CONQUERING THE CHANNEL – Payas takes on the ‘Everest of Open Water Swimming’

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It was 6am and the gulls were still nesting on the cliff face towering over Dover’s shoreline. There, on a gusty September morning last year, local swimmer Nathan Payas was about to dive into the wide abyss of the English Channel to conquer the unfathomable 21-mile-swim to France. This was the Everest of open water swimming.

The dark depths of the unforgiving choppy waters would provide the setting for the brave swimmer who would enter a turbulent, washing machine-like world within the deep dark blue.

“It was still night-time as I jumped into the choppy, pitch black water and swam to the shore at Shakespeare Beach, outside the port of Dover. I instantly felt the chill travelling through my body but I went on as I knew I was ready for this. I looked to my family who remained on the boat in the distance and waved my hands signalling the official observer to start the clock,” said Payas prying into the memory of his achievement where he raised a total of £6,677 for the Calpe House charity. “I was able to get into a good pace very quickly. Once the body’s machinery becomes synchronised, it’s incredible how long you can sustain a high level of performance. Swimming in open water is a spiritual experience for me, like meditation. You are completely immersed in beautiful nature and once you achieve a good rhythm you feel quite relaxed and can just keep going”.

Payas took Dory’s philosophy from the children’s animation movie, ‘Finding Nemo’, of ‘just keep swimming’, totally focused on the task at hand with single-minded determination. In fact, he would only take next 100 metres into account so as not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

The success rate each English Channel swim season is usually less than 50% for the solo swims and Payas believes that it is important to ‘ride the wave’ in order to succeed. One must align one’s body chemistry with its surroundings and become a veritable machine in the ocean. Consuming a minimal amount of energy in the first four hours, this challenge is about technique and breathing as well as being in synergy with oneself, “I am always aware of the vessels around me, the chop of the waves, the current and much more. I never let my mind wander off to unrelated thoughts. I am always thinking of technique and efficiency, managing injuries, alternating between power in the arms or legs and monitoring my sugar/energy levels. I look forwards, over the water, quite often so that I maintain the desired course but also look forwards under water so that I can see, well in advance, a swarm of jellyfish, for example. That is, when I’m not breathing to the side of course”.

And indeed, this is what this courageous individual encountered during his mammoth effort. The English Channel is filled with a species called the barrel jellyfish which are not overly dangerous, but can induce a sharp sting similar to the common ones found in Gibraltar. Individually, they are a nuisance, but collectively in swarms they can cause the total cancellation of the challenge, “At one point in the swim I had to face a wall of jellyfish and couldn’t see a way past. Eventually, there was an opening and I was able to squeeze through. They can trap you and you need to channel your way through or get hit. It’s important to avoid panicking in these situations. In some cases you are forced to backtrack slightly before returning on course. I was able to swerve around most of the jellyfish I encountered on that day, unlike the first Round the Rock I swam back in 2015 when I got hit 11 times, despite avoiding tons of them on the East Side. Luckily, there were no jellies in my second Round the Rock, my Strait of Gibraltar Swim, nor in my double Round the Rock (23km) Swim this year.”

Titanic tides

The tides entering the English Channel can be deadly. There are places where the tide will help swimmers and other areas that will act as a hindrance. You may think that the swim is nearing its conclusion, when in fact, the tide has suddenly changed direction and is now moving against you. This can result in a further two hours or more to land rather than the 20-minute distance it may seem to the naked/goggled eye. It is important for the pilot of the support boat to have substantial knowledge of the ebbing and flowing of the tides typical to the English Channel in order to best guide the swimmer. Payas’ pilot was constantly trying to take him North East because of strong tides and actually ended up swimming in a South Easterly direction (due to the strength of the South Westerly tide) in order to reach his landing spot, “Had we not done this, we would have completed missed our target, Cap Griz Nez, adding many hours to the swim. The pilot’s role is very important as they must decide whether you are strong enough to swim in such a compensatory manner or whether the track needs to follow the current more closely adding to the total time in the water.”

Payas used to be a lifeguard in Gibraltar, where ‘rip tides’ can be very dangerous, and said that this sort of thing was typical during his days patrolling the Rock’s beaches. He said that the best way to deal with it is to try and swim around it, which may mean going in the wrong direction at first. You can cut the total distance that you swim by fighting a little against the current, but one thing is for certain, you cannot be at its mercy as it will consume you, but nevertheless it must be respected, “It is quite common to get strong currents in the home stretch when reaching the French coast due to the shape of the coastline and this can be too much for some swimmers as they are already exhausted when they arrive at this point. You need to leave something in reserve for the end and push harder when required. The currents and the time already spent in the cold water are your enemies at this point.”

It is very deceptive when you see the coastline because it makes you think that you are almost there, but it is not the case at all. When you see France and start to see settlements, there is still a long swim ahead and most people fail in crossing the English Channel because of this. Swimmers become extremely tired and tend to increase the pace to reach the finish line, but it is normal to get demoralised when you see land and not feel that you are getting any closer.

Although Payas was confronted with even stronger tides at the end, the avid open water swimmer forced his way through and touched land for the first time in nine hours and thirteen minutes. A host of spectators bellowed with cheers of support from the mainland with his family ecstatic with joy awaiting his return to the pilot boat. They recorded a YouTube video extending over half an hour, capturing the momentous achievement on film, “My poor family saw me land in France from a distance as the boat could not approach the rocky shoreline but it was very emotional when I eventually climbed on board from the sea and embraced them. I could not have done it without them,” he said taking a deep breath and reflecting on the whole affair. “The swim also had live tracking, so people could follow my progress throughout and it was amazing when people approached me to say that they had been watching me. The support was fantastic and it was great to smash my initial target of £1,500 for Calpe House and reach more than four times that amount. I had been attracted to the idea of raising funds to help construct new accommodation for Gibraltarian patients in London and I am glad that my efforts can now benefit locals in the future.”