05 August 2007

The Final Chapter

At 4:15 a.m. my crew (Alice, Heather and my dad Jon) boarded the Viking Princess at Folkstone Harbor. After Reg (pilot) and Ray (co-pilot and CSA observer) helped us load our equipment on board and did the final preparations for the boat, we headed out of the harbor and toward Shakespeare beach. The sun was barely just rising and the light on the white cliffs, the clouds, the water and the horizon was spectacular.

I was full of nervous excitement and couldn’t wait to just get in the water and swim! At 5:00 a.m. I jumped in the water to swim into the beach for the start. I was so happy that the day I had been waiting for was finally here: The day I was to swim the English Channel.

It was light already and over the next few hours I watched when I breathed to the left as the sun continued to rise above me. I knew it would be on the other side of the sky by the time I reached France. The water was a little bit choppy, but I felt smooth, strong and rested.

At two and a half hours, my right shoulder started to hurt in a way that I knew wasn’t good. The pain continued to increase and at 3 hours I asked my crew for painkillers to be added to my feedings. The pain didn’t concern me. There was no way a sore shoulder was going to get in my way of getting to France. The time went by quickly and I made an effort not to look towards England during my feedings, as I had been told that you could see the White Cliffs for almost 5 hours of swimming.

We entered the first shipping lane (West bound traffic) and I knew I made significant progress. Ray told me to stay close to the boat. I had spent the last week watching the vessel traffic from our house in St. Margaret’s Bay and I knew what I was heading into now that I would be swimming in the shipping lane. I paid little attention to all of the activity around me, as I knew Reg was safely guiding us through the ships and onward to France.

The closest encounter had Reg take me in a complete circle to avoid the path of a large tanker. I knew exactly what he was doing and laughed to myself at the fact that we were momentarily heading back to England.

At 6 ½ hours I swam through a large swarm of jellyfish. They were blue, purple and yellow and of all different sizes. They were on the surface of the water and as deep as about 5 feet. The water was clear by now and all that I could see was jellyfish in every direction. This lasted for about 30-45 minutes. My crew carefully pointed out the path I should follow. Sometimes the space between two jellies was too close for me to swim and I would make my body as narrow as possible and skull and kick as I made my way through. I swam with my head up and my eyes at the surface of the water. I picked up my head enough to loudly should expletives at the jellies. Something worked because I managed to make my way through hundreds of jellyfish without getting stung. I had gotten a small sting earlier, but nothing during that time. For the next several hours I watched as my dad diligently studied the water making sure I didn’t swim into any more jellies. I imagined that they seagulls were above were watching out for me too.

The water was rough (5-8 foot swells with scattered white caps) for all but about two hours early in the swim. I watched as the boat just bobbed up and down and side-to-side. The water conditions weren’t challenging for me, but I was sure glad I wasn’t on the boat.

At 8 hours my right shoulder throbbed in pain and I alerted my crew that I hadn’t been able to urinate in two hours. At the time I thought it just meant that I was dehydrated. I didn’t realize until much later that it meant not only was I dehydrated, but also I hadn’t absorbed any of my feedings after hour six.

I noticed the ships changed directions and I was overjoyed. I had reached the East bound shipping lane and was in French water! I was an incredible amount of pain and felt increasingly weak. I acknowledged the pain and then just let it go. This was the English Channel and nothing was going to keep me from getting to France. At 10 hours I could see France. I had almost swum to a new land! And it wasn’t just the cliffs above the coast; I could see the color of the trees and the details of the landscape. I started breathing more frequently to the left to get a better glimpse of France to remind me that I was getting there.

My crew told me to pick it up and I did despite the intense pain in my right shoulder. I had heard so many stories of how this is where a channel swim starts – after 10 hours of swimming and you had to sprint to make it to the point of Cap Gris Nez before the tide swept you right past. I continued to try and move my arms faster and pull as much water with each stroke. Alice later told me that my stroke rate never fell below 64 stokes a minute.

At my 11 ½ hour feeding I vomited up everything that had been just sitting in my stomach since hour 6. The canned peaches I ate at hour 7 came up just the way they had gone down. I thought to myself “This is a Channel swim and you just keep swimming”. And so I did. I popped my head up momentarily a few stokes later to vomit again without even breaking stroke.

France was so close and I never felt like I had been further from my goal. At 13 hours Alice told me what was going to happen next. “I am going to get in with you and you must keep up with me. You can make the point, but you must go faster now.” She got in and I poured every last ounce of energy into each stroke. I reminded myself that I never had to swim again. All I had to do was pick up my stroke and get to France! It wasn’t working, Alice and France were getting further and further away. Within a few strokes, Alice was ahead of me. I was giving it everything I had, and I was too weak to keep on pace.

I essentially had not fed since hour 6, which was over 7 hours ago. I was tired and running on less than empty. Alice got out at 13:40 and I continued to push on. With every stroke I was more and more committed to making it to France. I never thought I wouldn’t make it and I never stopped believing in myself.

At 14 hours my crew lined up along the side of the boat and told me that I had been a mile and a half from France and now I was 3 miles from shore. I looked up and saw the point and it seemed so close. I didn’t know that I had been on the other side of it and been had been swept right past it by the current. They told me it would take 6-11 hours to make landfall and then it wasn’t even certain. I told them I couldn’t swim for 6 more hours.

At 14 hours of swimming and getting as close as a mile and a half from France, I was pulled. My crew did absolutely everything to get me to keep down my feedings and to keep me on pace. Alice and Heather cheered for 14 hours. I’m talking red pom-poms, purple glitter top hats and motivating communication via the white board. At the end, I was too sick, too undernourished and too weak to make it to France. I had been swimming at 68 stokes per minute for the last hour and I couldn’t even lift my arms up to the ladder of the boat. Reg pulled me on board and Alice and Heather began the recovery effort. They quickly took my suit off and put me in warm clothes. I started to shiver violently and continued to vomit for the next hour. My eyes were almost swollen shut and my breathing was labored. I didn’t know at the time, but my dad was mentally planning on how we would get me airlifted out of the boat and to the hospital if things got any worse.

I was wheezing and I asked Alice “Why am I breathing like this?” She was concerned and asked Reg where the nearest hospital was and if we could get an ambulance to meet us at Folkstone harbor. He said he had never had to do that and that all of the swimmers are in bad shape at the end. He wasn’t close enough to me to see how difficult it was for me to breathe. I didn’t know at the time, but I had aspirated seawater or my feedings and bacteria were already infected my lungs. It was a long ride home. It took over 3 hours in the boat going full speed in a straight line to cover the distance I had covered swimming the reverse S-shaped curve typical of a Channel swim.

Reg let us off at Folkstone harbor. Alice and Heather unloaded the boat and my dad went to get the car. I needed help out of the boat, up the stairs, to get into the car and even to get my seatbelt on. Once back at the house, my condition continued to decline and I was short of breath and needed to rest after just walking across the room. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. My wheezing was getting worse. At 2 a.m. my parents took me to the emergency room in Ashford. I was admitted to the hospital after the doctors reviewed my “rather impressive” (direct quote) chest x-ray. Immediately after seeing the x-ray, I was put on interventions antibiotics and oxygen. They kept me for three days, carefully monitoring my progress and continuing to administer antibiotics intravenously three times a day for 48 hours.

The hospital staff was interested in my story and amazed by my perseverance. I continued to be in a tremendous amount of pain and had difficulty doing anything but lying in bed. The pain from my right shoulder radiated up into my neck and down into my hand. Every part of my body was sore to the touch. Sitting up, turning over, adjusting my position in the bed required a huge effort and help from the nursing staff.

My parents and friends visited my daily. Both Michelle and Julian came to see me the day after their swims. Alice printed out e-mails and comments on my blog. I truly felt the love and support of everyone who had supported me in my journey.

After I got out of the hospital, I met Reg at a bar in Folkstone. The first thing he said was "You look a lot better, Love". I told him the story of being hospitalized and the aspiration pneumonia. He told me that I am enormously brave and a great swimmer and not to give up on long distance swimming. He had charted my course for me even though I didn't touch France. I covered 30 miles. I gave him a hug good-bye, thanked him for everything and told him that I would be sending a friend over (Amber Rhett)to swim the Channel in a month and a half.

I gave it all in my training and during the swim. I don’t have any regrets. I couldn’t have done more to prepare to swim the English Channel. My focus for the past two years has been to get to France. I also had the intention to have the strength to endure and the courage to embrace the struggle. I found the strength to endure and I certainly embraced the struggle, but in the end facing a huge calorie deficit, a growing infection in my lungs, an injured shoulder and possibly 11 hours to go, there was no choice but to be pulled. I had a courageous swim on a day with very bad luck.

Many people have offered support, guidance, inspiration, encouragement and mentorship. I thank all of you.

THANK YOU to my crew of Alice Wong and Heather Catchpole for being as committed to the swim as I was and for believing in me throughout the journey.

THANK YOU to my parents for accompanying me to Dover and for being supportive of my swimming for 21 years.

THANK YOU to my training partners, coaches and mentors at South End Rowing Club, the Dolphin Club and Burlingame Aquatic Club.

THANK YOU to my colleagues and students at Aragon High School for their enthusiasm, patience and support.

THANK YOU to everyone who has “followed me to France” and been a part of my journey.

Onward to…the next chapter of my life!


"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt

13 July 2007

30 miles from England to Almost France

I am catching the train in an hour or so to head to London to meet up with some friends. I am just ready to get out of Dover. I am feeling much better, but I know the pneumonia will keep me feeling exhausted for awhile.

I met up with Reg last night. He gave me a chart of my swim and calculated the distance I swam - 30 miles!

I am working on writing up something about the swim but it will be several weeks until it is up here with photos and videos.

Thank you again for all of your support.


11 July 2007

quick update from Jessica

First of all, thank you all so much for your outpouring of support and concern over the past few days. I am deeply touched by all of your thoughtful and supportive e-mails. I didn't have internet access in the hospital, but Alice and Heather printed out and brought some of the e-mails. Like true South Enders Julian, Michelle and Alice visited me daily and made sure my spirits were up.

I think you have all heard a bit about the swim, and I look forward to writing a more detailed e-mail about it soon. I had trouble keeping anything down after hour 8 and somehow contracted aspiration pneumonia during the swim. The doctors think it was from inhaling sea water or maybe some of my feedings. I was in very bad shape after being pulled and my parents took me to the emergency room Sunday night after the swim. I was admitted as soon as they saw the results of my chest x-ray. I was immediately put on a cocktail of intravenous antibiotics. I was released from the hospital today (Wednesday) at 2 p.m.

My focus during my training and during the swim was to get to France. I never thought of "failure" as an option. I felt confidant in my training and knew I had done all I could have to prepare to swim the English Channel. In addition in getting to France, I had two wishes or prayers. Those wishes were to have the strength to endure the adventure and the courage to embrace the struggle. I believe I did both of those things wholeheartedly.

I can't wait to give you more stories from the swim, but this internet cafe is closing now. I'll try and come back tomorrow. The swim was truly an adventure. And damn...France was so close! Close enough to see the color of the trees. OK, gotta go now. More later.


09 July 2007

Update: More to come

It's Alice again. Jessica is currently unable to update her blog and I know people will be checking back in soon.

We do have great photos and video, but those will be put up later, so keep checking back! We have other things at hand.

More details will follow of the swim in the next few days. Yes, it is true that we pulled her at 14 hours. She was so close. She got to within a mile and a half of the French shore, and then got pushed out to 3 miles. We haven't debriefed the swim in it's entirety yet, as it was an exhausting ride back to England and later, an exhausting evening for all.

At 11 and a half hours Jessica threw up. She threw up multiple times and we could see that she had not digested any of her feedings. She did those last few hours on empty. She really is incredible.

The boat ride back was rough. She continued to throw up as we tried to get her warm. She was weak, and her breathing was labored. She had a hard night, which I will let Jessica share with you when she is better (but don't worry, she is OK).

Thank you everyone for your good thoughts.

07 July 2007

Tomorrow is the day!

Yes, I finally get to swim the English Channel. I just got off the phone and he says tomorrow is the day. We are busily getting everything ready. Thank you for all of your support. It is going to be a great day and I feel fantastic.

Onward to FRANCE!

06 July 2007

It is still not right, Love

Reg says "It is still not right, Love." So, no swim on 7/7/07. We are waiting for the wind to be below force 3. He says the forecast gets better on Sunday, so maybe then. We are going to head into town to visit with Julian, Scotty and Michelle since we won't be busily preparing my feeding supplies tonight.

I'll keep you posted. The right day is just around the corner. I can feel it.

Thanks for all the well wishes and good thoughts.

Onward to France!

Follow me to Dover...and wait...

Today we met Julian and Scotty at the Dover Harbour for a leasurily swim at 10. I brought my camera so you can enjoy our antics. Yesterday Reg was more blunt with Julian and told him that the forecast was "crap". People on the beach still seem hopeful about tomorrow possibly being the first day of the Channel season that a swimmer will set out to get to France the hard way.

Here are Julian and I on the beach, with France somewhere behind us:

A dramatic beginning to our swim in the harbour:

View of the White Cliffs from the beach:

Finally in the water:

They say if the flag on the castle in Dover is not blowing in the wind, it is a good day to swim the Channel. Here it is in the distance, flying in the wind:

I am ready for the real thing!

05 July 2007

The Storm Before the Calm

Reg said not tomorrow. Now we know why. The winds have picked up significantly, the fog has moved in and there are countless big "white horses" (white caps) on the Channel. It is raining. We are sitting comfortably on the couch inside our cement house with steel shutters drinking French wine. The house is aptly named "The Gun Emplacement" as it was used to defend England against invaders by sea during both World Wars.

We are trying to be as French as possible in hopes of getting a little bit closer to France, which we keep believing is some where out there beyond the fog bank. Alice is diligently listening to "In Flight French" and Heather is speaking in some convoluted accent which seems British at times and French at times. Heather even did her hair in French braids and contemplated giving herself a French manicure. As I type this, I am using my best "Brench" (British-French) accent. We sit staring at the barbie doll pink fishing nets, which remind us of the task we are waiting for. Yes, we have cabin fever and yes, this is the reality of waiting for your day in the Channel. My dad has gone to bed, as he is getting up an hour earlier each day, so he will be prepared to wake up at 1 a.m. on the big day. However, he is sleeping facing France.

"Keep everything crossed, Love"

Reg says no swim tomorrow and keep everything crossed for tomorrow. Now that we won't be finalizing swim details this evening, we have time to put some photos/videos up on the blog. Check back later. :)


04 July 2007

An Inter-Continental Moment of Silence

Several days ago we found out that members of the South End Rowing Club were going to have a moment of silence to "channel" energy to the channel swimmers here in Dover. This moment was going to take place after the SERC's annual 4th of July club swim at 9:45 am in San Francisco. This is also the day before the first day of the tide Jessica and Julian are going to swim. There is an 8 hour time difference between San Francisco and Dover. What do you think the 2 SERC channel swimmers patiently waiting in Dover were doing during that time?

At 5:43 pm here in Dover (ie 9:45 am at SERC) Jessica, Heather, Jessica's parents Jon and Joann, and myself all went outside. It was drizzling lightly, but there were patches of sunlight coming through the rain clouds hitting the Channel. We stood in a line at the edge of the cliff and stared out across the water, watching the ships and wondering if we would catch a glimpse of the French shoreline. At 5:45 pm we observed a 1 1/2 minute moment of silence, all thinking of the task at hand and feeling the thoughts of the people back home in San Francisco who were all thinking of us at the same time. As instructed, at the end of our moment, we all chanted "South End, South End, South End!"

At 5:45 pm in Folkstone Harbor, a few miles outside of Dover where Reg Brickell keeps his boat, SERC's other channel swimmer Julian was with his crew member Scotty and his parents. They were unable to observe the moment of silence as they were in the process of buying Reg Brickell a pint...also true South End style!

Tonight, Julian and his entourage joined us for dinner at our house. We all took a stroll at sunset along the white cliffs and observed life in the channel. It is wonderful to have so much support here as well as at home.

Thank you to the South End Rowing Club members for "channel"ing your thoughts to us, your support is definitely felt, even here, 10,000 miles away.

PS - Reg believes Jessica will probably swim Saturday and Julian on Sunday. There is a chance, he says, that if the wind dies down, Jessica could go as early as Friday.