How to Swim the English Channel

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Widely hailed as one of the most difficult open-water swimming challenges on the planet, successfully crossing the English Channel is a rarer feat than ascending Mount Everest. According to the Channel Swimming Association, only 1,912 humans had successfully crossed the water body – less than half as many as have climbed the world’s tallest mountain -- as of February 2015. If you wish to join this elite club, you must train hard, familiarize yourself with the hazards of the journey and secure the services of an escort boat.

Channel Basics

The English Channel separates the north coast of France from England’s east coast. Known as the world’s “busiest shipping lane,” the waterway sees 500 ships pass through it daily, according to the BBC. Although its width varies from one place to the next, most swimmers attempt to cross at the narrowest portion – a 21-mile-wide stretch of water separating the White Cliffs of Dover at Shakespeare Beach on the British side, from the Cap Gris-Nez on the French coast. However, because of the strong currents and tides in the area, which force swimmers to travel in an “S”-shaped path, participants must often swim a total of 30 to 40 miles to complete the journey.

Training and Prep Work

The journey across the channel is an arduous task, only suitable for those in impeccable shape. Before attempting the crossing, you must not only have the endurance to complete the swim, but must be able to do so in rather cold water – averaging about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. NYC Swim -- an open-water swimming association, based in New York City -- recommends swimming approximately 25 miles per week to prepare for the crossing. Additionally, by tradition, swimmers do not wear wet suits to cross the channel; instead, they spread a Vaselinelike grease over their bodies to insulate them from the cold. Additionally, you must secure the services of a boat and pilot, who will travel alongside you in case you need assistance.

Dangers and Hazards

Fortunately for those seeking to swim the channel, sharks rarely prowl these cold waters. However, this does not mean the journey is without hazards. Jellyfish populate the channel and sting the occasional swimmer. Additionally, as a busy shipping lane, swimmers run the risk of being struck by a vessel while traversing the water. Many other dangers that channel swimmers face – including sunburn, cramps and strong currents -- are similar to those faced by swimmers in most open-water environments.

Gear and Grub

Most swimmers arrange to eat while crossing the channel. Usually, these foods take the form of warm soups, broths or cereals, which help raise the swimmer’s core body temperature, in addition to providing nutrition. However, some swimmers also bring solid foods with them, such as fig cookies or energy bars. Most swimmers wear a latex swim cap and goggles when trying to make the journey.

Rules, Certifications and Restrictions

To swim the channel, you must first register with the Channel Swimming Association, located in Folkestone, England; the registration fee is about $150. To be eligible, you must first complete a 10-hour swim in 60-degree water. Additionally, you must complete the task in the allowed direction. Historically, swimmers could travel in either direction; but France stopped permitting swimmers to swim from their country's shores to England in 1993. Accordingly, swimmers must travel from England to France.