Channel Crossing Author: HENRY HENDRON
Since Captain Matthew Webb became the first man to swim the Channel on 24th August 1875, in just under 22 hours, many have sought to better the quickest crossing time of the world busiest shipping lane, using a multitude of craft and an array of tools. Many have succeeded, many have failed and some have even died during the hazardous thirty four kilometre crossing.
For the canoeist, the challenge of kayaking the channel is extreme. The challenge of engulfing standing waves, the challenge of what can be severe wind, frequent rough seas, and tough currents. This is the lure of the English Channel.
I had sought to take on this extraordinary task after kayaking across the Solent and paddling around the Isle of Wight with my brother Richard and Oliver Blackwell from the Black Rabbit Canoe Club in West Sussex. However it was only while working in the House of Commons and trying to raise money for charity by canoeing into work every morning from Richmond to Westminster, that my mind was made, mainly because it was going to be an excellent fund raiser for a small charity called JOLT, which I was raising money for. With this in mind I sprang to work with research on the metrics and requirements of kayaking the English Channel. I soon discovered that it wasn't going to be as easy as I first thought.
My research took me to the Channel Crossing Association (CAA), the governing body of attempts to cross the channel. Then to Guinness, the world record keepers. From them I learnt that we were going to need to employ two safety boats, which would cost the best part of two thousand pounds, but on the positive side we also realised that a world record was up for the taking, and within our grasp, this proved incredibly motivating!
I set about organising the attempt to cross the English Channel, an attempt to set a new world record. It was going to be a team achievement with my brother Richard and friend Oliver Blackwell forming the party. The team was arranged, the motivation was in place, but safety boats were needed as a requirement of Guinness if they were to accept the record. After a few phone calls and a bit of sales talk, DHL -the world wide parcel carrier- came aboard as our official sponsor. With the finance sorted we were able to hire the two support boats and crew needed for the voyage, which we did via the Channel Crossing Association. Now we had to think about the boats we were going to paddle.
Initially we were keen on the idea of paddling Wave Hoppers or White Water Racers. These boats would be a lot lighter than sea kayaks, a lot more stable than K1's and easy to role if necessary. However after consultation with Richmond's own WWR guru, Sean Martin, we were persuaded that Sea Kayaks were the only answer, at least on the first attempt!. Oliver was now tasked, By begging, borrowing and steeling, with arranging the Sea kayaks!
We had done the training, sorted out a sponsor, secured kayaks and organised a contingent of motor boats and officials, and in the process we had raised some money for charity, now all we had to do was to paddle cross country!
The channel, like most seas, is a tad unpredictable. You cant just pitch up on the day on the off chance that no storm is brewing and hope that the weather is good enough to paddle it, commonsense and safety dictate to the contrary. The process is that you supply the Skipper of the lead boat with a series of dates that you can do, and the evening before each date he will call you up with a synopsis of the weather for the coming day and either yea's or nay's the go ahead based on the weather. Its all a bit last minute.
I had given skipper Dave Whyte, the chap who was to lead the safety boat contingent from the CAA, a series of dates, with the preferred one being Saturday 28th June. That week I began each morning with a short phone call to skipper Dave Whyte for a low-down on the weather. Dave being at the higher end of middle age, a composed man of few words, who had obviously grown up on the channel and was quite clearly as expert as you can find, was not even himself able to second guess the weekends weather. "Its always changing" was the common response when my line of inpatient questioning invariably turned to forecasting the sea and heavens. On the Thursday before the scheduled Saturday departure, Dave (speaking on his mobile phone out at sea in what sounded like a force 5 gale!) had pledged to call me on Friday evening with the latest weather forecast which was to decide whether we go the next morning or not.
At 1900 hrs on Friday, I still hadn't heard from skipper Dave, I assumed the worst, I called Dave, where a hesitant voice answered. Dave hadn't had the final forecast in yet, but he was doubtful about the crossing. He relayed that the wind was picking up in Dover and the skipper of the other boat had heard that it was going to get a lot worse. None the less he would wait for the official forecast and confirm that the crossing was off later. Within half and hour Dave had called me back to report that a "low pressure was coming in". I hadn't the foggiest what this meant, but thankfully, after some initial doubt, it meant that the record breaking crossing was on. It was going to be a windy crossing, but it was still going to be a crossing, and with that a new world record.
The next day, on a breezy and grey Saturday morning, we gathered at an equally grey Dover Marina. Assembled were the Hendron duo of myself and Richard, my sister Samantha who was acting photographer for the event, police man Steve Betts, a fellow canoeists from Richmond who was to act as our time keeper, and an array of about ten crew and assistants from the channel crossing association. It was a bit of a picnic!
After having the sea kayaks inspected for Sea worthiness, we had a short briefing, introduced all to all and donned our bright yellow embossed DHL caps and polo shirts, courtesy of our sponsors. After a few customary photos we were ready and rearing to go.
The two shortest points across the English Channel are from Shakespeare beach to Cap Griz-Nez. This was our route. Shakespeare Beach is a long shingle beach set in a bay, near Shakespeare Cliff. There are deep pools and a wavecut platform towards the cliff end of the beach, something of an attraction to fish. On the day anglers dotted the coast line and waves battered the cliffs. A nervous apprehension took told as we prepared to set sail.
Sitting in our kayaks on the seas edge, we waited anxiously for the safety boats to appear from the harbour. Once in sight, small hands, bobbing up and down with the boats, waved go. We were off.
Excitement, eagerness and determination, drove us all to an early sprint (sprint in a sea kayak is a difficult thing to achieve). As the white cliffs became smaller in the backdrop the muddy shores of France were not quick to show themselves ahead. Our sprint soon became a DW plod, with frequent slap support and high brace to fend off the pulls of gravity, as winds threw us and waves thundered the boat
After the first mile, the excitement weaned, the novelty subsided and the tedium grew. Once you have seen one bit of open sea you have pretty much seen it all. There is only two visually interesting phases to sea kayaking, the start and the finish, the trick is to keep the time between the two as short as possible!
The English Channel, being the busiest shipping lane in the world, did however give us plenty of passing boats to look at. None more inspiring that the SeaCat, which frequently and modesty roared past unforgiving in its determination to get to land (we could now understand that sentiment!). In its wake the SeaCat left a mixture of rough water and exciting surf. Directly behind it, spray of 15 feet high marked its passing. Its certainty ao get to land (we could now understand that sentiment!). In its wake the SeaCat left a mixture of rough water and exciting surf. Directly behind it, spray of 15 feet high marked its passing. Its certainty an awesome sight and was a welcome break of the monotony of what is sea kayaking.
Meanwhile onboard Skipper Dave's boat, police man and time keeper Steve Betts had rediscovered his childhood penchant for sea sickness. For twenty minutes police man Steve lay half draped over the side of the boat with offerings of last nights dinner to the sea! It seemed Steve was having a tougher time than we were.
We caught sight of France a couple of miles before the halfway mark. An inspiring moment. With parallels to the start, the excitement and deception of how close France was, drove us into sprint mode in the insane belief that we would be on a French beech in any second. Similar to our early sprints, it wasn't long before we rediscovered the DW plod mode!
The only other excitement came when Richard began complaining about a sinking sensation he was having in his boat, a complaint that I put to rest with the words "just paddle". Just paddle he did, and in so doing became progressively slower, until in the end we were forced to raft up, where we whipped off his spray deck and were met with the sight of a paddling shoe floating above his knees, if he did as I had initially suggested and 'just paddled', within ten minutes he would be have sank! A mid sea empty was going to have to be tried and with out the help of the support boats as Guinness World Record Rules for crossing the channel is that you are unaided, this meant that we were going to have to empty Richards boat ourselves without help. This involved three supposedly simply steps.
Step one: Get Richard out of the Boat - after some persuading and a push he was out!. Step Two: Turn the boat over- we did this ending up with more water in the boat than before. Step Three: Raise boat over other kayak and heave- easier said than done. Sea Kayaks are heavy enough without water in, with water in its like tugging at a whale! Despite a bit of a palaver we were emptied and ready to push on. France was getting nearer.
One of the toughest things about crossing the Channel is that for over ten miles France seems only a stones throw away, when the reality is otherwise. You develop a feeling that your wasting your energy, paddling hard, fixed on a landscape ahead that seems to be moving away as one moves forward. There is no appreciation of the ground one is making as it is difficult to measure how fast you are really going ,since, apart from the French horizon, there is nothing else to judge your speed by.
Eventually we neared the French coast. Four hours had elapsed since we headed off from the UK.. Now, unlike the start, when we were full of excitement and energy like intrepid explorers. we had become exhausted, sun burnt, bored and hungry, but as we landed on French soil none of that mattered, it was almost like the rush and sensation of completing a non stop DW, when the pain and the exhaustion disappear as you cross the finish line at Westminster Bridge. We had successfully completed the Channel Crossing, and with it we had set a new world record of the quickest time across the channel in single kayaks. The preparation, the planning and the training had all paid off. A record had been set, over £1ooo had been raised for charity, and a good time was had by all.
Thankfully we didn't have to paddle back to the UK, we jumped in our support boats and drifted back to Dover, smug in the satisfaction of completing the 18.2 nautical miles that sits in-between the Shakespeare Beech in the UK and Cap Gris Nez, France - the shortest distance between England and France. It's a distance that remains one of the hardest and most prestigious endurance challenges in the world, whether its swam, sailed or kayaked.
Some months after our crossing, our elation at gaining what Guiness had told us was a new world record, suddenly came to crashing to a halt, with a letter stating that although at the time of crossing they thought we were the new record holders, it had since come to their attention of a successful quicker attempt in the 1970's. So alas victory snatched, but we had still paddled the channel, an acheivement in itself"