English Channel Two Way Solo (England-France-England)
World Record – Oldest Person to Complete a Two Way
30 August 2016
36 Hours 26 Minutes
When I received a message from Sal to crew for her English Channel two way solo swim, I was a little surprised. After all, we had only met a couple of times. To crew for someone is incredibly personal and such an honour and something I absolutely love to do – I again said yes immediately! Sal’s swim slot was at the end of August after I returned from my 20 Bridges Manhattan Island circumnavigation swim. A week after arriving home, I got a message from Sal to be in Dover on the 27th of August. I felt like a girl on the first day of school. Sal had three other swim crew members who all knew each other very well – I was the new kid on the block! She had Charlie her lovely husband as land crew, who I had met before and liked very much – he’s a Guinness drinker after all…!!!
I arrived and it was a HOT summer’s day in Dover. Paula Yankauskus and her other crew member Deborah were in town from the US too – I was due to also crew for Paula’s English Channel solo swim in the next weeks. Paula, Sal and I had a swim in the harbour. We then headed up to my beloved Varne Ridge Channel Swimming Accommodation staying in one of their cottages. I met the other crew members – Bianca Kempster, Cliff Golding and Graeme Lowe. Within half an hour it was as if we had known each other for years. This is very common in this sport!
Bianca and I were sharing a room and chatted into the small hours like a couple of teenagers! The following night we went to the pub for dinner. Half way through our meal, Sal’s mobile went off – it was Captain Neil Streeter (boat Suva) phoning to say the swim was on and could we meet him at 8am the next morning at the Dover Marina. That was it! Eat up! Let’s go!!! It was all action stations back at the cottage preparing Sal’s feeds and supplies for us as well!!!
The next morning as we were heading out to the start of the swim on the boat, Sal was unusually quiet which was completely understandable. The four of us assured her to ‘just swim’ and leave everything else to us. Sal is a very experienced swimmer having successfully completed the English Channel solo five times already over a period of 40 years so handing over control to us, her crew, was very hard for her.
Sal’s swim started off pretty rough and that didn’t relent for about 6 hours. To find a 30+ hour window of good weather in the English Channel is difficult. Captain Neil kept reassuring us that the weather was going to improve. Sal swam on and managed to check up on us at the same time. We could tell she hadn’t quite relinquished control to us. Each of us had specific jobs assigned – one of mine was to keep in touch with Charlie who was anxiously waiting back at Varne Ridge which was only a pleasure and to do social media updates.
Sal was sick a few times due to the unsettled sea but simply chugged on! Cliff, Graeme, Bianca and I worked so well as a team. There were no egos on the boat. We were there simply to help Sal achieve her dream with a big dose of fun on the side! Midnight approached and so did the French coastline. Sal had been swimming for just over 15 hours. The plan was for Bianca and I to swim Sal into France and I would attach a dry bag to me. We were filling the bag with things Sal might need before swimming back to England. In went: a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, peaches in jelly, water, grease and a hand/face towel in which to apply the grease. Captain Neil saw what we were taking in and shook his head laughing and asked us if we wanted shampoo and conditioner as well!!! The rules are that Sal would get up to 10 minutes on land before she has to start swimming back and no one is allowed to touch her. Bianca and I swam her into Wissant Beach. It was a wonderful experience. Sal was full of giggles and quiet determination. The rest of the crew told us all they could hear was the three of us giggling on shore! First we handed Sal her peaches. There’s nothing elegant about this sport – Sal spooned in the contents with her hand. Then some water. Then we handed her a toothbrush with toothpaste. I have this wonderful memory of Sal standing on the French shore giggling and brushing her teeth and saying at the same time “Wow Tracy Clark, this is the way forward for two way Channel swims. This feels fantastic!!!”. All the time with a big grin on her face and brushing at the same time. Mouthwash and some more water. We then handed her the greasing up things. I think all this took about four minutes. Sal was in such high spirits. Her parting comment to us as she walked back into the water to start her return swim to England was “Tell my Charlie I’m swimming back to England to him”. This really brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye! Once we reached the boat Bianca climbed aboard and I continued to swim with Sal for the rest of the hour as her support swimmer. Once I was back on the boat I phoned Charlie to tell him Sal’s message – I could hear the emotion in his voice!
The Channel continued to behave herself! The sun came up and Sal continued with her rhythmic and determined swim to England. It was another stunning and hot day in the Channel which makes all the difference, especially to the crew!! Sal’s energy had waned a little which is to be expected of course! Sam Jones who crews on Suva started to mix Sal’s feeds. Warm black tea, fruit sugar and CNP. This worked a treat and really perked her up! Sal would ask each time “what is this” and we would just shout back “just drink it”!! We all took turns having a nap and Sal noticed each and every time!!! “Nice sleep” she would say at her next feed! We hit a really strong current around the Varne Light Vessel. There is a big sandbank here which can create strong currents. Sal was practically swimming on the spot. We had to ask Sal to give it everything to get out of this current. It took about an hour to swim 150 metres. A true indication of what the Channel can throw at you. Each time we asked her to give it everything, she would reply “I am!”. We watched over her as she dug in and absolutely gave it everything! Sal had been swimming for about 30 hours by this time! Finally, she made it out of the current and into calmer waters. We were all hands on deck now for the last hours to England. After seeing Sal get out of the current, Graeme said “there is no WAY I ever want to do a two way”. Cliff and Bianca completely agreed. Then the three of them looked at me. I think I must have had a silly grin on my face as Graeme said “you’re thinking about it aren’t you Tracy”. “Yes”! Yes I was! The sun started to go down and we were approaching Folkestone. Sal still had the energy to stop and ask us if we had taken some photos! As it was so calm, Neil said the four of us could swim Sal in. We eagerly got suited up in our costumes and swim lights. Jumped in and swam Sal in. We landed on a small pebble beach after 36 hours and 26 minutes of continuous swimming! Sal fell over a few times trying to stand up. My favourite memory through tears was Sal staggering out of the water and directly into Graeme’s open arms ready for a big bear hug. Sal had just become the oldest person in the world to complete a two way English Channel swim, at the young age of 59! As soon as we were back on the boat I phoned a tearful Charlie! “She’s done it Charlie, your wife is a two way English Channel swimmer”! We dressed Sal with instructions from her – she reminded me when I was putting on her trousers that the tag goes at the back! I did tongue in cheek tell her “I might be from Downunder, but tags go at the back in New Zealand too”!! Charlie met us on the Dover Marina for another tearful bear hug. There was a welcoming group of swimmers at the Marina – Charlotte Brynn (a fellow Kiwi), Cynthia Needham and Dan Simonelli (from the US), all there to congratulate Sal! Charlotte and Cynthia had also kindly looked after Charlie whilst we were all at sea.
Sal, your two way English Channel swim has inspired me to book a two way for 2020, when I turn 50! I loved every minute I spent with the other crew members – new friends! Thank you for asking me to be a part of your team!!