Many Are Cold, But Few Are Chosen
by Joe Oakes
On a cloudy June 4, 1944 troops from Oregon joined with others from all over the United States and Britain to cross the frigid, stormy English Channel for the surprise D-Day invasion of France. Their bravery and sacrifices will long be remembered as a turning point in the war against the Axis Powers.
On a similar day, July 3, 2010, 66 years later, another group of Oregonians crossed that same body of water, this time battling the hostile sea itself rather than an armed enemy. And instead of facing the grim realities of warfare, this group of six intrepid swimmers was having fun. Fun? Swimming hour after hour in water that never exceeded 58 F? Dodging huge ships in one of busiest shipping lanes in the world? Being bounced about by waves, and never knowing quite what life form was hungrily observing them from beneath the black surface? Yes, they were having fun, doing exactly what they love to do.
At 0245 this group of six (Joni Young, Andrew Shaar, Jim Teisher, Mirjana Prather, Tim Cespedes and Natalie Groat, all from the Portland and Salem areas) boarded the Viking Princess under the command of Captain Reggie Brickell, one of the few pilots who have been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Reggie’s little brother Ray was along as mate, as was Mikee, the mandatory official observer from the Channel Swimming Association (CSA). They motored to the traditional starting point, Shakespeare’s Beach under the white cliffs of Dover. At precisely 0320, still the gloom of night, Joni Young jumped from the Viking Princess and swam to touch the beach before starting the long slog across the Channel. It was a half moon night and would be dark until the sun rose a few hours later.
They called themselves the Oregon Quacks, and they were swimming in a relay from Dover to Cap Gris Nez, France. Here is how the Channel relay works: A swimmer works in the water for an hour, tags the next swimmer, who takes over for the next hour, and so on until they get to their destination, swimming in order one hour at a turn, usually having to take multiple turns in the water.
The CSA imposes a lot of rules on swimmers, some designed for safety, some for fairness and some respecting tradition. Swimmers are not allowed to touch the escort boat for any reason. Wet suits, insulated swim caps and swim aids (fins, etc.) are strictly forbidden by CSA rules: this conservative group demands that things be done as they were over a century ago when the Channel was first crossed by Captain Matthew Webb.
Swimming in cold water takes a lot of energy, so the swimmer comes aboard, eats, hydrates and rests until their next turn in the water. One of the swimmers is always on watch to observe the swimmer in the water: it is not unusual for a swimmer to just disappear out there in the heavy seas. But mostly the hours are spent idling, writing notes, taking pictures, chatting and enjoying this rare experience.
And so it went, with Joni handing off to Andrew, passing to Jim, Mirjana, Tim and finally, Natalie, each plodding one stroke at a time for the required hour. It was, for the most part, uneventful, if you do not count the fact that a Chinese freighter did not want to share the big ocean with Jim Tiesher, whose response was to make an unscheduled detour from eastbound to southbound to get out of the way. More than ten hours after leaving England, with Tim Cespedes as the final swimmer, the rock at Cap Gris Nez came closer, inch by painful inch. Tim says that the last 24 minutes and the last few hundred meters felt like an eternity, the cape taunting him, the currents shoving him about, until he finally made the last effort to touch it, letting out a great yell.
A relay crossing of the English Channel is a worthy achievement. I recall the feeling of elation when my team succeeded in our attempt several years ago. But if a relay crossing is noteworthy (and it definitely is), then a solo crossing is orders of magnitude more laudable. To put it into context, there are many more climbers who have made it to the top of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, than there are swimmers who have succeeded in a solo English Channel swim. It is an awesome challenge.
The distance across the Channel as the crow flies is comparable to a running marathon, but there are tides that cause the currents to alternate between northbound and southbound four times a day. That means that the swimmer must travel in an s-shaped course, maybe one with three curves, traversing a much longer distance, possibly tripling a straight line course. And long-distance swimming may be the loneliest of sports: It is just the swimmer alone versus the sea, no conversation, no one with whom to share the suffering. Stroke, stroke, stroke and more stroking until you get there, hours on end.
So guess what? On July 5, two days after the Oregon Quacks successful relay, another Oregonian, David Livengood from Portland, got into the water at Shakespeare Beach to attempt a solo crossing of the Channel. He had been scheduled for a most auspicious day, the Fourth of July, but Captain Reggie Brickell’s call on the eve of the Fourth let him know that the weather was a bit trashy. “No swim today, Mate.”
David boarded the Viking Princess at 0345 on the fifth and was in the black water at 0420 at Shakespeare Beach. He stroked relentlessly for thirteen hours and fifty eight minutes, about 60 strokes a minute, something like 50,500 strokes, taking food and drink from the end of a long pole, never leaving the cold water, never touching the boat. In cold water hypothermia is a constant threat, and when in the water that many hours, you burn up an enormous amount of energy, requiring regular replenishment of both calories and liquids. Most mortals would not last an hour in water that cold. It is not unusual for a Channel swimmer to lose ten pounds in that enormous effort.
David’s encounter with the Channel on the fifth differed from the relay’s two days earlier in two respects: He had the uninvited company of two huge swarms of jellyfish along the way. And the wind picked up to 16-18 knots, so the plan of having an escort swimmer in the water with him had to be cancelled for much of the swim. David would have to deal with the hostility of the Channel by himself. And he did just that, all day long, until he reached France at 1818, so many hours and so many strokes awayfrom England, becoming one of the very few who have beaten the English Channel.
Friends who know David Livengood well say that the characteristic that best describes him is an overwhelming dedication to his goals. He trained with intensity for two years preparing for this summiting of the Mount Everest of the swimming world. During his swim, which was truly an ordeal, conditions worsened even as his determination had to seek deeper sources within himself to go on. From personal experience I can tell you that in the beginning you spend all of the physical resources that you have trained into your body. The glycogen that you have stored in your muscles and liver is gone. Your physical resources have become diminished, and can only be partially replenished with feedings and hydration. You have hit The Wall. At that time the toughness of your mind takes over, commanding an unwilling body to go on. Eventually even the mental capacity to force yourself to keep moving is weakened to the sound of a teeny voice in the background, a voice that you want to just shut up. Every cell in your body is screaming for you to stop, please stop, damn it, right now. That is when the deepest level of courage must be drawn from a hidden spiritual base, something that can be tapped only in rare circumstances, exacting a heavy toll on the spirit, the mind and the body. You must force yourself beyond the beyond. And when your goal is finally achieved something akin to a complete collapse occurs, everything is released, and a state of combined bliss and utter fatigue takes over. That feeling might stay with you for a long time.
I was told that when he swam back from the beach to the boat David was in tears. I well understand.
David is not the only Oregon swimmer to face the English Channel. Considering the fact that our beaches are not quite as hospitable as Malibu, in recent years we have had more success in the Channel than any state other than California.
And then there is Beaverton’s Michelle Macy. Michelle has completed the English Channel swim twice. On her first attempt she was the fastest woman that year, just over ten hours. The second time she made it from England to France and started to swim back to England for a rare Channel double crossing, until foul weather intervened. She is one of the very few who have swum across Cook’s Strait from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand. On July 7, 2010 she became the first person ever to swim across Clarence Strait in Alaska, in water that varied in temperature from the high 40’s to a high of 52 degrees. She was in that water for six hours and 45 minutes. Her blog (www.macyswim.com) reads as follows: “Besides losing sensation in my feet, my hands started to cramp up ...swimming with fists.”
Something in Oregon is propelling this surge of interest in swimming large, cold bodies of water. Maybe it is watching the success of swimmers like David Livengood and Michelle Macy. But there is also something new in the mix: Tim Cespedes has been the guiding force behind an internet approach to the sport. He did it by fostering a way for people who want involvement to meet like-minded individuals via firstname.lastname@example.org. There are now 43 people regularly chatting and making swim dates in places like Haag Lake, Nehalem Bay and bodies of water all over the state. Some of them are long time swimmers who want to get out of the pool and into the bigger world of swimming. Others are triathletes whose swim venues are usually in open water and are looking for a way to become more competitive. II believe that a group of kindred spirits has come together and is growing rapidly in this small corner of the swimming world.