My English Channel Swim: Jellyfish and Lights in the Distance

Millions of people travel to France from Britain every year. Only about a hundred of them swim.

After 10 days of waiting for the right weather, I stepped onto the rocky beach of Samphire Hoe, England, at about 2 p.m. on July 29 to start the 21-mile (34-kilometer) crossing of the world’s busiest shipping lane. At 46, I was following pioneers Captain Matthew Webb and Gertrude Ederle, two of the fewer than 1,500 people who have completed the swim since 1875.

On board the Viking Princess, a fishing boat I booked last year to escort me, were my coach Tim Denyer, two teammates and an observer from the Channel Swimming Association who would ensure that I reached the French shore without assistance.

I was prepared for hours of swimming, and concentrated on making it to the next “feed:” Every 45 minutes, Tim would toss down a warm carbohydrate drink in a plastic bottle attached to a float. The variety was good, if all the flavors weren’t: berry, chocolate Ovaltine, soothing ginger and flat cola, my least favorite.

We tried to keep the feeding stops to 30 seconds, which the crew used to evaluate my physical and mental state. Like a potty-training toddler, I gleefully told them every time I urinated and was greeted with much approval. This meant my body was still functioning and processing the nutrition.

After two years of intensive training -- including more than 230 miles, more than 3,500 laps of an Olympic pool, since March -- I felt pretty relaxed in the first few hours, settling into 58 to 60 strokes per minute.

‘Don’t Stop Me Now’

To distract myself, I tried to name all my first cousins (quite a few of the 58 were tracking my swim live on the Internet), remember every desk I’ve had since starting at Bloomberg News in 1995, and every boy I’ve kissed. I never got very far as my mind wandered back to my mantra of “dig deep, stay strong” and what seemed like hundreds of repetitions of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

Meanwhile on the slow-moving boat, someone caught a fish off the back. The crew encouraged me with thumbs up or clapping. Only later did they tell me some were seasick.

Swimming was my job for the day, and I’ve had worse days in the office. I was doing what I trained to do, what I love to do. Tim reminded me to lift my elbows and push my hand all the way down to my thigh to get the most from every stroke. My left shoulder and triceps complained the loudest and were briefly silenced by a couple of mild jellyfish stings. It was kind of a nice distraction.

Rookie Mistake

Then I made a rookie mistake: Less than halfway, I saw France. As I progressed between shipping lanes and the zone that separates them, tidal changes meant France was ahead of me, then to my left and finally to my right.

I was still a long way from my destination, and also from the South Bend, Indiana, YMCA where I worked my way up the lessons ladder to Flying Fish. I spent summers working as a lifeguard, but I mostly stuck to pools until a holiday to Croatia in 2007, when I started training for longer distances.

When I joined the Red Top Swim 3 1/2 years ago, head coach Tim said he saw in me the physical and mental attributes that make a long-distance swimmer. Tim, who swam the channel in 12 hours 40 minutes in 2005, cites “good stroke mechanics with potential for improvement and a desire for challenge.”

“I could tell that you respected me as a coach, trusted and believed in me and were prepared to take on board and action whatever I recommended, including to rest when I said rest,” he told me in an e-mail after the swim. “Through your training, I could also tell that you had a mental toughness that would stand you in very good stead out in the blue.”

Swimming in Darkness

After about six hours I was swimming in darkness. I’d set off with a flashing green light on the back of my goggles and I snapped two glow sticks attached to my blue swimsuit.

The Viking Princess’s spotlights shone down on the water and all I had to do was stay in the pool of light. That got tough as tiredness and confusion set in.

I mistook a buoy three miles off the coast for the lighthouse on the Cap Gris Nez. In reality the tide had pushed me north again toward Calais and its busy ferry route.

My mind thought about stopping, but my body didn’t. I was prepared mentally for those moments. I had told myself: “Leave your doubt in Dover.” I wasn’t scared and once it was dark, I actually felt more confident that I would make it after swimming so far.

When I finally saw the lights on the coast of France, I thought they could be just another brightly lit tanker. The small tender boat on the back of the Viking Princess, which had been taunting me for hours, was finally lowered into the water to accompany me on the final few hundred meters.

Sweet Relief

The crew said I had 30 meters to go -- the length of my local pool! It seemed like a lot farther.

I felt disbelief and sweet relief when I stumbled up the sandy beach of Sangatte, France, near where Captain Webb landed 139 years ago.

As a Channel swimmer, I’m part of a group smaller than the 4,000 climbers who have reached the summit of Mount Everest. My time of 13 hours and 50 minutes is close to the average of about 14 hours last year, based on statistics compiled by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation.

I was in France long enough to hug Tim and for him to pick up a souvenir rock as I whooped in triumph. It now sits on a shelf next to a trophy for fastest female veteran in an 8-mile sea swim earlier in July, my first swimming award in almost 40 years.

We waded back into the surf to return to the escort boat and Tim said, “Let’s swim, it’ll be quicker.” Easy for you to say, Buddy. But Tim said swim, so I swam.

Later that morning, on a packed London Tube, I wanted to tell everyone about my swim. I still do. Family, friends, co-workers from around the world and even some strangers had been tracking my serpentine progress across the straits. During my swim I felt tired, anxious and annoyed at times. But I never felt alone.

(Sara Marley, a sports editor at Bloomberg News, started training for long-distance swimming about seven years ago. Her immediate plan is to relax and celebrate her swim with friends and family. She will make a decision in October about her next challenge: the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim or 26.4 kilometer Zurich Marathon Swim.)