Ruth was part of the Aspire Kookaburras Relay Channel Swim team who successfully swam from Dover to France on 16th July in 15 hours 32 minutes.

At the end of last year my good friend and Saturday morning swimming club companion Beverley shared a Facebook post with me. It was of an Aspire Relay Channel team swimming across the busiest shipping lane in the world - the English Channel. Aspire is a charity who help people who have been paralysed by spinal cord injuries.  She said “we should do this” and, of course, not being one to shy away from a challenge, I had to agree with her. It didn’t take us long to put a team of six together and before we knew it we were signing along the dotted line and committing to fighting jellyfish, fatigue, hypothermia and floating debris in a bid to make it to France.

Channel swimming is always unpredictable, and that has never been more true than this year. However, even before any of us had heard of Covid-19 our little team of six was already facing problems, with three members having to pull out. It was touch and go for a while as to whether we would be able to put a new team together. Luckily Aspire were able to boost our numbers back up to six, and team Kookabburra was born; Ben, Beverley, Simon, Darrell, Caroline and of course me, Ruth Knowles.

Training and the impact of Covid-19

Training started in earnest. We were all excited to be upping our time in the pool and were looking forward to training together in chilly seas, without the safety of our wetsuits. Enthusiasm for our plans to raise money for Aspire; music nights, swimathons, swimming parties and pub quizzes was infectious. We had hoodies and t-shirts printed, showing off our team logo. We couldn’t wait to get started. And then, suddenly everything stopped.

Covid-19 brought with it unprecedented Government restrictions on all unnecessary travel, social distancing and lockdown became a reality. It is fair to say our Channel relay swim was put right to the back of the burner.

Everyone had to turn their efforts and thoughts to staying safe and well, and quite rightly so. To be honest, we had pretty much succumbed to the idea that our crossing wasn’t going to take place at all this year. With all Channel swims in June and most of July being cancelled quite early on, it placed much of the rest of the season in jeopardy too.

We did, however, have our boat leader Des looking out for us. Each Aspire team is allocated a boat leader to help guide them through the daunting prospect of training, share advice and have the incredibly important job of looking after the team during the actual swim. Des had swum in a relay team the year before so was our source of all knowledge and was the only one that hadn’t given up hope. When lockdown gradually started to ease, and we were allowed to travel short distances to exercise, it was Des who suggested we should try and start swimming. “You guys need to concentrate on swimming, and I’ll worry about everything else” he said.

Aspire Kookaburras relay channel swim team on the beach

It was a true test of our motivation; training for an event which might never take place, without the use of a pool. We swam where we could in ice cold rivers, chilly lakes and for Caroline the wild seas of Scarborough. As travel restrictions were eased even more, all six of us were finally able meet for the first time. On 21st June we drove down to Highcliffe, Dorset (a six hour drive for Caroline) and swam in the wild sea. We had decided, spurred on by Des, to try and swim the two hour qualifying swim in sub 16 degrees water, a prerequisite set by the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) before they will let you anywhere near a boat.

The weather that day was far from ideal and we were in two minds about even attempting to do the swim. The wind was fierce and the waves were almost 5ft, but we thought we’d try and give it a go. We all stuck together, but there were times when you would look around and all you could see was a wall of waves. The water was murky, full of sea weed, and really, really cold. I started to feel my teeth chattering after only 30 minutes, Darrell lost his swimming cap, our toes went numb and we all swallowed a ton of salt water. Waves crashed over us as we fought on together and I think I can say that we were all more than pleased when we did a five minute countdown to mark the end of the two hours. Against some pretty tough conditions we had done it. We were super proud of ourselves. We had managed to tick all the boxes required of us by the CSPF. All we could do now was to keep training and keep our fingers and chilly toes crossed that the government would lift the restrictions enough for us to do the swim.

It was a true emotional and mental roller coaster. One day we would be encouraged by the news that things were going to change, the next day we would all be disappointed that things weren’t changing fast enough.

It made it incredibly difficult to encourage anyone to sponsor us for an event that was so uncertain, and at a time when people had more pressing issues to deal with, but we were all more than aware that we had committed to raising money for Aspire. They had continued their essential work though out the crisis and needed our support more than ever.

We had to think of new and unusual ways to encourage sponsorship. I set up an Esty shop, selling prints inspired by our qualifying sea swim, with all profits going into our sponsorship pot. Caroline got her name in print by getting her story published in the local rag.

But Beverley had come up with by far the craziest idea. During lockdown she had been so desperate to keep swimming she purchased a deep paddling pool so that she could ‘swim’ whilst attached to a tree by a tether. Quite early on, when it looked like no channel swims would happen this year, she decided to try and replicate our channel crossing by spending three hours in her tiny pool. As our team swim date draw nearer, and after being told our swim was almost definitely going to take place - only to be told a day later that it would almost definitely not take place - we decided to join Beverly in her mock swim. After all, it was probably the nearest we would get to swimming the Channel this year.

With all of us feeling more than deflated about not being able to do the real thing, each of us took it in turns, throughout the day, to do our parts of the mock relay. In crisp rivers, nippy lakes, harsh seas and of course Beverley’s pocket-sized paddling pool. It was super cold and incredibly hard to keep going without being able to hear the shouts of encouragement from fellow teammates. However, it seemed to really capture people’s attention and was a fantastic way to boast our much-needed fundraising efforts.

Getting the call

A few days of calm followed and we were all trying coming to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be swimming the real thing this year. That’s why it made it even more incredible when I woke up, on Tuesday 14th July, to a flurry of missed messages. Looking at my phone, I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. Des had sent a message late Monday night saying that our swim was on. Not in a month or so, but that week, on Thursday 16th July; just two days away! It was crazy and quite difficult to get your head around. One minute we weren’t going to get anywhere near the sea, the next we were running around looking for spare googles and sea sickness tablets. We were on our way to Dover!

Team Kookaburras before their swim

Before we knew it we were stood in the harbour with our bags stuffed full of way more things than we would ever need, at crazy o’clock in the morning. Everyone was very excited and bursting with nervous energy. Mike, our boat pilot, wanted to catch the morning tide so we were aiming to be at Shakespeare Beach and ready to start for 6.30am. Once we had met the CSPF official, Tony and Mike’s crew, Tanya and Paul. We signed the last bits of paperwork and eagerly boarded our boat, West Wind.

The Swim

It was a short, but excitable, trip out of the harbour and round to the pebbly beach where our swimming adventure would start. Ben was going to swim first. We had to commit to a swimming order which couldn’t be changed once Tony had signed it off. We decided our strongest swimmers should swim first. Not only to get some good distance in at the start, but also because they would be the ones to potentially do more swimming as we drew closer to France. Ben calmly got himself ready. It felt a little mean, but he had to swim from the boat to the shore before we could start. We all wished him luck and watched as our first intrepid swimmer jumped bravely into the cold early morning sea.

Ben in Dover at the start of the swim

He looked like a little dot stood on the pebbles, as we all held our breath waiting for Mike to sound the klaxon. As it rang in our ears, we all screamed at Ben and off he went. It was 6.44am on Thursday 16th July and we were on our way. Not only kick starting our own swim, but also kick starting the Channel Relay swimming season too, as we had the honour of being the first team of 2020 to leave Dover. 

It was so exciting watching Ben swim us further and further away from the beach. It felt like he was swimming at rocket speed, as we whizzed past the huge harbour walls and away from the iconic white cliffs. It wasn’t long until our second swimmer, Simon, had to attempt the first changeover, a feet not to take lightly. We had been briefed by Mike and Des on what was needed and it felt quite daunting. Tony would give Ben a ten minute warning, by simply leaning over the boat and holding up both hands. Another warning would be given with five minutes to go and from then on every minute on the minute. Ben would need to navigate himself close to the back of the boat where Simon would be waiting, ready to jump in. 30 seconds, and Simon made his way down the ladder. Then it was “Go, go, go!” and everything happened all at once. The boat was put into neutral (for the safety of the swimmers), Simon jumped into the cold sea and made his way behind Ben. Ben swam with all his might to the back of the boat and did his best to climb on board as quickly as possible. The longer he took the more the boat could drift off course and the colder Simon would get, as he treading water waiting for Ben to be safely on board and the West Wind could to be on the move again. It was all quite stressful, with Tanya bellowing instructions to both the swimmers and to Mike. As soon as he heard “swimmer on!” he got the boat moving again and Simon could start his swim. Phew, our first changeover was a success!

While all this excitement was going on poor Beverley had started to feel quite ill. Sea sickness had already taken hold, as our little boat bobbed about in the water like a discarded cork. It was surprising how much it rocked up and down, especially as the water looked so calm. Beverley had been sick quite a few times and we were only an hour and a bit into our swim. It was something she would have to deal with throughout the whole adventure, and she wouldn’t be the only one. Darrell, was also struggled to keep anything down and I started feeling queasy just before my second swim.

Ruth swimming in the Channel

As Tony started the ten minute count down, I was finding it hard to concentrate on anything other than trying to keep the contents of my stomach down. Five minutes; “Are you alright?” he asked, just as I couldn’t hold it any longer. “Over the side!” everyone shouted at me. I got my head over the side of the boat in time for everything to come out. It seemed like once I started I couldn’t stop. I was worried Tony, or Mike would deem me unfit to swim, which would have meant the end of our attempt. So as I was mid-puke I gave the thumbs up to Tony, “Yes” I managed to get out before having to be sick again. With second left I climbed down the steps and with one last stomach emptying, jumped into the sea, through my own sick!

As soon as I was in the water the sickness went away, something that Beverley and Darrell also found. It was such a relief not to be feeling ill, although being in the water brought a whole new set of challenges. It was obviously cold, but this was something we had all trained for and expected. We just had to make sure we got warm as quickly as we could after our swims. I found the best way was to get changed pretty pronto. Warm clothes, woolly hat, dryrobe, big socks and a hot drink to warm me from the inside out. I’m not great with the cold, so it would take me a good hour or so to stop shivering, but I wasn’t worried. I knew I would stop eventually.

The main challenge whilst in the water was trying to stay with the boat. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but it’s defiantly trickier than it sounds. Mike wanted us to try and stay parallel with the middle of the boat so that he could see us, but sometimes you would find yourself in front, wondering if you were going in the right direction. You would have to try and keep an eye on the bow and swim the way it was facing. Then all of a sudden you’d be behind the boat, and panicking you’d get left behind. At one point I found myself almost underneath the hull and had to swim like mad to get out the way, it felt like a very close call. Darrell lost the boat completely a few times and started heading towards Spain!

There were jellyfish everywhere. Which was something that had worried me a lot in the run up to the swim. But even though you could see them floating about beneath you and would quite often bump into a few, giving them a little tickle with your hands, it actually wasn’t that bad. If they got you (and they got all of us), it just felt like a nettle sting. It was poor Caroline who had to fight off the most, swimming through what looked like a million of them. There was literally no way she could avoid them. Just like Beverley having to make her way through the contents of a tankers waste disposal. Goodness knows what she was swimming through!

We made our way steadily toward France, swim after swim. Hoping that we would make it in daylight. Mike had said, if it was light enough, he would let us all swim the last few hundred meters together. But as the day drew to a close and Beverly got in for the third time, with a little green light strapped to her head, it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. The tide was against us now, and it felt like we were hardly moving. Darrell was next and had to get in in the pitch black. With the lights on the boat trying desperately to keep track of where he was, Darrell had to work extra hard to keep as close to the boat as possible. It was quite scary how quickly you could lose sight of him, if you took your eyes off him for just a second.

Kookaburra at the end of their swim

We were so close, with maybe only 800 metres left when Darrell’s light stopped working. Simon, bravely dived in and attached another light to Darrell’s head, not an easy thing to do whilst treading water. Then side by side they made their way to the shore, disappearing out of the reach of the boats lights. We couldn’t see when they had made it, but we could defintely hear them. They both screamed at the top of their lungs and the whole boat erupted in euphoria. We had made it. It was 10.23pm and it had taken us 15hrs 32mins. The first team to cross the English Channel in 2020, we were ecstatic!

It was such a fabulous team effort, with us all playing our parts. We have all become completely obsessed with tracking all the other boats progress online, and reliving our day through them. If you ever get the chance to attempt your own crossing, do it. It is super hard, horrid and cold but most definitely worth it.

Thank you to everyone for your support both with helping us all raise money and with all your kind and motivational words. Thank you to Aspire for giving us the opportunity to take part in something amazing. And finally, thank you Des for being our biggest fan. We will be forever grateful.

Sponsor Ruth

Swimming events

How we help