Dave Shephard Reflects on the Swimhalers’ Channel Swim

In August 2016, David Shephard and Phil Couch – aka the Swimhalers – made an attempt to swim the English Channel.

Sharing the swimming responsibilities, the experienced endurance swimmers made great progress, but within agonising proximity of their destination bad weather forced them to pull the plug on the challenge.

Now that the disappointment of missing out on a celebratory Pastis has subsided, Dave reflects on the event’s lead-up and execution, and reveals whether or not the Swimhalers will darken the golden shores of Dover again.

Leadership Challenges (LC): Would you have done anything differently in terms of training or preparation for the event.

Dave Shephard (DS): Not in terms of training – we were really happy with that. What I would have done differently is to get a first slot swim rather than third.

The pilot has four swimmers that he wants to get through on each tide, and each are allocated a slot on a first come first serve basis, so if you’ve got slot one you can see the weather details and decide whether you want to swim. If not, then the slot gets past to the next in line.

We were slot three on the day when there were only two boats out; the other pilots from the other federations had decided that the weather wasn’t suitable. It looked like it was going to get rough at the end, but we didn’t know how rough. We didn’t anticipate it being anything like as bad as it got.

Training was all pretty spot-on really. I did a 10km race two days after the Channel swim and felt really fresh so it wasn’t as though we’d ran out of steam, we just ran out of weather!

How much was the weather on your mind as you began the challenge?

DS: Before the event we were speaking with quite a few channel swimmers and coaches. One particular woman said how she relied on three different streams of info coming in for when she’s doing or coaching a crossing, and all her decisions are made after weighing up all the information.

The weather had been fantastic leading up to the event, but I was watching on the news the night before and I saw a very small arrow pop up on the channel graphic. I made some enquiries but it didn’t really register that it would be an issue. But when speaking to the lady at the start of the race, she mentioned that it would get a bit choppy in the latter stages.

After our swim she said that she had seen that conditions would become very choppy, so she had more information that our team did. There’s always a gamble with the weather but I think we could have been a bit better equipped in terms of the information that we received.

Also, you need a pilot who’s going to give you the right information. Our pilot wouldn’t give us any information once the weather had started turning, he wouldn’t let us know how long the weather was going to stay bad, which was a problem. I asked him at one stage how much more bad weather we could expect and he just shrugged his shoulders.

As it was, it was another six hours, but we just didn’t know. He wasn’t giving any information. They’re job is to give you the information you need and to get swimmers across. Our job is to swim and I felt as though he hadn’t done his job particularly well. Having said that, there’s no way I’d leave it to chance next time, I’d make sure I was absolutely fully informed on what’s going on with the weather.

What was the hardest part of the challenge?

DS: Throughout the entire 18 months of training and throughout the lead-up to the swim, it never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t get across. The same applied to Phil, we talked about it at length afterwards – we just never thought we wouldn’t make it. Even when it was getting choppy I thought we’d just be able to push through.

The hardest part was the very last few hours when the doubt began to creep in and I just realised slowly that we just weren’t going anywhere; the swimming conditions were brutally tough. It’s so cold too, and you’re getting in and out of the water every hour so you don’t ever get a chance to warm up and that becomes accumulative so after 12 hours it begins to get to your core. Once you cave in mentally it’s amazing how cold you begin to feel.

The worst bit was looking up as I was swimming and seeing the boat leaning right over on top of me where it was being buffeted so much by the waves on the other side. It was absolutely freezing, and I was counting down from 3,000 seconds to the end of my stint; it was just ridiculous. That was the toughest part, alongside the decision to actually pull the plug.

At one point when Phil was in the water, I could see he was struggling as he hadn’t been able to keep any food down for a long time. I knew we had three maybe four hours swimming left in us tops, so the weather had to hold for us.  I could see our landing point so I knew we could get there if the wind only dropped, and if the wind dropped Phil would have stopped being sick as well. The crew were being sick too because the wind was so high.

That was so tough, having to make the call with Phil; I knew he’d be devastated. Just before my last hour swimming it began to dawn on me that we weren’t going to make it, which was pretty grim.

Did you discover anything unexpected about yourself or the event?

DS: Not really, we’d done a heck of a lot of sea swimming beforehand so we’d pretty much covered most of the bases. Nothing particularly surprised us when we were out there, right until the very end.

We were pleased afterwards in the debriefing that we’d been very happy with the training. We’d trained exactly as we had wanted to. The only thing I’d do differently next time is maybe a week of cold water swimming with a proper channel swim coach, because the cold is such a huge factor.

A bit of help with visualisation would also have been good, just to block out the pain of the cold, this was mainly because the doubts creeping in make you begin to feel the cold.

You can simulate a lot of the stresses of the Channel Swim; we did a full simulation a week before. We set up a stall with Rochelle, our nutritionist, and we did twelve-hour sessions swimming up and down the shore. We knew what to expect really.

You had a good team around you, how much did the team influence your performance?

DS: The team were absolutely brilliant. Rochelle, who I worked with on the Race Across America, is just fantastic. She’s a total trooper, knows her stuff and mentally strong as an ox. My mate Scott, a very experienced sea and endurance swimmer, was brilliant and helped a lot at the end when we decided to pull the plug on the challenge. He talked us through very thoroughly on the situation, he was meticulous the whole way, keeping records on our speed and cadence and making sure we weren’t dropping speed.

We had Graham taking fantastic photos, and it was a wonderful day, everyone was in good spirits and we’re all good friends so I wouldn’t have changed that aspect at all.

How did you deal with nutrition?

DS: On the simulation we experimented with a range of foods and drinks. Obviously the priority on challenges like this is to keep hydrated, but seeing as we were doing an hour on, hour off, there was ample opportunity to get fluids down us. We didn’t have to feed in the water but could feed on the boat; we were basically trying to put in the same amount that we were expending.

Unlike super endurance events where you have to keep your eating up to prevent from dipping in a days’ time, this race is all over in 15 hours so you know you can run nearing empty for a few hours.

It’s mainly about eating a lot of porridge – gruel, which we’d soaked the night before in honey. You don’t have much of an appetite when you get out after swimming, so yeah we just had carbohydrate drink and some gruel.

Will the Swimhalers return to swim the Channel another day?

DS: Yes, we’re booked in for a 4-man swim next year, we couldn’t get a swim this year because all the slots were booked out. The 4-man will be going ahead in July 2018; there’s myself and Phil again, then two others from my local swimming club. We’re going to try to blast across as quickly as we can.

We’re hopeful to organise another attempt with Leadership Challenges again for a 2-man swim of the Channel in 2019 – that’s when the next available slots are coming up.

We’ve a few other events coming up this year in the calendar, but the Channel 2018 and then again in 2019 for the two-man attempt.