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Five bay area swimmers plan relay across English Channel

Across 21 miles, the English Channel stretches cliff to cliff. It spans from England to France. According to Carey Rowan, it's the busiest shipping channel in the world.

If you travel it, he said, you never know what you'll face.

Worst case scenario? Heavy fog. A storm. Sea sickness. But for Rowan, the worst part of the English Channel might be the jelly fish. He'll find out this week, after he and some friends take turns swimming across it.

This started in 2007, as a practical joke. Rowan's cousin-in-law Dave Brown decided to petition his boss for time off to swim the English Channel. But after Brown asked for the funds to make it happen, his boss didn't find the prank funny.

Brown gave up on the joke but realized that, given the chance, he really would swim the channel. So he looked into how he could make it happen.

He found out he could gather some friends, rent a boat and hire a captain to guide a relay style swim across, but not until 2012.

"My jaw just dropped," said Brown, 41, who lives in St. Louis and works in sales for a graphics company. "All the boats were booked."

He put the plan on hold, but kept in touch with the president of the English Channel Swimming Society. In early 2009, the president sent Brown an e-mail.

"A spot opened in the summer of 2010," it said. "It's yours if you want it."

He did. Then he tried recruiting friends for the trip.

"Over a beer, a lot of people thought it sounded like a good idea," said Brown. Most later backed out.

But Brown thought of Rowan, his cousin's husband.

Rowan is an opthalmologist at Rowan Eye Center in New Port Richey. A triathlete, he had once recruited Brown to do some Iron Man competitions with him. The channel was the perfect payback.

• • •

Rowan got the call last fall. He was up for the challenge.

"I just said sure, off the cuff," said Rowan, 41, who lives in Clearwater Beach. "That was before I realized what I was getting into."

But he, Brown and the rest of the team — Rowan's friends David Bair of Clearwater and Bouke Noordzij of Boston, and Brown's friend Alex Hill of Philadelphia — all flew to England on Saturday, where they await word that it's their turn to swim.

Because it's a relay, it's one guy in the water at a time, at all times. When they aren't in the water, they're on a boat with a trained guide, alongside the swimmer. The whole swim should take 10 to 14 hours and each swimmer swims about an hour at a time, four or five miles total.

"The biggest challenge is not the distance," said Rowan. "Four, five, six miles for any swimmer is pretty standard."

The challenge is trying to train to swim in really cold water around ships and sea life.

Rowan did that by accident at Sand Key Park last month.

"After I stopped screaming 'shark', I was able to calm down and pet (the manatee)," he said. "Came right up underneath me offshore."

But you really can't train for the ships.

"You're talking ships that take 10 miles to stop," said Noordzij, 40, a high school math teacher.

The swimmer might have to tread water until a ship passes, he said.

"Swimming in the dark and relying on the captain to zig-zag us through traffic with an oil tanker kicking up a pretty big wake (is) difficult," said Brown. "Not necessarily dangerous."

And cold water might complicate everything. Anybody who plans to swim a relay across the channel qualifies for it by "doing a two-hour swim, uninterrupted, in 60-degree water," Rowan said. "Fifteen to 20 minutes is doable. It gets pretty cold for a Florida boy after that."

The guys found ways to get used to it. Noordzij swam Walden Pond in Massachusetts at 56 degrees. Rowan and Bair swam in the gulf during cold spells.

"I've been taking cold showers for three months," Brown said. "It's cold, but it's not shocking anymore. It doesn't even faze me."

And it works, he said, because he is ready for the swim. So are the rest of the guys. But don't be fooled, said Noordzij.

"This is nothing compared to doing it (by) yourself," he said. "To do a relay certainly takes a whole lot of pressure off."

But Rowan still says you really never know what you'll face.

"It'll be a thrill, a sense of accomplishment," he said. "The unknown makes it fun."

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or aspenceley@sptimes.com.

Five bay area swimmers plan relay across English Channel 07/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 4:49pm]

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