Beating the Sun

Riccardo Iacono – English Channel swim 2016. Photo by Tim Denyer
I remember, just before the start, standing on the beach at Samphire Hoe and looking out to sea. All my previous sea swims involved swimming along the coast or swimming in circles around a bay, always staying close to shore. This swim was different however. For the first time I had to swim out, away from the shore, from one shore to another.

All I could see was the horizon, the flat line of  sea against sky, and in the foreground, the Viking Princess, my escort boat, waiting for me to enter the water.

It was quite a shock to look out and not have the end  in sight.

The signal for me to start my swim was marked by the sound of a horn. I’d forgotten to do my pre-swim arm swings and stretches. In fact I was quite unprepared. When I heard the horn I just jumped in. As I took my first few strokes, it gradually dawned on me, the immensity of the task at hand. What had I got myself into?

The question stayed with me throughout the swim. Where was I? What was I doing? Why?

The boat

From the outset I had problems swimming alongside the boat.  Whenever I focussed solely on my stroke I risked losing track of my position. My attention would drift back and forth between thinking about my stroke and keeping track of the boat. (Sometimes the boat would change course and I would end up swimming away from it. Other times the waves would carry me into the side of it. )

Feeds

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Feeding time. English channel swim 18 July 2016. Photo credit: Tim Denyer
I started the swim at 10.20 am. Feeds were every 30 minutes and would last about a minute each, during which time  Tim would check how I was doing and give me a quick chat. He’d say things like   “You’re  doing well. No need to keep sighting for France mate!  Just swim to your next feed” . So, I swam the channel in 30 minute chunks.

He told never to ask how far or how long there was to go. So I didn’t. I just thought about swimming and staying close to the boat. Swimming to my next feed. That was it.

There were times when I lost focus, where I had cramp or felt anxious about being stung by jelly fish, but I just had to keep going.

Madness

After countless hours i started to question my sanity.  What the hell was I doing in the middle of the sea?! It was such a far cry from the city; no roads, buildings or trees – nothing like swimming in the lido where I’d done  my training. 

“This”, I thought. “What I am doing . Doing the same thing over and over again. This is madness!”

Relativity

It was hard to get a sense of moving forward. The boat was always beside me and other sea vessels were too far away to get a proper measure of time and space and of moving in any particular direction or speed.  The only movement I was really aware of was of my body  moving through the water. The water passing over me.

Tim and John were observing and timing me and the boat had GPS tracking, so it was much easier for them to monitor my position and speed.

My main concern was with repetition; performing the same set of movements, checks and adjustments, maintaining my form.

In fact, I was so preoccupied with my keeping my stroke and swimming next to the boat that I  completely forgot why or where i was  going.

Forgetting

It was only when Tim told me we were in French inshore waters that I remembered that I was actually travelling, to France.  I thought “Right! What are you doing? You’re swimming the channel! Not in the channel, across it ! Get a move on! ”

So I sped up.

Judging by the sun it must have been at around 7pm. I wanted to get in by nightfall. So for 3 or 4 hours I raced. I raced against the sun.

John said I was swimming like a man possessed.

With every stroke it got darker and darker and darker. It was like a grand awakening. The end was in sight!

Or at least I thought it was.

As the sun began to set I knew I’d left it too late. I had another 3 more hours of swimming to do before reaching France.

Remembering

I don’t know why, but at some point in the middle of this I started thinking about my dad. I last saw him at the beginning of 2015, a couple of days before he died. He’d stopped eating and could barely stand. I remember helping him into bed. He said “I can’t go on. I can’t do it any more”. It was an upsetting thought.  I had to think of something else.

Swimming

Swimming in the Dark 

This was my first time swimming at night. I swam under a spotlight beside the boat. If I swam too far ahead or lost sight of the boat I’d be plunged into darkness and lose my bearings.

I could see the lights on the French coast. They appeared to be close, but I knew that what I could see wasn’t necessarily where I was going. I had to contend with the tide which was taking me along the coast, eastward.

It’s was hard to tell how far I had to swim . Of course, now the sun had set I knew we were reaching the end. But still I couldn’t see it.

The End.

Where is the end?

Is there an end?

When will it come?

Tim would say “Almost there! Almost there! Just a bit more to go!”

At one point he said “Okay, Riccardo . This is your last feed ”

So from that I assumed there was less than a 30 minutes of swimming to go. Several feeds later however, I was still in the water .

I didn’t know what was happening. I was exhausted,  feeling anxious and confused. I was in so much pain. My jaws and teeth were locked  tight.

I was expecting Tim to enter the water at any moment. This would have signalled that we approaching the shore. But he didn’t get in!

Why, if we were so close wasn’t he getting in ?!

It was torture.  Swimming in the dark. Not knowing.

My stroke, by the end had really deteriorated. I could barely lift my arms.

I was such a relief  when he finally jumped in.

The boat stopped offshore. Tim swam ahead. I followed the light on the back of his swim cap. He was swimming so fast ! I struggled to keep up. My arms were heavy and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t turn them any faster. Eventually  the water was too shallow to swim in and I could feel the bottom with my hands. I scrambled to my feet and we walked up onto this deserted moonlit  beach.

We had arrived in France, at place called Wissant.

It was one o’clock in the morning. I’d been swimming for  fourteen and a half hours.

Reg calculated that I’d swam a total of 30 miles

It was strange day and a very strange experience.

Swimming in Video

The swim was documented in video by John Hartley. He shot about 2 hours of footage on  mini DV and HD using a GoPro. Tim also shot some clips on his iPhone.

I’m now in the process of revisiting the swim via this footage, editing the material to try to balance my experience in the water with John and Tim’s view of the swim from the boat. We each have our own set of interests, our own reasons for being there and looking.

John has expressed an interest in the “Outlandish” nature of the swim, the situation of being offshore, following a line, moving in a direction. He is also interested in the different scales of activity taking place, the small repetitive action of swimming, the catch and pull, the movement of waves and changing light, the shipping traffic, fishing, time, space. Its a very open view. His camera work follows me moving into and out of frame. I appear to be criss crossing the screen as I swim toward and away from the boat.

Tim’s video clips were posted to his twitter account during the swim to provide status updates.

John: ” When you’re swimming you see the bubbles. You see your hands. your arms and you’re thinking about this repetition, these very small scales around you. But then they add up. Something that is very tiny is very big and geographical, a cartographic scale; end to end. There is also a scale of activity. You know, the activity is tiny; catch, pull, recover. But its also enormous. “

Tim:

Editing now .

Swimming in video

Was it difficult?

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Feeding time. English channel swim 18 July 2016. Photo credit: Tim Denyer

The swim itself  was not as difficult  as I’d  anticipated.

The sky was clear and blue. The sea was  calm, silky and otherworldly. I had ideal conditions for getting across.

Though getting across was not my only interest.

I wanted to feel the energy of the sea. I wanted a storm, high waves, thunder and lightning!   I was  also looking for a particular kind of connection  with the water. I wanted to achieve a state of calm,  harmony and efficiency in my stroke and breathing, but, I didn’t get that either.

The whole project was a mixture of successes and failures..

In preparation for the channel I trained in much colder and choppier conditions. A couple of weeks before I successfully completed a 9 mile swim in Dover harbour and on 2nd July I entered the BLDSA 8 mile swim in Torbay, but I got out after 4 miles. The water was 14.5 degrees . I’d been swimming with cramp  and was feeling cold, but my decision to leave the water was largely due to lack of self confidence and anxiety.

The challenge I faced in the channel was to stay focussed and positive.

In the days and minutes before I entered the water at Samphire Hoe I was quite nervous. I didn’t realise how nervous until we arrived in Dover and were on the boat approaching the start. That’s when it really dawned on me what I was doing. I was beyond talking about it, beyond planning. All of a sudden it was just me and the sea, (and the escort boat and crew, and my coach. I must not forget to mention that! We were also joined by artist John Hartley who came along to document and respond to the swim).

I’d seen it so many times, videos of Channel swimmers getting greased up, getting in,  swimming off. When it got to my turn, it seemed almost unreal. It was like swimming into a dream.

It took  a few hours of swimming before I got over the shock. It really was a shock. “Oh my god!” I thought,”I’m actually doing it! I’m swimming the channel!!”

I imagine many  channel swimmers have a similar Oh duck! moment at the start of their swims.

Swimming the Channel is not something one does on a whim. It takes years of training and preparation.  There is a massive entree to get through before doing the swim and you really don’t know what you are going to get in terms of weather conditions so, after all that preparation its still very much up in the air. You really don’t know quite what you are dealing  with until you get in.

The fact that this was my only chance to do the swim was a key motivating factor.  I knew that if I quit I would have to wait at least another year to make another attempt. The whole project was expensive and required a considerable amount of sacrifice and commitment. A second attempt would have been out of the question.

Committing to do the swim was probably the hardest part of the project;   giving my time, energy and attention to seeing it through to the end, doing whatever was necessary to achieve that end goal; which in fact turned out to be many goals.

For me it wasn’t just about swimming to France, but the process of swimming; the act of physical and mental engagement and experience of immersion, depth and  exposure.

To swim fast for example, one doesn’t try to swim fast. One needs to focus on technique.  Good technique increases efficiency and speed. Speed follows form. The same applies to distance. To get to France I had to focus on maintaining good technique,  which is largely governed by ones  physical and emotional connection with the water, ones sense of touch, time and space. (Saying that, the  video documentation of my swim reveals many flaws in technique, which lead me to wonder how I managed to get across at all. )

I was fortunate to have the support of family and friends and that helped a lot.

In many ways it was a collaborative effort with my coach Tim Denyer.

Tim gave me the confidence to swim. He helped me visualise and mentally prepare for different  scenarios I might encounter at sea. He was responsible for planning and managing my swim and was on the escort boat organising my feeds and monitoring my status throughout. Every time I turned my head toward the boat to breathe he was there looking back.

His reassuring presence, knowledge and experience of the channel and his positive and constructive feedback during training and the swim itself was critical to its success. I just had to trust his judgement and direction.

 

 

I successfully completed my solo swim across the English Channel on 19th July, in a time of 14hours and 31 minutes. Starting at Samphire Hoe in Dover at 10.20am on 18th July and finishing on Wissant beach, France.

It was a very physical and mentally demanding swim and a truly extraordinary experience . I was blessed with the most amazing conditions.

Many thanks to all on board my escort boat, the Viking Princess;  pilots Reg and Ray Brickell, artist John Hartley and of course, my coach Tim Denyer.

Special thanks  to my family,  friends and sponsors; the swimmers and coaches at Red Top Swim; Mel Denyer and Camilla Oates at Bodytonic, Sam Burch at Fix, the BLDSA and CSA.  Thank you all. I couldn’t have done it without you!

I will be writing more and adding video and photographic documentation of  the swim in the next few weeks , once I have recovered.

 

 

 

Get set

Ok , so here is the latest, in brief . 

I start my swim at Samphire Hoe, Dover at around 10.30am on Monday 18th July

Tim is driving me down from London at around 6am. 

Due to delays in the swim start date, Steven Ball is unfortunately no longer able to join us to document/ respond to the swim. 

However, I’m pleased to say, the artist and researcher , John Hartley is coming instead. https://www.falmouth.ac.uk/content/john-hartley

John is a PhD researcher at Falmouth and co-director of the international arts agency Difference Exchange. He has an interest in swimming and performance  and intends to respond to the swim, approaching it from variety of perspectives using video, sound and  speech. I’m excited that he is coming along and very much looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

I expect the swim will take between 12-15 hours, give or take a bit. We probably won’t get back to Dover until 3 am Tuesday.

The sea temperature this morning was 16.8 degrees. Lots of sunshine. water smooth, calm and silky 

Today in hackney the humidity has brought on a bit of a chesty cough. I hope it clears soon. 

Meanwhile, I’m staying in the shade and drinking lots of water.

Tim says it’s looks like I’m going to have the best conditions anyone could possibly wish for.