George Thornton English Channel Swim : SWIM DAY, Part 2

This will be my final posting about Dad’s/George’s English Channel Swim. As promised, this is a bit more about the swim day itself, plus a few final thoughts.

I’ve posted all of the day’s photos here:

We left the hotel at 7:00am and drove to the marina, where the Anastasia and her crew were waiting for us on the loading docks. Several other boats were also there preparing to take swimmers out.

Our CS&PF official observer for the swim was Kevin Murphy. Kevin is known as the “King of Channel,” as he has 34 crossings including three two-ways. See:

As we cruised out of the marina, Mom and Joe helped Dad get himself covered in Lanolin, which is a wool grease used to protect the skin from the water, and Desitin on his back and face for sun protection.

Throughout most of the day, we had water temps in the 16.7C – 16.9C range, and air temps in the 16C – 18C range. It was partly cloudy, with few winds — in fact, most of the time the winds were so low that they didn’t register on the boat’s onboard system. The swells were of a decent size, but virtually no waves. In other words, a beautiful day for a Channel swim.

We reached Shakespeare Beach a few moments later, and Dad jumped in the water to swim the 200 yards to shore. After clearing the water and standing up — no small feat, given the beach’s steep incline and shifting rocks — Dad started his swim at 8:50am.

As you can see from his route here,, the current initially took us south toward the town of Folkstone. While we were close to the English coast, it was relatively easy to tell how fast the current was pushing us laterally.

Dad planned on a fueling (feeding) schedule of every 30 minutes, alternating 2 feedings of Maxim (a high energy / high protein drink) and 1 feeding of chocolate milk. Periodically he would also rinse his mouth with Listerine or a chloraseptic. We maintained that schedule diligently by giving Dad a 10-minute warning, followed by a bottle (attached to a rope) dropped into the water for him. The first 2-3 feedings was a learning process for both me, as the bottle and rope handler, and Dad, who would float on his back while kicking his feet so as not to drift too far from the boat. A couple of times we got the water too hot, and a couple of times Dad took in a mouthful of seawater as he tried to drink, but we got the hang of it and most of his feedings went smoothly and quickly.

We had also workout a communications plan in advance. Dad couldn’t hear us while swimming, of course, so we (mainly Joe) used a few simple hand signals to indicate stroke hand position, body position, stroke rate, feeding time, trouble, etc. Dad breaths on his left, so the pilot kept the boat on Dad’s left side and he could see us up on deck fairly well. During feedings, we would shout a few key items to him, such as motivational phrases, “21 for 21” donor names, names of friends who were “swimming along” with him, data such as time and stroke rate, and so forth. At most of his feedings, Dad would make some joke, talk about the jellyfish he was seeing, and ask questions. At one point, Dad asked us how we were doing, which we all thought was very funny (we were specifically instructed to NOT ask how he was doing).

Throughout his swim, Dad maintained a consistent 52-54 stroke per minute cadence. At one point he dipped to 50, but overall it was a remarkably consistent rate for over 9 hours. Since the feedings came every 30 minutes, those of us on deck didn’t have a lot of “free” time. We always made sure to have at least one person on the railing watching Dad, so he was never “alone,” but most of the time 3-6 of us were there.

We saw several types of jellyfish float by, some as small as a golf ball and others whose bodies were the size of a soccer ball with 3-4 foot long tentacles. Dad mentioned coming into contact with only one jelly, which he said stung him gently on one arm. In the mid-Channel zone that separates the two shipping lanes, Dad swam through a debris field of seaweed and trash — not a lot, but it seemed to be a still area where the stuff collected.

There are two shipping lanes through the English Channel. In the one closer to the English coast, the boats travel southwest (toward the Atlantic Ocean), while in the zone closer to the French coast the boats travel northeast, or toward Northern Europe. After several hours of swimming away from England through the inshore zone, Dad entered the S/W shipping lane at 1:45pm. We saw a couple of tankers, a few large cargo ships, and a barge towing a sea platform pass in front of or behind us. By now we had caught a more northeasterly current. Photos attached.

At 5:34pm, Dad had cleared the S/W shipping lane and entered the separation zone. At this point, the sun had dipped low enough in the sky that it was no longer providing much warmth. In addition, a breeze had picked up, enough to cause those of us on deck to put on jackets. Also at this point, my perspective on our position changed as we dramatically appeared to be much further from the English coast and much closer to the French side.

That breeze, in turn, started to cause waves to start to build. Dad reported later that around that time he started to struggle a bit with the waves. Joe noticed that Dad’s stroke mechanics started to falter slightly, but that his body position remained solid and he kept making good forward progress.

Still, we didn’t get concerned as there were no other indications of trouble. It suddenly all came unravelled. I wrote about the final moments in my Part 1 post.

The next day, the four of us met for lunch to discuss Dad’s question, “What went wrong?” There are, of course, many factors that can onset hypothermia. Age is a big one. Dad didn’t do the amount of cold water training this year that he did last year. There is growing anecdotal evidence that endurance swimmers encounter a 9th hour energy cycle. Dad’s intake of fuel (calories) had diminished over the final few feedings, as an increasing amount of fluid went into the sea rather than his stomach. Dad’s cancer surgery may have been a factor on 2 levels: first, the internal trauma of the surgery itself; and second, the fact that he no longer has a prostate to produce testosterone. Dad’s stroke rate, while consistent, is relatively slow and therefore perhaps he wasn’t generating sufficient heat. Etc. Obviously, it would be impossible to determine which, if any, of the many factors was the primary culprit.

Though I understand the nature of Dad’s question, I remarked at the time that I thought a more productive question would be, “What went right?” He created a solid attack plan, which he executed. He organized his support crew, and we were ready and there to facilitate his action. All of his logistics were considered and well organized. In other words, he put himself in a position to succeed, and ultimately he swam brilliantly for over 9 hours in cold, northern waters.

Dad took us all on an incredible journey. He set a lofty goal, and strove to achieve it. Many of you have written to me, or posted on Facebook, about how Dad’s endeavor has inspired you. I have read and collected them all on Dad’s behalf. He will want to read them soon, I’m sure.

A good friend of mine reminded me of one of my favorite speeches (it has always been on my Facebook profile), which Teddy Roosevelt gave in 1910 in France. This is the critical passage, commonly referred to as “The Man in the Arena”:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Dad will be depressed about not completing the swim for a long time. That’s OK. Those are absolutely legitimate feelings, and should neither be dismissed nor minimized.

Eventually, I believe he will come to realize that it is good to set high goals and then strive to achieve them. Despite the probability and risk of failure, it is worth the time, effort, and sacrifices to reach for the sky. Although we may suffer the pain and heartbreak of not achieving our goals, our lives are most dramatically enriched by dreaming big and going for it.

I shared a few of your messages and inspiring posts with Dad on Friday, and he said that they are no small consolation. Even then he started to believe that if his endeavor inspired you in some positive way, that it made it all worthwhile.

I couldn’t be prouder of my father. He has been one of my true and enduring role models. I love you, Dad.


Reminder: the full blog is maintained here


2 Responses

  1. Hi George and family,

    I have been following your progress with interest as a swimmer and a coach. I swam with Eddie last year and was pulled due to hypothermia after 9.5 hours, so know all about the trials and tribulations of the channel.

    This year I was back as a coach and was proud to get both swimmers across, including Don Riddington, the oldest Aussie at 68. He swam with Eddie, whom we have commended as a pilot.

    Congratulations on lining up, getting in, showing bravery and putting yourself on the line and into the battle. Someone posted “The man in the Arena” quote on my blog last year and it rang very true. Your courage is even greater having just recovered from serious surgery and being a little older than most lining up.

    I salute you as a man, a swimmer, a father and an adventurer. May you recover from the experience and hold your head up high for what you have done. No matter what anyone says or thinks, you are an example to many of how to live without fear.

    Keep well , be happy and enjoy the return to family, friends and loved ones.

    Grant Siedle, Melbourne, Australia.

  2. Thank you all so much for including me in George’s Swim. I really appreciated all the communications, the chance to be on the docket to “swim the channel with him”, to share in some of the training swims, to hear about the plans….It was a wonderful and impressive experience…. I was so much into it that when I took my two granddaughters to Pinot’s Pallet for a first time experience painting with acrylics on canvas on the Eve of George’s Swim, my brush dipped into the blue and white and stroked very freestyle a white capped sea with a very distant hint of land (France) on the horizon. This scene was not at all what had been given to me for my initial painting, but I really think my vicarious experience (without the hardships) of George’s Swim flowed through to the canvas!! Hank likes the painting so much , he has propped it up against the wall in front of his favorite chair! WOW! That’s a notch above the refrigerator door gallery!

    I have known others who have done the Channel, but never has the endeavor so generously been opened to the community as was George’s Swim. That was unique and wonderful and what made it special way beyond any mere record! You all have really taught me what sharing is. Karen Zentgraf

    Sent from my iPad

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