TRAVEL & LOGISTICS - I left Providence, RI on a bus to Boston where I boarded a direct flight to London. Upon arriving in London Heathrow, I boarded a bus to central London and then boarded a bus that took me to Dover. Door to door travel time was 16 hours. I arrived in Dover at 3pm local time. I was so anxious to jump in the harbor and swim. My hotel room overlooked the beach and harbor so I immediately changed and went for a dip. The water was clean with an emerald color and the taste was very salty. I was in the English Channel for the first time in my life. It was real and the time was near. I went to my room and called my pilot, Neil Streeter - a veteran boat captain who has led countless channel crossing successes. He said the weather this past week had been great and the next couple of days were looking good. I had read about folks going early and knew this could be a scenario. I asked him about my tide - the 13th through the 19th that I was booked for. He said I had moved to the number 2 position - I was booked in the 3rd slot, but he didn't know how the weather might hold out. He advised that we take advantage of the current good weather. He asked if I was ready to go tonight! Waves of panic set in - it was here and it could be now! I said that I thought I needed at least one good night's rest and we decided tentatively that midnight the next night, Saturday, August 8th would be the start. Believe me that I had rehearsed this scene in my head a million times before. I knew that if I called my pilot, I may be headed out early. The reality of it was magnified so much more than I could ever play out in my mind. A flurry of blackberry messages and emails were made to my daughter who was with my wife having lunch back in Coventry, RI. I said that I was probably swimming the next night. They were packing to leave for Dublin for a few days before joining me on August 11th. They were leaving in a couple of hours. A message came back...."we are totally freaking out here!". The texting was fast and furious. I continued blackberry conversations with my daughter, while my wife began changing plans and informing her father, who was also a part of my crew. I emailed my parents and sisters to inform my father, who was also part of my crew. I had read about other swimmers who chose to go early prior to their crew arriving. In the end, plans were in place that would bring my in-laws, wife and daughter to me just hours before the scheduled swim. My parents could not make the necessary travel changes as quickly. I was saddened that my father would not be on the boat. He and I had looked forward to that. But I knew that he and my mom would be with me in spirit. They had started all of this 40 years ago by encouraging me to join the Highlawn Swim Club in St. Albans, WV. I went to bed, exhausted from the travel and drained by the logistics issues and nerves associated with my upcoming swim. I slept for 10 hours and felt rested the next day. My friend Russ arrived first. He had been in London for business the previous couple of days and took a train to Dover. If nothing else, I had my crew! Russ knows the procedure as he crewed for me for over 12 hours during my Lake George swim two years previous. My father in law arrived next. I received a message that he was in his room resting. I could not get hold of Donna, Jessica and my mother in law, Elaine. Jess' blackberry did not work internationally and I did not know if they had made their flights or arrived. It was 4pm when they finally arrived. I was relieved that they had made it and needed them there for emotional support. I especially was grateful that Jess had made it as I knew this would be a unique experience for a father and a daughter. We had dinner, tried to rest and listened to the helicopters, fireworks, concerts and hubbub associated with the Dover regatta that was happening just outside our windows.
THE PREPARATION - We had gone to the store for vast quantities of food and supplies and had used a shopping cart to bring it all back to the hotel. At 10:45 pm amidst the throngs of people in the lobby and out on the streets enjoying the regatta, we pushed our shopping cart towards the marina to meet up with Neil and his boat, Suva. A special note of thanks to Elaine and Mark Howley for all of their support during my day of panic. They helped to keep me calm and to focus on the swim. Everything else would fall into place they said. Elaine had just finished her swim a few days earlier in the week. She and Mark shared their experience and it was greatly appreciated. Elaine's crossing marked a culmination of open water swimming's Triple Crown - Catalina, Round Manhattan and now the English Channel - all of this performed in the matter of several weeks! They joined us on our odd parade through the streets of Dover. We arrived at the boat, met our official observers, Matt and Laura, our pilot Neil and his co-pilot. Russ, Jessica, Lou and I boarded the boat and waved back to Donna, Elaine and Mark and Elaine - as we slowly left the marina.....it was here and it was now! During the 30 minute trip to our launching point, Russ applied a layer of sunscreen, a layer of zinc oxide and a layer of vaseline to me - we had brought latex gloves to minimize the mess associated with all the creams. We quickly reviewed all the supplies and I pointed out where extra goggles, ear plugs, nose plugs, etc. were located. All of a sudden the engines stopped - we were at the starting point. My heart raced. We needed to pin a glowstick on my suit and afix one to my goggles. Everyone was waiting for me to get done and start this journey. I went to the back of the boat, kissed my daughter and jumped into the dark, cold night into the emerald water that held me like a newborn baby in it's mother's arms. I swam to the beach, cleared the edge of the water and raised my hand, waiting for the signal from the boat that would identify the official start of my swim!
HOUR ONE - The horn from the boat sounded; I was fumbling in the dark with my watch to start it at the same time...I couldn't get it started in the dark and I heard Jessica yell "swim, Dad, swim!". It was midnight, what was I thinking - the whole timing thing doesn't involve any addition or subtraction. At 3am I will have swum 3 hours! Duh! The moon was full, the night was clear, the water an emerald hue and 64 degrees - it couldn't be better. Neil had a light shining all around me from the top of the boat. it didn't bother me and in fact, I liked the color of the water so much, it made me feel like I was enveloped in a cocoon, protected and isolated from the vast emptiness that lay ahead of me. The lights of Dover were behind me and I could see them when I breathed on either side of my body. Good-bye Dover - France here I come! I don't look up out of the water to see if I can spot any lights in France as I don't want to be disappointed if there are none. This test can wait a few hours when I might need to resort to this tactic if necessary for emotional uplifting. No, this time should be spent enjoying the reality of swimming the English Channel! My stroke is strong and the time is now. "Swim long and strong" I say to myself, no need to sprint or cut short my stroke. The first hour goes by quickly and the crew signals it's time for my first feeding by blinking the big lights. it gets my attention easily and I swim towards the boat. Russ throws me a line that has two water bottles attached. One has my carb/water mix and the other has mouthwash to rinse my mouth. The water has a very high salt content and many folks have used this technique to help with mouth sores and tongue blistering that can pop up during and after the swim. The first feeding comes in under 30 seconds - exactly where I want to be. Anything more and I could find myself losing too much ground due to the strong tide. I am happy with the first hour. Things are going well. My nervousness is starting to wear off. "I can do this - I AM doing this!"
HOUR TWO - Interesting. Dover seems almost as close as just after I started. I don't realize it, although I should have, but while I am making progress, the tide is keeping me somewhat parallel to the English shores. I see the lights of Dover everytime I breathe. It starts to affect my mind, but I quickly start to think of a song in my head. It's Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown". It came out of nowhere and I couldn't get rid of it. I have a terrible memory for lyrics, so I am sure that Bruce would have laughed or cried at my attempts to remember or make up lyrics to the chorus - which is also the only part of the musical part of the song I remembered! So, for the next hour, I kept singing, "this is my hometown...this is my hometown...this is my hometown...this is my hometown"! I searched for meaning. Was the channel my hometown? Was Dover my hometown? It made no sense, but it was perplexing me. I tried to think of another song, but the lock on my mind was too tight. This song was not going away. I might as well get used to that fact. And then came my first big gulp of the sea. "Where did that come from?" I asked myself. It was very salty and immediately I felt some mild nausea. "I can't let that become a habit" I thought. I will be more careful. I don't want to get sick. Soon I was wondering, "why hasn't the boat signaled my next feed?" I wasn't hungry, but it just felt like an hour had passed. I purposely don't look at my watch. I think I didn't look because I didn't want to be dependent on the clock or time. I trusted my crew completely regarding the feeding schedule - they will be out soon, I am sure of it. I keep looking at the boat. I don't see anyone milling about or preparing my feed. Have they forgotten? I trust in them - it is just me getting anxious. Stay calm and focused. I still have concerns that weather will pop up, or something else. I am only in hour two. I must press on. Time and distance must be covered - and it will eventually. No sign of the crew. It seems too early for me to start getting less than hourly feeds. If I have hourly feeds, then perhaps my first crossing can be done in 12 feeds, I reason. Stay calm, they will show. They don't. I refuse to look at my watch. I don't want to see that it has been more than an hour - then I will lose confidence in my crew. I don't want to see that it has been less than an hour - then I will lose confidence in my ability to read my body. I'm getting something - angry, confused, concerned....then the lights blink. I never looked at my watch, and I have never looked at the log. I never know how much time elapsed between my first and second feeds. And it doesn't matter. I am swimming the channel and I am beginning hour 3. Time and distance ARE passing. Progress is being made! And then I breathe...and then I see Dover,,,again and again and again. It is a constant reminder that I have a long way to go and not to get too comfortable.
HOURS THREE to SIX - I remember these hours as a group and not individually. I rekindled energy and had a sense of purpose. My stroke felt strong and my body position was good. I was swimming the channel! It was here and it was now! "The Sentinel" was the nickname I gave my father-in-law. He was positioned outside the cabin on a small walkway around the boat, exposed to the elements from midnight to 6am. He stayed in one place, and at times I wondered if he was actually sleeping standing up! This was his forte - standing watch and making sure that nothing was going to happen to me...or else he may just get an earful from my wife who left explicit instructions - "don't let anything happen to him!". He was a steady force and a calming presence as I watched he and the boat rock in unison. I was fixated on that vision. He may as well have been on the bow of the boat like one of those wooden mermaids. At one point, I wondered if he had tied himself to the handrails with a belt or rope. This guy wasn't moving....and I truly appreciated that! He was always there and always will be - Thanks Lou!
Every feeding was a little bit of a circus or zoo from my perspective. I would start to see activity in and around the boat. I envisioned commands like "positions everybody!" and "to your stations!" being yelled around the boat. Observers, feeders, videographers, lookouts - my crew became characters in a play in my mind. I was separating from reality and entering a playful area of my mind. Was it the efforts of the swim? The effects of more seawater ingestion? I never analyzed it or recognized it at the time. I floated inside my head at the larger than life action that was taking place around me. It was still dark and the people were shadows and caricatures of who they actually were. I never actually heard them. I had wax earplugs preventing any sound from coming in. They were mimes doing chores on a stage that looked like a boat and I was the audience that they never actually knew or saw. I was content in my world - knowing that time and distance were passing by. I couldn't recall why time and distance were important any longer - just that it was passing by.
I felt my first shiver. It lasted a few seconds and it unnerved me. I hadn't expected it. Was the cold setting in? How much longer do I have? I am over-reacting but I don't know it. My legs seize up for the first time. A giant muscle spasm that sends an alarm through my body. "What the hell was that?" I wondered. I had never had cramps or spasms before. I make a mental note to ask for a banana at my next feed. During this time period, I swallow several more full moths of water. It never dawns on me that perhaps I am ingesting too much salt and that I should dilute that with more water.
I am starting to tire a bit and I look toward the eastern sky and see a patch of light blue. The sun will be coming up soon...that will energize me! "Daybreak is near - the sun will help", I say to myself. Feedings are still quick but what I don't know is that more food is going out of my mouth than going in. Slowly, my body is losing all stored energy. Slowly I will get a little colder and a little more tired. Russ, my friend on board, is like a mindreader. He gives me a banana at my next feed. I never asked for it - he just knew. He has been a calm strength on the team. He is analytical and focused. He is overall in charge. He mixes and delivers my feedings. He is the one who speaks to me during feedings. He knows what to say and when to say it. He also knows to be quick and specific. We can't waste time during feedings. I need the right foods with the right message. He is on top of his game and he is doing great. Thanks Russ!
These first six hours I am pleased with. My team is on their game and so am I. Time and disctance are passing. I am swimming the channel!
The sun comes up....I don't get energized...and Dover is still in my sights as I breathe to my right. The channel has a funny way of hitting you square on the head when you start to get comfortable!
HOURS SEVEN and EIGHT - I must be in a shipping lane. The waves seem more pronounced...the water a bit chillier. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. I feel distant from my crew. I feel completely alone. My legs are seizing up every so often. The shivers happen from time to time. The sun is not helping - it feels like it is far away and cold. My daughter, Jessica, is visible. Lou must be resting. Good, I will need them all later. We have a long way to go and they all just flew in earlier in the day. They have had no rest and they are doing this for me. All of a sudden, my arm hits something and I swim into a large patch of seaweed (flotsam and jetsam). The best way I can describe flotsam and jetsam is a combination of natural and manmade trash and debris. Imagine a large patch of seaweed that catches trash and debris and growas and grows. I don't like it and I am concerned about debris that can cut me or jellyfish caught in the mass. I scream and plod my way through the muck. People rush to the side of the boat. I get through it unscathed....I just don't like any surprises. On my subsequent trips on the ferry across the channel in the days to come, I will see many of these masses floating in the water. It's part of the channel. It was scratchy and unknown. It was one of several times that I would have to go through that. Each time I am concerned about getting through it and each time it is alright.
I am struggling. I am weak and I feel my stroke and body position is not as powerful or clean as it once was. When I pee, and it happened a lot, it burns my legs. I try to use that positively...that it indicates a warm core. But I also think that my legs may be VERY cold. I have no kick. I can hardly move them. I am swallowing more seawater and I curse under water each time. I am fed at hour 7 and it is painful. Difficult to swim alongside the boat, difficult to tread water, difficult to eat, difficult to hear, difficult to talk, difficult to accept the fact that my body and mind are breaking down. I'm angry and upset. I could see the concerned faces of my crew. They all came out to see...to help. I smack the water in disgust and swim forward. I hate the feedings. They are now becoming a major pain and I don't look forward to them at all.
The effects of energy loss, seawater intake, cramping and coldness are wearing me down. I am now concerned that I may not make a single crossing. I am let down by this thought beyond belief. I have a discussion in my head and I really don't know who I am talking to. "Please let me at least make the single crossing" I say to myself. I can't believe it has come to this. While swimming a single is a fantastically incredible achievement, at the time, it is the better of two options - quit or complete the single. I don't like either option, but I know if I continued focusing on the double, then I would be overwhelmed and possibly pack it in right there. Focusing on the single became my mantra and the words "get the single" would be repeated in my head constantly until the finish.
HOURS NINE THROUGH TWELVE - I can only compare this time to the movie, "Conan, the Barbarian". When he was captured as a youngster, he was chained to a giant, heavy wooden wheel that he pushed all day long, in a circle - for YEARS! This would not be the fun part of my journey. I thought it would come later, but - it was here and it was NOW! "Get the single" I said over and over in my head. I remember thinking that not only have I haven't been stung by a jellyfish - I haven't even SEEN one. Just then I see one - two feet below me - in slow motion as I pass over it....or did it pass me? I don't realize it, but I am traveling with the tide - trying to swim across it, but not making much progress. I am told later that I was 3 miles off the French coast for 3 hours! I thought I only had one feed to go to get to France, but it tuned into 2, then 3 then 4, then I just stopped counting. My feeds were every 45 minutes and my crew agonized when I asked them "how far away am I?". Russ was creative enough to use different answers - "about 3 miles" was his first response - "a little over 2 and a half miles" was his next response - then it was "over 2 miles". I started to catch on. I wasn't mad at Russ. I was angry that I was in this mess and still wasn't sure if I was going to make it.
During this time, I remember seeing the sun on my left and then all of a sudden it was on my right. A sane person might have questioned it, or at least wondered about it. I didn't. I was so far away someplace else in my mind that I noted it as an interesting fact. I came to find out leter that a tanker was going to get a little to close to us, so instead of making me tread water in place, Neil let me swim in a circle until the tanker had passed. I do appreciate that!
One tanker did not respond to our boat's communications. I saw activity about the boat. People weren't looking at me, but something else. They started to go inside the boat....no one was outside anymore. I looked up and think I recall seeing a boat - but they had seen many boats. Why was this one different, I wondered. Then it hit. A giant rogue wave from the wake of that boat. I was the first to ride up and up and up and then down! I looked at the SUVA. The 12 ton SUVA looked like a toy boat as it rode up and up and up and then DOWN. Water went over the railing where my crew had been standing! It looked like fun! and it certainly was something different from the day I was having! I later was told that the boat ignored all communications and that Neil was going to file a grievance. It was a potentially dangerous act that I could not understand at the time.
My mind and body are spent and am the tide is turning - although I have no clue. Is it me or is France actually starting to get closer?
THE LAST HOUR - I have been telling my crew for several hours that we are just doing a single. Russ keeps saying "Ok Ray, just keep swimming, you are almost there". Hey, I remember that I haven't seen another jellyfish for some time. As the thought was about to leave my brain, I got stung. It hit me in my left ribcage. A stinging pain rang out. I had no emotion left. I could have been eaten by a whale or bit by a shark. Nothing mattered more than getting to that French shore. I was going to make it - and this was the first time that I truly believed it! At my last feed, Neil came out to tell me that we were in a good position to "make the turn". I was quick to say no, and clear to all that could hear, that we would be done soon and that Jess and Russ should get prepared. The association allows others to swim with the swimmer into the shore - as long as they stay in back of the channel swimmer and do not touch him or her at any time. I was looking forward to this and I wanted it.
Neil positioned the boat about 150 feet from the shoreline and came out again to offer me the chance for a double. I politely refused, thanked him for all he had done and said "I'm sorry". I am so happy that I specifically chose Neil as my pilot. He is an expert in what he does and he proved it to us that day. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Neil and his family. Thanks Neil!
The finish will be etched in my heart forever. At one minute, Russ and Jess were fully dressed. During my 30 second conversation with Neil, it was if they were wearing capes and they tore them off once they knew they were about to enter the water with me. Neil gave them the sign that it was okay and Jess jumped in with a smile that lit up the sky! Jess had just touched the water when she was told "get behind him and don't touch him!". She knew - but no one wanted anything to go wrong now. I think I remember hearing Russ' splash further behind me. We were all together now and I started swimming to shore to ensure they were behind me - it was here and it was now. I reveled in those strokes to the shore. I saw the beach under the water - it was very close now. I tried to stand but I couldn't. I kept swimming. I was in 2 feet of water. I kept stroking and my hands were digging into pebbles. I still couldn't get a foothold. I swam until I couldn't swim anymore and then I dug my elbows into the rocks and pulled myself ashore until my feet cleared the water's edge. I waved to the boat as I lay face down on the sun-warmed rocks on this French beach. It was over. I opened my eyes and saw a woman with two kids. They didn't even look at me. They were engrossed in their world and I in mine. Soon Jessica swam up and climbed up the embankment - she had the same smile as when she jumped in! Our arms embraced each other and we held tight. She said "You did it - I am so proud of you daddy". I could hardly contain myself. Several emotions rocked through me. I was sobbing. Relief, anger, love - I told her that I was sorry that I wasn't going forward with the double. She said "Daddy - you did it - you swam the English Channel!" I kissed her and held on never wanting to let go. Her smile never left her face. Thanks Jess!
Officially, my time was 13 hours and 34 minutes....I was the first person from Rhode Island to swim the English Channel....time and distance were done and I could now relax...or could I?
THE AFTERMATH - I knew that I had to get back to the boat quickly....the tide was strong and I was concerned that my body may have some reactions after going through what it just did. Russ, Jess and I swam back to the boat and Russ went off to dry off and send one of his last emails that I had just successfully swam the channel and became the first Rhode Islander to do so. Jess' instincts took over and I am so proud and happy they did. I got changed, put several layers of clothes on, an insulated snowmobile suit, hat, gloves, socks and shoes. Jess made me hot water bottles for my armpits and groin to go under the outermost layer. She also made hot soup. I couldn't wait for the soup. I grabbed a jar of peanut butter and a bag of Oreos. One by one, I dug an Oreo into the peanut butter. Cramming the whole thing in my mouth, I would start the process over and over and over. After about a sleeve of these, I began to crave salty stuff...I saw a bag of chips. The soup wasnt ready so I started in on that bag. Then I eyed some brown sugar frosted Pop Tarts. I drank bottles of Gatorade and finally the soup was ready. I grabbed the big bottle and started to bring it towards my mouth. All of a sudden, the shaking began...uncontrollably. So much in fact that the hot soup spilled out onto my face and all over my clothes....it was hot, but it did not hurt. I was numb and I was an eating machine. There was more soup to be had, so I had it! I ate and ate until I could eat no more. I felt my eyes and mind going in and out of focus. I closed my eyes and stepped into another world. I was alone in a big room with fantastic detail in high definition. I was starting to enjoy this place when Jessica was forcibly saying, "Dad, I need your blackberry to make a call to the States". She was concerned about my behavior and wanted to discuss my symptoms. With the prospect of an expensive, international call being placed from my phone, I aroused myself quickly and asked what was going on. She asked me what was going on and I noticed that I was starting to shake again. I said that I must have been having some form of mild hallucinations and I felt that I could control them. We spoke about it for awhile and she agreed to film me. I closed my eyes and drifted directly to an orange room that was fantastically detailed - granite columns with intricate designs, crepe-paper orange bows on the columns, beautifully tiled, marble floors - also in orange. It felt very Indian and I was all alone - but I felt very serene and happy and did not want to return. We have since concluded that I was probably suffering from mild hypothermia and mild hpernatremia - the cold water exposure, energy depletion and salt-water ingestion had taken their toll on me. It was probably good that I had gotten out when I did. I know that if I had made the turn to go back, it would only have gotten worse. Today was not the day for a double. I fell asleep on the quick 2 hour ride back to Dover and awoke to see my wife and mother-in-law on shore - happy that I had made it and happy it was over.
A Special Club - It took a day or two for me to finally appreciate what we had done, but since then, I have come to grow quite fond of swimming the channel. I found out that I had been the 1035th person to cross the channel and the first from Rhode Island. There have been under 300 people from the US to have successfully swim the channel and now I was one of them! Lou, Russ, Jess, Elaine, Donna and I made our way to the White Horse Tavern - a famous pub in Dover that allows successful channel swimmers to sign the walls, ceilings, window frames, etc. in order to celebrate their accomplishment. I was in awe when I walked in, the names of many who had gone before me were etched in marker all over the place! We marveled at the signings, sayings and pictures that people had drawn. I saw Alison Streeter's name and the fact that she has swum the channel 43 times!!!! I saw my friends and training partners - Jim Bayles, Marcy MacDonald, Elaine Kornbau Howley, Dori Miller, Liz Fry, George Hunihan and Tobey Anne Saracino. I saw the oldest, the fastest, the slowest, the happiest, the grumpiest - names from all over the world. I began to realize the magnitude of the club that I had now become a lifelong member and I was so happy that I entered this place AfTER I had done my swim. I ordered a round of drinks for all - which turned out to be about 4 more people than my family! It didn't matter, we were celebrating and the pub-maid and the clientele joined in - just as if they hadn't seen this 1034 times before! It took awhile to actually pick out the exact spot for where I would sign my name. There it was - a spot above a table in front of a window. With the marker in hand, I wrote my name, my time, thanks to my crew, the fact that I was the first Rhode Islander and that we had raised over $2500 for Leukemia and Lymphoma research (the amount later swelled to over $6000). Pictures and video were taken and it wasn't until a picture appeared on the local news and I freeze framed the video that I saw that I had signed just above someone esle who had written "Cold? - my willy has never been so small!".
Lessons Learned - I learned many things during my journey and here are a few:
1. All hugs are not created equal - the hug that my daughter and I had on that beach in France will go down in history as one of the best father / daughter moments ever! But it was even more than that - we held each other so tight that I truly felt that this hug was being directed to all of those who supported this swim, the fundraising efforts and to all the doctors, nurses, practitioners, families and friends who helped us as Donna fought her battle with Leukemia over the many years. Donna is well now and has been for years. It was through this journey and specifically this hug that my emotions and thankfulness came through. Perhaps my body and mind were at their most unveiled and to have my daughter share in that, at that time, was truly a special moment.
2. It takes a team to be successful - I could not have swum the channel without so many people that were involved. Most directly, I will be forever bonded and indebted to the people on the boat that night. On the periphery, but also paramount to the success, were countless family members, friends and strangers, who donated their time and money to help a dream come true. They are too countless to name them all and many don't even know the impact they had on me. I will personally thank each one of them over time and enjoy the moments in our lives that our paths have crossed.
3. Anyone can make a difference - while this started out as a personal quest, it became much bigger. I have had many folks call, write or stop me to tell me that what I have done or said has had an impact on them or their family. I truly appreciate this and I can say it is better than any swimming medal that I have ever won. I find inspiration each day from people and events that may seem mundane to most. To know that I have inspired others is truly a humbling experience.
4. Love what you do and do what you love - everyday life is challenging and I have come to the conclusion that it always will be. For me, swimming in the open water is the most enjoyable experience I can have. Combining that with personal challenge and the impact it can have on helping others, has led me on a life course that I intend to play out. I will continue to challenge myself in swimming and look to help and inspire others along the way.