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Original Issue


The sun had gone down an hour before, and night had taken full hold off the coast of France. When I saw someone in the choppy waves a dozen feet away, I wondered if I was hallucinating again. I'd been in the 63° water for more than 13 hours in my second attempt—at age 65—to swim the English Channel and was beginning to wonder if this try was going to end as the first one had. A year before, on Aug. 9, 1981, trainer Pete Barney and pilot Charley Petts pulled me from the water after 12 hours. I was less than four miles from the French coast; I was hallucinating, hypothermic and weakened by nausea and vomiting.

Charley's tiny boat had no cabin, and for the next hour and a half I lay unconscious on the open deck, wrapped in blankets and cold as the fish that Charley was more accustomed to hauling in from the sea. Pete and my wife, Madge, massaged me constantly until I recovered consciousness just before we reached Folkestone at 10 p.m. She said later that I "felt like a corpse."

My attempt to swim the English Channel began, in effect, in the fall of 1977 when I swam in a five-mile race across Lake Atitlàn in Guatemala. Although I'd never swum more than two miles before, my time was respectable; I found that I enjoyed open-water, long-distance swimming, and I still recall thinking what a tremendous challenge it would be to try the Channel some day.

Three years later I read that the Channel, which was first conquered by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875, had been swum by only two people older than 50. Indiana University Swimming Coach Dr. James Counsilman was one of them; he'd made it in 1979 at the age of 58.1 decided to start training for an attempt in the summer of 1981, when I would be 64.

Counsilman and others provided me with advice, the most important being that a Channel aspirant should try to average 120 miles of swimming a month for a year, and that he should get plenty of cold-water training. I live in Albuquerque, in central New Mexico, and it has few cold-water lakes. I was disconcerted to hear, when my wife and I reached England in late July of '81, that swimmers often scream to be taken out after only a few hours. In a book on Channel swimming, I read in the first chapter that the cold water "chills the dream and petrifies the ambition."

Nor was I encouraged by my conversations with Ted, the pilot I first engaged. "It's only 20½ miles from Dover to Cap Gris Nez," he would say, "but no bloke has ever been able to swim it in a straight line. The terrible strong tides, y'know; a swimmer yer speed, it's more like 35 or 40 miles. And the cold water is murder; you need good circulation to stand up to it. How old did you say you were, mate?"

Letters home before that first attempt suggest that overconfidence was not one of my problems. July 24: "Had my first swim today. Thought water would be a relief after the 60° air; was wrong: 58°. Managed two miles, at which time fingertips turned blue and soles of feet, white. Suffered, albeit courageously, a few twinges of despair. What manner of person can endure 10, 12 or 16 hours in the Channel?" July 25: "Met 22-year-old South African with King Kong shoulders and biceps as big as my thighs. Mark has been training for 18 months, has been swimming in 60° water for three months and hasn't taken a hot shower in a year. He is like awesome." July 26: "I learned that even Mark has a weakness. The water (59° today) numbs his fingers, too: After an hour in the water he can't control the little finger of either hand, and is considering taping each to the other three fingers the day of his swim.... Four attempts today; none made it. The Japanese girl lasted about eight hours, then had to be taken out; she was carried from the boat when it reached Folkestone." July 29: "Six miles today. Trying to increase mileage each day. Temperature of water up to a breathtaking (deliberate play on words) 62°. For first time began to think I might make it. Hopes dashed in evening when we heard that Mark, the rugged one, had asked to be taken out after only three hours. Lord-a-mercy."

Now my near-fatal 1981 attempt was history. In preparation for the second try I swam about 800 miles from January to Aug. 25, '82, had almost a month of cold-water training in northern Lake Michigan and, at the suggestion of my new pilot, Ray Dixon, did a five-hour swim in Dover Harbour two weeks before the attempt. The swim went well: I did slightly more than 10 miles, had no problems and felt strong at the end. When I swam ashore Ray introduced me to a 67-year-old Brazilian who was planning an attempt a week after mine. I didn't relish the thought of setting a record after 18 months of training, only to have it broken a week later. I needn't have worried: Ray called me a few days later to say that the Brazilian swimmer had set out the day before on his own five-hour training swim, but had come ashore an hour later and had flown back to Brazil the next day. Ray didn't know the Portuguese for "chills the dream and petrifies the ambition" but believed those were the Brazilian's last words.

On Aug. 24, two days before my scheduled attempt, I reviewed with Dave, my 27-year-old son and a former prep school and college swimmer, the written instructions I had drawn up. In his log he was to enter, at hourly intervals, the temperature of the water, my stroke rate, the force and direction of the wind, the condition of the sea and my position. Bearing in mind what had happened a year earlier, I wrote: "If I'm still stroking and making headway, I want to go as long as I can. Don't take me out unless I'm out of my head or making no progress at all against the tides." At this point Dave very reasonably asked, "How will I know when you've reached your limit?" I replied that after 12 hours in the '81 attempt my stroke rate had dropped to 50, and that if it went that low again, Dave should seriously consider pulling me out.

Attempts to swim the Channel are usually scheduled during a neap tide, when the volume of water coursing between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea is at its lowest. The neap tides occur twice a month and last about three to five days. My swim was scheduled for Aug. 26, but Ray called from Dover the night before to say that 20-knot winds were forecast. High winds were also predicted for the 27th, and again we had to postpone. At about 9 p.m. on the 27th Ray called and said that a 12- to 18-hour period of light winds was forecast for the 28th, beginning at dawn. "Are you ready, Ashby? We're going!" he said.

Fred Westall, the gracious proprietor of the Lismore Hotel in Folkestone, drove Dave and me to Shakespeare Beach the next morning, and while I gazed apprehensively at the choppy Channel in the cold, gray dawn, Dave applied "Channel grease" from my neck to my ankles. The grease, a mixture of lanolin and petroleum jelly, is designed to insulate the swimmer from the cold and is very effective for several hours.

The beginning of a Channel swim is not very dramatic. Larded down with grease and looking, with cap and goggles, like a creature from another planet, the swimmer waves to a handful of friends and a few spectators and photographers, wades in, swims out to his boat and strikes out for France. It's the pilot's job to steer a course that, considering the strength and direction of the tides and the speed of the swimmer, will take him as directly as possible to Cap Gris Nez. It's the swimmer's job simply to stay as close to the boat as possible. Channel Swimming Association rules prohibit touching the boat or anyone on it. Our plan was to have Dave hand me a styrofoam cup of Ensure Plus, a calorie-rich diet supplement, every hour; after drinking it, I would thrash about for 20 or 30 seconds to loosen up, and then start swimming again.

At 7:40 a.m. Ray's dinghy came ashore to pick up Dave and Dr. Bob Cooling, a London physician whom apprehensive friends from home had persuaded to accompany me on the boat; after a wave, which I hoped looked jaunty, to the cluster of people on the beach, I waded in and started swimming. At eight, according to Dave's log, my stroke rate was 58 and I was "looking good." At nine, when I asked Dave after the feeding what my stroke rate was, he said, "Holding steady." What he didn't tell me—and I'm glad he didn't—was that it was "steady" at 50 strokes a minute. When we reviewed the log the next day, we concluded that, without being aware of it, I was using a slower stroke with a stronger pull than I'd used the year before; during the last five hours of the swim, after the first view of France boosted my confidence, the rate was two or three strokes a minute faster than it had been during the first seven or eight hours.

In '81 the sun had never come out, and I never saw France. From the sixth hour on, I could not keep any feedings down, became dehydrated and lost strength steadily. In '82, by contrast, the sun was out all day and I took my Ensure every hour with no ill effects. When Dave waved me in for the one o'clock feeding I was almost sure I was halfway across and was disappointed when Ray came out of the wheelhouse to tell me, "Eleven miles to Cap Gris Nez, Ashby." At the two o'clock feeding Dave told me I was halfway, but Ray, something of an amateur psychologist, simply said, "That German is just behind us and catching up; you don't want him to beat you, do you?" A German swimmer had left Dover half an hour before I did; Dave told me later that I'd passed him about noon and that when Ray said he was "just behind and catching up," he was actually a mile back and falling farther behind. But I responded dutifully to Ray's urging and mustered up 30 minutes of extra effort.

At the three o'clock feeding it was clear that my confidence was building: I told Dr. Cooling that his name should have been Dr. Warming, and then I informed Dave that I could probably swim back to Dover after reaching France, but had decided not to. Growing confidence or incipient hallucination?

By four o'clock I could tell from the looks on the faces of the people on the boat that things were not going well, although they didn't speak of the slow progress: less than a mile from three to four. The sun was beginning to sink in the west, and the water seemed both rougher and colder. Dave's entry for four o'clock quoted me as asking, after my first glimpse of the French coast, "Is that France?" Were growing disorientation, the cold and the tides going to defeat me? Dave's and Bob's words were encouraging, but their faces were grim.

Dave's log tells the rest of the story.

"5:00 p.m. Water still choppy. Barely three-quarters of a mile this hour—the flood tide is our enemy. Ray came to the side of the boat during the feeding and Dad asked him, 'How much longer?' Ray: 'Three hours or more.' Dad: 'I'm almost at the end of my rope.' And then, before he started swimming again: 'I think I have about three-and-a-half hours left in me.' [I can't explain the preciseness of that comment, unless I simply wanted the people on the boat to know that I intended to make it.]

"6:00 p.m. Dad: 'I hate to ask, but how far out are we?' Dave: 'We're only three miles from Gris Nez, but the flood tide is sweeping you up the coast toward Calais. About five miles to our target point.' Dad: 'I think I'm going to make it.' [Several nights earlier I'd had a dream in which I saw Dave step ashore in France and shout, "All right!" So at this feeding, when I said I thought I'd make it, Dave remembered my dream and shouted, "All right!" They were perhaps the two most heartening words I heard all day.]

"7:30 p.m. It's almost dark. Dad: 'How far?' [By now I had long since forgotten our agreement that I was not to ask about my progress, for fear of hearing disheartening news.] Ray: 'This next hour is going to be critical; swim hard.' Dad: 'Okay.'

"8:30 p.m. Ray: 'We're going all the way, Ashby, but this next half hour is critical; this is when we discover who the real Channel swimmers are. Less than two miles; go for it!' Dad: 'Okay.' [By now Ray's psychology was wearing thin, and when he told me at two consecutive feedings that the next 40 or 50 minutes were "critical," I could not produce a very jovial response.]

"9:00 p.m. We lost Dad in the dark for about five minutes; he is having trouble staying close to us, and seemed confused when he swam back to the boat from a point about 100 yards off our starboard bow. Ray: 'This is where you make it or don't make it, Ashby.' Dad: 'Okay.' [The boat's running lights were on, and I could see them clearly the entire time I was "lost," but Dave and Ray could not see me. It was the most crucial time in the entire swim, and Ray said later that he didn't think that I was going to make it.] Ray: 'This is the last feeding, Ashby; it's up to you.' "

The last feeding. I turned toward the shore and started swimming. Suddenly it was 1981 again, and I was in the dreamy state that precedes loss of consciousness. No, there was a swimmer in the water, urging me on and pointing at the nearest light on the shore. Dave! When I realized that it was my son in the water, I knew that nothing was going to stop me from making it. (I would learn the next day that he'd had to argue a long time before Ray let him jump into the water; Ray knew nothing about Dave's swimming ability and was worried about losing both of us in the dark.) Dave shouted encouragement, pointed the way—"Keep the moon at two o'clock, Dad!"—and shouted encouragement again.

At 9:35 p.m., after a final 100 yards through a heavy and rock-strewn surf, Dave and I walked out of the sea at a deserted stretch of beach just west of Wissant. There was no one there, although we could smell and see a campfire about half a mile away. A simple, silent handshake and the 13-hour, 52-minute struggle was over. My memory of that moment is vague—Dave's final entry in the log, which he added on the way back to Dover, quotes me as saying only two words: "Dear Lord!"—but the memory of my son in the cold, dark water that last mile will remain clear forever.