Friday, 2 August 2013

Account of my North Channel crossing on 30 July 2013

I successfully crossed  the North Channel on Tuesday 30 July 2013! 

The time was 10h and 34 minutes, and this is currently attracting a lot of (media) attention as the fastest ever crossing done by a man (with two women, Michele Macy and Alison Streeter being still faster). But speed is for me only one of the components determining the beauty and merit of an NC crossing, and not even the most important or interesting one - more on that further below. I am of course incredibly pleased with my crossing, but at the same time humbled by the experience, which was the most grueling I have ever had.

I arrived in Belfast on Sunday 28 July with my coach Marcel van der Togt, who also coached me during my English Channel crossing in 2011. Windguru.com forecasted not very good conditions (wind up to Bft 4, gusts of Bft 5) for Tuesday and Wednesday, with even less favourable conditions for the rest of the week. The tidal window would close next weekend. Captain Quinton Nelson expected more cloud cover  on Wednesday, which would make the jellyfish come to the surface. Rather than wait for a perfect day we decided to settle for 'good enough', hence Tuesday.  (Seeing the weather on Wednesday it turns out that Quinton was absolutely spot on.)

I am quickly losing my precise memories of the swim. (This is an experience I also had with my English Channel swim, where others (Marcel, Asha) remember the swim more accurately than I. Also, in the hours after the swim I was adamant that this was the first and the last time I had done such a cold swim, but the very next day I already found myself daydreaming with Marcel about ideas for future swim projects.)  ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle gracefully shared his swim report with me and I have copy-pasted it at the end of this post. I complement it here with some of my own observations.

The swim
The day after the swim Quinton gave me a map with the swim plotted on it. I posted a picture of it on my Facebook page. The trajectory is a gently curved line, showing the influence of the tides. We landed very close to the intended landing point, Portpatrick. This is a credit to Quinton Nelson's planning and navigational skills.

Start was appr. 6 am on Tuesday morning, and conditions looked beautiful: a flat sea, and an open sky with some clouds. On the boat were my coach Marcel van der Togt, captain Quinton Nelson and his two crew members, Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust representative and deputy director of communication Alan Machin (who kept in touch with a communications team shooting off Twitter and Facebook messages and arranging various media covereage after the swim), and ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle. 

The weather changed after a few hours. Wind force increased and the swell and chop got much worse. Feeding became more difficult, and slower. as I got more exhausted. Good footage of this was posted by ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PayQovT5KI4. In the last two hours of the swim there was rain and thunder.

I had been warned that there would be a strong current off the shore of Scotland that would require an extra effort to overcome, and this turned out to be accurate. I remember the last couple of miles to be slow, and my frustration to be mounting as the coast did not seem to be getting any closer and I was desperately cold and tired. Andrew Coyle uploaded images of the final seven minutes of my swim to Youtube, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MtSua_nUFE

Marcel informed me later that my stroke rate was 70 strokes per minute at the start, which stabilized at 66/minute after an hour or so and did not go below 60 for the remainder of the swim. I am happy with that, as it shows that I was sufficiently prepared for the distance - not something to be taken for granted for a comparatively lazy swimmer like myself.

Feeding went very well also, even if a bit slow at the end because of fatigue on my side. I didn't get hungry throughout the swim even in this cold, so carboloading the days before (including a double pasta dinner, pff...) and 1,5 concentration Maxim with bananas and good old Dutch stroopwafels must have worked.

There is not much more by way of objective fact that I can say about the swim. Andrew Coyles report copied below gives a more accurate description of it. I just highlight below some aspects as I have experienced them.

The cold
When I got into the water to swim to the starting point, the water was 13-14 degrees Celsius, and it would remain 14 degrees Celsius, with even a patch of 15 degrees in the middle. This is admittedly warm for the North Channel at this time of year (although NC can reach 16 degrees in September but then the place is infested with jellies), and when comparing this to recent successful NC crossings in much colder water it feels almost like 'cheating'. But cheating or not, for me the water turned out to be at the very limits of what I could stand for such a long time. My preparation in Malawi has never allowed me to train in water colder than 15 degrees, and that only sparsely. Only at the start of the Cork Distance Week (Ned Denison's 'holiday camp')  in the beginning of July did I experience water temperatures as low as 9-10 degrees, but never for more than 2 hours at a time and then the heatwave struck and the sea warmed up quickly there too. Before and during the crossing I drew comfort from the fact that I had managed to train 11 hours over two days in 2011 in Dover harbour in 12 degrees Celsius water, almost straight from the plane from sweltering Bangladesh. So my cold water preparation had not been ideal.

I felt only comfortable with the temperature of the water for the first half hour. After that, i.e. for the remaining 10 hours of my swim, my hands, forearms and feet got agonisingly cold, and I wasn't able to properly close my fingers, swimming with the 'claw' so familar to fellow cold water swimmers. The cold was an almost continuous presence and it was sapping my physical and mental strength. It prevented me from getting into a flow, and kept me painfully aware of each and every stroke. On the other hand I noticed that as usual I did not shiver until six or seven hours into the swim. But by the time I got out I was positively hypothermic, and getting warm again after the swim involved 30 minutes of violent shivering in an aluminium hypothermic blanket (courtesy of our concerning friend Tonny in Lith) and a 45-minute hot shower in the Harbour House Hotel in Portpatrick who graciously allowed me the use of their facilities - a gesture of kindness I will not forget.

Jellyfish and other wildlife
My team told me that for some time there was a seal playing around me, as well as dolphins later on. This makes for salient imagery in some media reports, the seal supposedly even 'lifting my spirits', but frankly I didn't care much at that moment. Looking back upon it however it is indeed a potent mental image, capturing one of the reasons why I like open water swimming so much.
In fact I didn't see or feel any other wildlife but jellyfish, the infamous Lion's Mane. These were truly scary, as big as garbage bin cover lids and with fine white tentacles of over 2 meters. I saw from up close countless numbers of these monsters, most of them at appr. 1-2 meters below the surface especially in the first 4 hours as they avoid direct sunlight. But when the weather became cloudy, more of them came closer to the surface. Marcel's warning whistles helped me avoid many, but I did swim into a couple of them, and their stings were very painful. Even if the cold water then numbed the pain to some extent, it came back with a vengeance after I left the water and did not go away until the next morning, keeping me from sleeping the night after the swim.

Teamwork
I should mention here the importance of the team behind the swimmer, and this is not just an obligatory gesture of courtesy to the crew.
I can state with certitude that I would not have finished this swim if it wasn't for Marcel van der Togt's coaching, both before and especially during the swim. The North Channel is 30% physical and 70% mental, one NC swimmer once famously said, and I can only agree with that. Marcel provided me with exactly the right kind and right amount of information on my progress, was the master cheerleader on board hopping frantically up and down the deck with his stentorian voice even in the driving rain, managed to make me accelerate when I needed to, adapted my feeds as he saw fit, kept me from swimming into jellyfish (well, most of them), and raised my spirits with silly jokes: he had me in stitches by drawing a pair of woollen socks on the whiteboard after I had complained about cold feet.... You can't beat 30 years of coaching experience at the highest level.
The other crucial factor was Quinton Nelson, my pilot. He was extremely conscientious in plotting a route tailor-made for my presumed speed, and it worked out beautifully. He also helped me decide on the best day to do the crossing, and also there his advice proved crucial. Decades of boating experience in the North Channel at work. In the months before the swim Quinton was utterly reliable and ever helpful and accessible by email and telephone. Quinton's two crew members Jordan and ... did their jobs efficiently and quietly in support of the whole operation.
I am also grateful to the people of the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust, especially Alan Machin, who liased with a communication's team in the UK giving regular updates on the swim and arranging for various media coverage after the swim. I hope the swim will help raise a nice amount for the further restoration of the Chauncy Maples hospital ship on Lake Malawi. (Please keep the donations coming on http://www.justgiving.com/milkovangool!)
Thanks also to ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle who meticulously observed and recorded my swim,  spending a difficult day on the boat without any sleep the night before as he was called in at short notice. I am very appreciative of the video footage and report that he shared with me.

On 'records'
Of course I am pleased with the fact that I did my swim in good time, even the fastest time ever swum so far by a male on this crossing. I am not quite sure what to think of the fact that some media outlets highlight this as the key element of the crossing. This it is not in my view, as conditions are often so incomparable between swims, much more so it seems than in most other crossings and races. The best parallel is probably with mountaineering.
Even if I don't want to downplay my own achievement, of which I am very proud, there have been much more impressive stories in the history of this crossing dating back all the way to 1923. What to think about the swimmer  who recently swam the NC at the mature age of 49 in a little over 12 hours in an unimaginable 9 degrees Celsius. Or the woman who mustered the courage to try again and again and was finally successful  the fourth time. Several swimmers of the past displayed such incredible mental and physical grit against the odds that they finished the swim but had to be taken to hospital for treatment of hypothermia and jelly stings. Some of them stayed in the frigid water for more than 18 hours. Another came out after almost 15 hours in 10-11 degrees without even a shiver. Two swimmers achieved the incredible feat of three successful crossings each. Also the dozens of swimmers who didn't make it across can tell tales of incredible endurance and dogged determination besides delirious pain and exhaustion, but without the satisfaction of making it all the way across.
These are all feats that defy belief, and I don't think I would be able to achieve any of them, at least not now; this crossing in relatively favourable conditions (partly calm seas, relatively warm water and relatively few stings) was at the very limits of my abilities. There will be ever faster crossings of the North Channel. However, for me this Channel is different from other swims in that it is not about time and speed, but about the stories of preparation, determination and perseverance we create while crossing it.


Addendum:Text of the report by observer Mr. Andrew Coyle on behalf of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association:

"As Quinton Nelson and I walked to the boat at 0515, a tiny black rental car was being driven towards us on the harbour wall. It was filled by its driver, a tall, bulky, fresh looking man with fair hair, known as Milko van Gool. Quinton the pilot asked Milko how he was feeling and the reply was very positive. The hire car was parked, Milko had his photo taken with his passport open, the boat was untied, and without any further ceremony we departed.

The conditions were very soft for the start, almost calm, with a clear sky, no precipitation and a full tide. Milko had a thick layer of grease applied around his limbs for comfort during the swim, this was done by his very dedicated trainer, Marcel, who supported him with strong voice and even stronger whistle throughout the entire swim, and did not leave the deck once. When the boat, named Guy and Clare Hunter arrived as close to the rocks at Donaghadee as was safe, Milko jumped into the water and swam over to them. Quinton then approved that he was ready to depart by sounding the boat’s horn, and it took a further wave of encouragement from the skipper before Milko began his 18 nautical mile crossing to Portpatrick. Milko’s stroke was very strong, with a positive roll and steady six beat kick which lasted right to the finish.

A couple of hours from Donaghadee we began to sight Lion’s Mane jellyfish, at which point Marcel would issue a deafening whistle, which he could produce almost instantly, lifting his fingers to his mouth, he would then visually instruct Milko what direction to swim in to avoid them. One jellyfish, which Marcel hadn’t seen, caused Milko to take a bad cramp as he kicked violently to avoid it. This happened two hours forty minutes into the swim, and Milko groaned in pain when it occurred. Nonetheless, 2 minutes later he had recovered fully apparently, and was back kicking as strong as before. Apart from jellyfish, the only wildlife visible in the water were a number of very sturdy looking seals who seemed intrigued by the Dutchman, swimming along quite close to him for a period when we were about seven miles off shore, these fellows lifted Milko’s spirits unlike the nuisance jellyfish.

Milko was accompanied by two others apart from the boat crew and I, these were his trainer Marcel, and a photographer and chronicler named Alan, who worked for the charity which the swim was in aid of. This charity was set up in order to restore Africa’s oldest boat named Chauncy Maples so it may be used as a mobile clinic for the benefit of people living around lake Malawi, and when we arrived in Portpatrick we were met by others belonging to the charity who welcomed Milko to shore.

To maintain his energy levels, the swimmer was fed regularly from the boat, this was done by passing a sports bottle containing a measured amount of warm liquid to him on a string. The feedings were done every twenty minutes for the entire duration of the swim, when Milko would receive a varying amount of liquid each time, and food was given once an hour in the form of a half banana or biscuit. This formula seemed to work well for Milko as his stroke rate remained very steady for almost the entire swim, except for the last hour when he was in a state of exhaustion.

While for the first five hours of the transit wind was not an issue, blowing between zero and five knots, in the later stages it became a retarding factor. Around noon the wind began to increase steadily and at 1400hrs it was blowing a southerly twenty knots. This created a number of sub-issues: first, the waves impeded the steadiness of Milko’s stroke at a point where he was tiring; second  the boats pitching made it difficult for him to feed and the waves sometimes covered his head while he was drinking; third, the choppy water made it impossible to sight jellyfish because of reflection. On top of all this, as we approached Scotland the wind was blowing from the South, as it had been all day, but simultaneously the currents of the rising tide were moving southwards, thus we had a wind against tide situation which creates very rough water, made the boat pitch considerably and produced less than comfortable conditions for swimming.

Nearing the Scottish coast, skipper Nelson was concerned that the rising tide, which floods southwards around Portpatrick, would pull Milko along with it and cause him to have to swim a further distance because of a turn in the shoreline. With a natural tendency to veer right when he is swimming, this was to augment the problem for Milko, as right, heading from Bangor to Scotland, means South. Thankfully, heeding a great number of gestures, whistles and hollers from Marcel, Milko was able to maintain a good course along with the boat.

 As we closed in on the shore, it became more and more apparent that the onshore breeze was creating a hostile landing place for Milko, with waves crashing against the cliff face and frothing quite dramatically. Exhausted and cold, Milko gradually pulled closer to the rocks, and despite the current, actually managed to maintain a course north of Portpatrick village for touchdown. In the final yards before touching land, Milko actually disappeared in white froth before his two hands became clearly visible against the black rocks.

Start time (boats horn) 05:56:53 , 30/07/13

End time (boats horn) 16:30:56 , 30/07/13

Both verified by video"

Monday, 17 June 2013

Lung problems over I hope - crunch time now!

For two weeks I have been forced to swim very little (week totals 8 kms and 12 kms respectively) again mainly due to lung problems - persistent coughing, fatigue, no real fever. Treatment with Beclometasone, a steroid, is working but only slowly.
I finally started feeling better today, but the pool is closed, so I did 10 kms on my new rowing machine instead.

From tomorrow onwards it is crunch time. Even though the lowered training volume has resulted in a clear increase in speed, I feel slightly behind in my training. I want to do my biggest training week yet, to get the distance right and to increase my exposure to chilly water - the pool is now 17 degrees Celsius here.

Being home alone as the family has left for NL already, I watched all day with admiration on my computer screen how Fergal Somerville from Dublin, Ireland, zapped over the North Channel in 9 degrees Celsius water in 12 hours and 21 minutes. Incredible grit, such a huge distance in such cold water.

I will admit to a little self-doubt.My coldest training ever was in 12 degrees, and that was 2 years ago.  I will definitely need my cold water week in Cork to acclimatise. Looking forward to that, and I hope that my body will cooperate.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Advertising the swim and the cause

Commission en direct, my employer's newsletter, has advertised my swim and the cause. I like the lay-out!

Sunday, 2 June 2013

48 kms

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming has a nice, almost poetic piece on the experience of open water swimming:
The Daily News of Open Water Swimming: The Open Water, An Otherworldly Experience:
I am not a mystically inclined person, but swimming in a large open water body (sea or river) I have had occasions where I felt deeply connected to the rest of the world through the water, especially when swimming under water.

This morning was much less poetic, as I did a pool swim of 23 kms, my longest swim in a pool ever, starting at 4.15 am (Asha taking me to the pool at 3.30!). My program was 2500 free + 500 back + 500 free + 500 back + 1000 fs) x 4 + 2500 fs + 500 back.

Total swim time app. 7 hours. All really fine and fast up to 15 kms, still ok up to 20 kms, then really slowing down, feeling the fatigue of the days before, not having properly carboloaded and muscles and tendons hurting. Mixing it up with backstroke probably makes it a little harder, but it has the advantage of making the workout more varied.

I am now at the point where I can swim 2/3 of the target distance, which is earlier than expected. Next week will be an easy week of 20-25 kms with shorter interval trainings for recovery and a max. 15-km long swim (total 20-25 kms), the week after somewhat longer (30+ kms), and the week after that should be my biggest ever training week (60+?), two weeks before the Cork distance week.

I had wanted to get to 25 kms (to achieve a week total of 50 kms), but the straw that broke the camel's back was when diesel fumes of a nearby generator started wafting over the water and made me feel sick. At 48kms still an excellent week (Tuesday 6 kms, Wed 10, Thur 4, Fri 5).

Monday, 27 May 2013

Medical

I passed my medical for ILDSA today.
Resting heart rate a lowish 57 bpm, and I actually didn't feel very well today.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

27 kms

Tuesday 3 kms
Wednesday 5 kms
Thursday 4 kms
Saturday 15 kms, including 6 x 500 backstroke, challenging for biceps. All without much difficulty, except sunburn.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

41 kms, with a 21 kms long swim

Back to an excellent week.

Monday 10.000m (guilty conscience over Saturday...)
Tuesday 5.000 (some intervals)
Wednesday 5.000 (some intervals)The sprint were a welcome change, should have done it earlier. It's so easy to get stuck in just long slow swims.

Thursday& Friday off on a field trip, recovering from the intensive interval sessions.

Saturday (today): 21.000 m (6+5+4+3+2+1 kms), a little over 6 hours, 840 laps. Boring, but also reassuring. I manage to increase the mileage without major physical discomfort or injuries so far.  Still slowing down quite a lot after a few hours, from 15.30m/km to 17.30 mins/km after 6 hours. What will an extra 14 kms feel like, in water that will be 8 degrees Celsius colder...

Saturday, 11 May 2013

25 instead of 46 kms

Monday 7km
Tuesday 5 kms
Wednesday 4,5 kms
Thursday 9kms

So far so good, on my way to an 46 km week. The intensification clearly has an effect, and my cruising speed in 1500's and 2500's is getting noticeably faster, also in repeats. .

No training on Friday - reception for work the night before. Did 9 holes of golf though.

Then:
Saturday: drove up to the pool at 5 am for a 6hr/21 km training, and ... turned around to go home and have a lazy weekend. I don't train when I don't feel like it - training experience has thought me to listen carefully to body, mind and soul.

So, 25,5 kms it is for this week, not great, but no problem either. Swimming on 4 consecutive days went fine, no trouble with shoulders, neck and back.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Sunday, 28 April 2013

23 kms

A more modest 23 kms this week:
  • Monday 3kms
  • Tuesday 4 kms
  • Wednesday 10 kms (in the pool at 5.00 am, plus a full day at work - pfff...)
  • Saturday 6 kms.
A pity that the pool of the African Bible College is closed on Sundays. On the other hand it is better for family life.

My shoulders and neck, which gave me considerable grief in the last few months before the EC in 2011, are holding up remarkably well - I haven't had to resort to ibuprofen yet. But let's see how the next weeks will be.

Next week another 40-50 kms week I hope, if work permits, increasing the long swim on Saturday to appr. 20 kms, and five 5-6 kms swims on the weekdays. Quite a challenge!

My aim in May-June is to alternate weeks with moderate and big training volumes to get in a couple of 25-kms Saturday swims in June (1000 laps, app. 7½ hours - very close to the maximum of solo pool swimming boredom that I can bear). My hope is that this will prepare me sufficiently for the hardships of the Cork Distance Week (90-130 km in 9 days, only swimming, eating and sleeping). My key aim for the nine days in Ireland will be the final temperature acclimatisation, going from the 21°C water that I am currently training in to the 10-13°C range that is needed for the North Channel.

Daunting...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

About my training

I am relieved that, after weeks and months of gruelling workload, no less than four bouts of bronchitis since September '12, and lately some back problems, I have finally been able this week to increase my training volume to a level more usually associated with serious marathon swimming.
To give you an idea, from Tuesday to Saturday I swam 41.000 meters as follows:
  • Tuesday 6000 meters (240 laps in a 25-meter pool))
  • Wednesday 10,000 (400)
  • Thursday 5000 (200)
  • Friday 5000 (200)
  • Saturday 15,000 (600; a pyramid: 5000+4000+3000+2000+1000, with 2-minute feeding breaks in between)
Most of my sessions these days consist of combinations of 1500 and 2500 meters, the shorter ones usually with a 8x50m sprint set included somewhere in the middle or the end to retain at least some sprinting ability. I also like to do sets with 100 or 200m IM in it (e.g 5x200 IM, or 10 x 200 m IM/freestyle alternating) for variety while maintaining volume, and to challenge myself with butterfly. Due to a dodgy back I skipped all butterfly this week.
As I get older (47 now), and with my main focus on long distance training, I have been getting slower. My 1500 meters nowadays is rarely faster than 23-24 mins (my PB from a few years ago is 20mins50s, hardly Olympic, but decent in amateur Channel swimming circles), my 2500 meters rarely faster than 38.30-39 mins. That is also a conscious choice. Rather than training to gain half a minute in speed, I prefer to train to keep my current comfortable cruising speed of 2 miles/h or 3,6 kms/hr up for a long as I can into a long swim.

It may sound surprising to many fellow long distance swimmers that throughout the year I usually train a mere 10-15 kms per week (if that), even though I try, not always successfully, to complement it with cross training (biking, slow jogging, weights).  More than 20 kms is a decent training week, >30 kms is very good, so > 40 kms is excellent.... A few months before the actual swim I up the volume. The key constraints are my working hours, but I must admit that without big goals coming up I find it hard to motivate myself for endless hours in the pool counting tiles.

Forty kms doesn't even get close to the training volumes of more professionally minded swimmers, but for this amateur plodder in his late forties it is quite enough! The last time I swam more than 40k in a week must have been in 2011, in the run-up to the English Channel. My biggest training week ever was a one-off  50 kms week, also in 2011, though that was in open water, which made it more bearable. 41.000 meters equals 1640 laps in the pool, which is very boring indeed. However, between now and the North Channel swim end of July I will need to do several more of such, and even more voluminous, weeks. This will be topped off with a tough 9-day (>120km) open water training camp in Cork, Ireland from 5-14 July, two weeks before the actual crossing.

This week also saw me, for the first time in a very long time, if ever, training on 5 consecutive days. Normally I always leave a day between trainings, to avoid injury, exhaustion, and boredom. While I do feel some pain in my shoulder tendons today, it is quite bearable, and I do not feel overly tired either. I take that as a good sign: even if I have been getting older, my body and mind have also adapted to several years of long training session and extreme swims. So apart from increasing the volume, I will cautiously try and increase the frequency of my trainings as well.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Supporting the renovation of the Chauncy Maples hospital ship in Malawi

Big swims are often done to raise money and publicity for a good cause. My English Channel crossing in 2011 aimed to raise money and awareness for the Centre for Injury Prevention and  Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) and their fight against the epidemic of children drowning in that country by providing swimming lessons in villages and slums on a fairly massive scale. 

It took me a little thinking to find a suitable cause to support in Malawi. Not that there is a lack of needs and consequently worthy causes to support in a country as poor as Malawi of course. But I prefer the cause and the swim to be somehow thematically related, and to always have children benefit from it. This worked out wonderfully in 2011. But drowning seems to be much less of a problem in Malawi, in spite of the many people living on the shores of the enormous Lake Malawi.
Widening the thematic relationship with water, I thought of the fight against bilharzia/schistosomiasis, a widespread and potentially very debilitating, even deadly disease among the population of Lake Malawi's shores (I suffered a bad case of infestation with this parasite myself once in 2008). Widening the issue even more, the issue of health care in general for the population living around the lake, often in remote villages far away from health centers, came to mind.

After a call for ideas by email through the professional network of a friend of a friend, I was contacted by Janie Hampton, a British author. Janie is also the founder of the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust, which aims to renovate Africa's oldest motor powered ship, the Chauncy Maples, back into a clinic to serve Lake Malawi's mostly very poor shore dwellers. Renovation is well underway, with more than half of the funds already secured both through corporate and private sponsors. It is a cause that satisfies my criterion that the cause should be related to water, and there is no doubt that especially children will benefit in a major way from improved health care that will come to them instead of the inverse. Janie informed me that in due course the clinic, once up and running, will contribute also to the eradication of bilharzia in Lake Malawi. Finally, the fact that there is a clear link between the ship and Malawi's colonial history on the one hand (David Livingstone was from Scotland) and the destination of my swim on the other hand, is an additional element that Janie and I hope will pay fundraising dividends. 

It is worth checking out the following videos about the Chauncy Maples project on Youtube, first one from 2010, explaining the history of the ship and the project:


and this one from 2012, with more information on the renovation process:


I refer to the Chauncy Maples website for further information on the project. I am very pleased and proud for my North Channel endeavour to be associated with this great cause. I set up a fundraising page on http://www.justgiving.com/milkovangool, and hope you will visit it.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The North Channel for Summer 2013?

I shared my most recent swimming ambition a week ago or so on an online forum for marathon swimming nutters. It was picked up and reposted by Niek Kloots on the Netherlands Open Water Web. He made me aware that my blog was badly in need of an update!

So today I am announcing here (and on my Facebook page) a new big channel swimming challenge, even bigger than the English Channel in 2011: during the neap tide of end July-beginning of August 2013 I hope to make an attempt at crossing the 35-kms wide North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, more precisely between Donaghadee (County Down) and Portpatrick (Mull of Galloway).
(Detailed information on this swim can be found on the webpage of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association (ILDSA), click here.)

(I can't draw a line, but the crossing's ideal trajectory runs almost exactly through
the short leg of the letter 'h' in 'Channel' in this picture.)
 This is an intimidating swim for me for a number of reasons:
  • in terms of pure difficulty it is several notches up from the English Channel as regards cold, currents, roughness of the waters, and jellyfish. This is probably the reason why so far only 12 individuals have made it across since the first successful crossing by Tom Bower in 1947 (as against appr. 1200 English Channel swimmers since Matthew Webb's first crossing in 1875). The cold is to be feared the most: varying between 10°C and 14°C, the water temperature is well below the English Channel's usual 15-18°C range. I have done a few trainings in the past in 12°C water (see here), and it was very tough indeed.
  • The fact that I currently live in Malawi, where no suitable cold training water can be found, complicates matters, but doesn't make the swim impossible I think; after all I prepared most of my English Channel swim in Bangladesh, which is hotter than Malawi. In early July I will participate in the Cork Distance Week run by Ned Denison, a 9-day bootcamp for open water masochists. Water temperatures in Cork will hopefully approach those of the North Channel.
  • Apart from the harsh conditions in the North Channel my current form and health give me reason for concern. After my English Channel swim in 2011 I haven't done similar swims. While I kept training and while I did cross the ''Bangla Channel" (appr. 16 kms) in March 2012 and Lake Malawi (23 kms) in February 2013, my training volume has, apart from a few peak weeks, been mostly in the 10-15 kms/week range, and many weeks not even that. Very little cross training, in spite of plenty of good intentions. I will need to up the volume and the quality considerably. My health hasn't been helping me much either. Ever since arriving in Malawi in August 2012, I have had no less than four bouts of bronchitis, treated at every occasion with antibiotics, which left me drained. Today I had to abort a 10 km training after 4,5 kms as my lungs were still hurting from the most recent episode.
Having said this, and while I fear the swim, I am very much looking forward to the adventure. I believe that 'outing' my ambition will help me overcome some of the hurdles towards achieving it - first you decide, then you do, as my wise friend Adva put it to me yesterday.

The North Channel has been in my thoughts ever since I crossed the English Channel. Until such time as somebody swims from Cuba to Florida unaided, the North Channel is for many people the nec plus ultra of channel swimming. To prove to be capable of doing it would be priceless.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Brojen Das Swimsafe project: 1500 children 'vaccinated against drowning'!

Much has happened since my previous posting. Unfortunately I did not manage to update you earlier.

1. Funds have been transferred to CIPRB... 
... and that was not as straightforward as it sounds. I wanted to transfer the funds I raised with my Channel Swim to the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) already in February, but CIPRB couldn't receive the money until March due to the need to obtain government approval to receive foreign funds, and that took a while.

The total amount consisted of 4730 euros in donations from a large number of individual contributors, which I topped off to 5000 euros to make it a nice round number, which was then undone by the bank's transfer fee... :-(


Confirmation of receipt of the funds.
The number of beneficaries mentioned in the letter is a mistake; it should read: 1500 children, not 1000.
 

2. ... and the Swimsafe project has started!
CIPRB had in the meantime been working on an excellent proposal for a project. I had suggested to locate it in the surroundings of the city of Barisal, which last year made the newspapers in Bangladesh because of an exceptionally high number of drowning cases.

Together we decided to call it the Brojen Das SwimSafe project, to honour the legendary Bengali Channel swimmer  who between 1958 and 1961 swam the English Channel no less than six times.
(The term and methodology of 'SwimSafe' are copyright protected: CIPRB developed the SwimSafe programme in collaboration with Royal Life Saving Society Australia (RLSSA), The Alliance for Safe Children (TASC) and the Bangladesh Swimming Federation in 2005.)

This year the Brojen Das Swimsafe project will teach in 10-12 lessons 1500 children between 5 and 15 mostly from very poor families in and around Barisal to swim and survive in the water as well as teaching them elementary rescue techniques to save their peers. Bamboo constructions that allow for safe lessons such as the ones you see in the pictures below have been set up in 10 locations in villages and slums around Barisal, and 15 swim teachers, local young adults, have been selected and trained and receive a (very modest) salary with the project funds.

The Brojen Das Swimsafe project in Barisal has been set up uniquely with the money from your donations, though with a sizeable in kind and in cash contribution from CIPRB itself. It is part of a larger SwimSafe effort by CIPRB in the South of Bangladesh.

If you wish to receive the full Brojen Das Swimsafe project document (locations, beneficaries, budget details etcetera), please contact me.

3. Project visit on 11 May
The project started in March, when the nights get warmer and the water in the village ponds is no longer too chilly to swim in. It was well underway when my family and I, together with CIPRB's Aminur Rahman and his family, visited it on 11 May. Here are a few pictures of that visit.

The 'launching ceremony' banner. In fact the project started already in March.

On our way to the SwimSafe site: a fish pond near a village. The project finances 10 such sites.

Before the start of the lesson: the children pose for a picture with the village head (on my right hand side), my family and myself. The text in Bangla on the children's T-shirts says 'I can swim'. The village head, my son Milan, and I later took a plunge in the pond ourselves.
Waiting for their turn, looking a little nervous.
Children are led into the water very cautiously one by one, and never more than 6 at a time. To note that boys and girls attend these lessons in mixed groups!
A view from the other side of the pond.
In the inner rectangle there is a plateau made of bamboo so children can stand safely there. 
Children learn to put their heads under water for a few seconds. Ten lessons later they will be swimming freely!
No lack of spectators!

All in all a deeply satisfying visit - all contributors get excellent value for their money!

4. A second contribution from the Dhaka Masters swim group, and goodbye to CIPRB

For me personally the field visit was not the end of the Channel swim story. Ahead of my imminent departure from Bangladesh, CIPRB invited me on 10 June to meet with all staff in their Dhaka office and to celebrate our joint endeavour.  I was also able to hand over an additional amount of 59.000 Bangladesh taka (appr. 600 euro's) for the project, mostly raised in a charity event by the AISD Masters swim group  in a 6-hour swim event on 26 May and complemented by 150 euros from two recent late contributions to the Channel swim bank account.  I have been asked to convey CIPRB's heartfelt thanks to all contributors, not merely for the financial contribution, but also and at least as much for the moral support and encouragement.
It was a wonderful, warm goodbye between friends, in the hope and expectation that we will meet again.

A last picture with all Dhaka based staff of CIPRB.
Fazlur Rahman and Aminur Rahman, who have become good friends over the last two years, are second and third from the right in the front row.


Proof of payment of the second contribution from
the Dhaka Masters swim group & two late contributions
to the Channel swim bank account


A very nice token of appreciation from CIPRB, in my name, but through me of course to all contributors
 

 









5. Closing the chapter, and starting a new one
My posting in Bangladesh is coming to an end. All I can hope for is that enough momentum and visibility have now been created for others to continue and help address the problem of drowning in Bangladesh (remember: 50 children drowning per day!) and to massively upscale support for solutions such as offered by CIPRB. Because 1500 children is a nice number, but Bangladesh' population is more than 150 million....

From August onwards my family and I will be posted for four years in .... Malawi. I hope to be able to report on new swim projects soon.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

In Prothom Alo

It is not every day that I find myself in my host country's newspapers like this ;-). From yesterday's Prothom Alo.

From left to right: Musa Ibrahim, an unknown person, myself, Muniruzzaman, Lipton Sarkar, and coach and organiser Hamid.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Bangla Channel 2012: 3h46m single crossing, double crossing attempt aborted

Back from Teknaf and the Bangla Channel Swim. Managed a single crossing in 3 hours and 46 minutes. Piloting by my Taratari Shipyard crew (Thibault, Alexandra and Mr. Roy) and their Sampan boat was perfect, the weather sunny and not too much wind. Four swimmers: Lipton Sarker, Everest climber Musa Ibrahim accompanied by cameraman Moniruz Zaman, and I set out at appr. 7:00 am, watched from the Teknaf fishing jetty by local people, including a number of women in burkas. The other three all did 'snorkeling swims', i.e. in snorkeling gear including fins. Looks not very helpful to me, but Lipton has crossed the Channel this way already 6 times.

The first two hours were fine and fast, helped by the outgoing tide. It started to get difficult and more tiring already in the third hour, much earlier than I expected. It didn't get much better in the fourth hour, and it turned out that the water was teeming with 'stingers', invisible little jellyfish that feel like a thousend pinpricks, like rolling your face in nettles!  I was relieved to arrive at the beach on St. Martin's Island, where I was received by Hamid the race organiser, press including two TV-crews (!), and a crowd of onlooking locals. I still wanted to make the attempt for the double so I didn't linger: applied some fresh grease and sunscreen, gave one - not very coherent - reply to a TV crew, and was off again. I don't think my arrival was all that impressive: I was quite tired and came onto the beack stumbling.

The attempt at a double crossing had to be given up: just off St. Martin's Island we got caught in a countercurrent combined with a headwind and rougher sea. For 1.5 hours I felt like a hamster in a treadmill as the island seemed to remain exactly where it was beside me, instead of disappearing behind me. While I could have continued swimming for a few more hours to see if I could get out of the current, or for the current to turn, I realised that after that I would still need another 4-5 hours to get back to the mainland. That seemed a tall order in view of the modest volumes of training I had had in the past couple of months and last week's short but nasty bout of stomach flu, which had sensibly undermined my reserves. So I called it quits five and a half hours into the swim while I still felt reasonably well and lucid. On our way back we almost lost the way on an ever rougher sea and were joking that we would land in Birma and spend time in a prison cell...
Lipton arrived at St. Martin's Island after 5 hours and 10 minutes, and also turned around for the double. But he must have swum into the same current as I and aborted his double crossing attempt shortly after me. Musa and Monir arrived at the island both after more than 8 hours - on our return to the mainland we saw them swim and they looked utterly spent - bravo for finishing!

I can't help but feel a little disappointed: this is the first time I do not (fully) finish a swim I had set my mind on, but I am quite sure it was a sensible thing to do. I spoke to Lipton over the phone and he wants us to try the double again next year. We'll see - insh'Allah.

There were a lot of photo and film journalists active, but I haven't seen a single photo or any footage online so far. Will try to post some as soon as I find them.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Two days to go

A press conference was held on 13 March where the Bangla Channel Swim was presented to the media, see here. I am happy with the extra visibility for the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh. Lipton Sarker's and my planned attempt to try the first ever double crossing of the Bangla Channel is generating some enthusiasm. Steven Munatones was kind enough to mention the swim and the work of CIPRB on his blog 'The Daily News of Open Water Swimming', see here.

Lipton Sarker, Musa Ibrahim and their coach and co-organiser Hamid have already left Dhaka and are practicing  around St. Martin's Island today. Weather forecasts are looking good.

But unfortunately Tullio Ferri has had to cancel his participation for work-related reasons. And I am not 100% well myself: yesterday I had to go to bed early with a throbbing headache, bad muscle pain and a temperature. I feared dengue fever for a moment, but probably not: with copious paracetamol I am back on my feet again this morning, but feeling weak. Hopefully it will just pass - this is no condition to try and swim >30 kms in...

Tomorrow my friend and colleague Aminul Islam and I will take the 12:50 flight to Cox Bazaar, then take a car to Teknaf, where we will have appr. an hour until sunset to practice with my crew and meet up with the others. I will meet my crew and the boat Sampan (kindly made available by Yves Marre's Tara Tari shipyard) for the first time.

Monday, 5 March 2012

New plan: swimming the Bangla Channel on 16 March 2011

Announcing a new plan: to swim the 'Bangla Channel', a 16 km stretch of water from mainland Bangladesh to St. Martin's Island, Bangladesh' southernmost point. It has been swum before by others. This year for the first time it will be a race, with so far only 4 solo participants.

Will tell you more about it soon, as well as about the CIPRB's Swimsafe project, which will start in April, when the weather and the water get warmer.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Interview with Netherlands Open Water Web now in English translation

On 19 August I posted the text of the interview that Richard Broer from NOWW did with me. A very generous colleague in Brussels, Rose O'Duffy, volunteered to translate that long text for me so the detailed account of my swim is now also available to non-Dutch speakers. Thanks a lot Rose!

If you visit this site for the first time and are looking for pictures of my swim, you can find them by scrolling down to my posting of 28 July, or by clicking here.

Milko

(Interview has been slightly updated, and I've put in the international bank account number for donations.)

INTERVIEW WITH MILKO VAN GOOL FOLLOWING HIS SUCCESSFUL CHANNEL SWIM

By Richard Broer – Netherlands Open Water Web (NOWW)
Translation: Rose O'Duffy

You’ve been preparing for this swim for a couple of years now. Have you learned any lessons from the experience ?

I’ve learned a lot, not just in terms of swimming and training, but also in a more general context.

The most important lesson of course is that with willpower and determination virtually anything is possible. I know that is a well-worn cliché but I came to realise how true it is.
Three years ago I was so unfit that I could only just about manage to swim 500 metres in a swimming pool, and now I’ve done The Channel and in a pretty good time too. That is an important lesson for me, not only in relation to anything else I might want to do in my life but also where my children are concerned.

I also believe that is was sensible to start preparing gradually although that is not normally like me!  In 2009 I did my first 10 km swim (Vriezenveen), at the beginning of 2010 I did a 20 km  warm water swim (Rottnest Channel Swim,  Australia, 24°), in August 2010 I did my first Stavoren-Medemblik (19°), then in February 2011 I did the Rottnest swim again. After that I left Bangladesh for the Netherlands and spent two months training in cold open water, (the river Meuse (Maas), the IJsselmeer as well as a weekend in Dover Harbour with the Channel swimmers’ group organised by the legendary Freda Streeter) in order to round off my training.

I discovered I have good resistance to cold water.  At the beginning of June in Dover it was a revelation to me that I could deal with 5-6 hour training sessions in 12-13° C water. Mentally that was a boon because since then I haven’t been very concerned about temperatures experienced during a Channel crossing (16°).

Given my limited open water experience it was important for me to have an experienced coach, Marcel van der Togt, as sounding board. Although I was well able to organise my own training, at crucial moments over the past two years he intervened with the right advice about technique, (preventing a shoulder injury), training build-up, the need for variety in training and about training intensity viz. the importance of rest and recovery. Two or three weeks before the Swim he gave me a stern talking-to at a time when I was in danger of overtraining and probably saved me a lot of misery for which I’m truly grateful. Marcel’s training philosophy involves among other things increasingly imitating your goal in your training: hence you swim the whole Channel distance in peaks divided by intervals, first over 4 consecutive days,  then over 3, then 2 and finally in 1. This proved a highly successful method for me, and for him too as it turned out:  Marcel swam the Channel the day before me having started training for it only 7 months previously!

Overtraining is a serious risk, both in mental as well as in physical terms. Round about March this year, in particular following a none too brilliant performance in the Rottnest Channel Swim, I became thoroughly fed-up.  Remote consultation with Marcel produced a solution and after a few weeks of reduced swimming and increased cross training (running, rowing, cycling in the gym) I was back on track again. Since then I no longer train when I don’t feel inspired. If you really want to swim the Channel, that inspiration will return of its own accord.

How did your family react ?

Well, with mixed feelings given the amount of time I spent in training over the last few years but right now they are proud and delighted. For me it was absolutely tremendous that my wife, Asha, travelled on the pilot boat too so that she could witness the result of all that training. Her presence along with that of Marcel was a huge support to me.
My job in Bangladesh (Head of development cooperation at the EU Delegation there) is very demanding. Hence my training could not be at the expense of my job but rather at the expense of time spent at home. So that’s why I’m postponing all further major projects for this year in order to make up for lost time with my family.

You were swimming for a good cause. How did you hit upon that cause and did you collect as much money as you expected ?

In Bangladesh I came in contact with the work of the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) thanks to previous sponsoring activities by my Masters swimming club in Dhaka. This organisation, founded by Bangladeshis and entirely run by them, aims to reduce the appalling number of drowning fatalities among Bangladeshi children (nearly 50 a day!) by simple means like providing information and swimming lessons to the poorest sections of the population. I wanted to give the CIPRB a share of any publicity which my Channel swim might generate. I had no precise idea of the actual amount that I might succeed in collecting, although I now realise that in order to attract big corporate sponsors you need to invest far more time in lobbying than I could manage. All the same,  thanks to numerous donations from individuals I have already reached a figure of 4500 euros (6500 US dollars). Contributions are still coming in and hopefully will continue.
Donations are of course still welcome at account no. BE44 8601 1176 9745 (= IBAN; BIC = SPAABE22) mentioning ‘MvG Channel Swim’.

How did the actual Swim go ?

Around 06.30 am on 27. July we boarded the boat in Dover Harbour,  Marcel, Asha, Captain Paul Foreman with a crewmember and the observer from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. After all the tense waiting it was almost a relief to be able finally to jump into the water and swim calmly to the shore for the start.

After the start I spent half an hour swimming fairly slowly in order to warm up and get into my rhythm, then I moved into a higher gear. I was given feeds (Maxim Carboloader (97% maltodextrine) or Aptonia Hydro Endurance (with electrolytes) every 20 minutes,  plus half a banana every hour with ibuprofen and paracetamol alternately) and that proved to be the right pattern; I never felt hungry and right to the very end I was able to keep swimming with powerful strokes. The sky was grey, looking threatening at times and the sea was choppier than we’d hoped. As I breathe in only on my lefthand side, I had to swim on the righthand side of the boat where the skipper couldn’t see me as well. At the outset it wasn’t easy either for him or for me to keep alongside but then I started to swim sometimes in front of the boat, sometimes behind it, which meant suffering occasionally from diesel exhaust fumes. Fortunately later on things improved, although due to the wind and waves it was not easy for the skipper to manoeuver the boat at very low speed, while maintaining that speed constant.

My memories of the middle part of the crossing are pretty vague. Not all that much happens; you just swim, concentrate on your stroke and your rhythm, look at what people on the boat are doing, think of your next feed. The water was cold and fairly clear; I could see jellyfish and garfish passing a few metres below me. Only one jellyfish sting. While swimming and feeding I tried to avoid looking at the British or French coasts because that wouldn’t help anyway in judging whether I was making good progress. In any case because of the swell and the waves I could see very little, just tankers passing from time to time a long way off. Marcel and I had agreed that he would not give me any information at feeding times about the distance covered or how much remained because it would be pretty meaningless given the tidal flows in the Channel. We were calculating on a time of more or less 12 hours so that’s how I divided up my time; 3 hours would see me through 25% of the trip, 6 hours 50% etc. As I had already noticed in the past, including during long-distance training sessions, I tend to take a fair while (sometimes as much as 2 hours) before I really get into my stride, and I start to feel better and swim better only when I’ve completed half the distance. The same thing applied this time. So it was a great boost for the morale when I heard that I was on course for a time of 11 hours, by which stage I was already more than halfway.

Having misunderstood the skipper at one stage, (hour after hour in the sea doesn’t exactly make you more alert…. ) I mistakenly thought that I had had my last feed so I put on a turn of speed. However there were two more feeds still to come! So towards the end for a whole hour I swam flat out. Apparently I still had sufficient reserves for that so the misunderstanding ultimately paid off; with a time of 10 hours, 29 minutes and 45 seconds I clocked in as the fourth fastest Channel swimmer out of 24 successful solo crossings so far this year and am ranked 241th in the all-time list (1658 crossings to date), i.e. in the top 15%. Apart from the fact that I got to the other side, I am very proud of my time too.

What was it like setting foot on land ?

It wasn’t all that easy gaining a foothold on land! We landed on the rocks just under Cap Gris Nez and the official observer had already stated that it was sufficient for him if I just touched the rocks. However after all that swimming naturally you want to stand on the rocks and it entailed quite a bit of clambering to get up on them with a few impressive grazes as a result.

Naturally I was absolutely drained after such a colossal swim. Yet I was not in the state of physical exhaustion, confusion even, which I had been half expecting. I was dead-tired yet I felt very calm, not euphoric nor over-emotional, rather “that’s it”! I allowed myself a few minutes to savour the moment, there, alone on the rocks. I tried to find a little stone to keep as a souvenir but there was nothing at all, nothing but massive slippery boulders!

Even getting  back into the water was not easy due to the crashing waves and smooth, slippery rocks. In the photos I seem to be literally scratching my head wondering how I can safely re-enter the water.

There followed a relaxed 200 metre swim back to the boat where hugs and congratulations were in order. No euphoria, just a sense of profound satisfaction. I was wide-awake and alert. Just a few physical problems; almost immediately I climbed aboard the boat I was violently sea-sick and during the three hour return trip to Dover I puked my guts out. Only after a few hours back in the hotel and after a gigantic evening meal with Marcel and Asha, did it finally sink in what I had achieved, when the first congratulatory messages started arriving. Despite my fatigue I didn’t sleep much that night because of all the excitement.

A month has passed already since your Channel swim and you’re back at your desk in Dhaka. Did you have the opportunity to savour your achievement ?

And how, and it hasn’t stopped yet! After all the Channel is an icon, it’s the Mount Everest of open-water swimming and the challenge has been fascinating people for over a century. You are made well aware of that. Of course I appreciated the countless messages of congratulation both in the Netherlands and in Bangladesh. It was a strange experience being the focus of so much attention in the – local – media (TV, radio and press) and it was great to be able to highlight the work being done by the CIPRB.

Got any plans for the future ?

After a week of complete rest and a bit of recovery training in the Netherlands, I am now picking up the thread again and resuming swimming and running at a relaxed pace. I have a few other ideas in the sporting context but for the present, nothing of the same magnitude as the Channel. I definitely intend staying fit and being able to do 10-20 km swims. I’d like to vary my training more with more speed- and cross training. But this year training takes a back seat to family and work.

Have you any tips for anyone else aiming to swim the Channel ?

One single Channel swim does not make me an expert but I’d be happy to let aspiring Channel swimmers share my limited experience (my e-mail address; mvgchannelswim@gmail.com). Here are a few general and strictly personal tips based on my own experience;

-          Start in time to train hard and frequently but watch out for overtraining, do not train when you don’t feel like it or when you’re genuinely too tired. Above all train “smart”, with well-defined peak periods followed by sufficient rest and recovery. Taper off adequately (at least two weeks) before the Swim.
-          Maintain balance in your life, don’t forget your family, friends and social life. Try to plan training peaks where possible before and after (and not during) busy times at work and at home, so that the one does not have to yield to the other. Relax over a beer from time to time. Ensure you get enough sleep.
-          Prepare yourself mentally for the sea temperature in the Channel by doing if possible a few long training swims in much colder water.
-          Vary your training more than I did … don’t just do long training swims, do interval and fast work as well, including cross training (running, rowing, …) for the sake of diversity.
-          Consider taking on a coach with specific experience. You should definitely get in touch with other (aspiring) Channel swimmers, e.g. via the Channel Swimmer's Google chat group.

Thank you very much.
My pleasure!