It's barely 5:45 a.m. on the fourth day of a favorable tide
cycle. We idle 20 yards off the shore of a gray and unfriendly
England. "Over the side with you," fisherman Ray Brickell says
as he stuffs my wad of $100 bills into his pocket. "We don't
plan on being here all day."
That's it. No ceremony, no psych-up. Last week Brickell took a
Serb across the English Channel, and tomorrow it will be a
Japanese. Elsewhere along this coast, two other swimmers have
already begun separate crossings; they are being guided by a
sophisticated computer program that factors in conditions and
individual ability--the swimmer's recorded time for a standard
distance such as a mile-long swim--to determine precisely where
a swimmer should begin and to chart his course. None of that for
Brickell, the traditionalist, Brickell, the wave reader. For
over three decades his family fishing trawler, the Helen
Ann-Marie, has guided some 300 swimmers across the Channel, and
every one of them has started on desolate Shakespeare Beach,
between Dover and Folkestone. "Get in," he says with a hint of
I dive in. The water is calm. It's also 60[degrees], cold enough
to kill a crosser. (At least two have died of hypothermia, the
most recent a Brazilian swimmer named Renata Agondi in 1988.)
The human body loses heat 20 times faster in water than on land,
according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors,
which recommends wearing a wet suit in waters colder than
75[degrees], but for now I'm snug as a bug with five pounds of
Channel grease gooped over my back and legs (cost: ¬£7 for a
one-kilo jar at a Dover pharmacy). I paddle inland, then walk up
the beach. On the trawler, snappy John Woodward, an official
umpire for the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), holds his
watch against the predawn sky. "At your leisure, sir!" he calls
I leap into the waves and begin stroking forward. The Helen
Ann-Marie draws alongside and sets the course. Behind me, back
in Washington, D.C., are three years and more than 3,000 miles
of training in 25-yard pools and the Potomac River (7 1/2
minutes to swim the length of the Kennedy Center, 1 1/2 hours
from Georgetown's Key Bridge to Arlington's National Airport).
Ahead, over the lip of the glowing horizon, lies the Continent.
I'm charged. In the first minutes I breathe hard.
This is still a gentleman's sport. Woodward is dressed top to
bottom in whites, as if for Wimbledon. He times me by the minute
on a Rolex wristwatch. He is present at crossings primarily to
make certain that swimmers wear only a racing suit, a single cap
and a pair of goggles. Extras--wet suit, fins, two caps and so
on--are strictly forbidden by the CSA, arbiter of Channel
swimming rules and records. Grab hold of the gunwale at any time
during the swim and you might as well get out and dry off,
because you've just disqualified yourself.
Channel swimming ain't cheap. My last dry act was to place in
Brickell's callused hand $1,800 for his day's services. He
doesn't take checks. Several days earlier the CSA's Honorary
Secretary, Mike Oram, plucked $250 from my wallet for "overhead
expenses--postage and the like." Should I wish to prove I
crossed the Channel, the CSA will gladly sell me a calfskin
certificate--for a mere $125.
My freestyle stroke rate quickly climbs to a steady 80 arm
cycles per minute. I spin my arms freely, like a cyclist in a
high gear. Ideally I will add power by the hour. My legs flutter
under the surface and serve mostly to realign me in the choppy
waves. Chunks of time begin to slip away.
Every 20 minutes Woodward, who is doubling as my trainer, writes
an encouraging message on the dry erase board: GUINNESS ON TAP!
or BLACK & TAN FOR THE GENTLEMAN. Then he passes me 16 ounces of
heated energy drink in a cup. I flip onto my back, continue
stroking with one arm and chug.
By the end of the first hour my fingers have turned so numb that
I must bang them on my head or chest to make them bend. No
shakes, though; it's when your hands begin shaking so violently
that you miss your mouth with the cup that you've entered a
losing race against time. "Tally-ho!" Woodward cries when I
throw the empty cup at him. He waves a towel in the air and
shouts encouragement. He grins at me for several minutes and
then returns to the novel he is reading. And so the morning
It takes about two hours for me to enter the athlete's mental
zone, that closed-off world of focus and determination. Swimming
with giant strokes, I can feel the curve of the earth. Handful
by handful, Europe grows closer.
In 1875 an Englishman, Capt. Matthew Webb, feasting on raw meat
for strength, coffee for stimulation and beef-tea mixed with
beer for courage, swam the 21-mile Channel in 21 hours, 45
minutes and instantly became one of the world's first
international athletic stars. The mayor of Dover presided over a
reception in Webb's honor at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club,
and the Prince of Wales gave him $25,000 in gifts. Monuments
were erected in his name. When he met his public at the London
Stock Exchange, the crowd was so great that the 27-year-old hero
couldn't get past the crush of people to enter the building. Six
weeks later The New York Times proclaimed that despite England's
autumn chill, every "village pond and running stream contains
youthful worshippers at the shrine of Webb... each probably
determining that he one day will be another Captain Webb."
It took nearly four decades for another swimmer--T.W. Burgess, of
Great Britain, on his 14th attempt--to equal Webb's achievement.
Fifteen years and three swimmers later, in 1926, 19-year-old
Gertrude Ederle of the U.S. became the first woman to succeed in
crossing the Channel's icy waters. A 1924 Olympic bronze
medalist in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle, and a member of
the gold medal-winning 4x100-meter relay team, Ederle, employing
what was lampooned as a messy, undignified stroke called the
Australian crawl, or freestyle, shattered the Channel record by
almost two hours, completing her swim in 14 hours, 39 minutes.
The ticker-tape parade that she was given by New York City was
as exuberant as the one for Charles Lindbergh a year later. In
all, more than 6,000 similar attempts have been made, by 4,400
swimmers. Of those, 485 have reached the other side, some more
than once, for a total of 761 crossings, in an average time of
11 hours. Fastest and slowest: 7:17 (1994) and 26:50 (1923).
My own swim is uneventful until hour 4. Then, out of God's wide
sky, comes an apocalypse. I swim into the middle of a 200-yard
shoal of jellyfish, and suddenly the water is purple and
gelatinous with sea creatures. Everywhere I put my hands I'm
stung. The jellyfish cover my face and shoulders; they get
squished in my armpits and groin. My torso and legs are flayed.
Over the next half hour of slow swimming my right arm loses
feeling and my breathing turns raspy. Another half hour passes,
and I become light-headed. Woodward's book is gone; he intently
watches my every stroke.
It gets worse. I lift my head to speak for the first time all
day. I say, "Hey, can I be having an allergic--" and my stomach
heaves. "Hey, I'm throwing up everywhere!" I scream.
Brickell leans out the door of his cabin. "Motion sickness," he
says before disappearing inside. Woodward gives me the thumbs-up.
For the next two hours I'm lost. When the tentacles of a
solitary jellyfish rake the inside of my mouth, I barely feel
the sting. My stroke rate hovers at a shaky 76. I'm dimly aware
that the cold has clutched my brain, and it occurs to me that
With less than an hour to go, Woodward surprises me with a
message that I'm on track for a fast time. He also tells me that
the two other swimmers sharing the waterway with me today have
fallen victim to hypothermia. They're already back in England.
Woodward is soon pointing to the approaching European continent.
I refuse to look. He becomes insistent. I breathe to the
opposite side until he goes away. The entire beautiful universe
has been winnowed down to the windmill of my arms and the space
between me and dry land. I still can't feel my right arm.
Eight hours have passed, and I'm a mile from shore. I lunge
toward Cap Gris Nez, the infamous outcropping of rock that was
used by a German gun battery to bombard England's seaside towns
during World War II.
Currents run parallel to coastlines, and the one I'm in grows
stronger as I move closer to the shore. My legs are being swept
sideways. The final mile of the English Channel is a graveyard
of dreams, the hardest stretch of the swim. I'm in the same
tidal stream that held Captain Webb for hours and defeated
thousands after that. I sprint like mad. Then I've broken
through, and the current is gone. The waves catch me and hurl me
Another few minutes and suddenly I'm in the surf, crashing into
terra firma. The waves slam me into rocks, which tear open my
hands and chest in a dozen places. I raise my arms in victory
and fall down. I get up and do a little jig in the shallow
water. Hypothermia has disoriented me; I don't quite remember
getting here. The beachfront, a wasteland of rock, is deserted.
The trawler's horn resounds off the rock face. Woodward waves
At the edge of the cliff, 300 feet above me, are two women and a
little girl. I spot them and take a deep, absurd bow. They start
applauding. I hear nothing but the horn and my own pounding
heart, and I bow again.
The author's 8:26 Channel crossing was the fifth fastest ever by
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MARGOT THOMPSON [Drawing of man swimming near boat; drawing of swimmer bowing before people atop cliff]