Crossing the English Channel is like climbing Everest in swimming terms. But for Peter Walsh, it was a more inviting challenge than painting his own house
Fond memories of my childhood are of occasions with the family crammed into the Volkswagen Jetta, heading off to watch agog as my father covered himself in all manners of grease to protect him from water and friction burns and plunged into freezing waters. My dad loved to swim and his encounters of the local marine life, of the jellies and fish that tried to eat him, would grow larger with each telling.
While swimming too became my passion, I was lured into the world of triathlon a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I was never on any podium but loved the challenge. Unfortunately this love was not reciprocated and an injury put an abrupt halt to my running endeavors.
So the question was, what to do?
At this stage I was a training addict. What in the world was going to replace it? My wife’s plan was for me to paint the house, so I decided that swimming would be a far better use of my time.
After a local swimming event called the Sandycove challenge, I met and became great friends with two men who were to become my partners in crime, Gordon Adair and Alex Jeffers.
Gordon came up with the idea of the Channel relay attempt, and we couldn’t resist and booked in.
The English Channel is the Mount Everest of open water swimming. It is 21 miles across at the closest point but the swimming distance is greatly increased by the tidal currents which flow up to four miles an hour. This makes the swim more like 35 miles as the swimmers get pushed to and fro with the currents. A typical crossing is in a zigzag pattern, more like a letter Z than a straight line.
Training for such an event meant doing laps of Sandycove Island in Kinsale at silly o’clock in the morning before work. Suffering mild hypothermia and getting scalded while trying to drink our tea to stop the shaking afterwards, we loved every minute of it.
A week’s training camp called ‘Cork Distance Week’ run by a sadistic man by the name of Ned Denison, the local guru of open water swimming, was far from easy. We learned the term ‘jelly soup’ after one particular interesting swim. Trust me, ‘jelly soup’ is as bad as it sounds.
As our appointed English Channel time slot almost upon us, we got the call from boat pilot Eddie Spelling on a Wednesday that the swim was marked for the following Sunday morning. Sandwiches packed on Saturday and nerves beginning to gnaw, a call came came through. Cancelled. The weather had changed and we would not know until later in the week when the next window was. Our time slot would only last a week.
This led me to one of the most difficult things I have had to do in my life. I actually e-mailed my boss and put in the subject line, ‘Can I please come back to work? ’. Anything to keep my mind occupied.
We received word on Wednesday the next slot available was Saturday. Saturday, at 3am. Friday morning, we flew Cork to Manchester and set off on the five hour drive to Dover. Booked into a B&B, we did a quick reconn’ of the marina, ate something light and hit the pillow for a grand total of about two hours sleep as the nerves really took hold.
At 1.30am, we met the boat pilot to have a quick chat and headed down the coastline for 30 minutes to start the swim.
At 2.50am, I climbed into the water with a light strapped to my head, a glow stick pinned to my togs, and my nerves in bits. I did my first hour’s rotation and was happy when my time was up.
While the swimming conditions were excellent, I struggled for the first few hours on the boat and retreated into my own little bubble while the two lads got on with their one-hour rotation in the water. Sea sickness is the most common cause for relay failure, so thank God for sea sickness tablets. Our support crew was none other than Alex’s daughter Bronwyn. Not only did she look after us sorry lot, but she spent the day updating our family and friends via social media of our progress.
Gordon had a nasty experience with some jellies on one of his rotations and was left with some painful stings. Being the buddy that I am, I just told him I was glad they went for him and not me. Ask anyone, I bloody hate jellies.
As for Alex. Mr Cool himself. The most positive upbeat person I know, he just got stuck in and came out with a smile each time. He got the ‘glory leg’ of the swim and was the first person to land in France and boy did he deserve it. The task took 14 hours and five minutes.
On reflection, you could say the family journey has come full circle. The love of swimming has carried through not one but two generations. My own two children love to swim and it really is a family activity that bonds us all.
Now, like I once did, they watch their daddy jumping into freezing water and wondering what the hell he is doing. My wife, too, is establishing herself as a long distance swimmer in her own right and next year, it will be her turn to take on ‘Cork Distance Week’.
We did this Channel swim is in aid of two wonderful charities — Irish Dogs for the Disabled, and CUH Children’s Ward.
Swim safe and never swim alone.
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