Man vs Ocean - One Man's Journey to Swim The World's Toughest Oceans, page 1
I would like to dedicate this book to anyone who has ever had a dream and may feel it is unreachable or has been told it is unachievable. Believe, achieve, succeed!
1. THE EARLY YEARS
2. SEARCHING FOR THE RIGHT PATH
3. MY LIFE CHANGED IN AN INSTANT
4. WHERE ON EARTH DO I START?
5. TIME TO TEST THE WATER
6. IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …
7. YOU GET OUT WHAT YOU PUT IN
8. A TASTE OF THINGS TO COME
9. IT WAS NEVER GOING TO BE EASY
10. STATE OF MIND
11. THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF A CHANNEL SWIMMER
12. SWIM #1 ENGLISH CHANNEL – THE FIRST TEST
14. SWIM #2 GIBRALTAR STRAIT – SWIMMING BOTH WAYS SEEMED A GOOD IDEA!
15. OCEAN’S SEVEN – THE ULTIMATE ENDURANCE SWIMMING CHALLENGE
16. SWIM #3 MOLOKAI STRAIT – HAWAII! HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
17. SWIM #4 CATALINA CHANNEL – TIME FOR A NIGHT SWIM
18. WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS
19. SWIM #5 TSUGARU STRAIT – AGAINST ALL ODDS
20. BOOIE – MY BEST FRIEND AND SWIMMING SOULMATE
21. TAKING THE PLUNGE!
22. C-O-L-D WATER – NOT AS WARM AS WE WOULD LIKE!
23. SWIM #6 COOK STRAIT – A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
24. A BIG CHANGE FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE
25. SWIM #7 NORTH CHANNEL – ONE MORE SWIM TO COMPLETE AN UNIMAGINABLE DREAM
26. CREATING YOUR OWN DESTINY
27. FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS
28. HERE’S TO THE FUTURE!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For the purposes of this book I have often referred to ‘cold’ water. Please note that this word doesn’t exist in my mind, as it is negative and serves no positive purpose in the sport of open-water swimming. I would advise that you also erase it from your mind. Happy swimming!
It feels like the end for me. In an instant I can feel the dream slipping away. This wasn’t part of the master plan – this isn’t how it is supposed to finish. My mind has gone into turmoil. All the training in the world couldn’t have prepared me for this. My stomach is on fire, as if it’s being scalded by a hot poker or cut open with a razor blade. I have trained myself to tolerate discomfort and pain, but this is a different level. Is this the ocean’s way of testing me? I can hear it saying, ‘You underestimated me. We are going to see how badly you want this and how capable you actually are.’ Everything in my brain wants to stop and it’s not like I have time to think about it – it is an instant reaction. My mind is computing what is happening to me and it wants out. I have been in situations many times before where I was on the edge of giving up in training, for various reasons including the cold, sickness, nosebleeds, stomach ache, headaches, physical and mental pain – sometimes having a number of these issues all at the same time. However, I have always managed to convince myself to carry on. This time is different – there is no negotiating with myself on this one. The swim is over.
I know this isn’t acceptable, though, and that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing I had quit. There has to be another solution – I have to find a way to keep going.
I hadn’t factored this situation into my thoughts. I had trained myself to believe in my mind that succeeding was the only outcome, and failure wasn’t worth thinking about. But once you are going through an extreme situation, the game can change. Throughout these swims I had often wondered why failure was such a problem for me. Of course no one likes to fail in anything, and the fear of failure is often the reason people will not step outside their comfort zones and take a risk. In sport, throughout my growing years, I had hated not succeeding in everything I did. Not feeling I had done myself justice, which frustrated me. I so wanted to be a professional athlete, I craved it, knowing there are many children growing up who feel the same way but few who actually realise their dream. When you are a child it seems unachievable and those who do achieve it are often those who have been spotted, put on some talent-development programme and groomed to succeed. There is still a high percentage of incredible talents who don’t get that chance to prove themselves and be counted.
I think my desire to succeed in this sport is a combination of being brought up to give it my all by my dad and another feeling, like redemption, from a career I was never passionate about. Succeeding at swimming represented fulfilling my childhood dream and getting a second chance. Maybe it was too late for a career in sport, due to my age, but I’d hoped it would at least plug a few gaps in my life and give me a more even balance.
I’m shouting with only a kayak next to me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I simply cannot help it. I try not to show any pain as I don’t want to show weakness and allow it to have any power or meaning over me. I also cannot give the pilot or my team any reason to get me out. I have to mask how much trouble I’m in or the swim will be taken out of my hands. I try to tell my kayaker I’m OK and to give me a minute in-between shouting and clutching my stomach. I desperately don’t want to make obvious the pain I am in, but it is like I have been possessed and something has taken over my body. I can’t stop shouting.
I ask the kayaker how long to go, knowing it isn’t going to be a few minutes but somehow wishing he’ll give me a positive response. He replies, ‘Oh, dude, it’s about an hour.’ I can hear in his voice that he thinks the swim is over and it doesn’t matter what I say. He thinks it’s the end of the swim and I’ll be getting out.
I ask him to give me a minute as I tread water alone in the pitch-black sea. I don’t know what is happening to me and what has done this. I don’t dare move forward in case it happens again. I am in despair!
THE EARLY YEARS
This isn’t going to be one of those stories about how, as a child, I was always destined to be an elite athlete and how I was winning national pool titles before I reached the age of ten, with my destiny written in swimming. The truth is I was a good county swimmer and I played a mixture of sports.
As a toddler I would sit on the bottom of the pool with my eyes open. I have a memory of doing this in the local swimming pool at a very early age, sending my poor grandma, nana and mum into distress as they thought I was going to drown. I have always liked it underwater – I find it peaceful away from everyday life. It is like a different world and there is a tranquillity that makes me happy.
In my teens I would grip onto the pool steps and see how long I could hold my breath for, endeavouring to beat my previous time. I have always been competitive like that; it doesn’t matter what the challenge was – I would always strive to be better, especially when it came to sport.
At the age of seven I joined Bingham Swimming Club, which was less than ten minutes from my parents’ house in Nottingham, England. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to swim. I realised by the age of eight that I was best at backstroke, and this then became my chosen stroke for pool racing.
I had a terrible technique. I was no good at starts or turns and I would lift my head up and not lie back in the water like the conventional streamlined stroke. I would rely on my arms, which I would wind over as fast as possible in a windmill-like fashion until I touched the other side. No finesse, no real style – just as much power as I could muster.
He was brought up with a winning mentality, which also included standing up for yourself in difficult situations. It was instilled into him by his mother from the age of eleven, when he was sent to a boarding school and had to learn to fend for himself.
I remember him telling me the story of when he arrived at school. As part of the induction, the older boys would take the newcomers out on a rowing boat to the middle of a lake. They would push them in and tell them to swim back to shore.
My dad was not keen on this idea and wanted to set his stall out early, so the older boys knew he was not someone to be messed with. He proceeded to tell them, ‘If anyone lays a hand on me then they will be going in as well!’ At this response they thought better of it and left him alone, whereas all the other young starters had to swim back.
My dad played different sports and had a particular interest in cricket and rugby. Rugby was his favourite and he played it from the age of twelve to the age of forty-five. He played for Sheffield Tigers, which was a top club in the area, before he broke his ankle and was forced to retire. His position was prop forward and he was very competitive; he brought me up to play hard but fair.
I looked up to my dad growing up. He taught me to try to be a winner and was always saying, whatever it is in life, ‘Give it everything you’ve got!’ I would always hear his voice in my head before the start of a swimming race, saying this over and over again. This motivated me and gave me the drive to give it my all. It stayed with me through the years and was with me when I was training to swim the English Channel. I would hear his voice – ‘Hang in there and don’t give up!’ – and it helped when I felt like I was freezing to death, with everything hurting and my brain desperately wanting to give up.
Swimming actually took a bit of a back seat during my childhood. For a while I preferred more popular sports such as cricket and rugby, as well as athletics.
At the age of eleven I went to public school, Trent College in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire. It was thirty minutes from our house. My brother Mark was also a student there, although he was seven years older than me and in his final year just as I started. The school had fantastic facilities; it was perfect for someone like me, who loved sport. It had rugby and cricket pitches as well as an indoor swimming pool.
Rugby was the chosen sport at my school as they didn’t play football, although I joined the Dayncourt FC Under-11s, based in our local village, Radcliffe-on-Trent. I remember proudly being top scorer in my first year, 1988.
In my first term at the school, I broke the 200- and 800-metre running records for my age group. By the time I turned twelve I was involved in rugby, cricket, athletics and rifle shooting. Unfortunately they later banned me from rifle shooting for firing at the target before the teacher told me to, saying I could have killed someone. I personally don’t think it was my fault as one of the other kids shot before me, which prompted me to shoot, so I blame him. I also played cricket and rugby outside of school; as a cricketer I represented Derbyshire Under-13s at county level and was vice-captain for Derbyshire schools, as well as playing mini rugby for Nottingham Rugby Club in the winter.
Looking back, I was doing too much at this age, and not only all these sporting activities – I was also in the Boys’ Brigade, which is like the Scouts. I didn’t like it much; it wasn’t my idea of fun, marching through the village playing the bugle very badly. I had to quit something. It ended up being swimming, football and Boys’ Brigade.
By the age of thirteen I was playing sport all the time. I couldn’t wait to get on the field. I would be looking at the time and gazing out of the window in school lessons, dreaming of being out there. I wasn’t passionate about too many other school subjects that weren’t sports-related. I did like English language and literature but it wasn’t quite the same. My sports prospects seemed promising at this age, and it was always my dream to play professionally.
I started playing in the same village men’s cricket team as Mark, who by now was twenty. He had my back on the field if anyone should upset me.
We had disagreements like all brothers, but Mark has always been supportive of me – not only on the pitch but in general throughout my whole life. My mum recalls a day when I was less than a year old and a lady took me down to the local village in my pram for a walk. Mark didn’t trust her so he followed on his bike to make sure I was OK. (He was only six or seven at the time.) He got her into trouble by reporting back to my mum that the lady had lifted the fly net up because someone wanted to have a look at me. Even years later, when I was eighteen and at university, I forgot to ring him one evening as promised and he was so worried that he drove an hour to the campus to make sure I was OK.
At the age of thirteen, on one of my athletics training sessions, things took a turn for the worse. I received a bad injury to my right knee as I was jumping over hurdles and broke off some cartilage. I had an operation, but in those days keyhole surgery wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now: the surgery was more invasive and the recovery time was longer. The operation involved cutting out the dead bone, which created a big scar on my knee. After a few months I was back swimming, although it put a halt to any more athletics, as my knee was never the same again. I also couldn’t do rugby or contact sports for a while and when I did come back I never really recovered my form. Eventually I had to give it up to just play cricket and swim.
Swimming at school wasn’t very popular. It seemed to be for people who didn’t like sport but were forced to do some physical activity. The school had a small 25-yard pool and only very rarely would you find anyone using it. Competitions with other schools were few and far between and no one seemed to care even if you did win; it was hard to stand out in a sport that was not really given any credibility or taken seriously.
The pool was supervised by a man in his eighties affectionately known as Sarg. Even though he was a man of discipline, there was no real expectation for you to turn up to these sessions. There was no training programme and we were left to our own devices.
I would train every now and then, though when I say ‘train’ I use the word loosely, as it would normally involve floating around for most of the session and then psyching myself up to see if I could break the school’s 50-yard backstroke record. The record was proudly displayed on a board by the pool and was held by a boy called Skelton. I didn’t know him: he was my brother’s age and it had stood for a number of years. Each time I went to the pool I would try to break it. Unfortunately, it never happened whilst I was at the school and it wasn’t until I had left and was invited back to compete for the ‘old boys’ versus the current students that I did beat it, by over half a second.
At sixteen I enrolled into South Nottingham College of Further Education. I had made the decision to leave school as I wanted to study a subject that I was really passionate about, sport and leisure. The closest subject to this at college was a GNVQ/BTEC in leisure and tourism, which offered a similar level of qualification to A levels. The course was suited to me as a good part of it was practical, and I thought if I couldn’t make it as a professional sportsperson then a job in the leisure industry might be the next best thing.
I didn’t know what I was going to do as a career; there are so few jobs in sport and you have to excel at a top level to even be considered as a paid professional. Having suffered a bad injury so young didn’t bode well for a career in sport but I still believed it was possible. That was until I participated in a football-coaching course at college and was involved in a tackle that resulted in the dislocation of my left knee. I was on my way to hospital in an ambulance when the knee popped back into place. Unfortunately the damage had already been done and I had to wear a cast for the next six weeks.
I was devastated, having just re-joined Bingham Swimming Club, and I was also
After six weeks the cast came off and, even though it was a while before I could play cricket, I didn’t waste any time getting back into the pool and competing in swimming galas. A few months later I decided to compete at the Nottinghamshire County Championships, at which people with the best times in the county race against each other. I didn’t know whether I would stand a chance, particularly as my knee had not long recovered and I hadn’t done much training (not that I ever did much training anyway). I still went as my times had been quick enough in the 50-metre backstroke prior to the injury.
I remember that waiting to race was quite stressful. I did my heat and managed to qualify for the final. I was so surprised as I couldn’t kick well at all with my knee; it affected my start underwater and on the turn. If you can’t do a butterfly kick underwater then you have little chance of winning, as you are faster underwater than on top.
Before the final I was again very nervous. I sat in the changing room by myself, trying to stay calm until I received the call to walk down to our lanes. I took my lane and tried to motivate myself. I knew there were slightly faster swimmers in the heat but I had a chance.
The whistle blew for all the finalists to enter the water. My heart was pounding. Then: ‘Take your marks … Go!’ I threw my arms back, just two weak kicks underwater as the knee wouldn’t allow more, and shot up to the surface before anyone else. I started winding my arms over as fast as I could. I always relied on power and believed that this made me go faster, although I have now learned otherwise. By the time my competitors surfaced I was towards the back of the pack. But I managed to fight my way into the field and turn with the leaders after the first length. My tumble turn was also very bad, though, and as I flipped my legs over it was a disaster. I was too far away from the wall and I pushed off with my right leg only, shooting straight up to the surface. I went from first to last in a couple of seconds. I tried to come back at the other swimmers, but it was too late. I managed to get to fifth place out of six.