English Channel Swimming Explained
  • What is the Distance to Swim the English Channel: 21 Miles point-to-point as the crow flies (this is known as the SWIM TRACK) but a swimmer will actually have to travel a greater number of miles because the Channel is like a flowing river, making it impossible to swim to the exact opposite side from where you jump in, so the swimmer is pushed upstream and then back downstream when the direction of the tidal flow changes every 6 hours (called the WATER TRACK) and the swim route takes the shape of an ‘S’ curve. On an approximate every seven day basis the tidal flow alternates between the NEAP (weak tide 4-7 knots) and the SPRING (strong tide 8-9 knots peaking at a full moon). The stronger the tide, the greater the amplitude of the curve and the longer the Water Track will be. (See maps below for worlds fastest and slowest crossings.)

 

 
Admiralty Chart Certificate of Steffan Sarkin Crossing (September 26, 2017) 
(Swim Track - 21 miles, Water Track - 32 miles) 
 
 
Tide Chart (Neap Tides - narrow amplitude, Spring Tides - broad amplitude)
  •   From Where to Where: From the White Cliffs of Dover in Southern England to Cap Gris Nez on the French coast.

           Map of English Channel                   Aerial View of English Channel

 White Cliffs of Dover (England)  
                                        
                                                                  Cap Griz Nez  (France)

  • Temperature of the Water:58-62 degrees Fahrenheit.

                                 


English Channel Weather Chart 2011
Sea Temperature (dark blue) , Air Temperature (brown) and Tides (light blue)
  • Normal Range of Crossing Times: 10-20 hours. Elite swimmers can cross ini under 10 hours in the right conditions.
  • When does the swim take place:day or night Each swimmer is given a one week weather window. The captain of the support boat (known as the pilot) determines the best opportunity for making the crossing, factoring in swimmer ability, stopping time for feeding, weather, wind, moon cycle, sea conditions, etc. The pilot will determine the start time which can be at any time of day or night. A swimmer must be ready if called to swim through the entire night.
     
     
    English Channel - September 26, 2013 (12.00am Start) 
 
English Channel - September 6, 2015 
 
  • Hazards: Jellyfish, Debris, Sewage.
  • Most Popular Swim Stroke: Freestyle. There have been a few swimmers who have completed a crossing using the backstroke, breastroke and butterfly.
  • Can you have any physical contact during the swim? The swimmer may never touch the boat or any person. 
  • How does the Swim start? By walking into the sea from dryland. This involves boarding the pilot boat in the harbor and then travelling to the point of the start. The pilot will take the boat in as close to shore as possible where the swimmer will swim from the boat to the shore. Once the swimmer has cleared the water and is on dry land, the boat will sound a horn and the swim officially starts. The swimmer then may reenter the water and start swimming. 
  • How does the Swim end? By walking out of the sea onto dryland. This is by far the hardest part. The swim ends if you are one of the lucky ones by walking out of the sea onto the beach at Cap Griz Nez. If you are unlucky and miss the beach, then you will have to scale big rocks while being smashed by huge waves and scraping yourself to pieces. If you are even more unlucky and miss the beach and the rocks because of a tidal change, then you will have to swim several additional hours until you eventually (and hopefully) roll up exhausted onto a sandy beach miles away from the intended landing spot. This is all because of the tides. This is how a 12 hour swim can easily become a 16 hour swim, and all the time you were only a few hundred yards from the beach but the tide swept you up the coast.
  • Are there any  boats in the Channel? The English Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In the middle of the Channel, there are two separate shipping lanes, each about three miles wide, like a highway going in different directions so that the ships don’t crash into one another. Over 600 commercial ships (oil tankers, container ships, other types) and ferries go through or accross the Channel every day so it is like swimming across a motor freeway. All ships and ferries are frequently alerted over the radio whenever there are swimmers in the water. Most swimmers enjoy this part of the swim because it is the only time they come into contact with anything other than their support boat and the endless horizon of water.


  • Do you eat during the Swim? Known as feeding, it is critical that the swimmer take in energy at regular intervals during the course of the swim. Swimmers choose what they want to eat, but it is common for most swimmers to use a complex carbohydrate drink or other sports formula drink plus small easy to eat hard food. The liquid is served hot to provide a quiick shot of heat to the core to aid in slowing down cooling of the core. I plan to feed every 30 minutes from the very start. One of the challenges of an extreme endurance swim is that the swimmer will be burning calories at a rate of up to 1000 calories per hour. On the other hand, it is advisable that the swimmer only take in the maximum calories that can be assimilated in any given hour by the body size of the particular swimmer. In most cases this is less than a third of the calorie burn rate. Anything more would be stored as waste and over a long period of time can cause the swimmer gastro-intestinal problems. So in essence, the swimmer is required to be in the water for 10-20 hours while operating  in a  state of calorie deficit which could lead to the swimmer at some point to running out of energy and 'hitting the wall'.

                            Noah Throwing Out Feed Bottle - English Channel September 2015 

  • Will you use Grease or Goose Fat to keep you warm? Many swimmers once thought that this would help you stay warm. In fact, it has no thermal benefits whatsoever other than to make sure that the salt in the water does not rub and chafe the skin of the swimmer. It is legal to use grease and most swimmers now use Vaseline or something similar to prevent chafing.
     
     
       Applying Vaseline Before Start  of Swim - English Channel September 2015 
     
  • What swim suit regulations are there? Traditionaly only swim suits were permitted. During the last number of years, as more relay teams have participated, and as the season has been extended, the use of wetsuits is now permitted. Two swimming associations (CS&PF and CSA) still only permit standard swim suits, while the CCA and CS&PA permit wetsuits.
  • Is the swim an organized race? No. Weather and sea conditions make it impossible to pick any firm start date and time, therfore making an organized swim impractical.  The swim is strictly either a solo attempt involving one swimmer or a relay involving multiple swimmers and one boat. There may be other swimmers with separate boats making an attempt at the same time. Based on the judgment of the different pilots, they may leave at separate times and places.
  • Will you have a support crew? The swimmer is supported by a crew of 1 or more people who play important roles in ensuring swimmer safety first and foremost, feeding, communications, etc. The swimmer chooses their own crew.
     
     
    Noah and Greg Crewing English Channel Swim - September 26, 2013 
     
     
    Noah, Cade and Casey Crew on English Channel Crossing - September 6, 2015 
  • What role does the pilot play? The pilot is pivotal to the success of the swim. Because the swim involves tidal flows which are constantly changing, making it impossible to swim a straight path from point to point, the pilot’s job is to navigate and chart and change a course during the swim to lead the swimmer through the tidal changes to drop the swimmer off at the right destination. 
     
     

     

          Pilot Eddie Spelling (Anastasia) - September 26, 2013 English Channel

Pilot James King (Louise Jane) - September 26, 2017 English Channel

  • If you are fit enough to swim and have a great pilot you are guaranteed to succeed, right? If you have all the luck on your side and nothing goes bad, then yes. Unfortunately, the Channel is a body of water, and is affected by mother nature. Because the swim takes so long, the weather and wind can change and affect the swimmer, the tidal direction changes could not occur as predicted, the swimmer could get sick, tired, injured, hypothermic, etc. Any one or more of these could potentially move the swimmer off the track the pilot needs the swimmer to follow placing the outcome of the swim in jeopardy.
  • Statistics
    • World Record Time: Fastest - 6hr 55min (2012)
       

     
    • World Record Time: Longest - 28hr 44min (2010)


     
    • First Crossing: Captain Matthew Webb Time 21hr 44min (1875)
    • Successful Solo swimmers: Approximately 1450
    • Attempts: Over 3000