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In Cold Water

In Cold Water

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In Cold Water

330 pages
5 hours
Jul 17, 2013


In Cold Water immerses the reader in the challenges, sights, sounds, triumphs and disappointments of swimming the English Channel--and one man's fixation on the feat. First conquered in 1875 by Matthew Webb, the choppy, 22-mile Channel presents one of the supreme endurance challenges in all of sports. With nothing but a basic swimsuit, pair of goggles, a swim cap, and a goal, swimmers leave Dover Harbor in England and battle their way through frigid waters, mercurial weather, jellyfish, and unrelenting ship traffic. They swim through sunrises and sunsets powered by sheer will and specially formulated energy feeds. And if physical and mental conditions go their way, they walk out of the water in France. Mike Humphreys has swum the swim several times--and though he's yet to achieve his goal, hes amassed a fascinating book full of personal experiences, history, stories of other Channel swimmers, and lore surrounding the sport. For sports active adherents, armchair swimmers and athletes of every stripe, or even just those fascinated by the challenge of English Channel swimming, In Cold Water makes fascinating and inspiring reading.
Jul 17, 2013

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Mike Humphreys spent most of the first decade of the third millennium training for the world’s top open water swim: the English Channel. When he isn’t in Dover, Mike splits his time between Seattle, Washington, and Atlanta, Georgia. A father of three and a Microsoft manager in Xbox gaming when he’s not out in open water, Mike has been swimming, running and cycling enthusiastically for 35 of his 50 years and has the scars, aches and pains to prove it. Mike is currently training for his fifth attempt at swimming the English Channel, scheduled for summer of 2015.

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In Cold Water - Mike Humphreys



Mike Humphreys

AuthorHouse™ LLC

1663 Liberty Drive

Bloomington, IN 47403


Phone: 1-800-839-8640


2013 by Mike Humphreys. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.

Published by AuthorHouse 10/14/2013

ISBN: 978-1-4817-5738-6 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4817-5739-3 (hc)

ISBN: 978-1-4817-5904-5 (e)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013909814

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.


Prologue: A Delayed Finale, July 2008

1.   Dover, England, and the English Channel

2.   How It Works

3.   My Favorite Swim

4.   Bowen Island, July 2009

5.   The Chairman

6.   Reading the Coast

7.   Rostislav and Tomislav

8.   Breaking Freda’s Rules

9.   Ground Zero for the Channel Community

10.   Miyuki and Ishii

11.   Swimming Across Bellingham Bay—October 2009

12.   Qualifying

13.   A Swimmer’s Story—Sue Pepper

14.   December Reflection

15.   Why and How and Who

16.   Lisa Cummins

17.   Tim’s Tale

18.   Tanya Harding—East-Ender Angel

19.   Training in February

20.   Fires of Obsession

21.   Injuries and Inspiration—Ros Hardiman

22.   Opening Day in Bellingham Bay

23.   Damaged

24.   Cold and Uncertain

25.   Doldrums

26.   Cliff and Brent

27.   Agony and Respite

28.   Jeffrey Hulett and Perseverance

29.   Arrival

30.   Calm Before the Storm and Storms Before the Calm

31.   The Beginning

32.   Fate’s Hand

33.   2011—I Lied

34.   Dreams and Perspective

35.   St. Elmo’s Fire

36.   The Fourth

37.   The Mountain

38.   Going to Dover

39.   Acknowledgments, Truths, and Biases

About the Author

This book is dedicated to my friend Tom Kop,

who taught me that swimming is mostly about friendship

and who left this world and my life way too early.

Prologue: A Delayed Finale, July 2008

July 23, 2008

After four years of training and one failed attempt to swim the English Channel in 2006, my swim across the Channel was finally underway and going as planned.

I was about nine hours into the swim and already in French waters—about three-quarters done. To stay faithful to English Channel-swimming tradition and abide by the rules, I was wearing nothing but an ordinary racing suit, a swim cap, and goggles. The water was about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, about twenty degrees colder than the average swimming pool.

I’d swum past sunrise and high noon. I’d heard from my crew about other Channel swimmers who had started at the same time but been forced to abandon their swims. I had seen ships going south on the UK side of the Channel and north on the French side, and I had watched as thousands of jellyfish floated semi-aimlessly in the Channel’s separation zone, where the south and north sides of the Channel meet and the water is slack.

Now came the hard part: the final miles to France and the finish.

I was shivering, which was odd. I didn’t feel cold, but I was vibrating like a hummingbird. I looked around in confusion and saw that the sun had disappeared behind a layer of thin, flat, gray clouds that continued all the way to France. Was that enough to make me shiver so violently?

Besides the shaking, I was starving. I found myself daydreaming about the real food I knew was on board my pilot boat, the Seafarer II, which was idling slowly about ten feet to my right. As is customary in open-water swimming, I’d been feeding exclusively on specially formulated liquids for the past nine hours. Now, my stomach was craving something solid, something I could chew. On my next feed, I drank deeper and longer, trying to quench that hunger. This filled my stomach, but I could see that the crew was alarmed when they saw my shivering up close while I fed.

Ten minutes after my feed, my crew waved me back to the Seafarer II. I swam over and hovered off the port side. Here’s something to warm you up, my friend Lynne Smith said, throwing me a bottle of warm feed. Lynne, a champion triathlete and Annapolis graduate from Oklahoma whom I’d met in 2006 when in Dover for my first Channel attempt, was a successful Channel swimmer in 2007. She was in charge of my feeding.

I took a swig and felt delicious warmth cascading down inside me like a hot rock sinking in snow. I couldn’t drink much, though; my stomach was still processing the deep slurp I’d taken just a few minutes earlier. My lips were shivering full speed, and my hands had joined the tempo. I was worried. Fighting off hypothermia is a war of attrition, and I knew it would be tough to overcome. I swam away from the boat, pointed myself toward France, and resumed swimming.

I don’t remember everything that happened next.

A bit after 1:04 p.m., I’m told, the pilot noted that I was making good progress and was on the verge of leaving the French shipping lane in favor of the inland waters around France.

Soon after that, I swam over to the boat and just stopped. What’s wrong, Mike? Lynne asked.

I was lost, cold, stunned, confused—clearly hypothermic. I don’t know, I don’t know, I mumbled.

Lynne, already in a swimsuit, stepped out of her warm-ups and jumped into the Channel.

Hey, Mike, let’s swim to France, she said cheerfully.

I hung in the water, dumb, incoherent, and unresponsive. Lynne swam over and asked me something—I don’t remember what. I flipped over, trying to swim. I couldn’t. I gave up and hung facedown in the water, floating, giving in to my fate. I was waiting to sink.

Someone on the crew yelled, He’s done! and all hell broke loose.

Lynne tried to flip me over and pull me to the Seafarer II, but she was finding it hard to complete the maneuver in the choppy Channel. She managed to get me on my back and hold me face up as she treaded water. One of the captain’s mates, Keith, stripped to his skivvies and jumped in. Together, Lynne and Keith dragged me to the Seafarer II and hauled me unceremoniously onto the transom.

Violent whole-body shivers overtook me as I lay prone, dancing between consciousness and oblivion, woozily attempting to replay what had happened.

After some time, perhaps fifteen minutes, I regained full consciousness and found myself on the deck of the Seafarer II, being warmed by crew members spooning me on both sides. I tried to stand—no luck. The maneuver was the last straw for my stomach, which started working backward. I spoiled the carpet on deck as I retched uncontrollably, still shivering violently.

We were headed back to the starting line, and two or three hours later, Dover Harbor welcomed us impassively as I thanked everyone for keeping me safe.

I talked to Chris, and he has spots open on tides for next summer, Lynne said with a grin.

So much for my English Channel swim of 2008. I may not have made it, but I got twice as far as I had on my first attempt in 2006—and I’d done it faster.

Still, I’d failed when it came to withstanding the cold waters of the Channel, and I’d almost sunk. Not so good.

I was forty-five years old that summer, and I knew the English Channel wasn’t going anywhere.

I’d go back.

Chapter 1

Dover, England, and the English Channel

Everyone has dreams, and for much of my adult life, mine has been to swim the English Channel. The process of moving from daydreaming to doing began with my 2001 move to Seattle, a city with access to abundant and inspiring open-water swimming venues. I began to train for the Channel in earnest in 2004 and made my first attempt in 2006.

I failed because I was underprepared. Having badly miscalculated my feeds, I vomited over the course of five hours until I was drained of energy and my body shut down. I was forced to quit halfway across.

In 2008, much better trained and prepared, I made another attempt. This time, I moved smoothly and relatively comfortably into the French inland waters—until hypothermia slammed into me like a cyclist on steroids.

Surprisingly, I still had a passion for the challenge—or maybe it was an obsession. Nothing if not goal-oriented, I never seriously considered giving up. I was going back.

I wanted to swim the Channel—all of it. I wanted to see France in the distance from a beach in Dover and swim until it wasn’t just a shadow on the horizon, tasting the salt along the way, watching the jellyfish, waving at ferries. I wanted to watch the French seabed rush up to meet me and feel French sand in my toes as I stood and walked for the first time in hours. I wanted to climb out of the water and turn to wave back at Dover, now twenty-two miles in the distance, and yell "Vive la France! Je suis navige La Manche!!"

Why? Swimming the Channel had been a lifelong dream, yes, but that wasn’t all. To me, the history and logistics of the enterprise were absorbing, and the people involved in the sport were fascinating, compelling. On top of that, after a couple decades of regular travel to London, I was an Anglophile and swimming the Channel was just so… British.

To fully understand why I (or anyone) would want to undertake such an enterprise, though, you probably need to understand Dover, where all Channel swims begin. So I’ll start there.

Dover is a beautiful yet gritty little town, small and intimate. It’s personal but touristy, with a history that stretches back further than that of the Romans. Its layout is long and relatively narrow, and it’s situated in a series of valleys surrounded by hills and cliffs. Stretching back from the Channel waterfront, Dover reaches inland a few miles until it dissipates into County Kent.

Whenever I go, I have a similar experience. I step off the train at Dover Priory, and fifteen seconds later, I’m outside the small, uncomplicated train station collapsing into a cab—easy as that. I tell the cabbie I’m staying at Victoria House, and we’re on our way; providing the address is usually redundant. As the driver flings us down twisted and tortured roads, around structures new and ancient, I roll down my window to take a deep breath of Dover. The Channel is a couple of miles away, but the salt and wind tickle my nose and throat. The seagulls are singing, howling, screeching… and I feel at home.

Dover isn’t a shopping mecca, but everything you need can be found on High Street. There’s a sporting goods shop and a Marks & Spencer (where I replenished after Delta Airlines lost my luggage in 2008). WH Smith, the local newsstand, will keep you informed, and the Eight Bells Pub, where I’ve downed countless pints, burgers, and pies in the friendly company of Dover’s finest citizens, is the spot for sustenance. On a small side road off of the High, you can check out the Dover Mangle, a public laundry that’s been a mainstay for me since 2004, when I first started Channel training in Dover. It was in the Mangle that I got a crash course in the colorful local slang when a young couple burst into an obscene shouting match while their baby munched happily through sweets in his carriage. Dad was wearing a full set of motorcycle leathers, and Mom, about six or seven months pregnant, sported a bright teal T-shirt that warned, Hands off the bump!

Beyond the High, over by the new Cooperative Food market, you can wander through Pencester Gardens, a verdant public park. It seems there’s always a carnival at Pencester during my visits, complete with rides and contests of skill. I love walking there, absorbing the rhythm of Dover as it talks and laughs, argues, reconciles, and flirts. It’s like walking through a live episode of the beloved BBC soap opera Eastenders. There are kids everywhere, teens gossiping and text messaging, moms with prams, conservatively attired retirees, pierced skateboarders, and cheerful dads having a fag and a bit of sun.

The cabbie whips us past the Dover Museum on our left, the Channel itself winking to our right through waterfront buildings, and we lean a hard left around the main roundabout. If we’d gone south toward Folkestone instead of north toward Dover Castle, we’d pass the local-hire car shop. Most years, I rent some conveyance or the other to explore the surrounding villages during downtime, while I’m waiting for clear, wind-free weather. Deal is a particularly pretty town, like an oversize Victorian ice cream shop with lots of retirees. Canterbury is justifiably renowned for its colorful Church-of-England history.

Above and behind the hire car shop, up on the famous White Cliffs of Dover, are gun bunkers left over from World War II, now gazing empty across the Channel. On the waterfront side of the street is Dover Marina. I’ve met my Channel crews at the marina twice in the wee hours of the morning for Channel swim attempts. Each time, I’ve returned earlier than planned, dejected. On other occasions, I’ve waited at the marina to meet friends coming back from their own Channel attempts. Whether they’re jubilant or defeated, they always look rough, with sunburned faces, lips bloated from saltwater, skin chafed raw. They are shuffling very slowly, ready for a bath and sleep, often unaware that the swaying aftereffects of the Channel’s chop might not leave their bodies for days. Their crews typically are just glad to be back on solid land.

Barreling along the A20, parallel to Dover Harbor, the left-side cab windows fill with the brooding hulk of Burlington House, an abandoned complex the Dover Council can’t tear down because it’s the only structure high enough for the community’s radio antennas. The central part of the complex is County Hotel, a gray and gritty edifice that would make a fine setting for a Stephen King novel.

Next to Burlington House is the site where a three-thousand-year-old seafaring boat was found years ago, one of the oldest such finds in the world. You can go check it out at the Dover Museum and then walk through a diorama showing the stages of Dover’s development from before Jesus walked the earth. In a typical juxtaposition of old and new, the museum sits on the town square where the National Olympic Committee installed a massive outdoor TV for community viewing of the 2012 Olympics; it was left in place afterward for the town to continue to enjoy.

The cabbie persists, and we’re getting closer to Victoria House. He’s a colorful fellow in long, bright-yellow shorts and a blue plaid shirt, who hollers out his window at another cabbie, You’ll soon need a whip for that piece of shit! mocking the aging Skoda that is giving the other cabbie grief. As he chats amiably with me in his thick accent, I’m not entirely clear what he’s saying but I’m willing to bet it’s something cheerfully cynical about the Dover Town Council and their inaction that leaves the Burlington brooding over Dover year after year after year. Out the right window, an apartment complex ruins the view of the Channel for anyone who isn’t in a helicopter, leaving only a wink of it viewable through a walkway set in the middle.

First by smells, then glimpses, the Channel reveals itself slowly, as if mocking my obsession. She’s patient. She’s been there for more than 250,000 years, and she’s not going anywhere soon.

Up ahead, high on the White Cliffs, is Dover Castle, overlooking the harbor and guarding all it surveys. The castle’s history spans from the Romans to Henry VIII, through the Napoleonic wars to Churchill’s finest hour. The stories soaked into its walls, keeps, chapels, and tunnels would fill volumes.

As the taxi flies around a left corner onto Maison Dieu Street, it passes Dover Leisure Center, where I cross-train occasionally. In 2008, I enjoyed the patronage of a large lady swimmer there. It was chaotically crowded, and she very deliberately cleared a path through the other swimmers for me, like a broom through sawdust.

Up a bit farther, we turn onto St. James and continue past the White Horse Pub, an establishment very well-known in Channel circles. For years, successful Channel swimmers have engraved their names on the walls there for posterity and a congratulatory pint. The swimmers memorialized on the walls and ceiling of the White Horse are ordinary people who decided to do something extraordinary—teachers, photographers, retired corporals, IT consultants, homemakers, and such. These everyday athletes trained dutifully, carving out time around their jobs and family obligations without benefit of sponsorship deals, entourages, yellow bracelets with their names embossed on them, reporters, or PR people validating their egos. All they had in their corners were family and friends, appropriately proud.

A moment later and a fiver for the cabbie, I’m standing on Bill and Audrey Hamblin’s front steps at Victoria House. As always, Bill has hung an American flag outside to show his respect for his American guests. My many visits to this place have all begun the same way. I drag my suitcase inside, past a painting of her majesty Queen Victoria, and tap lightly on their salon door. Audrey welcomes me in the same warm tone that I use with my sons and that I’ll undoubtedly use with my grandchildren. I crack open the door, and Audrey smiles happily at me from the sofa, where she is watching cricket. Bill is standing by his computer, one hand or both perched on his waist, grinning broadly. Bill is like a five-foot-eight lighthouse, strong in the base and beaming at the top. Audrey warmly defines motherly. They’ve been married since 1955, eight years before I was born.

Hallo, Mike! Bill says as I lean down for a hug from Audrey.

We catch up for a while, sharing tales of family, friends, and the Channel community as the cricket match continues in the background. To be clear, cricket is always playing in the background. Audrey manages the impressive feat of watching her beloved cricket peripherally while we catch up. Occasionally, her mouth twitches at a bad play, but she hides it well; it took years for me to notice. I finally excuse myself and go crashing up the stairs with my bag, past Queen Victoria to my favorite room, the Balcony Room. Audrey has mentioned that she managed to withhold the Balcony Room from the clutches of another Channel swimmer only because of my two-years-in-advance booking; I grin at that as I open the door. I drop my case on the floor, toss open the glass doors to the balcony, and look out over Dover proper and the Channel beyond. The seagulls are screeching, and since it’s a clear day, France taunts me.

After I get settled, I take a walk around to reconnect with Dover. Usually that means making a hasty beeline to Dover Harbor for some long-awaited reflection. I’m not hurrying because Dover has a glamorous beach, because it doesn’t. It’s a crescent moon of round pebbles that hurt your bare feet, a boardwalk whose appeal has worn thin since it was designed a century ago, and patronage that suggests you leave valuables elsewhere. None of that matters, though, as I head for where the action starts: Channel Swimmer’s Beach.

I plop off the paved walk onto the pebbled beach, shuffle awkwardly to a vantage point, and sit down and stare out at my beloved English Channel. The harbor is like a very large U: the ferry docks form its left wall, and Prince of Wales pier forms the right. Capping the U is a seawall about a mile out from the beach where I sit. France is dead ahead, through the harbor gates—mocking me. Out beyond the seawall, whitecaps are crashing in the Channel. The water in the harbor itself is a light pea-soup green with bits of foam floating in places. I can taste it from twenty-five yards away. The seagulls’ squawks have reached a crescendo, and some of them are taking potshots at me, taking turns diving and evacuating in my direction.

I reflect on the Channel—my obsession. The first swimmer to conquer it was Matthew Webb, who in 1875 took twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes to manage the feat. He swam breaststroke, popular in his day, though much slower than freestyle. Channel swims since Captain Webb have averaged about fourteen hours.

Captain Matthew Webb was a retired Royal Navy officer who’d helmed the steamship Emerald. His Channel swim was a major milestone in the development of swimming, and within years of it, there was a great explosion in the number and popularity of public swimming pools in Britain. Webb enjoyed years of acclaim and worldwide fame until, in 1883, he tried to swim the Niagara Rapids from Canada to America and drowned in the chaotic waters. A monument to him now stands in his hometown of Dawley, bearing his words: Nothing Great Is Easy.

Indeed it’s not.

It took another thirty-six years before anyone managed to duplicate Webb’s successful Channel swim—Thomas Burgess finally did it in 1911—and it wasn’t until August 1926 that Olympian Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the Channel. With her feat, Ederle broke the world record by two hours, completing her swim in fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes. As Webb had, Ederle enjoyed worldwide fame, and she was feted in New York with a ticker-tape parade, but she struggled for years afterward, her career badly managed and not sustained. Her hearing had already deteriorated thanks to a bad bout of childhood measles, and she lost it entirely a few years after her swim. She was subsequently abandoned by her fiancé. Despite her reverses, she lived a long life and passed away quietly in a New Jersey retirement home in 2003, at the age of ninety-eight. Like Webb, Ederle is a beloved figure in Channel history, and to commemorate her, there’s an annual seventeen-mile memorial swim between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Since the early days of Channel swimming, many souls, challenged by its reputation as the ultimate test of endurance, have attempted to duplicate the feats of Webb and Ederle. Some have managed to make it more than once. Alison Streeter, the reigning champion of the Channel, swam the distance forty-three times before she retired and became a Channel boat pilot, helping others follow in her wake. Over

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