Why Swimming The English Channel Should Stay (Keeping the La Manche monster alive)

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Sep 12, 2011

Why Swimming The English Channel Should Stay (Keeping the La Manche monster alive)

Swimming is not a much talked about sport on TV unless Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Mark Spitz or one of your local swimmer superstars create some unusual hype such as for example the expected clash of the titans (Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe) at the next 2012 Olympic Games in London. Once in a while, however, there is some news regarding more extraordinary swimming events which take place around the globe. One of those swimming attractions is the English Channel crossing. The Channel has taunted hundreds of swimmers since the late 1800s and still remains a very popular achievement to have under a belt for many many swimmers and even ordinary people such as newsreporters. There, however, could be a gloomy future for the English Channel and Dee Mason is here to tell us more.
Matthew Webb's Memorial

This is a guest post from Dee Mason, a fitness and sports addict who looks forward to the Olympics in her home city next year. She can frequently be found punishing herself in the gym, with cycling and swimming being particular areas of interest.

Enter Dee Mason
If the French coastguard have their way, swimming across the English Channel will be banned forever. That means nobody else will get the chance to follow in the footsteps (swim strokes?) of Matthew Webb, Gertrude Ederle and the hundreds of hardy swimmers who have successfully crossed the Channel.

There's no denying that crossing La Manche, as the French call it, isn't for everyone. It takes a particular blend of strength, stamina and sheer guts to even attempt the crossing - and not everyone makes it the first time. Matthew Webb certainly didn't. His historic crossing on 24 August 1876 was his second attempt that year. Those who have made the crossing are an elite group. We humans always like to have something to strive for, so is it right that we should prevent others from trying the crossing of the English Channel?

Safety is one of the key reasons for the proposed ban. The French banned crossing the 21 mile route from Calais to Dover some 18 years ago. Part of the reason was the fear of accidents. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with more than 500 vessels crossing it daily. That means, in theory, that there's a lot of potential for collisions between swimmers and boats or ferries. Only in theory because there hasn't been such an accident yet. In fact, serious Channel swimmers take all the right precautions to ensure their safety and that of others, because the rules of drowning prevention do not really apply here.

Final stretch of the English Channel swim

Channel Swimming - Who Rules?

A classic endurance test pitting man against nature, the English Channel swimming is regulated by a number of bodies who make it their business to keep things safe. These include the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), which 'observes and authenticates' cross-Channel swims and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation which provides guidance on Channel crossings and maintains a register of recognized pilots.

Extreme Conditions

So why does Channel swimming remain such a draw? Perhaps it's because of the extreme conditions. Temperatures which range from 15-18 degrees Celsius. Swimmers who are used to swimming in temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and above have to train specially to endure the cool water. Swimmers are not allowed to wear wetsuits and must wear a regulation swimsuit that does not offer thermal protection or buoyancy. The same rule applies to swim hats. Since swimmers lose body heat from exposed areas, colder air means a colder swimmer. Swimmers are advised to be comfortable in low temperature water for up to 15 hours before making an attempt.

It's also about the external air temperature. The daytime temperature over the water is 10.6 to 13.9 degrees Celsius during the day and only 6.7 degrees at night. Swimmers are at risk of hypothermia because body temperature is apt to drop well below the norm of 37 degrees Celsius. And as well as the water and air temperature, they have to cope with tides and choppy conditions.

Cheering action on the La Manche boat

The Role of the Escort Pilot

One of the keys to safety when swimming the English channel is your escort pilot. These professionals are in such great demand that they are often booked up two years ahead. The pilot has ultimate charge of the swim and can decide if conditions are too dangerous or the swimmer is too fatigued to continue. The pilot boat stores all the items swimmers will need, such as food (usually supplied in the form of a drink thrown into the sea to the swimmer and then reeled back in). The pilot boat also stays in contact with the coastguard and has safety equipment. Swimmers tend to keep feeding time to a minimum so they can keep moving and not lose too much swimming time, but they do need to nourish themselves at intervals over a 10-15 hour swim where they are burning calories at a rate of 600-900 an hour.

Safety Record

All the safety measures mean that there have been only four deaths since Channel swims went official in 1875 - and none of those were due to collisions with shipping. It's all very well for the French authorities to get upset, but so far there are no signs that the British are thinking of putting an end to this ultimate swimming challenge. Yes, swimming in the sea in low temperatures can be dangerous, but every precaution is taken and those who have completed the challenge remain among the world's elite in endurance swimming. It would be a shame to end an 80 year tradition now, wouldn't it?

From Swimator Blog: And there you have it, the English Channel (La Manche) story is a fascinating one and it would definitely be a shame to stop swimmers from dreaming of one day making the unforgettable journey across the continental gap. What do you think about the English Channel swims? Should they be banned or left alone? The La Manche crossing is of course not for everyone, but we all can take some pre-cautions when we swim in open water. Always use some type of a safety equipment like the SafeSwimmer Float or the Aquaspotter and bring some nutritious bar with you. Try to swim in a group and not go out there by yourself. If you happen to go swimming alone, tell someone where you are going and when you will approximately be back, so a rescue can be send out if you happen to deviate from your plan. Know your swimming limits and do not push passed them if you are in an open water environment, leave that to the pool. More safety tips for open water swimming in a later post.
Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.


Fastlane Pools said...

Swimming the Channel is iconic, like ascending Everest, crossings must remain for future generations. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.