Saturday, 2 April 2011

Fear puts me in the water

I'd had been concentrating on making a performance about something that I intended to do, something that while I didn't consider easy, I was naive to the commitment I needed. It's a party piece, a performance piece. A ongoing joke.

I had avoided talking to any other channel swimmers, aware that contacting them was another step in making the swim a reality. I was happy playing around in fantasy, swimming in buckets of water and pools of salt to the amusement of other people. At this moment I'm just a girl who is swimming a little bit more than she used too. 

I post an email to the google groups associated with the CS & PF website-

Hi All,
I'm a swimmer who has just started to take the prospect of swimming
the channel seriously. I've looked up timelines, done my research,
started training more seriously but I think I need help! I'm planning
on September 2012, but I realise I might all ready be a bit late in
organising. I'm really looking for tips and training buddies that can
help me to realise the reality of what I want to achieve.

I am also a performer that is using my training as material to write a
show about attempting to swim the channel, including researching the
history of channel swimming-why people do it, and our relationship
with both the sea and swimming. At the moment I'm working with Camden
People's Theatre in London.

I'd be really interested to interview/ meet people that have/ are
swimming the channel both as part of training and as a way of
collecting other people's stories about channel swimming. It would be
probably be the kind of questions that you are often asked-Why do you
do it? What's going through your mind? as well as exploring your
relationship with the sea at the time and the kind of usual tricksy
technical questions.

I'm London based but can easily get to other areas-but any tips, ideas
or training programs or reality checks via email etc.. are most

Thank you in advance!

I get around 30 or so responses, offers of support, offers of help, people telling me their stories, sending me their websites. There are so many stories out there. One man takes me apart, asks me what I mean by training more seriously (two or three times a week...) if I realise that all the boats will probably be booked.  Wondering if I am really that serious. What my baseline is in cold water swimming...(I'm not even sure I know what this means, I last swam in the Serpentine lake in September 2010, I haven't been in cold water since). He apologies if he is being presumptive about my lack of experience, but this is the reality check that I need.

That Saturday 26th February I go and visit Dover with a plan to visit the museum and swim in the sea.

Dover Museum is as it should be, mislabelled displays, dough faced mannequins, one well funded exhibit where all the public funding has gone too. There's a stuffed Polar Bear (after the discovery of a polar skeleton it is thought possible that the species originated in the South East Coast of England, slowly making their way to the colder regions of the Antarctic and respective poles as the land began to break up) and a Lion's Head in full roar (the latter half of the lions body has been missing since a museum open day 1952).  They are both housed in glass, hidden away in corners, atop stairs, I hear a women in her 60's say that she remembers when they were allowed to touch the Polar Bear.

(I would have pictures, but it seems since repairing the mac, I am actually unable to upload pictures from my camera...I'll find a way they'll be coming soon)

I spend a good 40 minutes searching through archived pictures relating to channel swimmers on the computerised search...there are 1000's. Women in the water, women in goose fat, a women laughing as a wave blasts over her, pictures of Captain Webb's Matches, stories of his death at Niagara Falls, previous channel swimmers posing before their tour of water aerobics, people being heaved into boats, being fed in the water. I purchase too many of them, unsure if I am wanting them for artistic or athletic inspiration.

Throughout this little trip in the back of my head is getting in the sea. In February.  What if it's so cold my heart stops. My lungs fill, I don't come up from underneath. In the comfort of a warm tea shop over cake and toasted sandwiches, I tell my long suffering friend (a big supporter of these little exploits) that he can't let me talk myself out of it.

It's a blustering, miserable day, grey to match the edges of the town.  A wind that cuts through layers and flips umbrellas inside up, so they turn to the sky to catch the spits of rain.  We walk to the sea front to try to find the statue of Captain Webb so I can have my picture taken with him, another first step to becoming a channel swimmer.

Rather stupidly I had thought there would be a beach that stretches out to the horizon, a glimpse of the opposing coastline just visible in the distance. An open beach that I was standing on when I imagined how my crossing would begin.

But it is just a defunct harbour flanked either side by ferry ports and dead docks. Like so many British sea side towns in the tail end of winter, teenagers huddle into shelters on the sea front, shielding illicit cigarettes from the salty wind. Once cheery facades of four, five story houses and grand hotels face out toward the sea,  their battle to be upbeat and welcoming lost to the decline in business.  Famous cliffs rise to the left, our shoreline being eaten as the waves draw in.

The sea is not how I would have liked her. She is calm and flat, a slight ruffle atop grey depths. In part I am relieved that it is not high waves and churning seaweed that I am diving into. But this calm water is not why I love the sea.

We walk to the end of the pier, fisherman beheading still convulsing catches amongst a flurry of gulls.  The wind persisting the further on we walk. We head toward the end of pier cafe that boasts it's opening hours to be all through winter, even on the weekends. It is shut. I look out to sea through the neck of the harbour, disappointed I haven't a clear view of what lies ahead. I look down to the water to try to hear the weight and pull of the current but really, we're made inland by the harbour walls, and the sea movements are curtailed.

The toilets, are surprisingly, open and I stand for a minute without any clothes on the concrete floor in the toilets on Dover Pier. The cold has already gone to my bones, raising bumps in my skin, making me wish for warmer days. Or a cup of tea. Or a brandy. I am already shivering with not a toe dipped in the water.

Walking back along the pier with all the determination of a girl who has already put her swim suit on, doubts begin to rise. There was a moment before when I first saw the sea that I felt my heart lurch, my stomach contract, just a want to get in the water. That is slowly fading as the water looks thick and still. I'm not going to drown, but my heart might stop. My lungs might fill. My limbs may not work. What I don't want is a crowd to gather and watch me.

(There was a time I got in the sea in Exmoor in October, on my own. Out at sea were some robust older ladies enjoying the water, as I was doing the complicated beach strip, a man came up to me and said 

'You're not really getting in?'
'Yes I'm really getting in' I replied a little awkwardly as I undid my bra from under my swimming costume. 
'What really?' making no attempt to avert his gaze. 
'Yes really'
'Will it be cold, do you think?' 
'Probably, ahh it'll be all right' 
'You'll be freezing' he says pensively looking out to the water
'Welll'  I'm now changed and ready to go
'I'll look after your stuff for you then' he offers
'No, it's fine, I might be in a while' 
I am now stuck between the bravado of going in and the slight worry that this man might run off with my clothes/money/ phone. 
'Really? How long? No , you'll be out quick enough. Are you really going to go in?' 
'Yes, I'm really going to go in' 
'Allright I'll watch, just in case' 
'Honestly, it's fine'
'No, no, I'll watch, just in case'
I now have no choice but to leave my stuff with this man-proving my point but possibly being left with nothing but what I am wearing I stride into the surf, giving a jolly wave to the ladies in the water. They wave back. A headfirst dive into the water and I come up screaming FUCCCKKKKK. It's cold. The old ladies look on disapprovingly. 

I swim for a while, one eye on the man, who stands on the beach, arms folded, both eyes on me. When I think that he is probably not going steal my stuff I stay in for some time. I come out. 

'You were in for a long time' 
'Was I?' 
'Just wanted to make sure you were allright...'
'I'm fine, it's lovely in there...' 
'Looked after your stuff' 
'Yes, thank you' 

I am standing shivering, wrapping a towel around myself.

'Right, well, I'm going to get changed...' I say. 

A pause. I look at him.

'Oh OK' and he wonders off

As I am doing the backward cossie to clothes strip, exposing myself to the back of the beach sand dunes rather than, for some odd reason the sea. I hear a rustling in the sand dunes. The man is still there watching me.)

Back to February 26th 2011...

The long suffering companion in this little outing shivers against the wind off the water (he feels the cold) and looks at me.

'It's fine' I say 'My mum didn't seem bothered I was doing it'

'Well that's all right, then, she's a sensible woman, your mum'

'I told her I was going to get in the sea this weekend and she said just said 'good', nothing else, didn't tell me not too, not that that would stop me but..'

'I ain't getting in if you start drowning'

'What really? What if I get in and don't come up'

'Well, how long are you gonna be in there for?'

'I think it might just be a run in, run out'

'Right, I ain't getting in'

'What if my heart stops because of the cold'

'Could 'appen'

'And you wouldn't get in?'

There is a pause as he realises that should this actually happen, he will, probably,  have to get in. I can see him weighing it up. He looks a little pale. A genuine worry. That he will have to get in.

'I ain't getting in' 

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