It was in October 2018, while on holiday in Aviemore, that Caroline Connor announced to her husband Grahame that she wanted to swim the English Channel. After a slight delay in responding, he casually replied: “Ok!”
Caroline, 48, was already a keen swimmer and had swum the length of Loch Lomond and Loch Awe. She said: “I felt confident that I could achieve this challenge if I put in some harder training although I was under no illusion that swimming to France would be the hardest swim I would do. I was prepared to put in the work.”
The swim was then booked for June 2019 and after some serious training throughout the winter, Caroline, of Peebles in the Scottish Borders, felt ready.
Caroline and Grahame headed to Dover a few days before the swim “window”, but sadly the weather wasn’t hopeful.
Caroline said: “It was lovely and sunny but the winds were a bit strong. It was looking good for the end of that week and after several false starts – with pilot saying ‘let’s swim’ and then a few hours later saying, ‘winds picked up, no swim’ – on the last day of my window, on the Friday, there was a potential to start at midnight. Hooray, we were finally getting to go!
“Unfortunately, my coach left Dover the day before my swim, which left only Grahame to monitor and feed me throughout my swim so it was going to be a tough ask of him but I was 100 per cent confident that he would rise to the challenge.”
But as soon as the boat left Dover harbour to head to the starting point, a 30-minute ride away, Grahame was violently sick.
Caroline said: “I didn’t think too much about it at first as I felt a bit queasy too but put it down to nerves. Two minutes later, he was sick again and again and again. At this point, Grahame was on the deck of the boat and looked very ill.
“I was then asked to get ready to swim. I did as I was asked and, with Grahame still horizontal on the floor, I jumped in without any communication from him.”
Swimming in the dark – and bad weather
Swimming in the dark wasn’t Caroline’s preferred choice but when it comes to Channel swimming she knew she needed to do exactly what the pilot said.
But after 2hrs 35mins, without any feeds, the observer stopped Caroline. She said: “I was told I had to make the decision about Grahame. He was still on the floor and he was very ill. Even though I was very frustrated I knew I had absolutely no choice. Grahame was ill and we needed to return to Dover. That was my swim over.”
Despite this setback, Caroline booked in for the following year, for October 2020. She said: “Sadly, we didn’t even make it down to Dover because the forecast was bad and no boats were going out. In October, the water and air temperature starts to get a bit cooler and, by mid-October the season is over, so it was another disappointment.”
Looking ahead to 2021
The Covid pandemic combined with tricky weather meant further heart break for Caroline in 2021.
She said: “Again, in the last day of my Channel swim window at 11pm, I was given the green light to go. It was finally going to happen. But I didn’t quite believe it until I was actually on the boat and heading to the start point.
“No, Grahame was not on the boat! He was firmly on dry land.”
As the boat left the harbour, it started to toss and turn with waves spilling over the top. Then, five minutes later the pilot announced: “No swimming.”
Caroline said: “I was relieved yet distraught. It was another no-go.”
Once she was back on land, Caroline said she didn’t want to go through the stress again. She added: “It was so hard to deal with and the emotional stress was taking its toll and I decided that was it.
“We arrived back in Peebles a few days later still upset and feeling down but I started swimming in the pool again, which is always a great stress reliever for me.”
Ten days later, feeling more composed and coming to terms with the disappointment, Caroline was offered another window, with a few hours to decide.
She said: “I said yes, without a doubt or without thinking about i , even though I had said never again.”
English Channel swim success
This time, Caroline didn’t tell anyone, apart from family and a few very close friends.
She said: “We headed back to Dover on the Monday morning and on Tuesday July 21 at 6.30am I started swimming. I was actually in the water swimming and it felt amazing. I was swimming to France and no way was I getting out the water!
“The water was warm, the air temp was warm, I was feeding well and everything felt good, until… I hit a field of seaweed. This was thick heavy jelly fish covered seaweed.
“After some attempts at getting myself untangled from it I pulled all the muscles in my left shoulder. It hurt. In fact it didn’t hurt, it was agony. The longer I continued, the worse it got but I knew that if I said anything I would be pulled out and that was not happening.”
At this point Grahame was being sent videos and updates by Caroline’s coaches on the boat and he knew his wife was struggling because her stroke looked “odd”. Caroline said: “He just prayed that it would hold out for the rest of the swim.”
And 16 hours, 18 minutes later, she arrived at Wissant Beach, France. Caroline said: “I was a Channel swimmer. I had swam across the English Channel!
“Once I was on the beach, I started to feel a bit sick and the pain in my shoulder was the worst pain I have ever felt. Now that I had stopped swimming I couldn’t move it. It just wouldn’t work and it was agony.
“As I was assisted back into the boat all I could do was yell, ‘Please don’t touch my arm.’
“On the 2.5-hour journey back to Dover if I wasn’t being sick I was sleeping, or trying to sleep. Lying on the floor of a boat is not a comfortable experience.
“The sight of Grahame’s face when we arrived back at the harbour is something that will live with me forever. His smile was so huge and he just couldn’t take it off his face. It was then it really felt real – that I had done it and I was over the moon.
“I was shattered and desperately needed a shower to warm me up. We eventually went to bed at 3am but I couldn’t sleep. I was still ‘moving’.
“My shoulder was also so painful and I couldn’t get comfortable so I decided to get up and at least let Grahame get some sleep.
“By 7am we were both up and about looking at all the amazing messages that had been sent congratulating us on my swim. I say ‘us’ because the swim wouldn’t have been possible without Grahame’s support so everything I do is a team effort.”
The couple went to Dover harbour mid-morning to see Caroline’s coaches and some other swimmers and again the reality of what she had achieved hit home.
Caroline said: “So many people have asked me, ‘What’s next?’ Right now I’m not sure but it will be something exciting and it will be next year, so watch this space…”
How to swim the English Channel
Swimming the English Channel is not as simple as jumping in the sea and setting off. For safety, you need to have a pilot boat. There are some 12 pilots based in the Dover and Folkestone area. These pilots work with different groups. In many cases, swimmers need to book a pilot years in advance to secure a swim slot a week’s window.
Then, as you have read above, that allocate window can be affected by weather and the sea conditions.
- Caroline swims with The Kings Swimmers.
- CS&PF Channel swimming and Piloting Federation
- Channel Swimming Association
- Channel Crossing Association
- Kent Coastal Swimming Challenges