Twelve hours and 45 minutes of solitary swimming across the English Channel sounds like a lonely mission. But actually, swimming the English Channel is a team effort that requires well-planned logistics and a capable support team.
The rules of swimming the English Channel stipulate “no physical contact with the swimmer shall be made by any person” during the duration of the swim. The idea is that the swimmer should complete the feat entirely under his or her own power.
But according to Cyril Baldock, the swim is far from a solo endeavor. The 70-year-old member of the DHL-sponsored Surf Lifesavers in Australia recently earned the distinction of being the oldest person to swim the Channel.
“Marathon swimming is definitely not an individual sport,” said Baldock, who also swam the Channel in 1985. “It’s a team sport; you can’t do anything without a support crew.”
The team rides just ahead of a swimmer in a boat for the entire journey. The boat – piloted by one of a small number of skippers qualified to escort Channel swimmers – actually sets the swimmer’s course, navigating the tides and the busy shipping lanes in the Channel. The pilot also has the final say in continuing the swim if the weather takes a turn for the worse or a swimmer gets into trouble.
With the pilot keeping on an eye on the course and the weather, the rest of Baldock’s team – two of his children and a friend from Surf Lifesavers – is in charge of an absolutely crucial task: feeding.
“You've got to get eating perfectly right,” Baldock said. The crew fills bottles with fruit salad, chocolate, or jelly beans, along with water or even a warm drink. These bottles are attached to ropes and thrown over the side. Baldock would swim up to the bottles for a snack at regular intervals, careful to keep slack in the line.
“If the boat keeps going, and you hold on and get towed, bang - you're disqualified,” he said.
Another role taken on by the support team is that of a cheerleader: encouraging messages conveyed via whiteboard from friends and family or motivational songs helped Baldock press on through difficult parts of the swim.
One such moment occurred about ten hours in. During three successive food breaks, spaced 45 minutes apart, Baldock had the feeling he wasn’t making any progress and his mental determination began to waver.
“Each time I stopped, I was able to see France and it seemed the same distance away. It didn’t seem to be getting any closer,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how mentally prepared or trained you are, you still go through those things, and that’s when your support crew comes in and helps you out.”
Before even dipping a toe in the English Channel, there is plenty of prep worked involved to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. An application to England’s Channel Swimming Association must be submitted months in advance, which includes a physical test to prove a swimmer is capable of handling the distance and cold water.
Only a certain number of tides in a three-month window in the summer are favorable to making an attempt as well, and Baldock was sure to book one of the best tides as early as possible.
Years of planning, endless miles of training and the long slog through the English Channel finally paid off when Baldock reached the other side. He landed on a particular rocky stretch of the French coastline, which resulted in a few cuts and bruises, but he was still in great spirits.
“I haven’t had that much fun in years,” he said.
Baldock completed the swim aged 70 years and 9 months, and briefly held the record for the oldest person to swim the Channel. Three weeks later, his record was broken by 73-year-old Otto Thaning of South Africa, but Baldock isn’t bothered about losing the distinction.
“The main thing is I did what I set out to do.”
The long-time volunteer lifeguard with Bondi’s Surf Lifesavers said rescuing swimmers who had gotten into trouble showed him how important it is to be fit and have knowledge of the sea. Baldock, a grandfather of five, is back in the water in Australia swimming for fitness, but 29 years after his first English Channel swim, he says another one is unlikely.
“I won't be doing it in another thirty years!” he says with a laugh.
DHL has partnered with Surf Live Saving in Australia and New Zealand for ten years, providing uniforms to the volunteer lifeguards. Surf Life Saving clubs up and down the coasts partner with DHL to deliver safer beaches.