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Courtney Paulk Tackles the English Channel

Courtney Paulk is an open water marathon swimmer who is in the process of tackling the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. The Triple Crown consists of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles around Manhattan), the Catalina Channel (21 miles between Catalina Island and the mainland of California) and the English Channel (21 miles from Dover, England to Cap Gris Nez, France). As of July 2012, only 55 people are known to have completed the Triple Crown. Courtney completed the first leg of her journey, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, on June 18, 2011. And as if once wasn’t enough, Courtney actually completed the Manhattan Island Marathon swim again in June 2012 and she is scheduled for her English Channel swim in August 2012.

As you might imagine, Courtney gets many of the same questions regarding her marathon swimming and, in particular, the English Channel swim. She answered the following questions regarding her upcoming English Channel swim.

What day will you be swimming across the English Channel?

I will be swimming the English Channel one day between August 8-16, 2012. The reason I don’t have an exact date is that we must wait for a good weather day. As a result, my crew and I will travel to England and will wait for my boat captain to tell us when it is our time to go. There are many times when the wind in the English Channel is over 40mph and, of course, it would be nearly impossible to swim in that kind of wind. The wind is the primary factor for determining whether we swim or don’t swim. Rain is really not a factor – of course, I will be wet anyway and there is always rain gear for the crew.

Additionally, most people prefer to swim in what is called a “neap tide” – which consists of less-high high tides and less-low low tides. In other words, there is less of a swing between low and high tide. The neap tides are around the quarter moon phases. The other tides are called “spring tides” which are around the full and half moon phases. While some people do swim during spring tides – it is more typical to swim during the neap tides. However, if it appears that I will not get a good weather/wind day during my neap tide from August 8-16 then I will certainly consider swimming during the spring tide.

How long will it take you to swim across the English Channel?

My best guess is between 14-16 hours.

How far is it across the English Channel?

As the crow flies – it is about 21 miles. But, I will be swimming across the current – a very significant current. As a result, I will swim in sort of an “S” shape across the channel. I expect to cover a distance of around 35 miles.

Where do you start and where will you finish?

I will likely start at a place called Shakespeare Beach which is just a little south of Dover, England. Ideally, I will finish at a place called Cap Gris Nez, France – which is a point south of Calais.

What are the “rules” of the swim?

English Channel rules are relatively simple. The swimmer must start and finish clear of the water. The swimmer may only wear one standard bathing suit, one cap and a pair of goggles. The swimmer may feed during the course of the swim – but may not touch anything or anyone or use any device to assist with flotation.

How many other people will be in the “race” or “event” with you?

The English Channel swim is not a typical race or event. Instead – each swimmer hires their own boat captain who will escort them across the English Channel. There are two groups who are authorized to conduct/sanction swims across the English Channel – the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF). I elected to go with the CSA and my boat captain, Eric, is affiliated with the CSA. The swimmer applies to have their swim sanctioned by either the CSA or CS&PF. The sanctioning body provides an observer to witness the swim to ensure all of the rules are followed. So, while there may be other swimmers out in the English Channel with me the day I swim, we really are out there doing our own individual swims. We might have started at different times and from different places. The English Channel swim is a truly individual event – its swimmer against the Channel!

What will take place during the swim?

When I start, I will jump from the boat (since the boat can only get so close to shore) and swim to shore. The official observer from the Channel Swimming Association will confirm that I have “cleared the water” so that no part of me is touching any water. Then the boat captain will blow the horn to signal me to start. I will wade into the water and start swimming. During the swim, I will feed every 30 minutes. My feeds consist primarily of a mixture of a product called Perpetuem and a little bit of orange Gatorade for flavor. I also take-in gels, bananas, and pieces of peanut butter sandwiches. Additionally, during each feeding stop, I will rinse my mouth with a solution of 50% mouthwash and 50% water. The salt water will do a number on my mouth over the course of 14-16 hours – and this mouthwash mixture helps. It will be important for me to limit the length of my feedings to about 30 seconds a feed. If the swim takes me 15 hours and I stop to feed twice an hour for 30 seconds – that is 15 minutes of “stoppage” time. If I stop for 1 minute per feed – that would be a total of 30 minutes of “stoppage” time. The longer I stop – the more problems I could have with the tide. Otherwise, I will swim until I reach France! Once in France, I will clear the water and the boat observer will confirm that I have cleared the water by coming as close to shore as they can in a dinghy. I will pick up a rock on the French coast. Then I will swim back to the boat and we will head back to England. The boat ride back is about 3 ½ hours.

What will the water temperature be?

It has been hovering at 59 degrees for the last month…but, just recently got up to above 60. I’m hoping that it will be between 62-64.

What time will you start?

The start time is entirely dependent upon the tides. Typically swims start an hour or two before high tide in Dover – but, it will depend a lot on the weather and the tide. Each night I will contact my boat pilot and we will discuss whether we are good to go for the next day. And, for example, if high tide is at 4:00 a.m., I’m likely to start around 2:00 a.m. Yes…that means I could be starting and swimming in the dark. Or, if I start at 10:00 a.m. and swim for 16 hours – I certainly will be finishing in the dark.

What boat will you be on?

I will be on a boat named “Pathfinder” and my boat captain’s name is Eric Hartley.

Who will be on the boat?

Eric (obviously) and his first mate. There will also be an official observer from the Channel Swimming Association. My crew will be Matt, and our friends Todd and Mary from Troy, New York. Depending on the day of my swim – our friend Chandra and/or Nate may also be on the boat as crew.

Will there be a way to follow you during the swim?

Yes, the crew will be updating my blog which will post to my Facebook page. My blog address iswww.swimandtonic.wordpress.com Also, the boat has a GPS tracker that can be found atwww.pathfindercharter.com/Tracker.html.

How did you get into Open Water Marathon Swimming and what swims have you done in the past?

I started swimming year-round when I was very little and found that I was good at long distance swimming. I did a few open water events in my 20s and then began doing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis) every June. After a few years of doing the Bay Swim and some other shorter swims, I began challenging myself to go further and further in more extreme conditions. A few years ago I did the Boston Light Swim (8 miles from Boston Lighthouse to South Boston) in water that, at the start, was 57 degrees. After I finished that swim, I decided that, since I was able to withstand the cold temperatures in Boston – that it really was possible for me to complete the Triple Crown. So, I applied and was accepted into my first Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and began planning for the other two events – the English Channel and Catalina.

In addition to completing the Manhattan Island Marathon swim twice, I have also completed the Ederle Swim (17.5 miles from Sandy Hook, NJ to Manhattan), a swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim ten times, the Boston Light Swim twice, the Little Red Lighthouse swim twice, the Potomac River Swim for the Environment twice (and a shortened version once), the Jack King Ocean Swim twice, the Betsy Owens Memorial Lake Swim and Chris Greene Lake Swim. I also raise money for charities each year in connection with my open water swims. Additionally, I informally coach and advise others interested in the sport of open water swimming.