July 31, 2005

The Relay

Being rather tired and not having much time left on this internet connection, I leave the reporting to one of my teammates, Peter. I should just add that I had a great time, and I almost freaked out when I swam over a massive jellyfish. Also, I got stuck in a huge clump of seaweed at one point. Still, it was a fun swim. It certainly was better being in the water than on the boat, since we all got very seasick due to the rolling seas!

Dear All,

Firstly, thanks so much for all of your support for the team, and for the Calvert Trust!

We made our crossing attempt yesterday (28 July). Having left London at 00h45, we were a bit dismayed on the ride down to Dover...fog so thick we couldn't see forty feet in front of us, bucketing-down rain and (for some salt in the wound) lots of lightning and thunder as we approached Dover.

We met up with our 3rd swimmer (PJ Thum...swimmer extraordinaire) around 03h00 at the marina, along with a few other relay teams and two solo swimmers. The CS&PF (Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation) reps were looking at the forecast, and accurately predicted that the storm would blow over...so we got aboard the boat and made our way out to Shakespeare Beach west of Dover.

Julian, our first swimmer, kicked off from the beach at 04h50 in the hazy light before sunrise swimming into the tide and some quite rough seas. The rest of us on the boat were happy to be on our way, but suffering quite badly from sea-sickness given the big swells and choppy water.

Jules, PJ and I did one-hour long legs across the Channel, running in to just about every kind of weather and sea-condition you can think of: sunny skies, cloudy skies, heavy rain, flat seas, big swells, choppy seas, and so on. The upside of sea-sickness is the motivation to get the hell off the boat and into the water (where the sickness goes away).

We could see the French coast after about 8 hours, and approached the infamous last few miles that our team got trapped in last year after 9 hours. The lighthouse at the Cap Griz Nez (that we stared at for hour-upon-hour last year...and never reached it) taunted us once more. We had hoped (at one point) to finish in under 10 hours, but got caught in the tide that shifted. Alas, we pushed on headlong into it for a while and - thanks to some HUGE swims from Jules and PJ - got within 500 metres of the coast after 11 hours.

I was fortunate enough to have the 'swim on honour' to the shore...except that it took me 21 minutes swimming as hard as I've ever swam to fight the rip tide and finally crawl up onto the rocks on the French coast. Amazing support around with some fishing boats honking horns and cheering, along with some kayakers and people atop the cliffs yelling encouragement. Couldn't have been a better approach.

So all of our goals were met:
1. Be safe and all make it home!
2. Raise some money for charity (not too late to donate!): http://www.justgiving.com/ChannelSwimRelay
3. Have some fun and work hard.
4. Make it to France.
5. Go in under 12 hours.

Again, my thanks to Jules and PJ for great swimming, Natalie (my girlfriend) and Christine (Jules' wife) for the support aboard the boat, despite knee surgery and sea-sickness respectively, Eddie Spelling (our pilot) and his crew...and to everyone's encouragement during training, texts during the day, donations to charity, and prayers/lucky charms/good luck wishes for the day itself!

L-R, Peter Durante, P.J. Thum, Julian Sanders, with Cap Gris Nez in the background

Hey look, a photo! Happy, Lindsey?

Posted by pj at 03:13 AM

July 28, 2005

Latest Development

A chap I met on the beach while training one weekend had one of his teammates drop out of a three-person relay due to injury. Needing a substitute, I was offered the position, and I gladly accepted. Thus, sometime in the next few days, I will be heading off on a relay crossing to France.

Watch this space; an update when I return.

Posted by pj at 02:23 AM | Comments (1)

A Foggy Day In Dover Town

I was a stranger in the city
Out of town were the people I knew
I had that feeling of self-pity-
What to do, what to do, what to do?
The outlook was decidedly blue..."

-- Ira Gershwin, lyrics to "A Foggy Day"

The weather in England has been terrible for the last week- or rather, I should say, typical. It's been dreary, overcast, rainy, cold and windy. In late July. Training in these conditions has not been easy. I've had to reschedule or curtail training several times as the weather worsened. Combined with my hand, it's not been a good week.

Today all of us were huddled under one of the shelters by the beach, chatting and looking around nervously, waiting for the weather to improve. The rain finally eased up and we all got in the water. Also in the water was a flotilla of kayakers and small sailboats, and I grinned at some of them as I swam by and they moved out of my way.

About two hours into my swim, the fog suddenly returned. As I paused below one pier and looked across the harbour, the fog was lightly embracing the buildings and slightly obscuring the far pier. I started swimming, and about fifteen minutes later I was at the other pier. I stopped, noticed the water was strangely calm here, and turned around, into a ghostly, almost surreal vision.

The fog had come down so hard it obscured everything that was more than about 100m away. I could not see the sailboats or kayakers in the middle of the harbour, nor could I see the buildings on the shore. My entire world consisted of three colours: a green, flat, glassy sea, a broad swath of grim brown beach, and thick, dark, grey fog. The air was eeriely still, and as I treaded water all I could hear was my own raspy breathing.

The mist swirled around me as I took everything in. I could have been the only person in the world. Perhaps I was. Darkness all around, ahead, below and above. A solid wall of metal behind me. There was only one way to go: forward.

I put my head down, and started swimming.

When you are at the end of all the light you have, and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, one of two things will happen: your foot will land on solid ground... or you will learn how to fly.

Posted by pj at 02:20 AM

July 19, 2005

Step Forward, Step Back

Swam very well this weekend. Also suay suay langgar into a mooring buoy. Why so blur? I also dunno. Now my hand si beh pain. Only can write a short entry.

[Translation: I swam into a buoy and hurt my hand.]

Posted by pj at 01:14 AM | Comments (8)

July 12, 2005


In order for a swimmer to be allowed to make his or her Channel attempt, the swimmer must first provide evidence of a continuous six hour swim in water below 60F or 16C. For a swimmer who is just starting out, this is some source of concern. When you're struggling to do an hour or two, or emptying your stomach violently at four hours, six hours seems as likely as winning the lottery and retiring to a small island in the Caribbean.

It has to be done, however, and it was my goal this weekend to get my qualification swim out of the way.

Friday saw me nervously travelling down to Dover again. I was a little concerned after the bombings on Thursday, but of course like everyone I was determined not to let it stop me. Passing through London on the bus, everything was quieter than usual, and three ambulances passed the bus with sirens blaring, presumably for new victims found. Apart from that, however, everything was calm and my journey was uneventful.

On Saturday morning I got in the water and my first thought was, "Hey, not so bad!" The water had risen to the glorious "heights" of 15.5C, and compared to the 12C that I had started in over a month ago, this was markedly- well, not to say warmer, but less cold.

Still, it was barely two hours in and I was already shivering, which I knew was my main enemy. Once I start shivering, the cold has penetrated, and my core muscles would slowly cramp up. True enough, over the next three hours all the muscles in my stomach and groin area slowly locked up, and I learnt that stretching them only made it worse. The only fix, albeit a temporary one, was to work heat into the region by "jogging" on the spot. I did this everytime I had to turn around when I reached one of the piers.

You say and do funny things when you've got nothing to think about for six hours. I sang odd songs in my head, started writing imaginary emails to friends, and kept bargaining with myself about what I would do if I made it a little while longer.

"One more hour and I'll have earned an entire chocolate bar!"
"One more hour and I'll buy me the biggest friggin' steak I can find!"
and so on.

The weather didn't help, either- it was a windy, cold day with intermittent sun, making the swim unpleasant, with lots of waves and little relief from the cold. Finally, with my muscles screaming and my body seizing up, I staggered to the shore and slowly crawled out. One of the other swimmers came over and helped me walk up. I was exhausted and trembling like a leaf, but I had made it: six and a half hours.

That night I had dinner with two fellow swimmers who were also training for solo swims and it was amusing at the table. Everyone was exhausted. No one said a word. Most of us could barely hold our heads up. I tried to alternate between resting my head on the table and sitting up straight. We all ate copious amounts of food, packing it away like there was no tomorrow. Then we all went back to our guest house and passed out.

Exactly one month to go.

Posted by pj at 04:44 PM | Comments (2)

July 06, 2005


Gibraltar is one of the last remaining bastions of the greatest of empires, a reminder of how Britannia truly once did rule the waves, and one of the few specks of red on the world map that ensures that, to this day, the sun still never sets on the British Empire. For Gibraltar, for no less than three hundred and one years, has proudly been a British colony, and to this day continues to revel in their British identity and thumb their noses at Spain, who seethes and rages in her desire to reclaim the Rock.

In many ways, the Rock is a curious mixture of British, Spanish, Portugese and Genoese culture, architecture, and lifestyle. It has the warmth of the mediterranean enclosed in British institutions. The locals may revert to Spanish in their daily life, but in any official business, English is used. The locals may looks and act cheerfully latin, but given the intense nationalistic pride that many of the citizens have, it is more British than Great Britain.

I flew into Gibraltar looking forward to experiencing everything this unique state had to offer a historian of the British Empire, much as Paris Hilton must shiver with delight when walking into the Prada flagship store with her father's credit card. For one week, I snapped photographs of all the remanents of the British, relentlessly quizzed the locals on their identity, and read between the lines in the local newspaper as they reported on their own country.

Along the way, I managed to swim solo around the Rock, too. For I was in Gib. as part of my preparation to swim the Channel, and I never forgot that. As part of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Gibraltar government had invited Oxford to a race around the Rock, and I was going to be there with them.

It was a warm, cloudy morning on the 2nd of July when I stood on Western Beach, facing the Atlantic Ocean. To my right stood one of my teammates from the Oxford University Swimming Team and a swimmer representing the Gibraltar Amatuer Swimming Association (GASA). To my left stood the Mayor of Gibraltar and the Minister for Sport, Youth and Culture, ready to flag us off. It was a three way race: a 12 person mixed relay team (6 men, 6 women) representing Oxford; an 8 man relay team representing Gibraltar; and me. Didn't seem fair, but I was ready to race.

The swim around the Rock is not attempted often due to its very treacherous nature and the great logistical difficulties. The Straits of Gibraltar is a very busy shipping channel. Around Europa Point (the southernmost point of Europe), the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean Sea and produces extremely chaotic and unpredictable currents. Swim too close to the Rock and you will be dashed against the rocks; swim too far out and you will be swept into the Atlantic. The area also teems with jellyfish and the occasional shark. To further complicate matters, a sewer empties directly out of Europa Point and thus any swimmer must swim through raw sewage to pass through. Plus, of course, it is very cold in the Atlantic.

At 10 am the flag came down and into the water we ran. I swiftly outpaced the other two swimmers, and headed out into the Atlantic, circling past the airport runway and heading into the heart of Gibraltar Bay. Leaving both teams behind, I cut into the Port, trading the warmer water outside the port for the slightly calmer water. A jellyfish raked my left hand and stung my armpit, but I ignored it and kept going.

My accompanying canoeist, Norman, kept me on a tight path as we broke out of the port and into the open sea. I shortly passed Rosia Bay, where the HMS Victory was towed after the Battle and Nelson's body preserved in a barrel of rum. Shortly after, I stopped for a quick drink and learned that both teams were in a close fight, 500m behind me. I nodded and started swimming again.

As we approached Europa Point I paused again for a quick conference with Norman. "Shortest possible path around Europa Point," we agreed, trading ease for speed. As I swam into the Europa Point the sea remained generally calm but the currents swirled around me and I could feel myself being pushed mercilessly around. The rocks loomed large beneath me as I spun this way and that, and I felt a moment of worry that I would cut myself on an undersea rock, as I had in the Channel last year- which in turn might attract a blodd-sniffing shark. I pushed my worries aside and swam on.

As we entered the Mediterranean, the water slowly turned murky and began to smell. All signs of life disappeared and all I could see were shredded bits of sewage, suspended in the water around me as if in a colloid. "Don't swallow!" was all I could think of, and I tried not to gag and retch at the stench around me. I focused on Norman, and kept moving forward.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire: the moment we were around the Rock and clear of sewage, the wind was no longer blocked and it whipped up waves around me. I struggled to keep my stroke going as the waves crashed down on me. Norman tried to signal for me to move closer to the land, but I didn't notice, preoccupied as I was.

Just as I began to tire from battling the waves, I felt a cattle-prod to my ribs: a jellyfish had smashed into my side, and I grunted, loudly enough for Norman to hear. My side was on fire, but I forged on and it eventually grew numb.

After passing numerous beautiful caves, a splendid hotel, gleaming white along the shore, and fighting through some fishing lines which threatened to entangle me, I circled around a large outcropping and Eastern Beach lay before me, long and soft and splendid. Unable to see without my glasses, I followed Norman to the finish point, up the Beach, opposite the entrance to Latino's restaurant. I staggered from the waves, sprinted up and passed through the paddles planted in the sand to the sound of applause.

"2 hrs, 52 minutes," said the GASA President. I turned, touched my fingers to my lips, pointed to the sky and then to the Southeast, for my father and for Singapore. Then I gratefully accepted a towel and shook all the hands of the all the excited spectators. Apparently I had set some sort of record.

Shortly after, the GASA team emerged from the waves, followed closely by the Oxford team. It was a terrific event, and the Gibraltarians are a wonderful people, full of warmth and hospitality.

Read on for some photos.

My path around Gibraltar

Norman and I: two men together against the rough seas

My favourite photo: The two of us fade into insignificance next to the lighthouse at Europa Point

If you couldn't spot us, that's where we are

Posted by pj at 05:24 AM | Comments (9)