Channeling their will, one cold mile at a time

Annapolis relay team swims England-to-France lap

September 25, 2006|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

It's one full lap, as swimming goes: England to France and back. A 42-mile odyssey fraught with freighters, fog and frigid waters.

Why swim the English Channel?

"Because it feels good when you stop," Andy Grannell said.

Grannell, 59, was part of a six-person relay team that combined to crisscross the channel earlier this month. Each swam an hour at a time. All are members of the Arundel Olympic Swim Center in Annapolis, where they planned the feat.

Crossing from Britain to France is considered the grail of aquaculture, said team member Annette Holmgren, 41, of Chester.

"Most swimmers either dream of making the Olympics or doing the English Channel," she said.

But would Michael Phelps plunge into chilly, choppy seas at 2 a.m. to swim in the pitch black, dodging tankers and jellyfish and driftwood with nothing but a light stick pinned to the back of his suit?

Not to mention seasickness.

"It was almost a surreal experience," said Al Gruber, 50, of Annapolis. "My wife thought we were nuts to do this. She also understood it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

People have died trying to swim the channel. Since 1875, when Britain's Matthew Webb first completed the trip from Dover to Cape Gris Nez, France, 806 men and women have conquered the 21-mile strait. Still, only about 10 percent of those who attempt the crossing complete it.

Team member Sally Iliff, 61, of Annapolis reckoned afterward that it would have been easier to abandon the effort if she had been swimming solo than as part of a relay.

"I was cold and disoriented and sick, but thinking, `I'm not going to be the one to cause this team to fail,'" said Iliff, an attorney. "If someone else quits, fine - but it's not going to be me."

Sept. 4, 8:46 p.m.: The Arundel team has barely begun its 21 1/2 -hour journey when a 6-foot wave nearly washes one of the swimmers off the boat escorting them across the channel.

Not a good sign, thinks Grannell, of Annapolis. Like most of his teammates, Grannell spends much of his down time hanging over the rail, nauseated. All make certain they lean over the side of the boat opposite the swimmer.

"The boat was going side to side and front to back, all at the same time," said Erin Miller, 31, of Washington. "How did it feel? Imagine being in a washing machine."

Grannell, a recreational boater, has never been seasick before.

"It was like being sick from having drank too much, except we'd had nothing to drink," he said. "None of the fun and all of the hangover. That is so wrong."

Five miles out, the boat's radar conks out. At 1:30 a.m. In the midst of a bustling waterway.

Miller recalled that while she was swimming she saw lights from a boat. "I learned later that we got `a little close' to a cargo ship," she said.

One by one, they descend the ladder alongside the Sea Satin and slide into the channel to swim for 60 minutes. Most hit the water (64 degrees) with a gasp.

"It took my breath away, to the point where I couldn't move for a minute until my chest warmed up," said Gruber, a manager at Northrop Grumman. Then his training kicks in, and the breaststroke begins.

When Gruber finishes his turn, Jack Iliff plunges in. At 62, Iliff is the oldest of the bunch and part of a husband-and-wife tandem. As the boat slows in the darkness to pick up the last swimmer, Iliff speeds off - in the wrong direction.

"When we caught up with Jack, he was headed out to the Irish Sea," Grannell said.

Iliff, an opthamologist, tells a different tale.

"As far as I'm concerned, the boat turned and I went straight," he said.

A slender man, Iliff suffers most from the cold. Toward midnight, he finishes his first swim, shivering, then hurries back on board "to put on every piece of clothing I had - long underwear, fleece pants, a pair of Levis, two cotton shirts, a down vest and two fleece shirts."

"I looked like the Michelin Man but there I sat, shaking for an hour."

Finally, at dawn, after 10 hours, 49 minutes, they hit the beach in France. Except that the beach is craggy and covered with boulders 10 feet wide. And the boulders are covered with razor-sharp barnacles ready to slash the feet of the lucky swimmer who lands there.

That is Grannell, a certified public accountant who can't wait to stand on solid ground. Teammates liken his seasick moans to those of "a wounded Australian squirrel."

As he nears land, Grannell wraps himself around a huge rock, raises his arms in triumph and awaits a signal from the boat offshore that would validate his arrival. Hearing no horn, Grannell swims to the next rock, then the next and the next. Meanwhile, barnacles tear at his feet and ankles.

"I'm thinking, `As far as I'm concerned, I'm in France,' but I heard no horn until I got totally out of the water," he said. Only then could he plow back into the sea, legs bleeding, to start the swim back to England.

"I knew the water was too cold for sharks, but I didn't know what else was out there," Grannell said.

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