Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why are you doing this?
Two reasons: Firstly, it seems Singaporeans who were not born in Singapore have accomplished many of our recent major sporting achievements. I feel this has contributed to a mentality of defeat among locally-born Singaporeans that we have to rely on imported talent to achieve anything. As a Singaporean who was born, raised, and learnt to swim in Singapore, I want to remind Singaporeans that great things can be achieved by anyone, regardless of who or where they are. Our Prime Minister has encouraged us young Singaporeans to stand up and be counted to achieve our dreams for Singapore. I am excited to respond to that call.
Secondly, this swim will be to benefit two charities (see Qn. 15 below). As an ACSian, Rhodes Scholar, and Singaporean, I have a social responsibility to live up to.
2. How difficult is the Cross-English Channel Swim?
As it is a very unique event in the world, it is hard to quantify. However, an illuminating comparison might be to consider one of the other great physical challenges on Earth: to climb Mt. Everest. Since 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first achieved the summit, over 1,500 people have climbed Mt. Everest in 50 years. By comparison, in 130 years of Cross-English Channel swimming, only around 600 people have made the swim across. The success rate (ratio of attempts to successes) is about 40%. While it is impossible to compare the two achievements in any objective way, these numbers give one an idea of the rarity of the task.
3. Do you wear a wetsuit?
Unfortunately not. According to the rules for Channel Swimming, you must wear roughly the same thing that Capt. Matthew Webb wore on his crossing- one swimming hat, one pair of goggles, and one pair of legless swimming trunks.
4. Do you spread yourself all over with grease?
It's a common misconception, but grease, oil and lard do not help to insulate one from the cold of the Channel. Grease is used, but its main purpose is to prevent friction burns (just as it is used in marathon running).
5. How cold is the English Channel?
Average temperatures for the 1st of May are 10°C-11°C. By the end of August, the temperatures will have risen to the "heights" of 15°C-18°C. The first time I trained in the water it was 14°C. By the end of an hour-long session, one of my teammates had suffered memory loss, another shivered uncontrollably for two hours after and I myself suffered from a loss of equilibrium. During my relay race across the Channel, one of our swimmers became delirious and incoherent after her one-hour leg in the sea. The danger from hypothermia is very real.
6. So if you can't wear a wetsuit and grease or lard does not help you combat the cold, then what can you do to stay warm?
There's only one thing to do, really: Get FAT! All Channel Swimmers pile on the kilograms to insulate themselves for their swim. The real challenge, I suppose, will be losing it all afterward!
7. Exactly how far is it across the English Channel?
18.2 nautical miles, 21 land miles, or 34 kilometres. The shortest distance in a straight line is from Shakespeare Beach, Dover, to Cap Gris Nez (the headland halfway between Calais and Boulogne). Also see question 9.
8. Are you doing it by yourself or do you do it with others?
A solo attempt. I will swim following after a pilot vessel, which will guide me across. Only one swimmer per boat, so I could not swim with anyone else even if there were more than one person attempting to cross that day.
9. How long will it take you?
It's hard to tell, as a lot depends on the tides and the weather. I estimate approximately 10-12 hours. Crossings have ranged from just over 7 hrs to just under 27 hrs, so there's a very big possible range.
10. Do you swim further because of the tides?
The tides wash you up and down the channel, so inevitably you will end up swimming further than just 34 kilometres. What causes problems is if you mis-time your crossing, and the tides move you up and down the coast, making you swim further. It could also turn as you approach the beach, pushing you back out and making you swim further. Also, the land falls away sharply on either side of Cap Gris Nez, so the distance to land increases drastically if your pilot misjudges your approach.
11. What about sharks? Or jellyfish?
The Channel is too cold and dirty for sharks. On the other hand, the channel is replete with jellyfish. The stings are not fatal but are very painful. Usually this happens as I am taking a stroke and what feels like three or four electrified barbed wires are being dragged across my skin- jellyfish tentacles. The skin usually burns for five minutes and then goes numb. Impressive scars then surface the next day. No channel swimmer is complete without his or her own collection!
12. When are you doing the swim?
Mid-August. No definite date can ever be set due to the weather. Rather, you are given a window and you have to wait in Dover for the weather to be good, and your pilot will make the decision whether to go out or not. This can happen anytime- previous swims have taken place at 3am, with the swimmers having been told the previous night at 9pm that the swim was on. At other times, no day ever becomes available and some swimmers have left Dover without ever having been able to make their attempt.
13. What does the training involve?
Up until the end of May, training will consist mainly of pool sessions working on endurance. In June, I will need to travel to Dover to begin acclimatising to the cold water, to build up resistance and increase stamina.
14. Isn't the English Channel heavily polluted, particularly at the Harbours?
The English Channel doesn't have the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, but it's not covered in oil either. It is very murky- visibility often does not extend beyond your wrist- and extremely salty, but it is otherwise fine.
15. How do you avoid the ferries, tankers, and other traffic coming in and out of the Harbour?
This is not a problem during the actual swim, as swimmers have right of way in the Channel- an exception to international maritime rules. Your pilot vessel will broadcast your position every half hour, and all other vessels are to steer clear of you. They do cause strong waves and cold patches which are very unpleasant to swim through. During our training, we swim between breakwaters and the ships do not come in there. What is a danger are other harbour users- in particular, rowing sculls. The sailing boats are pretty good at looking out for you, although they are frightening when they bear down at you, only to change course at the last minute. The sculls, however, row backwards at speed and so cannot see you, and hold the record as the only vessels to actually hit a swimmer so far, resulting in a visit to A&E.
16. What about the charities you are swimming for?
They are the Methodist Schools Foundation (MSF) and Action for Aids Singapore (AfA). I am a firm believer in the power of education to enhance and elevate the well being of society. Specifically, I have benefited greatly from the Methodist education I received in the Anglo-Chinese School. It has made me what I am today. I wish to help to ensure the propagation of its educational mission and help more children to have access to it.
With AfA, I feel that we are not doing enough in Singapore to recognise and combat the spread of HIV and AIDS. The AfA is a volunteer-run organisation which gets minimal support and is entirely self-funded but continues to do extremely important work. It is the scrappy underdog of local charities and I am proud to be in its corner.
17. How do I find out more about the sport of Channel Swimming?
Try the Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation at http://www.channelswimming.net
18. How do you get back to England afterwards? Do you a) swim back or b) get off the beach, find some decent clothes and catch a bus (in which case, how do you bring your passport across in your flimsy trunks) ?
Neither! You are allowed to stay five minutes in France, on the beach, without your passport, but after that you have to leave. It may be the last thing you want to do after you have swum 12 hours, but you have to swim back to your pilot boat. The trip back to England takes about 2 and a half hours.
19. You do realise there's a ferry/train/airline/tunnel, right?
Oh, haha. Like I haven't heard that one a thousand times already. You are so funny. Yes, you are a master of humour. I bow to your superior wit.
20 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT CHANNEL SWIMMING
1. JB Johnson made the first attempt in 1872, which he abandoned after 63 minutes.
2. The first man to swim the channel was Capt. Matthew Webb, which took 21 hours 45 minutes on August 24, 1875.
3. From 1906 to 1913, Jabez Wolffe made 22 unsuccessful attempts, although he failed by less than a mile on three occasions and less than a hundred yards in 1911.
4. American Henry Sullivan made the slowest crossing in 1923 in 26 hours 50 minutes.
5. The first woman to swim the Channel was also American, Gertrude Ederle in 1926.
6. In 1927, the year the Channel Swimming Association was formed to oversee and authenticate attempts, E H Temme became the first man to swim in both directions. He later became the first to repeat that feat.
7. In 1951, 50-year-old Betty Cohn achieved the first crossing by a grandmother.
8. A year later, the shortest ever attempt was by Bruno Tajana, from Switzerland, who gave up after just 100 yards.
9. 1953 was the year of the great "no-race". Sponsored by Butlins, eight entered, two did not start and the other six failed to finish.
10. In 1954, the first person to die attempting to swim the channel was Ted May, who drowned during an unsupervised crossing.
11. Seven years later, Argentina's Antonio Abertondo became the first man to swim both ways non-stop in 43 hours 5 minutes.
12. 1981 saw the first non-stop 3-way crossing by another American, Jon Erkson.
13. In 1988, Eltham Swimming Club's Thomas Gregory, aged 11 years 11 months, became the youngest to cross when clocking 6 minutes short of 12 hours. Since 1994, new rules have prevented solo attempts by anyone under the age of 16.
14. In 1990, Poland's Lucy Krajewska made the first successful crossing by a legless person.
15. On the 1st of August 2005, Christof Wandratsch set a new record for the fastest crossing of the Channel: 7 hours, 3 minutes, 52 seconds, breaking Chad Hundeby's record of 7:17. Christof had waited two years for the perfect weather to do his swim after narrowly missing in 2003 with a time of 7:19!
16. In 1999, American Carol Sing became the oldest woman to cross the Channel when at the age of 57 she clocked 12 hours 32 minutes.
17. The oldest male swimmer to cross is American George Brunstad, who was aged 70 years and 4 days when he crossed on the 27th and 28th of August 2004, taking 15 hours 59 min.
18. Alison Streeter MBE holds the record for the most individual crossings - 43 - which includes one 3-way and three 2-way swims, while Mike Read has done it 33 times and Kevin Murphy has done it 32 times but plans another crossing soon!
19. Total number of ratified swims to 2004: 948 successful crossings by 675 people (456 by men and 214 by women). There have been 25 2-way crossings (9 by men and 7 by women). There have been 3 3-way crossings (2 by men and 1 by a woman).
20. "Nothing great is easy" - Inscription on the monument to Matthew Webb.
My Thanks to Julian Critchlow for his help in assembling my FAQ.