Mhairi Murdoch's tells of her English Channel Crossing
There is something unique about the freedom of water, the power of the waves and the steady rhythmic action of swimming. I have loved it for as long as I can remember. It was no surprise then that on arriving in Mandurah, I found the Mandurah Masters and went to join them bouncing in the waves at Doddi’s before even looking for somewhere to live.
Some friends had joked that I should swim the English Channel but until I arrived back in the UK from Western Australia it was never something I had seriously thought about. In Australian geographic scales the 70 odd miles between Dover and London is nothing I’m told and it was pointed out that I ‘might as well swim the channel’ while I was ‘living just next door.’
The decision to actually sign up was prompted by meeting up with Barb, who had travelled to the UK to support a friend’s channel swim attempt. In a sunny Covent Garden coffee shop, Barb’s enthusiasm about her own channel swim and passion about other people’s was contagious. Barb said ‘channel swimmers always do more’ - a phrase that stuck with me for the next few months as I got up early to squeeze in a pool swim on the way to work or stopped off to enjoy a pool on the way home.
Practising for the channel took me round lots of my favourite places to swim and helped me test out lots more. I had a fun 8 mile tide-assisted swim down the River Tay (organised by Ye Ancient Amphibious Bathing Association that I had swum with while growing up) from Balmerino to Dundee and it was brilliant to swim under the rail and road bridges. In September 2015, I was lucky to have mum and dad volunteer to be in the boat beside me as I swam Lake Windermere. The 10.5 miles were great but the idea of turning around and swimming back again and then swimming a bit more (to make up the distance of the channel) was a bit daunting.
Living in different parts of London on my canal boat (with my pot of Doddi’s sand transported back with me thanks to Erica) meant I had a fantastic opportunity to have a different ‘local’ swimming pool every couple of weeks. I built up a unique understanding of London where all landmarks are related to the nearest swimming pool or canal!
The Dover harbour beach is (in)famous amongst channel swimmers and it was a pleasingly familiar reminder of swimming at Doddi’s beach when my first 11 degree dip in Dover harbour was followed by a trip to the coffee shop. The support of Barrie (and his huge pot of Vaseline & bags to collect swimmers’ sandals) & Irene (and her register and drink and jelly baby dispensing) is amazing. They have been volunteering on swimmers beach for over 20 years and are there day in day out every Saturday and Sunday – more amazing still as Irene says she doesn’t even like swimming!
Emma who has taken over the running of the beach allocates each swimmer a number of hours to swim and so there is no decision about how long to swim for. The community of other swimmers at Dover was fantastic and in particular I swam stroke for stroke up and down the harbour with Alana (a swimmer from Brisbane) for hours on end.
Lots of people who sign up to swim don’t even get the chance to set off and so I didn’t want to tell too many people I was going to attempt the channel until I did. In fact, apart from my family, the Mandurah Masters were the first to know and it was brilliant to get their motivation and unwavering positive thoughts from the other side of the world and wonderful to be included in Sue and Brett’s tour of Europe and have tea with them on the cliff tops above Dover a couple of weeks before my swim.
For me, the hardest part was the waiting – not knowing exactly when in my week the wind and weather would allow me to go, desperately hoping that we would go but not wanting to focus on it too much just in case we didn’t. Barb sent more messages of encouragement and my younger sister prepared an extensive picnic for the boat crew.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday – we waited. Wednesday might have been possible but when strong winds came Wednesday morning I was glad I had said no. On Thursday the forecast was not perfect but I could not wait any longer.
It was a beautiful sunny morning with 12 knots of wind as we pulled out of Dover harbour. Finally entering the water was a huge relief and after hours of going back and forwards in training it was exciting to have a destination to aim for. I thought if I swim for 20 hours I will get there. Suddenly it was easy. The only thing to do was keep swimming.
The water was a surprisingly pleasant 15 degrees and the white cliffs sparkled as we left them behind. At times the waves went in just the right direction to surge forwards with them in a satisfying rush.
The combination of swell in one direction, wind in another, diesel fumes and the horizon being my boat rocking in the opposite direction from me led to unexpected sea sickness at 5 hours. I felt better for vomiting but it probably wasn’t the nicest view for the boat crew!
The collective noun for jellyfish is a smack and I was smacked by them only once or twice. I know they tend to hang around the middle of the channel so it was a good sign we were making progress and I could appreciate the beauty of the ones safely deep below me.
Uniquely, my path crossed with that of another swimmer, Nick Adams, and we had a surreal 20 minutes swimming together half way between England and France.
The stroke rate stayed steady and apart from vomiting I enjoyed every minute. Meanwhile, on the boat my mum, dad and elder sister, Naomi, were doing an impressive job of relaying messages via my younger sister Nina at work and getting a drink ready for me every 45 minutes or so.
It was spectacular to see the huge ships from sea level and happily I found that they churned up a cold channel of water when they past - wonderfully refreshing when feeling nauseous.
Some people say they get bored. Some people say they wish they could get in the boat next to them. For me I knew how special it was to get the chance to swim. There was something relaxing about having nothing to do other than keep swimming. I wanted to get to France but I had no desire to get out until I was there. I thought about all the different people I had had fun swimming with. I was amazed by the messages of support, donations to Freedom From Torture (the charity I collected sponsorship for) and good wishes. I caught parts of them as Naomi shouted them at me from the boat and I have enjoyed reading over them all since.
At about 10 and a half hours I asked for some water and chocolate and was told I only had 15 minutes to go. I still wanted the chocolate! The French coastguard greeted us as we passed into French inshore waters. Naomi joined me in the water for the last kilometre to the shore and it was unbelievable to finally be thrown by the surf on to the rocks at Cape Gres Nes.
At 10 hours 43 minutes it was faster than I had hoped.
Swimming the channel is a deeply personal endeavour but a journey that was only possible due to a fantastic team of people supporting me. The following day, Nina & Naomi asked what we should do to celebrate before we all headed off in different directions. It was an easy decision – I took them for a swim!
Mhairi just after touching the French Coast
Mhairi during training for her English Channel Crossing
Getting Greased-up pre-swim
Swim start at 6:03 am
Crossing shipping lanes
Our boat "Pathfinder" taken by Nick Adams Crew
Mhairi's track across the English Channel