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Swimming between countries, how Dee crossed the English Channel and the Irish Sea

By Dee Newell , 15 October, 2019

Swimming had been something I loved all my life, but it was somewhat ruined after a particularly difficult Galway Bay Swim. That was until I booked my first SwimTrek trip to Croatia in 2014, I picked this trip specifically because I was trying to encourage my friend Zara to join me in open water swimming and this was shorter distances. As it turned out she couldn’t join me so I went ahead anyway, and I can easily say it changed the course of what lay ahead for me. In the crystal-clear warm water of Croatia, I fell back in love with swimming and the connection to the sea was even stronger now that I wasn’t swimming in a wetsuit, and I met a channel swimmer for the first time ever. When we did the introductions on the first day Sian Williams introduced herself and told us she has swam the English Channel, I believe at this stage I didn’t even know what that was probably put my hand up and asked for more information. I was blown away that she could do that, in togs and not touch the boat for the whole time! I just thought wow, I never thought that could be me.

I joined another SwimTrek trip in Greece in 2015 and as luck would have it, Sian was guiding on this trip again. Before I had even left Greece I had on Sian’s recommendation booked the 10km training camp for 2016 and talked my new tripmate Andrea into coming too as well as convincing her to join me in swimming the Galway bay swim in 2016, a much more enjoyable experience this time around.

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It was on the 10km training camp that I met Cliff Golding. I can honestly say I would never have thought about swimming the English Channel had I not met him, I can add to that and say I am sure I would not have been successful in getting to France had I not met him. As part of the training week we had a motivational talk from Cliff in which he had pictures form his channel swim, including the classic shot of the ferry in the background. Everybody in the room was wowed by this picture.

I turned up on this coaching camp viewing it as the start of my training, I did struggle and feel the cold, but I finished every swim and I qualified for an English Channel relay. The first moment that I thought I might actually swim the English Channel solo was during one swim in jellyfish soup where the majority bailed out and got back on the boat, I pushed on and Cliff said “Dee you are nails, you will be a channel swimmer.” After this trip I went on to complete a 6-hour qualifier swim with nothing booked but this was the point where I knew I was going to be a channel swimmer someday.

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Booking a slot to swim the English Channel is something that must be done 2-3 years in advance, due to popularity of attempts and restrictions on the number of boats traversing the busiest shipping lane in the world at a swimmer’s pace. My job and the need to travel away from Ireland for 6 months at a time made it a bit harder to plan, I was offered a cancellation place in 2018 but couldn’t take it as I was away so went back on the waiting list for 2019. As soon as I had an offer of a slot, I was straight on to Cliff for advice on what one to take and where to go from there. His suggestion was to go on Long Distance Training Camp in Mallorca, Andrea was committed as crew at this point and we were very lucky to get the last two spots on the trip. Being in the Middle East for most of 2018 I had missed an entire year of training and a whole season of open water swimming, and Mallorca was cold. I didn’t at any point think I wouldn’t complete the 6-hour qualifier, but it was such a struggle and nothing like the previous 6 hours I had completed even though there was only about a degree of difference in the water temperature. I left the LDT camp excited for the season of training ahead, having met lots of other hopefuls including Fiona Southwell who had given the best nutritional advice. I had also met Anna-Carin Nordin in Tenerife on another SwimTrek trip and to meet the first lady to complete the Oceans Seven certainly makes the English Channel seem like a smaller task.

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I continued to consult Cliff for a training guideline and stuck to it religiously. It’s important to remember to speak to other people about what you are planning especially if you don’t have a specific coach. Making your own plan, you can be prone to being too hard on yourself and overtraining or too easy on yourself and not doing enough. Not everything went to plan along the way. I had hoped to complete a 10-hour swim in Carlingford a month after LDT but I had let myself get very stressed out notably in the days before this training weekend, it was here that Andrea really came to the rescue. I didn’t complete that 10-hour swim, I didn’t even make the 6-hour qualifier for the North Channel. I touched the boat at 4 hours 30 mins, my hips had locked up and I struggled to even feel my legs at some points. Climbing on to the boat was such a struggle I knew there was no way this was in my head.

On my LDT camp, I had met Jim who had experience with meditation and mindset for endurance sport. I had a short phone call with him, and he was the perfect person to speak to and calmed my mind so much. Things were turning round and continued to do so until I eventually worked my training program all the way up to two 6 hour swims on consecutive days, again organized and fed by Andrea every half hour for all 12 hours of it before driving across Wales to Jim’s family home to take part in a day of meditation. I returned to Ireland confident in my training and with a meditation recording guided by Jim and perfect for preparing for a long-distance swim.

The sea temperature rises much slower on the East Coast of Ireland, so most of my training was done in water under 14 degrees, feeding every half hour with warm drinks. When I arrived in Dover to a heat wave with air temperatures of 32 degrees and water temperatures of 18-20, I knew I didn’t need to worry about the cold. It was a very uncertain time between arriving in Dover and getting on the boat to swim on 4th August. My window to swim was 22 – 30 July and I was number 4 on this tide, planned to be a neap tide, meaning less moving water and a smaller S shaped course. On arrival in Dover it was confirmed that I was now 3 on the tide due to somebody cancelling their slot, so only two people to swim before I got my chance. Storms at sea resulted in only one swimmer getting to swim to France in this window. If I could hang on for the spring tide, more moving water and a bigger S shaped course, I might just get my chance. I had the support from work to stay as long as I needed to, but my crew didn’t have such flexibility, so I said goodbye and began to feel like this solo swim really was a solo effort for the first time in the whole journey. Cliff was the only crew member who was able to stay, but as he lived an hour away from where I was staying, I did feel alone waking up in an empty house. Within days, I had numerous offers of back up crew. This is one of the reasons I love the open water swimming community so much. As well as offers from London based swimmers I also had offers from work colleagues to fly over and do whatever was required. In the end the two additional crew were made up of Andrew Ferguson an accomplished sailor and barge dweller in London and Gavan Hennigan, a Galway friend who has completed many of his own epic endurance adventures to date. The two guys were the perfect additional crew to assist the main crew man Cliff and the three were like old friends before I even entered the water, having all only met in Dover harbour before getting aboard [our support boat] Suva at midnight.

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In the days leading up to this swim I meditated regularly listening to Jim’s guided meditation every day and twice on D-Day. I kept my phone away from me as much as possible trying to keep my mind as calm as possible just reading books and making jigsaws. The main thing I focused on while meditating was to enjoy the swim. After such a long wait to get there, there was no way I was going to do anything but enjoy it. I also had some strong feminist thoughts pulling me through it. I had been told a stat in the lead up to the swim and that that the ratio of male to female swimmers was 60:40 and a very large driving force on my swim was to notch this ratio closer to equal. Keeping this stat in mind, it is a good time to mention that Rachel Lee, a member of the Dublin Fire Brigade, completed the fastest Irish time for a crossing, and Alison Streeter is the person who has made the crossing more times than anybody else. Women may be the minority regarding number of people crossing but the ones who make it are top quality.

The swim itself was the easy part after the wait to get going. I was early to the beach, officially starting at 00:53 in darkness with a spotlight on me from the boat to ensure I had cleared the water line to officially start the clock on the swim. The first four hours were in darkness, which I think was a good thing, as I never had the mental struggle of looking back on the looming white cliffs of Dover and the sunrise felt like the real beginning of the swim. I did meet jellyfish along the way but was lucky to only have one bad sting and not need to take any medication for it. The crew saw some porpoise accompany me, but I saw little else than the jellies. Not long before this I had just completed a power half hour to get myself in a good position out of the final shipping lane. This was only made possible by my crew lining the side of the boat and cheering continuously for the half hour. Coming out of the shipping lane is where the swim really starts, and I had been warned that up to this point is comparable to base camp Everest and from here to the beach was the summit.

This swim is indeed a solo swim but there is no way it could be possible without the immense support that I have had along the way from friends, family and colleagues. Training swims take anything from 1-6 hours, and I was never short of support to feed me as well as support me from land. This is an expensive journey and I had financial support through the gofundme page I set up as well as numerous private donations of which I am so grateful for.

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It was such a positive experience for me and almost straight away led to another epic swim. Having completed the English Channel solo, I was asked to be a part of the 6 person Irish Sea relay swim team. It was too good an opportunity to pass up and this wasn’t just a swim. It was also a fundraiser for the Gavin Glynn Foundation, an amazing charity which assists the families of Irish children who need to travel abroad to receive treatment.

On the end of the spring tide, there was an incredible three-day weather window coming in which was too good to pass up. This meant our start came earlier than planned and I felt out of my comfort zone. This was a crossing that had only ever been completed once before and the only information available on that was the time. No official observer, no report to consult, no standard start points or predicted landing spot. Everything about this swim seemed wild. The swim started at 22:30 in darkness and finished 38 hours and 52 mins later. We had swum for two whole nights and a day and a half, but we made it. Everybody on the team swam at least 6 hours with two completing 7 hours. We were very lucky to have incredible weather throughout this swim and although the water was 11-13 degrees, at no point did it feel cold or unbearable. the day swims were flat and bright, and the night swims gave me my first experience of swimming in phosphorescence. This was an excellent team to be a part of and almost €20,000 was raised for the Gavin Glynn foundation.

I’ve been so inspired by what I have learned and achieved along the way that I have already given some talks in schools and given a few radio interviews. I have been helped along the way by so many I am eager to give back in any way that I can. Overall SwimTrek have had a huge part to play in leading me to a successful English Channel swim but ultimately it is the people that SwimTrek bring together that makes these trips invaluable.

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