On Friday 20th July, 2012, after two years of preparation, I became the 22nd Australian female to swim the English Channel.
It is only one week since then and it seems just a distant memory! Did the physical pain I endured for 14 hours really happen? Where did I find the mental toughness to push through those walls I hit during the swim? And did I really swim from England to France in a day? Thankfully I have the photos, the swim log, my journal, a nice scar on my leg when I hit the rocks of France and one very swollen left arm with what we think is tendonitis to remind me daily that my two year dream is now reality! This is how the day unfolded....
|My swim route: Started on Shakespeare Beach, UK and finished on Cap Gris Nez, France
The two weeks of waiting for the weather to clear were interminable. Finally our prayers and weather dances atop the white cliffs of Dover seemed to be rewarded. On Tuesday and Wednesday the forecast for the weekend was for steadily improving conditions. On Thursday morning Dad, and I headed to Dover Harbour for our daily ritual/ training session meeting up with fellow aspiring Channel swimmer Bruce and triple Channel aspirant Michelle Macy. We swam for an hour enjoying the strange sensation of sunshine on our backs. Did this mean the weather was actually going to improve?
The previous night’s 7pm forecast was not as optimistic as it had been 24 hours earlier. My boat pilot, Mike, had advised the improving forecast now looked less likely and the conditions for the swim wouldn’t be as good as we had hoped for the coming weekend. I was disappointed. It was such a contrast to the excitement 12 hours earlier when conditions looked good. This is the see-saw you ride when swimming the English Channel - waiting for the right weather and right conditions, which can be the make or break as to whether you get to France or not.
I had booked my pilot two years earlier, after a fair amount of research, and knew I had one of the best in the business. Mike Oram has been doing this job for 30 years and currently holds the records as pilot for both the fastest male and female crossings. Whilst I wasn’t looking to achieve a particular speed, I knew Mike knew his stuff and would get me to France, the number one goal. Over the course of the last two weeks while waiting for an opportunity to swim, Mike had given me daily weather updates and had communicated clearly that the conditions were not suitable to swim. I was able to risk it if I wanted, but he did not suggest that I did at any point.
Refreshed from our swim and happily enjoying the sunshine I phoned Mike Oram to check on the latest weather report. I spoke to Mike’s wife, Angela, who said the weather was now looking good and Mike was thinking 1am tonight or first thing tomorrow for my start! Mike was down at the boat getting everything checked and ready. Wow! - the adrenaline was pumping! - I would be on the water somewhere between 14-20 hours from now... Bruce immediately called his pilot and found out the same information. Somehow while we had been swimming around in Dover Harbour the weather finally had finally given the green light and suddenly all swimmers and pilots were getting pumped up and prepped to hit the water. It was Channel time!
The Gorman family, aka Team Tori, went into Channel mode. Luckily my sister Bel was arriving from London shortly, but sadly we realised there was not enough time for my brother Mark to return from Hong Kong and be on the boat. He had unfortunately left Dover the previous weekend due to work commitments and the failure of the weather to play ball. My family have played an instrumental role in getting me to this point over the last two years. Every single one of them has been on my support crew for a 20km + race at least once somewhere around the world, and the sense of disappointment of Mark not being on board was well known. Before Mark left Dover he handed his responsibilities to my sister Bel for the day. They were to take photos and footage of the swim, and to hold the oar and hit me over the head if I ever thought of getting out of the water before reaching France. I think my sister was relishing the opportunity to clobber me over the head for my own good, which became a key driver in ensuring I never let my head space get to that point. Sibling rivalry and support at its finest!
|Just some of the gear required to swim!
My parents began the preparations - getting crew food for the day, ensuring their bags were packed, helping me double check my loaded boxes were ready and everything was in place. It is scary how much preparation goes into something so simple as swimming! You would think cap, goggles and swimmers were all one would need - we had an entire car boot packed with our equipment! Things like spare swimmers, spare cap, spare goggles, tinted day goggles, clear goggles for night swimming, prescription goggles in case my contact lenses played up, strobe lights to attach to myself for swimming at night, drinking cups, carbohydrate mixture to drink throughout the swim - with enough for 20 hours of swimming, rope and clips to hold my feeds, mouthwash to help ease the swelling in my mouth that comes with swimming the Channel, every food imaginable that I thought I might want during the swim (jelly cups, milky ways, honey sandwiches, chicken and vegetable soup, vegemite sandwiches, and gels), electrolytes in case I was really ill, anti-inflammatories, pain medication, sea sickness medication, warm clothes to put on after the swim like my awesome Icebreaker merino wool layers and beanie, and then whatever gear my support crew needed.... it was quite an exercise!! Thankfully most of the detail had been done over the previous two weeks we were waiting for the swim, so we just had to put the last touches together.
I tried to rest that afternoon as I still didn't know if I would be starting at midnight that night or the following morning. I was hoping to start the following morning, as the water temperature was still unseasonably cold at 15C and I knew I would do better with the sun on my back throughout the day, and by the time it went dark the water temperatures in France are slightly warmer by a whole degree. I was also keen to get a good night sleep as I had slept poorly the night before.
At 7pm, I spoke to Mike. We were on for tomorrow morning! Meet at 7:30am at his boat “Gallivant” at Dover Harbour. This was it - it was really happening and no more weather delays were going to stop me getting my goal!
|Dad, Mum and I with "Gallivant" escort boat
I got onto my website, Facebook, Twitter and email and started updating everyone with the news of the swim starting twelve hours from now. The incoming support over the course of the whole two weeks whilst I had been waiting was simply amazing, and the responses to the news I was finally getting my swim was so supportive. Knowing that I had that many people cheering for me back home in Australia and in the UK and other parts of the world, gave me a huge sense of support, and a huge sense of pressure. I knew I needed that pressure to ensure I made the distance.
I woke up the next morning at about 4.30am, and got ready for the day ahead. It seemed no-one in the house could really sleep as we were all just so excited. I checked my emails, Facebook, Twitter and my phone and overwhelmed with the excitement that was building. It was such a high to be able to share this with so many people, and knowing that people would be tracking me on the GPS for the duration of the swim, and that my sister Bel would be live tweeting and Facebook updating. All this gave me some solid determination that I had to make this swim.
|Greasing up ready to swim!
We headed to the boat at Dover Harbour and loaded up our gear. Mike and his crew were there and ready and I was excited to see Irene from Dover Beach would be my official observer for the swim on behalf of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. Irene is a member of the shore crew who look after all the Channel swimmers whilst training and waiting for their opportunity to swim on weekends. It was great to know I had a familiar face on board. Her role was to ensure I didn't break any of the Channel swimming rules, which keeps the integrity of the swim and the achievement in check. Things like not getting out of the water until France, not touching the boat, not touching anyone else during the swim, not wearing a wetsuit, not using any assistive materials, are all things that the Observer ensures. They also make notes the entire duration of the swim on feeds, timings, conditions etc.
The dock was busy. There were four other solo swimmers heading out with their respective boats at the same time as me. It was reassuring to see so many pilots all reading the weather opportunities the same! Finally after what seemed an age, we pulled out from the dock and headed to Shakespeare Beach. The day was beautiful! Blue skies, sunshine, I was so pumped, after two years of waiting for this moment, it was finally here!
Upon arrival at Shakespeare Beach, I stripped down to my swimmers. Mum applied the rubber gloves and smeared a combination of sunscreen, vasoline and wool fat all over my back. This was mainly for chafe prevention and a bit of wool fat for insulation, however I had also put on 10kgs of fat for this swim to keep me safe from hypothermia. In fact, one of the things I was most looking forward to about swimming was that I would actually burn some of that fat!
|The start! Leaving Shakespeare Beach, UK
With final prep done, I dived over the side and swam to shore to officially start the swim! The horn blew on the boat and I was into the water and swimming. It was 8:37am, 4 hours before high water and 2 hours before the turn of the tide. I was now swimming on a Spring tide. The neap tide slot I had booked had been “blown out” by the gale force winds and had not given me an opportunity to swim. Spring tides have a higher water velocity and movement so often take longer to swim. I didn't care, I just wanted to swim to France! When I started, the rest of the boats were ahead of me, so for the first hour or so I focussed on closing the distance on them. This was a great way to distract myself from the fact that I was only one hour into a potential sixteen hour swim!
The next few hours were all about me settling into a rhythm and warming up. After my second feed of mixed carbohydrate (Maxim) and ginger cordial, I was not able to keep it down and so I decided to switch to 100% Maxim with no flavouring for the rest of the swim. It tastes pretty bland, but I needed to keep it down if I was going to have enough energy to make it. My stroke rate, taken every half hour, sat on 61 strokes per minute, and my crew were busy but happy enjoying the sun.
|Weather closing in
Sadly, the sun did not stick around, and grey clouds rolled over with a few rain showers. By 11am, the good and glassy conditions had turned a bit bumpy and I had to get my head quite high out of the water to breathe without swallowing sea water. The rain continued, which didn't bother me but I did feel guilty for my support crew. They however appeared to be having a great time. Mum and Dad were constantly waving, smiling and taking photos and cheering “Go Tor”. I would love to know how many times they cheered this over the course of the day! Bel was sitting on the foredeck of the boat taking photos, tweeting, facebook posting, managing all the incoming text messages and writing messages from friends and family on the whiteboard while finding time to cheer me on at every opportunity. She had her hands full all day managing the communications. She did an incredible job and did not stop smiling the whole time. She is one incredible sister!
By midday, I was starting to hurt across my back and shoulders. Three weeks of waiting and training in Dover without my normal routine of massage and acupuncture meant my body was not quite as awesome as it should have been. I took some anti-inflammatories and by the next feed, 30 minutes later, I was feeling great again. The next few hours were believe-it-or-not quite enjoyable! I had awesome riddles being messaged to ponder, such as “What can run but can’t walk, and has a mouth but cant speak”. Challenging my mind after five hours of swimming was a welcome relief. From there I moved to songs and song classics to sing in my head that were being suggested by followers of the swim. I felt like a karaoke machine!
We started crossing the shipping lanes and the water became noticeably rougher. Not surprising when you consider how many massive ships and ferries were passing us by and the amount of current that was now in full swing. It was pretty exciting and I felt extremely small in the water in comparison! The turbulent water played havoc with my tummy around this time, and I struggled to keep my next feed down. Probably a combination of swallowing so much sea water mixed with my feed. At around the 7 hour mark I looked up at a ship and saw France for the first time! I yelled out to my crew, I was so excited! I could see it. All I needed to do was get there! The weed started at this point. Long tresses of whip-like seaweed would wind it way around me like string. Later I even had a shipping pallet covered in weed float past me.
Messages coming in from Sydney were entertaining to say the least, and kept my spirits high. Knowing people were following my GPS position update on a map every 10 minutes and responding to Bel’s tweets and posts was a massive lift. It was a Friday night in Australia and Friday day in the UK, so I thought the majority of my supporters would be asleep for half my swim... how wrong I was! Funny stories were coming in: My boss messaged that she had curled up on the couch with popcorn to watch my tracker, other friends were having a “Channel Party”, some of my friends were tracking me from a wedding and my triathlon squad were at the pub cheering. Bel was amazing communicating at feed stops the support and encouragement that was coming in. Her hourly updates on social media on my progress are incredible to look back at.
However, I was still longing for some sunshine on my back. Swimming in 15C water temperatures, even with all the cold water preparation I had done, such as cold showers for a year, gaining 10 kgs, ice baths, training in Melbourne, Texas and San Francisco in sub 15C waters, still wasn't enough. To put it in perspective Annabel was wearing 4x layers of clothes, gloves and beenie and was freezing. I had been cold pretty much the whole day, and I was really starting to wonder where I was at. Feeding every 30 minutes would have enabled me to keep track of how long I had been swimming, but I had lost track of them. One of the tips I had been given for this challenge mentally was to not focus on France, but focus on swimming, feed to feed. All I had to think about was the next 30 minutes. At this point, I was pretty cold, the sun had not been out for ages and I was having a mental battle of “It feels like I have been swimming 8 hours at least, which would be good as I could expect to be about half way, but if I have only been swimming for 6 hours, I’ll be pretty crushed, as there is still a long way to go.”
One of the suggestions in Channel swimming is that the crew never tell the swimmer how far they have to go, because the tides and currents actually force the swimmer to make an “S” curve from England to France. Whilst the direct line is 21 miles/34 kilometers, and the boat pilot can see how far away from France you are at all times, it is extremely hard for them to predict how much time you actually have to swim left, especially as they are not often aware of your speed and how you will perform over such a long period of time, and they also have to take into account the tides and currents that you swim with and across. This was to be my longest swim by far, my previous longest was approx 8.5 hours when I swam from Palm Beach to Manly in June for training.
By 9 hours, I had completely lost track of how many feeds I had had. Thankfully Dad held up a sign not long after saying “It’s 3am in Sydney and the following people are still awake....” My quick calculations worked out I had been swimming for 9.5 hours. I was amazed and stoked. My body was feeling how it should after such a long period of swimming, and not only that, I now had a responsibility to finish this thing and make the night worthwhile to all those people not getting any sleep back home.
My left shoulder was really aching by now. My crew told me to “Toughen up! Nobody ever died of a sore shoulder.” I realised how glad I was that I had spent the last 12 months training myself to breathe bilaterally so that the pressure exerted on my shoulders and neck would be equal on both sides. I was really getting quite cold now, and Mum came to the rescue with a cup of hot chicken vegetable soup on my next feed. It was like nectar from the gods! I had the soup again for the next feed but unfortunately my stomach didn't like two batches of soup in a row and the fish received yet another feed!
|Swimming into sunset
At 10 hours, the rain had set in. It was heavy and very wet for the boat crew. I had some more anti-inflammatories for my shoulder. My stroke rate that had sat steadily at 61 strokes per minute for the last 10 hours, increased to 63 strokes per minute as my stroke shortened to compensate the left shoulder. Despite the rain, there was one beam of sunshine that was shining on the cliffs at France. It felt like it was taunting me as it was hard to determine if I was even getting closer hour after hour. I can see why so many people get disillusioned with actually making it to France, when it doesn’t feel like you are making any progress! What I didn’t realise at this point was the tide had turned and I was being swept down the coast of France. Because I was always pointing at France, it was hard for me to realise that I was being swept to the right quite quickly. I kept swimming, just like the Nemo mantra and enjoyed the sunset! We had a quick visit from the French Customs boat who waved with French authority and thankfully moved on without passport inspection.
|Last feed before sunset in the big blue
At 12.5 hours, the sun set and it was time to change my googles and put the lights on my costume. My boat pilot, Mike, pointed out the white light flashing on shore and told me that if I picked up my pace, I could land there. I said, great, is that Cap Blanc Nez? Whereupon I was corrected, no, that is Cap Gris Nez! Fear and panic hit me. Cap Gris Nez is the southern end point of the French coast for the swim, and the holy grail of landing spots for Channel swimmers. Landing on the Cap is the ultimate, and it takes a skilled pilot to be able to take all the tides, currents and swimmers speed into account to land you directly on that point. If you miss the Cap you can be swept down the French coast as the current is very strong here and have to await the tide to turn to slack water before you can get across and hit French shores. I had assumed that I was heading towards Cap Blanc Nez for the entire duration of the swim, and to find out that I didn't have that safety net got me scared. I knew I had to give it everything now, Mike is the sort of pilot that only tells you to swim when you really need to swim. So I upped my pace to 76 strokes per minute. It was dark and I kept looking up ahead at the lighthouse on Cap Gris Nez, willing it to get closer.
The next hour and a half I continued at pace. I was in a lot of pain and just pushing my body as hard as I could as I knew it was going to be a race to hit shore before the tide swept me too far down the coast. It was pitch black by now, there was no moon, and I was thankful for the light on the side of the boat to assist me with my navigation. The rain set in again and this time brought some fog as well. The French coast felt like it would never come. Finally Mike yelled at me “1200 yards to go”. What the hell is a yard I thought to myself? I took a stab, and figured I had 15 minutes to go. It was in fact double that time. I was really giving it everything I had. My feeds were fast and furious, in fact I think we skipped one as we couldn't afford to stop for the 1 minute it took, I was getting desperate as I could see I was being swept away from the Cap. I saw Dad get ready in his swimmers on the boat and attach his lights. Dad was my support swimmer for the Channel, and had trained for the last 12 months intensely to be that person. Channel rules allow a solo swimmer to be accompanied by another swimmer for one hour in every four hours in the water, but they are not allowed to touch the swimmer. Dad patiently waited all day to join me for a swim when I needed a boost, however his time unfortunately never came. I was concerned I could get worse and require his support and did not want to have used up the opportunity when I didn’t need it. I knew he was going to join me for the last 300m to ensure I got to shore safely as the boat can’t go all the way in, so seeing him ready to swim got me very excited that we were getting closer.
|Lit up like a Christmas Tress
Mike yelled out “700 meters.” My body was screaming in pain, my crew were cheering, the lighthouse wasn’t getting any closer. My stroke rate was 72 strokes per minute. The current was sweeping me. It was taking me twice as long as normal per 100m because of the tide. Finally I heard “500 meters” I can do this, I thought to myself, 10 laps of an Olympic pool. My mind went through all emotions of why I needed to make it to France: I was almost there, I had been swimming for what I thought was about 16 hours, I was so close, I had to finish, I owed it to myself, to my family, to my support, I wanted my life back after 2 years of training and sacrifices, I wanted to be able to drink the Champagne sitting in the fridge in Dover, I wanted to make everyone who contributed to helping me raise over $53,000 for Multiple Sclerosis glad they had supported, I wanted to make my company proud they had allowed me the opportunity to pursue this goal, ....
I started counting my strokes 1,2,3,4,5,6.....100, and again. When I got to 500, Dad was on the bow of the boat yelling at me to change to the other side of the boat. The tide had turned and was really picking up. I was confused why he wasn’t in the water with me yet, it must be farther than I thought to go. Then the boat shined the spotlight on shore and I could finally see the rocks on which I was going to land. I had approximately 100 meters to go. Relief! Within a minute I felt the tide pick me up and start sucking me away from the shore. The relief quickly was replaced by sheer panic and terror. The boat had already been swept away from me and the boat was frantically trying to avoid hitting the rocks and Mike was refusing to let Dad swim as that would place two swimmers at risk, all of which I later learned. I knew now this was the moment that I had to find every last piece of energy I had and hurl it at the French rocks, I had to push through every piece of pain I was enduring because I could see my dream slipping away in front of me and I have never been so scared in my life of watching my goal get ripped out of my hands so close to the finish. I swam with every last piece of raw energy and adrenaline left in me and finally broke through the current and hit the rocks of France at 10.49pm.
I burst into tears. The overwhelming feeling of having made it was not what I had expected. Most people who have reached this point had told me that the finish was the biggest anti-climax of the swim. Mine definitely wasn’t. I was broken, exhausted, hurting all over and the relief is like nothing I have ever known. I stood up and fell over immediately, it was dark and very rocky, and I clambered up onto the rocks. I stood, I waved my arms in the air and waited and finally the siren blew. I had swum to France!
|In tears with Mum after finishing the swim
Tired, exhausted and elated, I clambered back down the rocks and struggled out to the boat. I climbed the ladder and was embraced by my family. I broke down with emotion. It had been the biggest roller coaster of a journey but I had made it. The relief was like nothing I have ever known. My incredible family helped me get out of my swimmers and put on my layers of Icebreaker merino wool clothing to warm up. They were so excited, and so elated. I thanked Mike and the crew and Irene for getting me there and we began the long journey home to Dover.
I had some soup and was immediately violently sick - everything in my stomach, including no doubt the litres of sea water was emptied. Slowly my body began to warm up. My support crew were asleep within minutes. It had been a mammoth day.
My official time was 14 hours 12 minutes.
Words can not express my gratitude and thanks to everyone that made this dream possible. My family are the most incredible supporters one could hope for and I could never have achieved this without them. From the moment I said to them 2 years ago “I have booked a slot to swim the English Channel in July 2012” they have been on board assisting me to achieve this dream. I couldn’t even list the number of things they have all done for me and I am so glad I could share this achievement and goal with them.
My coaches, Vladimir Mravec and Charmian Frend, who have coached me every morning at the pool and spent every Saturday for 4-8 hours supporting myself and other Channel aspirants on our long training swims for the past 12 months, you have gone above and beyond in your role as coaches and I can’t thank you enough for everything you have done for me.
To my training buddies who have kept me swimming and kept me enjoying swimming by having such a fantastic camaraderie at the pool, and at Bondi Beach surf training with BondiFit, the friendships we have developed through our mutual love for swimming and the ocean have been key to me being able to stick to this goal for two years straight. Being able to share this goal with so many other Channel aspirants has been amazing. There are now 14 Channel aspirants currently training with Vlad and Charm to conquer the 34kms to France over the next two years. To our upcoming solo aspirants: Wayne, Ali, Wyatt, Ben, Des, Marty, Justin, Johnny and Tara, your support has been unreal and I have loved being able to share this goal with all of you, and wish you all the best as you set out to conquer it too! To all my Channel supporters and mentors who have made the distance: Cameron, Dougal, Duncan, Helen, Iain, Stuart - your words of advice and support were very reassuring, especially during the waiting period.
To my colleagues at work and my my boss Jenn, words can not express the overwhelming support I have received since I joined the company 18 months ago with this goal firmly on my radar. The company has been incredible across the board with amazing emails of support, constantly being flexible to my training and I have never had any issue putting on weight with the amount of cakes and cookies and rocky road my colleagues have baked for me to assist this challenge. Jenn has been an incredible support and as she sent messages throughout the night supporting me and making me laugh, I knew I was one lucky girl. Not many bosses would forgo sleep on a Friday night to watch a computer screen, and also take on my workload for five weeks so I could achieve this goal.
Taking ownership of my phone after the swim was incredible. I was blown away with the support that had been coming in during the swim, and now with touch down, I was amazed at how many people were still watching the progress until the finish. Bel clearly did an incredible job communicating the swim through its entire duration. She is one hell of a sister, and she even managed to keep my eighty plus year old grandparents awake for most of the night in Sydney watching the tracker on the screen and reading the updates!
My friends have been simply amazing over the course of this challenge. I was blown away and touched by the Facebook posts, it feels like I have truly been able to share this journey across so many areas of my life. Social media has added a whole new element to pursuing a goal, and it has been a great element being able to share that.
|Freda, Barrie and Irene and I on Dover Beach
The Channel swimming community, most whom I initially met through social media such as Twitter, have also been an amazing support. On weekends, 50+ aspiring Channel swimmers descend upon Dover Harbour to train and by joining them I met some incredible people, made some fabulous new friends and really appreciated being looked after by Freda, Michelle, Barrie and Irene. The agonizing wait for two weeks for the weather, was made bearable knowing that there were many others in the same boat. Making face to face friends with people I’d spent six months chatting with on Twitter was such a highlight, none more so than meeting the Irish, who along with us were staying at Varne Ridge Caravan Park.
A goal as big as swimming the Channel brings with it a huge amount of highs and lows. Once you are embedded in a community, you ride the highs and lows with everyone else and they are there for yours. This week had the biggest contrast in highs and lows that you could expect: the high of those who made it, the low for those that didn't and the devastation of the loss of the life of swimmer, Paraic Casey, who was pursuing his dream. Paraic’s death off the coast of France last Sunday morning was a huge shock to us all. Sharing and working for the same goals builds indescribable bonds. We had shared the pain and frustration of playing the weather waiting game together for two weeks at Varne Ridge. We had shared the elation that we were both finally going to swim. My thoughts and love go out to the Sandycove Irish swimmers and Paraic’s wife Riana who welcomed me so warmly into their fold.
|On the Ferry to France!
Post Channel we headed over to France to find my landing spot and enjoyed conditions which can only be described as the best ever day to swim the Channel. The seas were mirrors, the sun was shining and there was not a breath of wind! We are now in Italy getting some sunshine and respite. I am slowly trying to adjust to not being able to eat everything and anything I want! My leg bears a nice scar from when I landed on the rocks on France, which will always remind me of achieving this dream.
I have currently raised over $56,000 for Multiple Sclerosis Australia of which I am extremely proud. Being able to help so many other people whilst achieving my goal has made the achievement all the more meaningful.
Captain Matthew Webb, the first successful swimmer of the English Channel said in 1875, “Nothing great is easy”. I don't think he had any idea how often his words would echo in Channel aspirants and swimmers minds and how they would become a Channel swimming mantra. This has been the hardest challenge in more ways than I can describe but there is no way that I would not have had this experience and I sincerely thank everyone for their support.
|Cap Gris Nez, France - my landing spot found a few days later
|Returned to Varne Ridge Caravan Park to find the Aussie flag flying for me!
|Post swim Champagne breakfast on the White Cliffs of Dover
|David and Evelyn - Varne Ridge proprietors and now lifelong friends
|Signing my name on the roof in the White Horse Pub alongside all other successful Channel swimmers!