Conquering the Aquatic Everest

English Channel victory! From left, Miriam Hiser, Sylvia Marino, Suzanne Greva, Lisa Serebin, and Bonnie Brown

wOw’s own Sylvia Marino swam the English Channel in a five- woman relay she’ll never forget

We had been sitting in Folkestone for four days, waiting to get the call that the weather had cleared and we were a go. The five of us — all members of San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club, with full time jobs and families – decided to embark on adventure to swim the English Channel as the Club’s first all-female relay team. Following the Channel Rules of only wearing a regular swimsuit (or less), a swim cap, and goggles, with nothing to aid in flotation or warmth, we were determined to conquer what is known as the Mount Everest of open water swimming.

None of us are Olympic-caliber swimmers. Lisa, first in our rotation, is training for a solo English Chanel attempt in 2013. Bonnie, a lifelong speed swimmer, was in second position. Miriam and Suzanne started as triathletes in 2008, and quickly fell in love with the open water. I took my first swimming lesson in 2003 after battling postpartum depression, feeling the need to do something physical and with a goal. I’m not fast, but a workhorse that keeps going.

We knew that no other swimmers – solos or relay teams — had attempted a crossing that week due to weather, so our first possible day on the water would be Sunday or Monday. After that, our one-week window would close, as unfavorable tides would take over until the next window opened later in July. Many people train for years and make the trip to swim on their scheduled date, only to be turned away due by poor conditions. With swims booked years in advance, most cannot uphold the level of training required wait for another window to open. Our call finally came on Saturday evening to report to Dover Marina the next morning at 5:30 am.

Lisa, our first swimmer, started off Shakespeare Beach in Dover at 6:12 am on Sunday, July 10 – Britain’s Memorial Day. Every 60 minutes thereafter, a new swimmer in our fixed rotation would enter the Channel. Depending on where you were in the order, we had assigned jobs – one person watching the swimmer in the water so as not to lose them to swells, one person warming up the swimmer who had just exited the water (hot drink, helping them into dry clothes), one person getting ready to swim and a swimmer getting warm from being in the water. Instead of feeding on the expensive sport gels and drinks we’d brought, I ate cheap gingersnap cookies and hot water. We ran pretty much like clockwork (When you have a team of women ages 41-53, what else can you expect?)

The conditions throughout the day were Force 3-4, meaning we were in winds up to 17 miles per hour with waves, whitecaps and swells regularly in the 3-6 foot range. The water temperature was steady at 58-59 degrees, warmer than the San Francisco Bay. Our spirits were always high, even when a teammate was seasick. No one ever wanted to quit, and once in the water, we gave everything we had for 60 minutes.

Over the course of the day, we saw and came close to many cargo ships and large ferries. I stopped counting early in the day after 60 ships. We celebrated as we crossed the lanes, moved into French waters, swam over the Channel Tunnel (I had the pleasure of swimming across this), watched Dover disappear and saw no coastlines until France begin to appear on the horizon.

From my first rotation to my last, I felt natural. Every time I swam, I had the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” in my head. There’s a rhythm in the sea: the rise and fall of the swells, learning how to swim with the boat on your right. The water itself was stunning, filled with floating jellyfish and plankton that glowed. It was like staring into a galaxy. At times I had to remind myself to breathe and check my proximity to the boat, because I wanted to keep my head down and watch what was happening below.

Sylvia Marino emerges after a rotation in the English Channel

During the second rotation, I discovered the velocity of the English Channel behind me and at times found myself swimming out ahead of the boat — feeling like we were in a race and I could actually win it. Another swimmer said getting out ahead of the boat made her feel like a dolphin, as we would surge up and out of the water with the swells. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to be so small in such a vast body of water moving at such great speed.

As we went into our third rotation, we began to calculate how far we were from landing. Soon, we could see a truck on a road above the cliffs outside of Calais. I was the last swimmer in the rotation, heading into what is frequently termed “the graveyard of dreams:” the last few miles where the tidal lines push, pull, tug and create a force, leaving you to fight to move forward. Often, solo swimmers are left exhausted and quit. With passing strokes, I could see the sun setting behind me under my right arm; when sighting forward, I could see the moon rising over the white cliffs. I started to count the windows on the houses along the beach. My hour was up, having broken across the tidal line of nearly 3 miles.

Finding ourselves at the top of the swim order, our first swimmer went in and, in 24 minutes, made quick work of the last part of our nearly 31 miles at sea. With the moon above, we could see her stand on the beach in Sangatte and raise her arms. The horn blew and we were now English Channel relay swimmers. Above the beach, a lone silver firework went off. Perhaps a backyard party, perhaps planning for Bastille Day; we will never know. In the moment, we simply stared in awe and took it to be for ourselves.

The ride back across the Channel lasted three hours. In that time we texted and called family and friends, hooted, hollered, high-fived and then collapsed in exhaustion. Making it back to our hotel rooms by 2 am, we popped the champagne and toasted our success and families before crashing for a well-deserved rest.

As is tradition, those who successfully cross the Channel can sign their names on the wall at the White Horse Bar in Dover. The walls are covered in the “who’s who” of open water swimming. We finally found a place in a corner where — in at least one small corner of the world — we have been immortalized.

10 comments so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    INCREDIBLE! Thanks for swimming the channel and creating the visual. Love the WOW adventure spots! :-)

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Huge congratulations are in order for Sylvia as this was a huge feat.  . and had to be an amazing sense of accomplishment.  I too began to swim at a young age, pretty fearless in the ocean at various locales until I found myself surrounded by the bubble gum looking bladders of the Portuguese Man ‘o War while swimming off Cuba.   They were new to me.  In fact, I did not see the colony of them coming in with the tide.  Under the innocuous “sails” were tentacles that were stingers and drifted under the water for up to – if I remember – 30 feet.  Once stung by these strings that left hot fiery long welts that caused concern at the hospital even, my swimming days in the open ocean were over.  I was told that an allergy could have meant my life.  Well . . . so after that, I was content to stay in pools, competing as backstroker at U of C in the hopes of also setting records.  Fun . . . but not like the uncertainty of time and tides and weather as you went through.

    But I know what going up against high waves that have come up in no time can be.  On top of that, that water in the Channel is quite cold .  .  . and depending, that hour at a time can seem like a long long time.  Sylvia, I have a feeling that this only got you psyched up for another run at another hard-to-do location.  You should as with all the training hours — and I know all about that – you are in such great physical condition that you must go for it!.  But this — well, it is simply GREAT!!!!  Your family must be so proud!!!!
     

  3. avatar Sylvia M says:

    Linda and Joan – Thanks! We’re still on a bit of a high since our July 10 crossing but back to family and work – laundry, conference calls and the ever “Mom, can I…?”

    They water was quite nice compared to the low 50′s that we swim in the San Francisco Bay for many months out of the year. Luckily it was still too cold for the bulk of jellyfish which will appear in droves come August and September when most of the Channel attempts will take place with warmer waters and more favorable tides.

    As for more swimming adventures – we’re already looking at the swim around Manhattan and a few others. We’ll see!

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Sylvia:  There has to some way you can keep us up on your training for your next great adventure swimming around Manhattan itself.  You have me enthralled.  From one who is older than you — and an adventuress in the world’s far reaches — I know full well that the trick is to never rest on your laurels.  There are other worlds to conquer, but you must stay in condition.  How do you do that?  I know you must always have your next in your life’s goals in mind, dangling there, enticing you.  Each gives you more confidence, endurance, and ability to conquer all.  The life that lies before you, I promise, will make you sky high forever.

      A P.S.  I just did a strenuous Grand Canyon long raft trip down the Colorado through the Canyon where the straight up hiking was as challenging as the rapids.  The water was 50 degrees and enough to chill you in seconds, even with the 106 degree air above, so I know the water you are contemplating ahead remains another challenge, making it often a mind over matter situation.  My own journey may be my next story here.

      Do think about the Antarctic swim that the young woman did not long ago?.  It is crazy, but so was I when I was willing to him off the rail of our ship down there – with the whales – and at least “test” the 33 degree waters in Paradise.  Who cares if it was chilling?  The memories remain forever.  And that is what counts.  Good luck to you!

      • avatar Sylvia M says:

        Lynne Cox swam in Antarctica and I believe is an honorary member of the South End Rowing Club. She’s in So. CA but has come up to swim in the Bay a number of times. She is both a delight and an inspiration. If you haven’t read her book “Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer” it is a wonderful read. (http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Antarctica-Tales-Long-Distance-Swimmer/dp/0156031302) She covers not only this chilly swim but others such as the English Channel, swimming from the US to Russia and more.

        Another great read that covers swimming but moreover the role of women in sports is “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World” http://www.amazon.com/Young-Woman-Sea-Conquered-Inspired/dp/0618858687 Women weren’t allowed to swim until after a horrific ferry incident in NYC happened and many women drowned. For many of them, all they had to do was stand up.

        There are no laurels to rest on, only new goals to set. For now, getting all of the family laundry done would be good! Training is really just to keep swimming. This morning was 53 minutes in the SF Bay. The weekends may have 1-2-3 hour swims but nothing overly planned. I wish I could say that I was disciplined and did # days in the pool to perfect my stroke but between children, work and well – life – it rarely happens.

        Congratulations on your Grand Canyon hike. As someone who cannot run worth darn, activities with gravity continue to mystify me.

  4. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Sylvia,

    Truly amazing reading how you did not even swim until 2003 and now accomplishing swimming the channel! Definitely would empower a life in believing there is nothing that cannot be done.

    Enjoy all those “Mom can I.. ” moments, they pass much too soon. What seems routine now, will be the wonderful memories later on. My oldest grandson graduates high school this next year and his one wish as long as I can remember is seeing Lion King in NYC. My focus is being able to get him there for the show before he graduates and the show is gone. For us, that could be our swim across the channel for now. :-)

    I hope you continue to write about your training and the swims you accomplish, I would love to read more!

    • avatar Sylvia M says:

      Getting my kids to brush their teeth and put dirty laundry in the hamper is an ongoing challenge and much longer than 15 hours in the English Channel. Our Observer was quite accurate when he said the best people to swim the Channel are northern [UK, Scotland, Ireland] because they enjoy the 12+ hours in the water with no one asking them for anything!

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        LOL When my kids were young, the fantasy of washing dishes passed quickly, so even though I had a dishwasher – I rarely used it. It was the time of day when I knew the lines to the kitchen door would not be crossed until I was done. I stretched the time as long as I cared to be alone.

        Laundry, etc.. I held their favorite possessions hostage until they found the time to comply. Taking mom’s rights in the bartering process. :-) Bored, can’t find anything to do – great sit here with your mom until you can find a better idea. Amazing how the momentum picks up and being bored ceased. Now, it seems like maybe the days just ran together too fast! I wasn’t seeing two to three decades down the line at the time. Indulge in the chaos, it passes quickly!

  5. avatar Lila says:

    Wow, what an adventure. I can swim for a long time, but I was “spoiled” by being raised in the tropics and I fear those English Channel water temperatures would do me in.

  6. avatar D C says:

    Awesome uplifting story!  Thank you for sharing.