifting one arm after the other, meter by meter. 32,940 strokes. He's as stoical in the water as he is on land.

A year ago, Moerland asked Deflorian if he was interested in swimming across the Channel. The two men know each other from their club in Uster, a town near Zürich. Moerland is from the Netherlands, a country with a long tradition of long-distance swimming. He has coached swimmers in four Olympic Games. Deflorian has been a competitive swimmer since his youth, and he's talented, "but he would never make it to the World Championships or the Olympics," says Moerland. "The English Channel is just the right thing for him."

'I'm Hungry'

"It's not about anything for me," says Deflorian. "I just want to swim from England to France."

They arrived two weeks before the planned date of the crossing. Deflorian practiced in the Dover harbor basin every day, along with a group of other swimmers: two female students from Chicago, a heart surgeon from Cape Town and a 70-year-old Japanese man from Hiroshima.

Then it became windy, with gusts of up to 6 on the Beaufort scale, and Deflorian had to wait. Besides, the Japanese man was still ahead of him. Two camera teams, one on board the Rowena and one in a helicopter, filmed his progress. He gave up after 12 hours, five kilometers from his destination, because the strong current prevented him from reaching land.

The Rowena stops 1,160 meters (3,805 feet) off Cap Gris Nez, because the water is getting too shallow. A rowboat accompanies Deflorian for the last kilometer, because he still isn't quite there. Some swimmers were so exhausted that they couldn't complete this last, short stretch of water.

It's getting dark, and Deflorian keeps swimming. "Yippie!" Moerland bellows, jumping up and down on the deck. Then Deflorian drags himself out of the water and onto the beach. When he pulls off his goggles, his eyes are set deep in their sockets. Finally, he stands on the beach and raises his fists to the sky. His mouth forms a thin line, as if paralyzed, but then he manages a smile. He's made it. After 11 hours and 6 minutes in the English Channel. And after swimming 35,100 strokes of freestyle.

"I'm proud of myself," he says, "and I'm hungry." The lights of a restaurant are blazing at his back, as if to taunt him. On offer: 12 oysters for €28.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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