Channel Swimming

on 21st July 2013

Rebecca Tunstall completed the channel swim with her sister in 2009 and went on to lead a team of 6 women doing a relay to France and back in 2010. Her next challenge is the Strait of Gibraltar in 2012. Rebecca also coaches swimming with Thames Turbo Triathlon and Swim for Tri.

Here are Rebecca's top ten tips for channel swimming:

Planning ahead - Ideally book your boat 2-3 years before you plan on doing your swim. This way you will get the best possible chance of a good day. Each week long Channel Swimming window has 4 positions. First position gets the choice of the first good day that week and so on. First positions get booked up years in advance. Don’t worry if you don’t have years to wait though, both my crossings we were in 3rd position, they will set you off, it just means being very flexible and a lot more nail biting! Check out for further information on booking a boat.

Get down to Dover –it’s the holy grail of Channel Swimming. Freda and the team do an amazing job on the beach. You pay a notional sum, usually around £20 a year and for that they will take care of you. The opening of the season is the first weekend in May and well worth attending, however, you can pop along anytime. They provide numbered hats and count you in and out, tell you what swim your doing that day, and provide warm energy drinks for the longer swims (more below). I have heard so many people who think that swimming in the lakes or rivers is adequate preparation; there is no substitute for sea swimming. The vibe on the beach is electric; they are an exceptional bunch of people.

Train Smart - Doing a Channel Swim relay doesn’t mean you have to train seven days a week. The channel is as much a mental process as it is a physical one. If you are a fairly decent pool swimmer you can swim the channel, but can you handle the cold?! Dover swims are highly recommended, most people go on a Saturday, where you can get almost 100 people in the water. Even try and get down there on a couple of Sundays. However, during the week do max 1-2 lake swims. On the beach always listen to Freda, she really knows what she is talking about.

Get a process. Always train with the food and kit that you’re going to use on the day Never introduce anything new on the day!! It’s a learning process. I found cheese didn’t agree with me, for my sister a copious amount of chocolate was a no no. Whereas a friend of ours swore by spare ribs on the beach and on the boat! Everyone is different. As for kit. A good set of goggles is important, make sure they don’t leak and train with them beforehand. You are quite likely to set off at night and swim throughout the day. Tinted goggles are hopeless at 4am in the morning! So take a clear set as well as tinted ones. Next make sure to pack enough swimsuits. You never want to put a wet swimsuit back on, especially if you’re cold. For the day, count how many swims you think your going to do and then pack and extra suit just in case! Beg, steel or borrow them if needs be :)

The Claw. You may experience symptoms of hypothermia while training, especially on your longer swims. We used to call it “The Claw” when you no longer have control of your fingers. Speech will become slurred and you will lose feeling in appendages. You are also likely to be unstable on your feet when you get out of the water. It’s nice to have someone on the beach to help you change in the early days…otherwise it can be quite a challenge. This is all perfectly normal in training. If, however, you can no longer count to ten – get out! It does get better and your body will adapt remarkably quickly.

Keep warm. Either while you’re training or while you’re on the boat, the minute you are out of the water your exposed You need to get yourself warm as quickly as possible and to keep yourself warm. Get out of your wet swimsuit as soon as you can and into your winter gear and sleeping bag. Dover beach is a sea of Eskimos in sleeping bags! Always have a warm drink waiting for you. On the beach they will serve you warm maxim for your longer swims. We bought some ourselves and used to take it to the beach in our thermos flasks and drink it before we got into the water. My mum even got to the stage where she put a scoop into our yogurts for breakfast before leaving the house. It really helps. Warm soup between swims is also a winner.

The Qualifier. Each and every relay swimmer will have to complete a two hour qualifier (6hrs for solos swimmers). Now you CAN do this in a lake, so long as the temperature is below a certain level, however, I highly recommend doing it at Dover. It will be tougher, but far better preparation for the day. Give yourself plenty of time to get this one right. The first year I did a Channel Relay it took me three weeks to crack the 1:30hr mark. It was de-motivating and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But with perseverance went on to do 3hr+ swims – everyone has bad days.

The Team. For relays in particular, try and spend as much time together training as possible Forging a strong team makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable. It becomes less about doing it for yourself and more about doing it for the team. It also means that on the day you know enough about the people you’re with to help them along when it’s dark and cold and they are tired.

The Swim. With the proper training the day seems relatively easy The sea outside Dover harbour is actually warmer than in the harbour, so will seem pleasant and gets warmer and warmer as you near France. It will all pass in a tired daze. One of our crossings was in rough weather, barely a word was spoken all day, but we were all quietly content - other than the sea sickness!! Have a process on the boat, keep the food in one area and always know where your kit is when you get out the water. On our two way crossing we had a buddy system. We each had someone to look after, make sure they got out the water ok, changed and fed. But mainly NEVER EVER forget the sea sickness tables. Even if you think you'll be fine, you’ll thank me for it!

Enjoy it!! If I haven’t put you off so far, go for it! You do have to be tough and determined, it is a challenge that deserves a lot of respect. However, it really is a life changing experience and one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. Next year will be my fourth year on Dover beach and I can’t wait.