SWAMPSCOTT — Two Swampscott residents recently conquered the Mount Everest of swimming by crossing the English Channel, while navigating through darkness and enduring jellyfish stings in the process.
Andy Jones, 45, and Tommy Gainer, 40, friends and training partners, crossed the English Channel earlier this month, swimming more than 20 miles from Dover, England to Cap Gris-Nez in France.
Swimmers usually start at or near Shakespeare’s Cliff or Samphire Hoe and aim to finish at Cap Gris-Nez. The swimming distance is approximately 21 miles, but current and tide changes typically increase that, with swimmers opting to tackle more of an S-shaped course.
The most recent online statistics show that fewer than 1,800 people have completed the grueling solo swim since the first unassisted and recorded crossing in 1875. Swimmers can also be hindered as the Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with 600 tankers and 200 ferries passing through every day.
Jones and Gainer, who both swim for the YMCA of the North Shore (YNS) Shark Masters Swim Team, said they trained for about two and a half years. Gainer said their training included swim workouts in the pool with the YNS master’s team and cold water swims in the ocean for hours at a time.
Gainer said some of the hardest parts of training for him were putting on weight and trying to acclimate to staying in cold water for a long period of time — he knew that he needed to gain weight to protect his body from hypothermia.
Prior to going to the United Kingdom, Gainer said he overtrained a bit, and ended up with inflammation in one of his wrists.
In a mixed blessing, Gainer said his swim was put off for about two weeks due to weather. He was scheduled to start on July 29, but didn’t end up getting to start until Aug. 14, which caused him anxiety that he may not get a chance to swim the event, but also gave his wrist time to heal.
Jones, who swam the week before Gainer, registered for the event through Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PS). He swam to raise money for charity — the Y’s Annual campaign on the North Shore and Cancer Research UK. He’d also recently had two shoulder surgeries and the challenge gave him a recovery objective.
During his training, he ended up with back pain and in June 2016, he found out that his hip had failed. He required a hip replacement, with surgery taking place last October.
With the English Channel swim looming just 10 months away, Jones thought his chances of participating were shot. Following his surgery, his hip dislocated after he came to, and then it dislocated again three days later while he was sleeping at home. He had to have an emergency revision surgery six days after the first surgery. At some point, he said he also had to have surgery on his knee.
Jones said the surgeries made him more determined to prove himself, and he felt that if he could get back and swim the Channel, it could set an example for what was possible for others to achieve.
He ended up having the third fastest English Channel finishing time this year at 10 hours and 28 minutes. He said the average successful swim is 14.5 hours.
Gainer said his time was within what he expected — he finished at 12 hours and 56 minutes.
Both men described the way the process works — swimmers swim alongside a boat, which has a pilot and its own crew aimed at navigating the participant toward Cap Gris-Nez and getting the swimmer safely across the shipping lane.
Each swimmer has his own crew on the boat, which is responsible for feeding them at regular intervals, applying anti-chafing lubricant and providing emotional and psychological support throughout the grueling event, Jones said.
The men said the swim starts in the middle of the night while it’s pitch black. Jones said the sun didn’t come up until five hours into his swim — he started around midnight. He couldn’t see his crew, which included two friends, his wife, Jacqueline, and his father-in-law.
“It was quite lonely,” Jones said.
Jones said his crew would throw him a line for feeding, which typically consisted of a sports bottle with pre-mixed carbohydrate, with an energy drink inside it. He would get fed hourly, with his first feeding after the first two hours.
Jones said his real challenge was jellyfish. He was stung badly twice almost immediately. The mental demons were really hard — they told him to stop and he had to fight them off and remain positive.
Due to choppy waters and the tide pushing him around, he ended up traveling about 35 miles.
When he touched French soil, Jones said “I can’t even begin to describe how emotional and elated I was.” He said he was literally crying into his goggles when he could see the safety swimmer behind him making sure that he was OK to touch the rocks.
“I wanted to be a channel swimmer,” Jones said. “I wanted to prove I could do that to the world and myself. I wanted to be a source of inspiration and raise money for charity.”
Gainer’s swim presented different challenges. His crew was his wife, Lindsay, Jones and two other members that he solicited from the Channel community. He started swimming at about 2:30 a.m.
About 10 minutes in, Gainer said he noticed the water was rough. He struggled to find a rhythm swimming, inhaling and swallowing water. He started to have doubts about the swim after the second hour, as he was feeling ill. He stopped at two hours to take a feed, but felt too sick to even take it down. At that point, he didn’t know if he could take another 10 hours of it and wanted to get back on the boat.
When he could see France, Gainer said he knew the end point was near, but didn’t know how close it was. He had learned that it wasn’t good strategy to ask.
He also got notifications from his crew that he had to pick it up or he would miss the tide, which could pull him up and sweep him past the end point, adding another hour to his swimming. He swam as hard as he could for the last two hours, with a strong current pulling him down the Channel.
When he started to notice his crew suiting up, he knew the end was near — Gainer said crew members are allowed to swim behind the participant to the French coast to complete the swim together.
“I started to tear up at that time,” Gainer said. “This is actually going to happen. I’m going to finish this.”
Gainer said he swam as fast as he could to touch the rocks on the French Coast, landing at Cap Gris-Nez.
“I think the swim in and finishing was absolutely fantastic,” Gainer said. “I was so happy to be done … When you put your mind to something, you can do it.”