June 27, 2005

Warm bile and floating chunks

The week of glorious sunshine we had abruptly turned bad on Friday as the sky opened up and a huge thunderstorm pounded down on us. Soaking wet, I stumbled to the bus stop and spent the journey down to Dover occasionally looking out the window and drumming my fingers worriedly about the weather conditions. Most of the time I was absorbed in The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco, a fantastic book. It not only depicts in great detail the lives of the clergy in the middle ages but also brings to life how they thought and felt. It's quite incredible.

Anyway, my fears came true as the weather was windy and overcast on Saturday morning. I walked onto the beach and the crowd on the beach was noticeably smaller than the previous weekend. At 9am, it was still cold and I felt nervous as I stripped down to my trunks. It was low tide, and so to start swimming we had to walk quite far out. I waded into the water, and after about 50m out the coarse sand underfoot turned into what felt like slick mud, squelching as I slowly made my way into deeper water.

Finally, about 100m from the shore, the water was around my waist. I pushed off the bottom and started swimming for the far pier. It wasn't as bad as I feared for the first two hours, although as usual my ribs ached and my legs cramped up slowly. As I approached the two hour mark, however, the wind picked up and began to whip up waves around us. The water, already murky and impenetrable, started crashing down on my head, forcing salt water into my lungs and up my nose.

About that time I recognised a friend as he was swimming by- the chap who started bleeding from his rash a few weeks ago- and so we decided to swim together for a while (misery loves company). Shortly after, we ran into a couple we both knew, and so the four of us stopped to exchange notes.

"How are you?"
"Not bad. What's new?"
"Nasty weather, isn't it?"
"Yes... doesn't look good."
(and so on).

It crossed my mind that we all sounded like typically English people having a chance meeting on Oxford St. and making the usual small talk about the weather. It may be the middle of Dover Harbour, but stiff upper lip!

Things, sadly, got steadily worse. At the three hour mark, I swam in for a drink and my hands were trembling so violently that I think I spilt more than I got down. Someone on the beach tossed me a small chocolate cupcake to swallow and I forced the little bite-sized piece down gratefully. Twenty minutes later, after all the excessive saltwater in my stomach, nausea finally overcame me and it all came up again. It was oddly comforting, because as I swam through the vomit it was warm. The chunks of cupcake brushing against my legs as I kicked didn't bother me in the least. I had reached the stage where I'd have swum through urine if it was warm. I really didn't care.

In a way, it was good to practice vomiting, because inevitably while I'm swimming the Channel I will need to vomit while on the move, and so I should get some practice in it while I can.

Just past the four hour mark, I swam in for a drink and while waiting for it, loudly and noisily threw up again. Fifteen minutes later, I was done. I stumbled up the shore, assisted by a friend, and collapsed in a heap by my bag.

Four hours, fifteen minutes. I need to be able to swim ten. I've got a long way to go yet. However, it's still a step forward, albeit a very small one.

Posted by pj at 11:20 PM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2005


Thanks to the cloudless sky, I've got a remarkable tan this week, which is made all the more remarkable by the tan lines that my swimming cap and goggle engendered. I don't just have a line running across my forehead and over the bottom of my ears- I have two: one from Saturday, and one from Sunday. The lines cross and interweave due to the differential positioning of my swimming cap on the two days. It's all very amusing.


Looking around on the beach, it seems the other swimmers and I all developed the same skin- browned, damaged, and wrinkled. The exposure to the sun, salt, wind and pollution will do that to you. We look like fisherman who have spent their lives out on the sea.

Hmmm, an eyepatch and a gold tooth and I'd look like a real pirate. Yar, matey.

Posted by pj at 08:27 AM

June 20, 2005

The Temperature's Rising

The most wonderful words I have heard in the past three weeks were uttered on television last Thursday:

"...and Friday will have a high of 29 degrees, with the weekend hot and dry and sunny. We're looking at highs of 30 degrees on Saturday..."

Of course, since the ocean takes a lot longer to warm up, I didn't expect it to be more than 14 degrees celcius. However, after two weeks of 12 degree water, I was quite happy to take 14 degrees. It's all relative: three weekends ago I was dreading 14 degree water... now I welcome it like manna from heaven.

In the end, it was still really numbingly cold in the water, but having clear blue skies and the sun on our backs made the experience profoundly different. It drove home to me just how much your mental attitude makes a difference. The water was barely different from a weekend ago, but I achieved three hours with no problem on Saturday and made it to four on Sunday- more than doubling my previous personal bests.

In the four hours, by my calculation, I swam roughly 16 km. This is almost halfway across the Channel, which is reassuring, in a way. If I can make it out there, I won't have much choice but to keep going forward- it's the same distance either way!

Posted by pj at 06:50 PM | Comments (2)

June 14, 2005


I have been having problems putting on the extra weight, since there's not a lot I care to eat. I'm perhaps an atypical Singaporean when it comes to food: I barely taste the food and I don't really care about what I'm eating, as long as it is healthy. As such, it's been hard to force feed myself. I usually eat till I've had enough, and that's it. There are few foods (especially foods available in England) which I am happy to eat and eat and eat.

Yesterday, however, as I wandered up and down the aisle of the local supermarket trying to figure something out, my eye lighted on one of the few foods I never tire of: Nutella! In a flash, I had it figured out. I love Nutella, and I love plain rich tea biscuits. Put them together and you would have a dynamite, fattening, combination of Nutella smeared on tea biscuits.

I feel so uncomfortable with this extra weight, but I'm sure when I hop back into the water this weekend I will be thankful for every ounce of wonderful, warm, protective blubber. If I want to swim like a whale*, I must resemble one!

*- or other warm blooded mammal

Posted by pj at 08:36 PM | Comments (5)

June 13, 2005

The second weekend in Dover

"It'll be better next week... can't get much worse... it's bound to warm up soon... summer will be here any minute..."

Last weekend, we repeated these trite, hopefully phrases to each other as we suffered through a weekend of bitter cold. Unfortunately, it was worse this weekend.

Just how much did we suffer out there this weekend? One of my new friends is an experienced channel swimmer. He was all ready to swim last year, but he was scheduled to go on the second last window of the year, which got washed out along with the very last. So he's back this year to wait again and hopefully get the opportunity to go this time.

On Saturday morning, he developed a heavy rash on his upper body during his 5 hour swim. It was probably the salt, or the cold, but he was in major discomfort all night (he was my roommate this weekend, so I can attest to his pain). He had to keep getting up to apply cream to his rash, and finally went to the hospital to see if they could help him. They couldn't.

Sunday morning saw him get back in for a planned 6 hour swim. I swam with him the first 20 minutes or so, out to one of the piers and back, but as we were heading in the other direction, I glanced back and realised he was gone. I stopped looking around, puzzled, but he had disappeared. Since I'm quicker than he is, I assumed I must have left him behind and kept on going.

I was wrong: his rashes had started bleeding and with blood flowing from his pores, he hastily got out.

That's how cold it was out there on Sunday.

In addition to the lack of sun, the wind picked up heavily and whipped up the waves. I spent ages battling the water as it roared up and crashed down on me (Later, on the train home, I found I had sprained my neck sometime during this ordeal). It was discouraging, looking to my right for five minutes and seeing the scenery barely move- especially when the scenery was the toilets on the promenade!

Almost everyone got out early on Sunday morning, from the rookies to the veterans of numerous swims. I was quite happy to have made 100 minutes, a new personal best for me. I was tired, exhausted, and couldn't stop sneezing all the way home (a 4 and a half hour journey), but it was a good effort and I'm slowly making progress.

However, it was still too cold. More fat is needed. Time for some ice cream... I've earned it!

Posted by pj at 08:23 PM

June 07, 2005

Thinking about AIDS

Tonight I had the privilege of attending a talk by a fellow Hertford College MCR member, Jo, who lost her mother to AIDS. It was a sober reminder of how much AIDS can impact any one of us, and furthermore of the social barriers which prevent effective education and protection from the disease. It may seem to many of us like a remote disease, but in reality it can strike anyone anywhere, and our only protection is education, awareness and abstinence.

The main point of Jo's talk tonight was that we have to remove the taboo and stigma from the disease. Firstly, people tend to shun AIDS sufferers. Perhaps this is because it is associated with a certain lifestyle. However, Jo's mother did not lead a life different from the rest of us, yet she still contracted the disease. They do not know how or when, except that she had it for many years before she found out. In the course of visiting her mother in hospital Jo met many people from many professions and walks of life. Only one was a drug user. Most were people whom we would never suspect of having AIDS. The disease does not discriminate.

Alternatively, perhaps AIDS sufferers are shunned because people are afraid of contracting the disease, which is not possible from normal contact. Jo herself is proof of this- she lived with her mother for years, as close as a mother and daughter could be, neither knowing about the disease lurking, without contracting it. She must have spent the better part of a year by her mother's side in an AIDS ward in a hospital in Paris, but nothing ever happened to her.

The wider issue is that AIDS itself has a certain stigma and we have to overcome that. As I've said over and over again in my own speeches to publicise this swim, the only way to prevent AIDS is education. We must understand it, we must be aware of the risks and how it is transmitted, and we must be willing to share this and openly discuss it. Pandering to social conservatism or falling prey to taboos will only cost us lives.

Don't forget, Action For AIDS Singapore is one of the two charities benefiting from my swim. Please take a look at their website, or at any of the many other websites out there which will teach you all you need to know. There's an excellent one at Avert.org.

Posted by pj at 07:30 AM

June 06, 2005

The first weekend in Dover

The water wasn't 14 degrees... it was 12.

Cold? It wasn't just cold. As I waded into the water, I realised my legs were already going numb. I pushed off the bottom and swam out, and my body screamed in agony. The air whooshed out of my lungs as my chest muscles compressed, and I gasped for air, struggling to breathe. Pins and needles prickled my hands and legs as I stroked and kicked vigourously, trying to keep my blood moving. The wind howled around my head and whipped up the waves, which crashed on me and sprayed in my mouth as I took breaths. The sun was concealed by a layer of thick cloud and the water was impenetrable- I could not see past my elbow. It was a cold, windy, depressing day- and it was my first day swimming in the Channel.

Within half an hour, I was shivering uncontrollably, my body spasming as it tried to keep producing heat. My quadriceps were inexplicably cramping- I had never cramped there before, but now they tightened up and were threatening to knot up. My neck felt like it was being twisted as I kept craning up to get my bearings and to breathe over the waves.

Still I persisted. I eventually looked at my watch and it read 50 minutes. More than anything else, my fear was that I was about to lose control over my body. My mind was still strong, but my body was uncontrollably spasming and the pain shooting up my body was terrible. The only part of my body which wasn't hurting from the cold were my shoulders, which had been doing most of the work- perhaps because they were warm from their constant movement. I finally waded ashore at 55 minutes, shivering uncontrollably and I stumbled up the shore. It took me over fifteen minutes to finish getting dressed and wrapped up as I was shivering so hard my fingers refused to obey my commands.

The next day I made an entire hour, and the cold was a little more bearable, but if there's anything I learnt this weekend, it's that I need to put on a lot more fat. The best swimmers out there this weekend- not the fastest, nor strongest, but those who had the most endurance- had heavy slabs of body fat to protect themselves from the cold. The importance of body fat has been driven home. The danger of losing control is very real- one of the other swimmers was sick thrice and lost control of her bowels while she was swimming.

Apart from my exhausting weekend swimming, I had to deal with the farce that is the British public transportation system. Wisely, I set aside an entire day to travel- and I needed all of it. On the way down, there was a delay on the train to London Paddington; 'severe delays' on the Circle line of the underground (which took me from Paddington to Victoria) which delayed the tube for ages; and two delays on the train from Victoria to Dover. On the way back, I accepted a lift to London from fellow swimmers who live in London, thinking I would avoid the train delays. That I did; however, when we entered London, we promptly ran into roadworks, which delayed me longer than if I had taken the train. I finally limped into Victoria, and then to my horror read a sign saying 'District/Circle Line closed'. I asked a station official, who promptly gave me wrong directions. Fortunately I verified his directions against the map, and was able to take the Central line to Oxford Circus before changing to the Bakerloo line to get to Paddington. I arrived in Paddington three minutes before the train to Oxford left; I sprinted, got on the train, and collapsed into a seat. Miraculously, the journey back to Oxford was uneventful.

Thus went my first weekend of training in the Channel. I think I did alright. I was hoping for better, but I have to be reasonable. I'm sore and exhausted, but give me a good night's sleep and I'll be all ready to get back in the pool tomorrow to continue training.

Channel Swim 2005 008.jpg
What the picture doesn't show is that I'm shivering uncontrollably... while people in shorts and summer shirts walk by along the promenade

Posted by pj at 04:13 AM | Comments (2)

June 03, 2005


One thing about moving, especially to a new country, is that everything gets so hectic when you arrive. There are so many errands to run, chores to do, unpacking to take place and settling in to achieve. For someone like me, this is perfect because I enjoy having lots and lots of things to do. Thus the last two and a half days has been sheer fun, because all I've been doing has been rushing about doing useful things.

Yesterday I bought a bike, and that very night as I was riding home from training, I heard a 'crunch' and the back wheel went off kilter. Fortunately, I was unharmed but I was outraged. I took the bike back to the shop today and scolded them. The bike was under warranty, so I had no problems getting them to fix everything. It was rather amusing, in retrospect.

My training sessions here have gone well. I hopped into the pool and winced from the cold. The pool water in Singapore felt like a sauna by comparison! How on earth I will adapt to the Channel, I have no idea. I did around four hours, two of them with my old Oxford teammates.

Tomorrow I head down to Dover and into the ocean for my first dip into the Channel. The weather has been hovering around 16 degrees celcius, so I wonder what the Ocean will be. Word has it that it is around 14 degrees... brrrr.

Posted by pj at 07:22 AM | Comments (3)