Insight On Teamwork And Dedication In The Channel

Insight On Teamwork And Dedication In The Channel

With Brendan Capell, a former world 25K champion, ready to take on the English Channel in an attempt on Petar Stoychev’s record next month, it was interesting to read International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame inductee Michael Oram discuss record-breaking English Channel attempts.

All the swimmers, like Philip Rush and Petar Stoychev, were excellent swimmers and had faith in their pilot. They benefitted from a planned crossing that took a lot of theoretical work prior to them getting wet and even more while they were swimming.

The swimmer is the engine, the support team is the motivation and the pilot is the brains of the day and a lot of mental backup to keep doubts at bay
.”

As technology develops over time, Michael’s tools also changed.

With Philip’s [1987 three-way] crossing, the pilot’s side of the multiple crossings was completed without modern navigation equipment or technology – just pencil, paper (chart), compass, eyeball and gut feeling and experience.”

Phil swam out to the boat when he finished the third leg and – on his coach’s orders – he started to swim back on a fourth crossing [28 hours after starting]. After half an hour or so, he complained he was cold and was having problems breathing with his swollen throat. It was only then Tony [his coach] told him he could get out if he must.”

Tony explained to me that after such a swim you need to keep going until you are safely back with the boat otherwise there was a problem when the adrenalin stopped pumping. Relaxing on the beach then having to return wet in the air in a dinghy was Tony’s idea of a recipe for disaster. We have swum our swimmers back to the boat ever since then.”

On that swim, we had do a lot of navigation planning as it was a new swim for us going three ways. It worked out that we had to take two hours off on the third leg as Phil was swimming too fast. We did not have his swim speeds for a long set of crossings and were having to update our chartwork as we went (with eyeball and compass transits in those days).

With Petar’s [2007 one-way] crossing, we knew had all the technology available at our fingertips and knew where we were to within 50 metres all the way over – we could also calculate where Yuri Kudinov, the Russian swimmer, was behind us. I could tell Petar if he had gained meters or lost meters over any period he wanted to know. I could tell him his arrival time within a minute or two if he kept the pace steady. I could also predict the swim time and landing place of Yuri and see how his pilot was thinking.”

Michael explained precisely what was involved with Petar’s historic swim – and the years of preparation and seemingly failure behind it.

Peter’s team was made up of trainers, support crew and boat crew. His first crossing was into a South Easterly force 6 (20+ knots against him), but he managed to do an incredible 7 hours 25 minutes in those conditions. His first question after he finished was, “Where did he go wrong?” Until we made that attempt, he did not fully understand the problems of tides, wind, sea conditions and the Channel. We talked and analyzed. I assured him that if he could do that time in those conditions then “on the right day” he would break the record. He gave me the problem of picking the right day.”

When he came back, he was in peak condition and ready to do his part in breaking the record. He was swimming at around 4.8 – 5K an hour, had sorted out his feedings and left all the logistics of the crossing to me. Five times he was on standby for the swim – and four times I said no. The fifth time, the wind was building from a lull and changing from the South West to the Northerly direction. We started with 7/8 knots and a forecast for it to increase to about 12 – 15 knots plus, mainly from the North with a little North West in it.”

Petar did not doubt or debate the call; he just asked if he would get the record. I said possibly if it all worked out with the weather and the tides and he swam hard. We started just after 10 am. Yuri had also been on standby to swim as it was a race to be the first to get the record. When they heard we had started, they followed us across but were 25 minutes behind us – the time it took for him to get to organised and get to the beach. To me, his start time introduced doubt as to Yuri’s chances of getting the record. Petar and his speeds were very similar and he would miss the turn of the tide for landing on the point.”

The wind was building and had gone around to the North / North West sector when we left the beach. This meant we had the protection of the cliffs for the first couple of hours. We had two hours of wind against tide before the tide turned. As the sea had not begun to build with the wind, what waves we had were not a problem. The wind direction was from behind and as such would create a reasonable surfing sea pushing the swimmer towards the French coast. That helped us a little. The turn of the weak tide would be held up by the wind and that would give a little push towards France rather than a 180° turn over the slack water time.”

Petar’s 4.8 – 5K swim speed gave us three hours of flood tide – 30 minutes of slack water and about three hour plus a bit finish with wind and tide together (on the ebb tide) at Cap Gris Nez.”

We did arrive on time and landed on the first rock at the tip of Cap Griz Nez. The landing part was the only mistake Petar made on the crossing. He swam in to the rocks without going to the place we directed him and it took him about two and a half minutes to get clear of the water. 50 meters to his right and he would have swum up onto the rocks and saved another 2 minutes. At Petar’s swim speed, he was covering 80 metres every minute.”

“His longest feed was six seconds – his average feed three seconds and a lot of the time it was less than two seconds. He feeds with an open cup and did not stop swimming. Feed collected in his right hand, onto his back with a left hand stroke and continue swimming. His total feed time for his 6 hour 57 minute crossing was 70 seconds with his feeds every 20 minutes to start with and every 10-15 mins at the end.”

Petar was updated his position, estimated arrival time and Yuri’s relative position at each feed and sometimes between feeds by his support team. The support team worked asked questions, received answers and passed on the message. From the boat’s instrumentation, we were monitoring our position and Yuri’s all the way across to an accuracy of 20-30 meters with 3-4 minutes updates. The plotting was on paper chart, chart plotter & two computers, all linked into GPS’s. Everything was duplicated and independent of each other- just in case. Petar knew when Yuri gained on him during each 30 minute period and when he gained on Yuri. .”

With Yvetta [Hlaváčová’s 2006 women’s record of 7 hours 25 minutes] (shown above), we would have been faster, but she was actually going for the two-way record, not the fastest crossing. The start time for the two-way was earlier than I would have gone if it had been a one-way record. It took five minutes to convince Yvetta she had a chance. We were half the way over before I calculated that the wind and tide on that day was going to give us a 20 minute advantage on the turn, enough to get a new world record.”

We had a chat. She believed me and swam her heart out to get the record. Hence the slight change in course as we entered the North East Shipping lane. Yvetta took a five-minute rest on the rocks and decided to carry on and try for the two-way record as well. Unfortunately, she had pushed herself hard and retired at the Varne on the return journey, out of calories. She would have possibly made it back if we had sorted out her feeding from the start – we only added the magic Maxium towards the end of the first leg and as an occasional supplement on the return.”

That kind of insight can only come from someone who has seen and been with the best.

Enlightening. Very enlightening.

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