Supporting the

Neuroendocrine Cancer Community

So, here is what happened when we tried to swim the channel… by Patrick Coffey

Jul 18, 2022

Ever since I told people that I wanted to raise awareness of, and money for, Neuroendocrine Cancer UK, I have been amazed and humbled by the generosity of so many. Alongside private donations and the JustGiving page, we have raised c. £13k so far – far more than I ever expected and essential money for researching a rare cancer. Several people have told me that they too have lost loved ones to Neuroendocrine Cancer and I have been particularly touched by people from the Neuroendocrine Cancer community who have sent messages of support.

Many of you knew my Dad; he would have been stunned into a (very rare) silence by that amount and would have been so grateful. If you haven’t donated yet but would like to, please click on the above link. There is no pressure – other charities will naturally be closer to your heart.

Below is a fairly long-winded, arguably self-indulgent summary of our channel swim. So if you want the quick version; we did it in 12 hours 48mins and it was very fun.

So, here is what happened when we tried to swim the channel…

We received a text on Monday at midday telling us to get down to Folkestone. The forecast looked OK. High tide was at 1.45am on Tuesday and we would be starting the swim then.

I left my work event, got home, called a hotel, threw a bag together (goggles with different lenses, speedos, towels, a massive amount of food, lots of sports nutrition and a stunningly disgusting cramp mixture*) and got in the car.

After an unhealthy amount of pasta and a brief two hour sleep, we met at 12.45am in a deserted car park by the harbour. It was a beautifully warm evening, we could smell the salt in the air and could hear the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore.

We loaded the tender, got on our boat (Rowena) and met the crew (3 generations of local fishermen). We left Folkestone and sailed to Samphire Hoe where we would start.

At 1.38am, Paddy jumped into the sea and swam to shore. A torchlight from the boat dimly revealed his (not inconsiderable) silhouette on the beach. The whistle went and we were off.

As I waited to get into the ocean, my phone lit up. My great friend Ed texted to say ‘All the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone. Enjoy it mate.’ That mantra helped me more than he could have imagined an hour later when I jumped in…

It was 2.40am. It was cold. It was pitch dark. There was a big boat right next to me. My heart rate spiked. All the training I had done, all of the night swimming, all of the preparation and yet that same panicky feeling that mercilessly gripped me when I was ignominiously dragged out of a lake in a triathlon fourteen years ago was back. Surely I couldn’t fail now. Ed’s words ran through my head. I was out of my comfort zone but I needed to get on with it. I focused on my breathing. I managed to relax and after a few minutes, the anxiety subsided and a feeling of calm descended.

The stars were shining all around, it was time to enjoy it.

An hour later, I scrambled back onto the boat. Dawn was breaking. The image of that first glimmer of sunlight streaming across the ocean will stay with me forever.

The white cliffs of Dover were behind us. France awaited us. Life was good.

Anastasia, Sarah and Paddy all swam brilliantly. I was extremely lucky to have such perfect teammates. We had bonded on a swim-camp in May. Paddy nearly qualified for the British Olympic team in 2016 and is attempting a solo channel swim in September. Anastasia Parker is an incredible classical pianist, is relentlessly optimistic and now wants to try to do a solo English Channel. Sarah has recently returned to swimming but is a natural – she battled through bad sea sickness throughout the day and never complained. She too is going try a solo next year. I am sure each of them will succeed. They were so determined but at the same time they were relaxed, enjoying it and inspirational company.

The support team on the boat were equally fantastic. Our coach, Matt , from Red Top Swimming, organised the whole event, took control of all details (nutrition etc) and reassured us when needed. Without the pilot of the boat and his team we would never have been able to navigate the tides. It was a true team effort.

Messages of support from friends, family and colleagues were flooding in; that helped a huge amount. At 6.40am it was time for me to get in again.

The waves had picked up and battered me around. It felt colder than before but it was light and occasionally I could catch a glimpse of France through the choppy water. As we approached the Separation Zone (the middle of the channel), jellyfish were everywhere but luckily I avoided being stung. I made the mistake of looking at my watch. Only 30 minutes had passed. When I looked again I was convinced it would nearly be an hour. Alas, only 38 minutes gone. I kept reminding myself of our coach’s words: ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable.’ I thought of Dad and all he went through. I thought of my wife’s wonderful mother who also died of cancer and all she went through. Another 22 minutes of swimming and feeling a bit chilly seemed insignificant. I kept going.

At 7.40am I was out of the boat, trying to get warm and desperate for food. A big bowl of pasta for breakfast washed down with a chicken sandwich did the trick. In between swims it was important to support the rest of the team. A simple thumbs up to the swimmer in the ocean has a profound effect on their confidence. I managed to get a bit of sleep too as the boat swayed from side to side. We heard that 5 of the 12 boats out on the channel attempting a crossing had turned back. That boosted our confidence. We seemed to have got through the worst of the waves.

By 11.40am I was feeling good and got back in for what would be my final swim. I decided not to look at my watch and just focus on swimming as fast as I could. I didn’t want to get out when my hour was up. I was loving it. Could I attempt a solo?

The sun was shining and the waves had disappeared. Anastasia and Sarah completed their final legs and France was getting closer and closer. Then it was over to Paddy to finish it off. The tide was working against him but luckily his natural strength got us there. He scrambled up onto the rocks, cleared the water and held his arms aloft. 12 hours 48 mins after we set off, we were in France.

We hugged each other, drank warm beer, laughed and relaxed.

The rocky cliffs of France were behind us. England awaited us. Life was good.

A few pictures of the day

 

1.35am we were all excited to start

2.45am. Out of my comfort zone but worth every second

 

7am avoiding jellyfish and boats

 

3.29pm – bonjour! 

 

With my coach, Matt from Red Top Swimming; full of brilliant people. I made a poor choice of beer

 

Our route 

 

Lots of people have asked ‘why didn’t we go in a straight line?’ For the first half there is a flood tide pushing the swimmers north east. In the separation zone, it is slack water (no tide). Then there is an ebb tide pushing the swimmers south west before a final flood tide pushing the swimmers north east again.

The total distance was around c. 36k. I swam around 12.1k.

*cramp mixture – it actually works but does your breath no favours! 100ml lemon juice, 100ml apple cider vinegar, 2tsp of cinnamon, 2tsp of marmite, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp of ginger powder. Shake well. Swirl in mouth for 30 seconds. Do not swallow!

Thank you so much,

Patrick