A CHILDHOOD DREAM AND THE LIFE IT GAVE

Catherine Stefanutti; occasion: completion of swim from Jersey to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

This is an article by invitation. Catherine Stefanutti is a South African swimmer based in England. An experienced Channel swimmer, she was a valuable late entrant to Team HOPE, the group of swimmers from Mumbai who successfully crossed the English Channel in relay format in July 2019. Here Catherine writes about how her love for open water swimming started, her journey to date in the field and suggestions she has for those planning to attempt the English Channel.

It was more than four decades ago that my coach in South Africa showed his squad of swimmers a newspaper article about somebody who had just swum the English Channel. I was then 12 years old. I instinctively told him that one day, I too would achieve the crossing. Growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of focus on sport within schools. There was a strong competitive environment between schools and good opportunities to participate at a reasonably high level. Born into a family of swimmers, I was a reasonably good swimmer and did swim competitively in my youth. I did well in competitions although not at the level of my siblings. My brother Andy for instance, swam for South Africa.

Andy was a really talented all round swimmer. He held South African national school records for several years in the 200m and 400m Individual medley and 100m and 200m butterfly.  He was selected for the South African team in the late seventies, a notorious time when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Unfortunately  because of this Andy and other South African sportspersons never had the chance to participate in this great international arena. After school, Andy’s swimming talent took him to Indiana University in America, where he trained with coach Doc Counsilman (also coach to the US Olympic team, including Mark Spitz). He later moved to Louisiana University to complete his degree in Geology and continued to swim for the university squad until his final months of study, when he gave up swimming to focus on academics.

Notwithstanding my stated objective of crossing the English Channel, in my late teens, I gave up swimming. As I got older and moved on to university, the hours spent pounding up and down a pool lost appeal, and gradually fizzled out.

Andy, Christine and Catherine after their swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many years later, I moved to England. My sister Christine encouraged me to give open water swimming a shot. Christine had been participating in open water events in South Africa for a few years. It had rekindled her love for swimming and she was doing very well.  When she suggested that I join her for an event at London’s Docklands, I loved the idea.  I went for a few refresher sessions with my kids’ swimming teacher and took it from there.  I surprised myself by swimming the event in good time and so the journey began.That was the beginning of my journey to open water swimming. We – Christine and I – commenced by entering organized events like the Great London Swim, South Africa’s Midmar Mile and various Thames River swims. From that, we progressed to sea swims. Soon, we were looking for bigger challenges. The first of these was the Hellespont Europe to Asia swim in Turkey. A couple of years later, we swam the slightly easier Bosphorus (Asia to Europe). Then I swam the 17 km-length of Lake Windermere.

Meanwhile the old promise of crossing the English Channel resurfaced. Even with all the open water swimming I had done, this was an enormous challenge. What changed the equation was the realisation that the Channel could be swum in relay format. I felt sure that doing it this way was manageable and would ` tick the box,’ to fulfil my childhood dream. In 2014, Christine and I, along with a friend, joined a charity team to swim across the Channel as a six person-relay. Crossing done and that box in mind ticked, I was back in 2015, this time as part of a five person-relay team assembled by my coach Tracey Baumann. In 2016, I returned again for a third crossing. The occasion was special; it was a three person-relay team featuring my sister, my brother and I. Notwithstanding these three relay crossings there was still a niggle that I knew would go away only if I attempted a solo . The one thing that stood between me and the solo, was utter fear. I lacked confidence. Yet I knew alongside that I would nurse regret if I didn’t try.

Catherine; from her solo swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

I needed tiered progress to my objective. Emma France, a Channel swimmer who runs the Dover Channel Training group, suggested that I build up my confidence by first swimming from Jersey to France, a shorter, gentler crossing (approx. 26 km). Jersey is a British Crown dependency located near the coast of Normandy, France. Among islands in the Channel, it is second closet to France after Alderney. In August 2017 I successfully did this crossing in a time that surprised me and built my confidence. Still I was hesitant to book a slot for an English Channel crossing. So instead, I booked to swim around Jersey in July 2018.  This is an iconic 65 km swim; it is very tough but aided by the fast-moving tides around the island. No sooner had I booked this swim than Emma France approached me to say that somebody had cancelled their slot with Channel Pilot Neil Streeter and she was offering first option to take the place.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse (English Channel swims are heavily booked, and one normally has to book with a pilot at least two years in advance). I was now faced with the challenge of two major swims booked within two weeks of each other – the enormity of this task was just the push I needed to focus and prepare.

The bulk of my training was on weekends, with the Dover Channel Training Group in Dover. They offer endurance training and full support for aspiring Channel swimmers. The training was complemented by a few sessions with their sister group, Durley Sea Swims, set on the South Coast in Bournemouth. The support given by these groups was invaluable. On 13 July 2018 I successfully swam around Jersey. Exactly three weeks later, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming from England to France, crossing the English Channel solo.

All sports come with associated community of aficionados. It is no different in open water swimming. You meet people sharing the same interest in swimming and wishing to tackle objectives therein. In 2019, Team HOPE from India due for an attempted crossing of the Channel in July confronted an unexpected development. Theirs was a four person-relay. One of their swimmers – Samiir Wheaton – had to withdraw leaving them a swimmer short. Mere weeks remained to allotted time frame for the crossing. Given the limited time it seemed wise to scout for a replacement in the UK. A swimmer from there would be already used to the cold Channel waters. If someone was recruited in India then that person would have to go through the whole process of training in cold water; he / she would also have to do the obligatory two hour-qualifying swim in 16 degrees Celsius water. Against this backdrop, my friend Deepthi Indukuri, who is a Total Immersion swim coach in Mumbai, asked me if I would be interested to join Team HOPE as Samiir’s replacement. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get back into the English Channel.

Catherine after her solo swim to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many people think that if you have swum the Channel solo then a four person-relay should be easy. This is certainly not the case. A Channel relay comes with different challenges to a solo and one should never underestimate how tough it is. I met my team (Team HOPE) – the others were Zarir Baliwalla, Moiz Rajkotwala and Sudarshan Chari – a few times in the days before the crossing. The weather was unstable that week and the swim kept getting postponed or called off. Such uncertainty causes a lot of angst for swimmers; they are forced to wait. Finally, on the evening of July 11, our pilot Reg Brickell gave the go-ahead to attempt the crossing early next morning. On July 12, the swim started just after sunrise in reasonable conditions, which gradually worsened as the day progressed. By the time the team reached the French shipping lane, the weather had changed dramatically.  A strong wind working against a strong tide created large waves causing boat and swimmers to be tossed around in the cold water. The team did what they had to – dig deep and push hard through the tides. Fifteen hours after we started from England, we eventually landed on a sandy beach in France.

What an adventure we had, what a team we made. We started as strangers and now have a lifelong bond through achieving this great challenge together. Indeed, one of the things I love most about the open water swimming community is how swimmers from around the world are brought together by circumstance.  For some reason, I have repeatedly found a connection with swimmers from India. Some years ago, I met Deepthi Indukuri in a Masters swimming group, while she was training to become a Total Immersion Coach.  Deepthi was in the UK at the time, completing her Master’s degree. When she returned to India, she retained her strong connection with the group.

Catherine with members of Team HOPE. From left: Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla, Catherine and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

In 2017, I spent most weekends of the summer training with the Dover Channel Training community, training for my Jersey to France solo swim.  Here I met Sameer Patil who had taken a three month sabbatical to come and train in the UK, in preparation for his English Channel solo that September. Sameer and I regularly swam together, we were a similar pace and I enjoyed training with him. My approach to training can be rather casual but Sameer was extremely driven and focussed. This pushed me to work harder and I really benefitted from that. During the season, Sameer often encouraged me to think about swimming the English Channel solo, something I was still afraid to commit to.

On 16 September 2017 Sameer Patil successfully swam the English Channel. As is tradition, a Channel swimmer picks up a pebble on the beach where he or she lands and takes it home as a well-earned trophy.  However, Sameer landed on a sandy beach in the middle of the night; he could not find a pebble in the dark.  Before he returned to India, I told him that I would plan a day trip to France and find him a pebble on the beach where he landed. His answer to me was very clear: No Catherine, I want you to swim to France to get my pebble.  I can honestly say that his words stuck in my head and played a big role in my decision to go for it (I did swim to France and got us both a pebble).

I have had the pleasure of meeting several Indian swimmers who have come to train in Dover, including amazing swimmers like Vandita Dhariyal. I never expected to become part of an Indian team swimming the English Channel. It was a great honour for me when this opportunity arose. I became a proud member of Team HOPE.

Catherine swimming for Team HOPE (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Suggestions for those aspiring to swim the English Channel

If you are interested in swimming the English Channel as a team or individual, the first step is to book a pilot and boat. There are two official Channel Swimming Organisations and each has a list of registered pilots.  Pilot information and contact details can be found on the websites of these organisations, either the Channel Swimming Association (www.channelswimmingassociation.com) or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (www.cspf.co.uk).  Channel crossings are done from mid-June to end September so there are only a limited number of places.  People book their slots up to three years in advance, although if you want to go sooner it is worth contacting the pilots as they do sometimes have cancellations.  Both websites contain lots of vital and useful information about Channel swimming.

Once you have booked your swim, it is time to start with the preparation and training. Cold water acclimatisation is a big factor and it is advisable to start with short swims in very cold water, gradually building up to longer swims as the water warms up.  In India the biggest challenge is finding cold water.  Some Indian swimmers have attended cold water swim camps around the world whilst others will plan to spend time before their swim in the UK to swim with the Dover Channel Training group.  In order to swim the Channel, it is obligatory to complete a qualifying swim in water temperature below 16 degrees Celsius.  Relay swimmers need to complete a two hour-qualifying swim, whilst solo swimmers need to complete six hours.  Training should be a combination of long swims as well as regular pool training and general fitness.

Channel swimmers’ tradition – signing on the wall of Fleurs pub in Dover (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Swimming in a relay is great preparation for a solo swim as you will experience the conditions and challenges of the English Channel first hand. Obviously a solo swim is more demanding than a relay, both physically and mentally. However, both have unique challenges and a relay should never be underestimated.  A relay requires team members to swim in rotation till reaching France.  This means doing an hour of swimming, getting out, warming up and preparing to enter the cold water again for the next hour swim; repeating this until you reach France.  There are stringent rules to adhere to in order for the swim to be recognised.  Each time you return to the water, you need to prepare mentally for the hour ahead.  Whilst on the boat a big challenge is seasickness.  Pilot boats are small vessels travelling at a swimmer’s pace, which means a lot of rocking motion and many relays have been aborted due to swimmers being too ill to carry on. Preparing for this is essential and there are various medications available. These need to be tested for side effects beforehand.  Most crossings will involve swimming in the night and swimmers will need to prepare mentally for this.

It is beneficial to train in conditions similar to the Channel but it is not always practical to do so. It is a good idea to join open water swimming groups and take every opportunity to swim in open water.  It is also useful to become part of a Channel swimming community through social media as you can always draw on other people’s experiences and expertise.  Dover Channel Training is a good example of such a group, as is the Outdoor Swimming Society.

(The author, Catherine Stefanutti, is a Channel swimmer based in England. She is “ a full time mum (two teenagers), part time swimming teacher and company director for our family construction business.’’ For more on Team HOPE please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/)

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