I swam the length of the English Channel in a paddling pool

As a boy, my father taught me the dangers of drowning and when we went fishing together I was terrified of the water and falling in.

As I got older, this fear worsened and I never learnt to swim. 

But when my mother was dying from cancer a couple of years ago, I told her I had a madcap idea to swim the English Channel.

I love physical challenges and have done lots of mountaineering in the Himalayas but my wife wanted me to stay away from high altitude activities after I got caught on Mount Everest during the 2015 Nepal Earthquake.

At first, I had the idea of doing a triathlon but then I decided I needed something bigger. The Channel crossing gripped my attention. I wanted to conquer my fear of the water, learn how to swim and achieve something big.

When I told my mother she leaned over to me and told me to go for it, adding. ‘life is too short’.

A week later, she passed away and I signed up the day after she died.

It was quite odd to go from an intense phobia to being able to get into the water, but I think because I had a target, my determination quashed my fear.

I eased into it slowly and to get going, I took swimming lessons at my local leisure centre in Luton.

I started with two lessons a week then progressed to a lesson every day.

The hardest part was the embarrassment of being a 48-year-old man learning to swim as children looked on, but I put it to one side, and one year on from my mum’s death, I was well on my way. 

Swimming had become a big part of my life; it was like a drug and I couldn’t wait to get into the pool every day. I couldn’t believe that I’d been scared of the water for so long and had missed out on swimming with my kids. I felt a great sense of achievement overcoming my fears.

I would wake up at 5am, be in the water by 6am, swim for an hour or two and head off to work for 9am, ready to start my day.

In March, everything was on schedule for my Channel swim to take place in September, but then Covid-19 hit and we all went into lockdown.

I could no longer go to the leisure centre, so I started swimming in a small makeshift pool in my back garden that I bought during the lockdown. I attached a bungee cord around my waist so that I could swim in place – a bit like being on a treadmill in the water! – and that helped me to achieve longer distances.

I wouldn’t say it was the best option, but it was a solution in order to continue training. When lockdown restrictions started to ease, I began to swim up and down the River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire two or three times a week and by July, I was out swimming in Dover Harbour once a week. 

The transition from pool to wild swimming took some getting used to. I couldn’t see the bottom and the temperature varied with some pretty cold water.

The worse part about swimming in the sea was the salty water. It was horrible. After three hours of swallowing it my mouth felt like a carpet. I lost my taste buds for the rest of the day – and don’t get me started on the vomiting.

By the end of June, things still weren’t looking good for my Channel swim attempt. The French borders were still shut, the social distancing on the boats meant I would have to cut down my support team, plus I hadn’t done my six-hour qualifier and the water temperatures were rising.

For any solo English Channel swim attempt, you must prove that you can swim for six hours in water less than 16 degrees.

In the end, I realised that I just wasn’t going to be ready in time, but the thought of letting down my two chosen charities —  Community Action Nepal and Keech Hospice — was really tough.

So I came up with the slightly hare brained idea to swim the length of the English Channel in the makeshift pool in which I’d been training.

On hearing about my plan, a local pub in Bedfordshire offered up their back garden, and when the day of the challenge arrived, the whole village came down to show their support, along with my wife, children and friends (all social distancing of course).

The swim was harder than I expected. The water was very cold and the space was restricted, so with every stroke my hands and knuckles would hit the bottom of the pool. Plus, the bungy rope tied around my waist restricted the rotation on the body.

The first two hours was the worst, as I struggled to get the right rhythm.

At one point, I looked very purple in the face and my support team fed me a quarter of a jam sandwich and a sip of coffee, which sorted me out.

I managed to do the whole thing – around 21 miles – in eight hours. 

Afterwards, my left arm ached where it had been knocking against the pool but after a rest, I didn’t feel too bad.

As it was quite last minute I didn’t raise much money – £1,600 – but my aim is to raise £10,000 for my chosen charities. I was just really overjoyed that people came out to cheer me on and supported my crazy idea.

The exercise highlighted what I need to do for the actual Channel swim next year – in September 2021. I’m determined to do the full swim in the sea instead of a paddling pool! To do this, I definitely need to work on my general fitness and build up my arms.

I also realised how difficult it was to keep my energy up so I will have to look at how I manage to eat while I swim.

If anything, I hope my efforts will encourage others who can’t swim to give it a go.

In the water, no matter how old you are, you feel alive and free. I should have learnt years go.

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