At 8.30 on a Sunday morning, against the stunning backdrop of the white Dover cliffs, Nicholas Desira stepped into the water off Samphire Hoe and set out to conquer the Channel. He would be back on dry land 13 hours, 55 minutes and 19 seconds later following an epic crossing that put human endurance to its ultimate test. MeninMalta chatted to Nick about the gruelling training regime and about his inspirational journey. He also shares some great tips for anyone considering taking up open water swimming (and indeed anyone embarking on a similar challenge).
Congratulations on conquering the Channel! We have to ask…what possessed/encouraged you to take on such an epic test of endurance?
Most of my swimming up until 2012 was in a pool. A friend challenged me to an open water race to see who was the quickest. It was a 5k swim and this was my introduction to open water swimming (I did him). From that day I wanted to do more open water swimming. In 2013 another friend mentioned that she was joining a group called the Icebergers who are famous for swimming all year round without a wetsuit, no matter what temperature, in open water. So this is my introduction to cold water swimming. It makes you feel alive. In my first year with the Icebergers I watched 3 members successfully cross the channel and the seed was planted.
How long have you been training for this challenge?
I have been training for The Channel for last 3 years. The most important part of preparation for a successful Channel crossing is cold water acclimatization. What makes the English Channel so challenging is the temperature: it can vary from 12 – 18 degrees in the summer, so the risk of hypothermia is very real. You can suffer hypothermia in 25 degree water so imagine spending 10+ in anything below; it’s why conditioning is very important.
I did other things to assist to cold acclimatization: I never wore a jacket or a jumper in the colder months; I had cold showers; and at night I slept with only a sheet in winter and with the window open (I could only get away with doing this for a short time but it was not fair subjecting my wife to feeling cold).
Some people think that you use lard on your body to help keep you warm. It’s not lard – every swimmer uses something different. I use a combination of a wool fat and Vaseline mix that I make myself. It has no thermal properties whatsoever – it’s purely to protect your skin from repetitive arm movement and from salt abrasion.
In the buildup, how often did you have to train and what was the training regime like?
I think the training is the most important part for a successful Channel crossing. You put in the hard work, you reap the rewards. How many times have we heard this? I can tell you it’s true. I trained 4 times a week in a pool with a squad and 5 times a week in open water. The pool sessions were high intensity training sessions and the open water was more endurance and training in all sorts of conditions, day and night swimming.
Before I got to Dover, so many people at home where asking how I was feeling, and my response always that the hardest part of the Channel was behind me. I had done all the hard work and now it was a matter of going for a swim.
Did you have to shave your body hair?
NO Shaving. As a matter of fact normally I completely shave my head but for the last couple of weeks I let my hair grow to have a little bit of thermal protection from the cold water.
You were initially meant to cross a few days earlier. What was the problem with the conditions and what was it like waiting for them to improve?
When you book your slot you book what is called a window. I arrived in Dover 5 days prior to my window (27th to 31st July) to prepare for the swim. There are two kinds of tides in the Channel – without getting technical they are Spring and Neap tides. They take one swimmer on a Spring and up to four swimmers on a Neap. My window was a Neap tide and I had the second slot.
I managed to get away on the final day of my window because we were delayed due to weather. I had been warned that the hardest part, once you got to Dover, was the wait. While waiting you keep up your training in the harbor, without over doing it, as you don’t know when you’ll get the call to go. Each day I touched base with my Pilot to see how conditions were looking.
In the meantime we did a bit of sightseeing to keep the mind active but we were never to far afield – we always stayed close in case the call came in.
How were the conditions on the day you swam?
As you can see by some of the photos, the start could not have been any more perfect. The water looked very inviting and so to start the swim was never going to be difficult. As I mentioned we had been waiting for weather to come good. The day before a relay team crossed successfully.
While Sunday was scheduled to have the best weather, just 6 hours into the swim we encountered Force 5 winds which had not been forecast. In Force 5 conditions, Pilots (the skippers of the boats) don’t go out – so you can imagine what the conditions were like. The worst thing about the water is that there is no pattern; it’s sloppy. And trying to get into a rhythm – which long distance swimmers do – was very difficult. But it did help the time go by because I had to concentrate on every stroke.
What surprised you most along the way?
What surprised me about the channel was how clean it was. I was expecting to see a lot more rubbish. The most amazing thing was this tiny crab very close to the surface – we were in the middle of the channel and it was just so unexpected that I had to share it with the crew.
Jellyfish was one thing that I had expected – lots of different kinds of jellyfish. I did get stung on a number of occasions and I had to swim through clumps of sea grass – not much fun.
Was there any point at which you thought you might have to give up?
I was always prepared to be in the water for the long time and, as I mentioned, I had spoken to many Channel swimmers prior to my attempt. It was a matter of getting my head in the right space. Another channel swimmer once said to me that “90% of doing the Channel is above your shoulders”
I don’t think that I thought of giving up at any stage. Yes there were hard times, but I think it is when you have to start concentrating on your stroke and before you know it you are back on track.
What kept you going?
In the lead up to The Channel there were many long training sessions. Whenever the sessions were in the open water we created a roster and every half hour different swimmers would jump in with me when I would stop to feed. So when it came to the Channel I had this idea to that we would draw a name from many of the swimmers who had trained with me and this would help me keep my mind occupied. On the list were some fast swimmers I had trained with so at times this would help me pick up the pace. When some of the swimmers were called out, I would reflect on things that they had shared that would help me on the swim.
What sort of support did you have during the crossing?
Although it is a solo crossing, in fact, it’s never done alone. I had the same crew who I had trained with over the last 3 years. During our long training sessions, we tested various feeds and techniques till we got it right. We would draw on these during the Channel crossing. Having trained with the same support crew meant that they would be able to read how I was performing and know what I would need to increase my stroke rate.
This image shows the path of your journey. How do you get keep your bearings straight and what affects the path of the Journey?
This is an interesting question. It is the pilot who directs the course and this is dependent on many factors. The point of France which you are aiming for is Cap Gris Nez as it is the closest part to England. The pilots are so experienced and they work in the English Channel all year round – as the tide changes every 6 hours, the pilot keeps adjusting the course during the swim.
Due to our unexpected weather (the Force 5 conditions), landing on Cap Gris Nez was never going to be possible. At the time of the swim that is where I thought we were landing, but the next day I found out from our Pilot that conditions at the Cap would have been too treacherous.
Do you take a break at any point during the crossing or is it a straight swim?
There are no set breaks and you can make your breaks for however long you want. But, when you stop for a feed these must be keep short and sharp. The longest feed stop we had during the crossing was about 45 seconds. I was told later that we lost 300 to 400 meters on that feed. Ideally we tried to keep them to 10 to 15 seconds. This is why I had trained with the crew back home and why it’s important to train in similar conditions so it would all work on the day.
Also, there are many rules and guidlelines when doing the channel, for instance, during the swim you can’t touch anything, no one can touch you, and you can’t hang on to anything during feed. There is an official observer onboard to officiate the crossing.
Is it all freestyle or do you change stroke along the way?
You can cross the Channel in the stroke of your choice. Freestyle was my choice as I wanted to get across as quickly as possible.
How did this experience change you physically and psychologically?
It has taught me that if you want something enough, and put in the hard yards, you can achieve it. I have always had issues with rough water and also swimming in the dark – I had to encounter both of these during my swim and I don’t think, at any stage, it was ever an issue. The feeling on completion is so hard to describe.
Do you have any plans for future swims or are you still recovering ?
The whole thing has not really sunk in for me yet; it still feels very surreal. I am sure there will be but I won’t be telling my wife just yet! Having accomplished the swim is so hard to describe. The success rate of swimming the Channel is very low, so you can imagine how I feel, especially with the conditions that we had to endure on the day. It makes it even more rewarding to have succeeded.
A quote I had seen when I had first considered doing the Channel is that ‘more people have been to the top Everest than have swum the English Channel’. That was enough for me to give it a go. Captain Mathew Webb said “Nothing great is easy” – he was the first man to ever swim the Channel. I would tend to agree.
Any tips for anyone who wants to brave an attempt to cross the Channel?
Talk to as many people as possible who have attempted – whether they succeed or failed – as you will learn from their experiences, the challenges they faced, and their frustrations along the way. Their knowledge is priceless and they’re always more than happy to share their story.
I did it – I think I had spoken to about 30 or 40 previous channel swimmers, read a lot of articles of personal swims of the channel. When I spoke to people I wrote down things and the week before we left for Dover I went over the notes I had written over the last 3 years and wrote a new one with only the things I was taking with me to Dover. So a swim diary is a must – otherwise you will never remember everything people will tell you.
I would like to thank all previous swimmers who have shared their stories. I learnt from people who had failed as well those who had succeeded, relay teams and individuals who had done it numerous times. Everyone will share something completely different. You can never compare two people’s swims as there are so many factors that make each swim so different. I am more than happy to chat to anyone considering the Channel.
The most important thing that I learnt was getting to the start line feeling 100% fit with a ton of hours of solid training under my belt. The weather is with the Gods, so all you can do is control your part.
Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us.
Thank you for allowing me to share my Channel Journey.