How To Conquer A Big Swim

Face Your Fears

“To conquer a big swim you need to embrace the fear it induces” says Cliff Golding

It’s one in the morning on an August night in Dover. Several boats are bobbing about in the sea in a line parallel to and just metres away from the stony shore of Shakespeare beach. Greased up swimmers stand on the ladders at the back of the boats, pausing for last minute photos. They smile smiles that belie the apprehension and nerves that grip their stomachs. The nausea they feel after the 15-minute journey from the marina to the beach is not welcome.

The pilots tell their swimmers to get in. With green light-sticks flashing, and excited shouts from their crew ringing in their ears, they swim to the shore, clear the water and turn around. Some kneel down in silent prayer. Others exchange handshakes with the nearest fellow swimmer. Then it is time and they look up and face towards their boats and France.

It’s done now. Everything has led to this one moment: the hard training the bone gnawing cold of those early season swims, the information gathering and the shared adversity faced with like-minded souls. Blinking into the harsh beam of their boats’ searchlights, each raises an arm to inform the pilot they are ready. 

The starting whistle shrills loudly. The first shock is that the water isn’t colder because it’s night time. It’s the air temperature that might give you a shiver – and the nerves. Now you get the line of your boat and settle into the swim. This can take a while as you deal with the myriad emotions and the enormity of the task you have committed to, the true scale of which might only now be evident. 

Crying is not uncommon – silent tears that nobody else can see. Welcome to one of the loneliest places in extreme sport.


To the pilot, the swimmer is the third engine – the one that determines their speed while they navigate the Channel’s tricky tides and busy shipping lanes. The pilot is essential – no swimmer will make it across with out one – as are the crew and on-board supporters who provide vital nutrition and encouragement. All swimmers should (and most do) acknowledge this, but it is the swimmer who has to put one arm in front of the other until they run out of sea. If you can avoid injury and debilitating sickness, feed well and have good conditions, it all comes down to one thing -mental strength. Do you have the mental fortitude and resolve to swim the English Channel?

Elite athletes often work with sports psychologists to help them overcome mental hurdles but what about us everyday mortals who aspire to swim the Channel and don’t have (usually) access to these services? How do we cope with the mental side of tackling the most prestigious open water swim in the world? How do you get your head right so that you can overcome that dip between five and seven hours as your body starts to convert fat to fuel and rely on the quality and quantity of your feeds? What if you are mentally shot away early into the swim? How do you deal with it?

Understand, first that it is OK to be afraid. Let the fear in. Embrace it. You are trying to swim the English Channel not 40 lengths in a heated pool. It’s a hard core challenge so, of course, it’s scary. Too many swimmers are afraid of being afraid. They think their world has collapsed if anyone sees this fear and that if they implode mentally during a swim then it’s all over.

Break the swim into bite size chunks. Swim only to the next feed and don’t look towards France. If you do that and you are three miles off, two hours later you might still be three miles away but further down the coast.

Visualise a favourite training swim. Choose a time that will take you to the next feed. Work through every aspect of that swim – the markers, buoys, and boats, anything that will get you to that feed.

Dig deep – and keep digging! If you embrace the fear and conquer the demons you will be amazed at what you are capable of. But you have to allow it. A few years ago a very tired swimmer, on completion of a six hour training swim in Dover, remarked how hard it was and wondered aloud what a 12 or 15-hour swim would be like.”Harder”, came the swift reply. And that’s what swimming the English Channel is like – hard.

First Printed In H2Open Magazine (now called Outdoor Swimmer) Feb/March 2013

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