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Channeling – Swimming from Ordinary to Extraordinary

This article is a book review of, “Channeling – Swimming from Ordinary to Extraordinary”

Book author, Christopher Neesham & Tony Burke, Published, 2022, 179 pages.

At its narrowest point, the English Channel stretches 33.8 kilometers between Dover, England, and Cap Griz-Nez, France. Strong currents can push swimmers in one direction and then abruptly shift. Summer water temperatures range from 14 to 19 degrees Celsius. Boat traffic adds another layer of complexity, and jellyfish pose a potential hazard in the middle zones.

Matthew Webb etched his name in history as the first person to conquer the channel in 1875. Gertrude Ederle followed suit in 1926, becoming the first woman to complete the swim. All open-water swimmers hold a deep respect for this iconic challenge. It embodies prestige, awe, and a powerful allure for those seeking a long-term goal. Often compared to climbing Mount Everest, the English Channel swim is an arduous and adventurous feat that pushes athletes to their limits.

This book delves into the world of English Channel swimming. It starts with a brief introduction to the challenge, followed by deeply personal accounts from 13 channel swimmers. Each well-structured narrative follows a similar format, covering introductions, the swimmers’ backgrounds and swimming journeys, the origin of their channel swimming aspirations, their chosen approaches, training preparations, the swim experiences themselves, and the aftermath with its valuable lessons learned.

Many of the swimmers hail from Australia, adding logistical hurdles, financial burdens, and extra baggage (both literal and psychological) compared to their UK counterparts. The book is structured simply, providing a introductions, information on the channel and then 13 brave swimmers accounts from interviews are given. They are honest, insightful, and very personal stories, each narrative is compelling and intriguing.

There is 16 year old, Dan Canta’s attempt in 2015. What was his approach, his mindset and what helped him the most? Where was his worst setback?

Indeed, as with any major challenge, there can be numerous setbacks. We grow and learn from our failures. Christopher Neesham tells us, “Success in the channel means having the right mix of swimmer (ready and able), crew, weather, traffic and pilot”.

Next is the inspiring backstory of John Van Wisse, a Melbourne-based swim coach and endurance athlete. Renowned as the Melbourne go-to channel swimming coach for both beginners and experts, John shares his experience of his very first attempt at conquering the English Channel.

Like a few swimmers in this book, Paul Hoffman didn’t come from a swimming pedigree. We learn how the idea of open water swimming and the challenge took hold, and how an early idea later manifests into his challenge. His swim was in 2012 with pilot Mike Oram.

Each swimmer’s story gives insightful advice from their attempt including lessons learned, plus poignant post-scripts illuminate how the channel swim fits in or has helped them on their life journey.

There is the methodical preparation of Elizabeth O’ Farrell‘s swim in 2013, (pilot Neil Streeter), the difference that her support made, and the dark hours.

In 2001, Jonno Hayward attempted this swim but with a disappointing twist. What went wrong here?

The many logistics, physical and people angles covered by different swimmers in this book give a holistic picture of the challenges of this swim. It is a must-read for those who want to attempt this swim, the learnings here are significant. But also, emotions and psychology feature big and the swimmers give us their brutally raw accounts.

Doughlas Hacking is a medical practitioner, in paediatrics and anaesthetics. He knows about hypothermia. He went to work on himself, physically and mentally. “Everyone needs a bad swim”, he says. His attempt was in 2014.

Micheal Gregory is an incredible open-water swimmer. He has a go at the double-crossing in 2012. “No one does it alone”, he says.

Yvonne Mooyman challenges not just the channel in her attempt, “as I was swimming, I was remembering all the hard stuff I had gotten through”. Her attempt was in 2005.

Denise Clarke, swam in 2018, but there were gale-force winds and trouble with the French authorities.

Kevin Cassidy is a sports nut and ultra runner who swam in 2009. Five swimmers attempted to cross on the day but only three made it.

Dan Canta Swimming the channel, 2015

Dr Geoffrey Toogood takes us through his preparations and mindfulness in his 2015 swim. He is a cardiologist and mental health advocate.

Anthony Burke, co-author of this book, swam in 2013. Before you even start, what could go wrong? It was the last week of June, and the sea temperature was 12c.

Rob Macauley, doesn’t like swimming and is scared of open water, but his life is a pilgrimage of long and arduous journeys. He has an existentialist philosophy, “On these adventures, you learn about yourself and you learn about what matters” His first attempt was in 2012.

The paperback quality is good, though reading text near the centre fold required flattening the spine. There was one repeated page in my copy and it would have been good to have captioned photos. The uncaptioned photos become random ocean pictures for non-local readers. For example, a photo shows Yvonne Mooyman signing a wall. Could this be the White Horse Inn in Dover, Kent, England, a historic pub (established around 1365) known as the unofficial “Channel swimmer’s pub”? Swimmer profile photos at the chapter beginnings are a nice touch.

Each swimmer’s story is insightful, incredible, and inspiring. This book reveals their character and the trials and tribulations they faced. It effectively presents their stories for both swimmers interested in the challenge and anyone who appreciates the message of “Nothing Great is Easy.” It’s an easy read that I found completely gripping. I couldn’t put it down and devoured it chapter by chapter.

Thank you to the swimmers for sharing their incredible journeys and to the authors for compiling this delightful homage to channel swimmers and all those attempting extraordinary feats.

Review By John Scanlon.

Further information at https://epicswims.com and to order the book for RRP $45 or eBook $12, Kindle $9.99

List of English Channel swims

Channeling back cover. Click to visit book website.

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