Updated: Oct 2
It’s hard to know where to start this account of my Channel swim, as in reality it started back in 2020 when the idea was first suggested to me. However, that’s a story for another time, so this will concentrate purely on the day of my actual swim and the swim itself.
All Channel swimmers book what is called a “window” for their swim, usually about 2.5 years before the swim – it’s a competitive race to snag a slot. I had chosen Stuart Gleeson as my pilot on Sea Leopard and booked my slot on 1st March 2021. My original window was 23-28th August 2023, and I was swimmer number 4. The swimmer numbers are a dark art, and one which I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand, but basically, I was allocated the last slot for that window – meaning that my boat pilot had to get 3 individual swimmers/relay teams across to France and back before I can set off. I was weathered out of my first window due to poor weather, so went onto a waiting list with Stuart. It then became a waiting game, although my crew and I discussed what our availability would be in coming weeks, and we all agreed that Monday 11th September was the only day none of us could do….
Sunday 10th September.
After a call from Stuart earlier in the weekend confirming that he was hoping that I would have a swimmable window (opportunity) on the Monday, I’d made my way to Dover with two of my crew – Nicola Napier, Clare Wookey – as the third member, Deb Vine, was already in the Channel with another swimmer. Stuart rang and suggested we meet at Dover Marina the following morning at 6 am for a final look at the conditions, as it was 50/50 that the weather and the tides were going to be suitable. This meant yet another restless night, with a 4:30am alarm for me to get up and, eat, apply a fresh stoma bag and adhesive strips around the outer edges of it to make sure it was secured as strongly as possible. Nicola, Clare and I were staying at my friend Louisa’s flat a few minutes’ drive from the marina, where we drove to meet Deb, Stuart and co-pilot Sean in the car park at 6. Sean and Stuart stood with their heads together, examining their mobile phones and comparing tides, weather, conditions and apps. I felt like I was waiting for my A-level results all over again, it was so tense my jaw ached, I felt physically sick and my heart was pounding. Eventually, Stuart came over and asked if I was happy swimming through the night…a quick nod, and that was that. “Ok, see you here at 8pm tonight ready to swim at 9.”
The Swim was On! Monday 11th, the only day we’d said we couldn’t do! Hilarious.
A hideous day of nerves and anxiety, waiting for my swim to be called off at any moment due to changing weather conditions. As it was, I didn’t know that it was in fact very nearly called off just a few hours before as the conditions were changing! Somehow, we all managed a couple hours of sleep in the afternoon, then it was a last meal of pasta before we drove to the Marina. Stuart and Sean arrived shortly after Deb, and there was time for a quick crew photo in front of the Marina sign, bags and boat box of feeds, good luck charms, and fluids packed and taken along to the boat. It felt surreal, meeting in the dark and walking along the jetty and stepping onto the boat. I still couldn’t get my head around the fact it was actually going to happen! All the crew had been allocated different jobs, Deb as Chief Crew, Clare as Chief Watcher (eyes on me all the time I was swimming) and Nic as Chief Photographer and liaison with the friends and family WhatsApp group. I knew I was in really safe hands, but I also knew I was going to be in for some fun surprises from the Crew Entertainment!
The boat journey around to the beach at Samphire Hoe was about 45 mins, and as we pulled out of the calm harbour, some of Nicola’s family (Justine and Dylan) were there waving and shouting goodbye. I waved and smiled, sitting like a gigantic stuffed tangerine in my orange Wild Moose dry robe with matching hat – super cozy and bright. The Whatsapp group was going mad with good luck messages, the excitement palpable and contagious. I was feeling weird, one minute excited, the next dry mouthed with nerves, stomach butterflies and sweaty hands – predictably, I needed a wee before we’d even left the harbour! I gazed out over the side of the boat at the lapping waves, nothing visible in the distance apart from the occasional light of a far-off container ship, feeling more and more anxious with each gentle rise and fall of Sea Leopard. My stoma bag felt secure, and I didn’t really feel worried about it coming off. It was hard to believe that I was making my way round to a beach in Dover, where I was going to start swimming to France, I just couldn’t get my head around it.
With 15 minutes before we arrived at the beach, the call came from the cabin for me to start getting ready. I pulled my clothes off, my swimming costume already on underneath, patted my stoma bag and put my swimming hat on with my goggles ontop, one earplug in, the other dangling. My fabulous crew started slathering me with a combination mix of sudocrem (sun block – it was 31c the day before in Dover!) and Vaseline (anti-chafing), and my nerves really kicked in. I perched on the wooden bench on the boat deck, and felt the adrenaline surge through my body. I was shaking, my legs banging against the bench, it was pure fight or flight, my heart going like the clappers, even my arms and stomach were trembling. I felt focused, determined but also really excited – and impatient to get started. I was pumped, I’d never felt so in the moment in all my life. And it really was my moment – my moment to get in the sea and make history.
A call from Stuart to say it was time to get in, I gave a thumbs up and then clambered over the side and down the steps. I was desperate for a wee too so I was relieved in every way to get going! A quick wave at my crew, hearing Deb call reassuringly “have a great day Gill, we’re here for you” and I slid into the dark water, looking ahead to the beach about 30 metres away. All the shaking, the adrenaline surge and nerves completely disappeared. It was like magic. I felt like I was in the place I was always meant to be, it honestly felt like destiny as I stood on that beach and looked towards my boat all lit up. I felt calm, confident. And it feels strange to be writing this, as I have read many Channel swim accounts, and I feel almost apologetic to admit it, but I had absolutely no doubt in my mind at all that I would make it. “Leave your doubts on the beach” is the mantra…but I felt like I’d never had any doubts at all, it was a strange concept for me to even think of at that moment. I had had many doubts through training, had shed lots of tears at various moments, had intense anxiety about my stoma bag, about swimming in the dark, about having the physical and mental endurance to finish such an epic challenge, yet at that very moment I had none whatsoever.
A small crowd of gorgeous friends were on the beach waving and calling good luck, but I was so in the zone that I could barely register them at all. I lifted my arms, waved at my boat, heard the hooter to indicate the clock had started, and wobbled into the lapping waves over the hard pebbles. I put my face in and started swimming, reaching the safety of the boat minutes later.
I felt relaxed, calm and strong. I had no plan for my swim at all. I had no idea how long it would take me, but guessed at 15-18 hours. I had no idea what the currents would be like, what the water would be like, how any of it would feel. I didn’t break it down into sections in my head, the only thing I’d asked my crew to tell me was when I was in French waters, but even then that doesn’t really mean anything in terms of how long you may have left. I knew I was feeding every hour for the first 4 hours, then every 45 minutes for a few hours, every 30 minutes for the remainder of the swim. I kept track initially but soon lost interest in trying to count my feeds – there was no point, I was there in the water until I landed on shore!
I felt like I was swimming well from the outset, and again this feels like a very confident thing to write. The waves made quite a swell initially, and I was apprehensive about my first feed, which was 300ml carb mix fluid in a flip top bottle thrown on a reel from the boat. The first feed seemed to come surprisingly quickly, and I nervously chugged it down, treading water and trying to make sure I had all of it. I went straight back swimming, my only concern throughout the swim being that I would vomit copious amounts or get cramp. In fact, I was so worried about the latter in my legs, that I consciously tried not to kick much other than balancing my body.
There was a huge light shone on me throughout the swim, and I could see bubbles underneath in the shadows from my fingers as I pulled back on my stroke. It unsettled me initially, wondering if it was a sea beast emerging from the depths, but I brushed the thought aside impatiently. I saw dark shadows and unfamiliar shapes passing in the gloom below, but I knew that fear was a waste of emotion and energy, I simply wouldn’t permit myself the luxury of feeling scared. Occasionally I swam past the boat and ahead of the light, but I backpedalled quickly until I was back in the brightly lit area. I’d been told that night swimming was magical, you got to see shooting stars, the moon, phosphorescence below. I didn’t really see any of that! It was boring quite frankly. I was swimming at a good pace, steady and breathing regularly bilaterally. I could only glance at the stars and didn’t even see the rare green coloured Nishimura Comet discovered just one month previously, which apparently was visible that night only when it was closest to earth. Next sighting is in 400 years – thanks to Jane Hardy on the friends WhatsApp group for this info! Massive container ships carrying fruit juice and one carrying bananas made their way past me in the distance, but the only one I remember was one lit up like a Christmas tree.
I could see Clare sitting at the end of the boat nearest the back, closely watching my every stroke. I had a painful right hand, and occasionally flashes of discomfort and pain in my arms, or my fingers, but I flung them away in my head. I’d listened to Ross Edgely’s book “The Art of Resilience” many times and remembered him saying that pain is just your body’s way of telling you to stop doing what you’re doing…well, I wasn’t going to stop, so the pain may as well go away! I played the game of “I went to the supermarket and bought” items from A to B. I started with apples, then bananas, cheeseplant and ended on L for llama. The night simply felt endless, as I knew that day break was due at 4:30am – my crew said it didn’t come until nearer 5:45. I just kept on swimming, swimming, shouting on one feed “this is the longest fucking night EVER!”. I just wanted the sun to arrive and for me to able to SEE things.
On the boat, I saw the French flags and then the fairy lights and knew I’d made it into French waters. I felt surprised to see them so quickly, as it was still dark, but it gave me a boost. I was wearing tinted goggles, and at £65 a pop they weren’t cheap (Predator flex), but they were covered in sudocrem and I couldn’t barely see out of them. They were making me feel a bit disorientated and lonely as I couldn’t make out my crew’s facial expressions properly. I asked for my spare clear goggles, I struggled to reach up for them as you can’t touch the boat at all, but I saw Stuart whisk the goggles out of my crews hands, lean down chuck them to me and grab my others as I threw them at the boat. I put them on and WOW! What a difference! My crews’ lovely big smiles were so clear! My morale hugely boosted I swam on.
The neverending night began to lift. I could see spirits lift on the boat too, more energy in everyone’s faces, and I still felt really good swimming. I felt like I’d only been swimming a matter of hours, when it was more like 8 or 9. This really energised me. I’d only ever swam for 6 hours in one go. I felt flipping well awesome. I felt super charged, I was swimming in daylight, I’d never EVER have to swim in the night EVER again! I smiled to myself as I thought of everything which was now behind me, all the training, the tears, the stress, the stoma anxiety, the night terrors, the frantic juggle of training and working and parenting. I thought of the girls in Kenya without supplies. Of all the traumatised women. I knew that there would literally be hundreds of people following my swim. I knew that there were women who were struggling after their traumatic childbirths who were willing me on. People struggling to adapt to stoma surgery refreshing the tracking app and praying for my safe arrival in France. I could literally feel it as I swam – all these people and their love. It was amazing.
At one point, Clare held her phone aloft and asked if I had a message for Matt on BBC Radio Newcastle. I could only think of one thing “I’m landing it!”. Clare was keeping the radio team updated, carrying out interviews and recording voice notes, all while keeping an eye on me, and wearing ridiculous hats and dancing to keep me entertained. At one point, I saw Clare with a huge tabby cat mask on, with Nicola and Deb wearing mice masks, running around and playing a game of cat and mouse on board. Another time they donned green hats, which took me ages to work out, thinking at first they were chameleons and finally realising they were, of course, French frogs! It made me laugh but also glug water!
I was still just in my zone, swimming steadily, feeling great, full of positivity. I felt like I needed a bit of distraction, so I asked Nicola for some messages on my white board. Out it came, messages like “Warrior”, “Woman in the Arena”, “No-one is getting any work done”, “Soph has gone to lie in a darkened room”. Each and every one gave me so much power inside. I felt so loved, invincible. I have never experienced anything like it in my life.
I had a headache a couple of times, so I shouted out to my crew, who provided calpol in my next few feeds. My goggles kept leaking and my eyes were really sore. I kept having to tip the water out and keep on swimming. My feeds continued to go well, although I found eating the solids like mini battenburgs and banana a bit of a faff. I was so relieved that I wasn’t sick at all. I had one sharp pain in my stoma, which made me briefly think about what was going on underneath my swimming costume, but I decided it was pointless to worry as I couldn’t see what was happening so I may as well just keep swimming. Any thoughts which were potentially negative or stressful I refused to let in my head. “Just keep going, if you stop you won’t get there”. Simple as that.
On I went, no idea of the time but it must’ve been about 9am, when I was warned by the boat that there was another boat coming close by which would cause a big swell. I looked up and ahead of me at the incoming boat for the first time, and saw France! I was cross as I had tried so hard NOT to look in front of me, and I felt a little dip inside as I knew I was still far away. I felt like I was maybe swimming a little fast, so pulled back a little, knowing I still had hours to go. The crew then put on the most precious items of all…the berets and onions! I got really excited! I shouted “Do I need to still save my legs?”. The crew all looked at each other, and shouted back “What do you mean? Just swim!” Afterwards they told me that they couldn’t understand what I meant – that I’d been saving my kicking legs for a big push at the end. They had no idea I wasn’t pushing, pushing, pushing all the time with my legs!
Nicola had been smiling her beautiful megawatt smile for hours, but it got even brighter, her eyes really shining. I could feel the energy coming from that smile and it poured into my body like a magic potion. Shortly afterwards, I realised that France was to my right-hand side, and it seemed to be there for a long time. I knew this meant the tide was coming up, and I’d have to cross this tide to land my swim. I saw the tops of triangular roofed houses, trees and greenery. I still didn’t know how close I was, but I knew I wasn’t far. All of a sudden, I had the golden “last feed”. Half an hour to go. My left shoulder almost immediately spasmed, the pain was incredible when I was pulling back but it almost made me feel even MORE invincible – as I was determined to swim to that shore even if I had to do it with one finger. “I’ll bloody show you” I thought to myself. The rib came out next, Nicola climbing down into with Sean, to guide me into shore. “Follow me!” called Sean.
The next thing I was aware of was sand underneath me. All I’d been able to see for over 13 hours was gloomy depths, but now I could make out sand! Then ripples in the sand. A piece of seaweed floating and bobbing on the bottom. I could feel tears coming, and felt a big sob erupting from my throat but I frantically pushed the emotion away…..don’t count your chickens Gill, you’re not there yet! Lots of jellyfish, a few stings from brown ones, but the others I imperiously swept away like crumbs off a table. My left shoulder was agony, pulling, pulsating, but I quite enjoyed it as it was another thing to feel satisfaction at overcoming. In a funny way, I wanted to feel a bit of pain, I wanted something to make me push. I really am as mad as a box of frogs my friends! I kept trying to put my feet down, forgetting I’m a 5ft 3 midget, then swimming a few strokes more. I could see Nicola and Sean on the beach, another person behind them. I put my feet down. Sand! I walked, stumbled in the shallows, repeating “oh my god, oh my god” (I’m not remotely religious folks), picked myself up and started running. I heard a shout from Nicola “don’t touch the boat!”. I veered away from the rib, raised my arms up and started waving. I turned to wave at Sea Leopard, heard Sean saying “Well done!”…then I collapsed onto the sand, sobbing.
What was I thinking? Relief. Sheer relief. It was over. All that publicity, the pressure, the amount of people who knew what I was setting out to do. I was safe. I had done it. So many fears behind me, so much anxiety, so much stress, years of uncertainty over. I felt joy! Excitement bubbling through me. I hugged Nicola, we both sobbed and then I started laughing. A woman was filming me on her phone, she was called Frederique Vanderpot and she said she’d been following me on Instagram for a few years. She frequently meets swimmers landing in France, but I was blown away by meeting a French woman who knew who I was after I’d just swum from England. I could hardly speak as she handed me a pebble. Deb and Clare arrived on the beach a few minutes later, and there were hugs and celebrations. A random man pottered past walking his dog, other walkers at the far end of the beach. All so normal yet surreal at the same time.
I peeked behind my costume to see if my bag had held….it was still in place but whoosh, there was a lot of poo inside my costume! I rushed to the sea, washed myself clean and quickly velcroid my bag back up so it was no longer on free drain. I had done it! Swam 21 miles in 19c salt water with just a swimming costume and my Dansac Tre stoma bag hadn’t budged a millimetre! My eyes were swollen, my tongue sore, my shoulder throbbing, but I was elated.
I was a Channel swimmer in 13hrs 53 and was standing on Tardingen Beach in France, first person with a stoma to swim the English Channel solo!
What happened next? I got in the rib, got back on the boat, and found that the world had gone mad…..so much media publicity…next step…the red sofa on BBC Breakfast….
Over £45,000 raised for Chameleon Buddies. Within minutes of me finishing my swim I had a message to say a man whose daughter has a stoma had gone out and bought her first swimming costume. Job done.
There are so many people I need to thank I’m worried I will miss people out. My incredibly awesome crew, who kept me going during the Dovercoaster of uncertainty, who looked after me and showed such grit overnight, such good humour and love. Stuart for slotting me in, and guiding me safely, Sean for his co-piloting. I’ll be eternally grateful to Stuart for fitting me in. My husband Chris for his unwavering support, my parents and in-laws for their love, encouragement and childcare. My son Sam for never minding about all the hours I spent swimming, the holidays I missed. My swim buddies, my training friends, my friends who listened to my calls and tears. My sponsor Dansac for providing me with this epic opportunity. Louisa Bell for the use of her flat and finding another set of keys…. So many to thank….too many…thank you all!