Penny’s English Channel Challenge
Penny Palfrey’s 2006 English Channel assault consisted of twelve months of hard training, including countless kilometers in the pool through the heat of the tropical North Queensland summer and many several hour, open water sessions in the jellyfish proof enclosure on Townsville’s Strand. Further build up swims consisted of :
· A solo crossing of the notorious Cook Strait, between the north and south islands of New Zealand. At 43, Penny became the oldest female to complete the crossing.
· A crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco. Penny became the first Australian woman to do so.
· A podium finish in the annual Rottnest Channel solo swim, in Perth.
In actual fact though, the seed for her channel attempt was planted three decades earlier. Penny was born and raised in England and represented her country as a teenager in the pool. She also competed in and won, a couple of short open water swims. And whilst she entertained thoughts of tackling the English channel, the cost was prohibitive to her family.
After a fifteen year break from swimming, during which time she migrated to Australia and had three children, she decided she needed an interest away from the home, and wanted to get fit again. The pool beckoned and after a little training she entered a local open water swim, which she won comfortably. She spoke to a local coach about increasing her training and seeing what she could do in open water. After some solid work, she qualified for a berth in the 1993 Australian 25k open water team alongside Shelley Taylor-Smith and Melissa Cunningham. Following that, a combination of family commitments and injury dictated that another break from the sport was required.
Penny, together with husband Chris, got back into the open water in 2000, albeit at a slightly less competitive level, due to time constraints imposed by family and business. We run an accounting practice, and workloads after the 30th June year end, are hectic, to put it mildly. After eight years in business, and with things on that front under control, a channel swim was a possibility. The children were also in their mid to late teens and a bit less hands on. So after many discussions over a couple of years, Chris said, “just do it”. Penny didn’t need to be told twice and put the wheels in motion.
Penny booked her attempt with the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), and then after some investigation on the internet, found that there were two organizations one can go through, to mount a channel attempt. The CSA and a break away group, the Channel Swimmers and Pilots Federation (CS&PF).
From the other side of the world we have received a lot of support from both organizations. In Perth, in early 2006, we were lucky enough to meet the legendary Alison Streeter MBE (43 EC crossings). Alison was incredibly modest, friendly and down to earth. Even though she is involved with the CS&PF, and she knew Penny had already booked her attempt with the CSA, she gave lots of good advice, and invited Penny to join the Channel Swimmers Group, an internet chat site run by the CS&PF. There were daily emails from past, present and potential channel swimmers, about all manner of topics. This was great for us, as, being in an isolated area in Australia, it is hard to get information at the best of times. The information and gossip helped ensure that Penny never felt alone through all the long, lonely training hours. Penny only asked a few questions from the chat group, but the responses were fantastic. We also found the CSA to be very helpful with various aspects of organizing the attempt.
Penny was also able to get in touch with her swim coach from thirty years ago. Mike Higgs (coach of several British Olympic medalists) was still working with a squad at Southend pool, and was thrilled to be asked to help with the coaching responsibilities. Whilst Mike was very busy with his day job, he didn’t hesitate to take time out to help his old charge. And upon hearing of Penny’s attempt, Martin Swindon of the Gourmet Pub Group, offered accommodation and meals at the Lighthouse Hotel. We also received some excellent swimwear and apparel from “Vici”, courtesy of Les Mole in Brisbane. Penny used the Vici gear in training and for the channel swim. The Vici gear must be good, as believe me, Penny is fussy when it comes to swimwear and goggles. Carolyn Asher, a good swimming friend, agreed to accompany Penny as a handler, and together they flew from Townsville to Heathrow on August 22nd. Thirty six hours later, and very jet lagged, they arrived in Dover.
Accomodation was booked at the Varne Ridge Holiday Park, atop the cliffs, halfway between Dover and Folkestone. The owners, David and Evelyn, specialize in looking after channel swimming hopefuls, and were extremely helpful to Penny. They emailed her dozens of times in the months leading up to the swim, telling her about everything from the weather and water temperature, even down to some of the channel gossip. They even make their own channel grease which they offered to Penny. This grease was far better than the woolfat we had been using. And how good is this. For any successful swimmer, they raise the flag of that country for the day, and have a plaque made to attach to the “wall of honour”. We certainly couldn’t recommend them highly enough.
The day after arriving, Penny met her pilot for the swim, Andy King. Andy was another person who couldn’t do enough to help Penny. He did not have a number two swimmer for that set of tides, so he offered to take her out for a practice swim. Andy is a big, tough, old salt, who has been escorting channel swimmers for years. We found him excellent to deal with and easy to keep in touch with via email.
Penny’s set of tides, the neaps between 30th August and 6th September, were a few days away, so she settled into training. Dover harbour in the mornings and Folkestone (with a lonely bottlenose dolphin for company) in the afternoons. The water temperature was very cool, at 17 degrees C (63 degrees F).
A number of other swimmers were staying at Varne Ridge at the same time as Penny. Erica and Bruckner from the USA, Jen from Canada, Danny from Ireland, and Sue Oldham, Selwyn Jellie and Deiter Loeliger from WA, to name a few. There was great camaraderie, and lots of comparing notes on training, diet, sports drinks, favourite swims, etc.
Penny got the call to go from Andy King at 7.30pm on 28th August. Whilst it was the day before her tides were due to start, and the forecast was not great, the weather outlook was terrible for quite a few days hence. Andy was concerned that the entire set of tides may be blown out. One thing we learned from the great Philip Rush, in our Cook Strait crossing, was if you have a chance to go, you take it. If you don’t, chances are you may miss out altogether. So after getting all the drinks organized, and checking and rechecking the swim and spares kit, Penny and Carolyn turned in at 9.00pm.
Four hours later, they were up and getting ready for the swim, eating a bowl of porridge, hot chocolate and coffee, before meeting Mike and driving to Folkestone. The boat crew, swim crew, and CSA observer, Ann, slipped out of the harbour at around 3.00am.
Channel swimming rules state that the swim must start from dry land of a natural shore. Andy chose a beach next to Samphire Hoe, between Dover and Folkestone. With the vessel “Sea King” as close to shore as was safe, Penny swam to shore in the darkness, guided by spotlight from the boat. She waved her arms above her head to signal the boat, and was off. At 3.43am, when she started, there was a steady breeze, it was pitch dark and bloody freezing. The only good thing was that it was warmer in the water than out.
Early in her preparation, Penny did some research to break the channel up into sections. From the English coast to the South West shipping lane is about 10 klm. Penny hoped to reach this point by sunrise, and figured that this would be the hardest part of the swim due to the cold and lack of orientation.
From that point, there was another 9 klm across the SW shipping lane and through the separation zone. Then another 10 klm across the North East shipping lane. And finally about 5 klm across the French inshore traffic zone to Cap Gris Nez (pronounced “Cap Grin Nay”, the closest point on the French mainland). The idea of breaking the swim up like this, was to make the distance easier to deal with mentally, and to give herself goals to tick off as she went along.
The weather throughout the crossing was very ordinary. On the night/day of Penny’s swim, there were eight boats and swimmers waiting for their attempt. Only two other boats ventured out. There was a cross wind of around Force 4 on the Beaufort Scale (10 to 15 knots) which gradually increased to Force 6 by the end of the crossing. The swell was initially around 1 metre increasing to 1 ½ metres closer to France. For the first two hours and last two hours of the swim, close to each coast, the sea was very choppy and confused, probably due to the combined effect of the wind and tidal movement near the coast line.
The plan was to swim hard all the way. Penny figured that going out at a steady pace would increase the risk of hypothermia. But equally, because the channel meant so much to her, she wanted to give herself every chance of having a good swim.
Penny normally has a high stroke rating. For the first two hours she maintained 80 a minute. This fell to 77 for the next three hours, and then to 76 for one hour. But then as the French coast came into view, she picked up the rating to 80 for just under two hours and finished at between 75 to 77 into the beach. Mike didn’t tell her this at the time, but his plan was to have Penny maintain a rating of 80 for the entire crossing. This was quite difficult in the choppy conditions, and Penny recalls thinking that she wished his arm would fall off, as he hardly stopped giving her the wind up for seven straight hours. Penny remarked at one stage that Mike reminded her of the Queen, he was waving his arms so much.
The time seemed to go fairly quickly. Mike and Carolyn were kept busy with relaying information on the white board and preparing the half hourly warm carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks. Meanwhile, Andy, Ann (the CSA observer) and the crew, were fantastic and never took their eyes off Penny for a moment. Andy showed great skill with the boat positioning. The Sea King was on Penny’s right the whole way, and he kept the boat so that Mike and Penny were eyeball to eyeball throughout. On the odd occasion when Penny moved up to eyeball Andy in the wheelhouse, she noticed that he looked very serious, almost concerned. So she did the only thing she could think of, and poked her tongue out. This brought a smile to the big guy’s face. The tongue poking and smile happened another half a dozen times on the trip across. And after the finish, when the tender returned Penny to the Sea King, everyone else on the boat gave her a rousing cheer, except Andy. What did Andy do? Well he poked his tongue out, of course…and got a big, cold greasy hug, in return.
And then there were the constant interruptions from the mobile phone going off. Back in the office in Townsville, the staff remarked that I was behaving like an expectant father, pacing up and down the office and on the phone every five minutes.
The notorious tides close to France, had their effect on the crossing. At the 7 and ¼ hour mark, she was less than 6 klm from Cap Gris Nez. And from her position in the water it seemed so close she felt she could almost touch it. At this point she picked up the pace to what felt like a sprint (not knowing that she would be swimming for a further two hours). As it turned out, she would not have been able to land at the Cape because it was too rough. The wind, waves and a four knot current, pushed her several kilometers south to the tiny town of Pte du Nid de Corbet (pronounced…No Idea…that’s what it says on the chart!).
She climbed out onto the beach with very wobbly legs, just before 1.00pm after 9 hours and 16 minutes of swimming. But it seems she still had a bit in reserve. Mike Higgs reported that when she returned to the boat, her mouth was working faster than her arms were during the swim. Penny wasn’t either sore or cold after the swim (the effort and her stroke rate helped maintain her core temperature) although she could have done without a rough 3 and a ½ hour boat ride back to Folkestone.
Despite the conditions, Penny’s time places her as the fourth fastest Australian woman ever to swim the channel, and the fastest ever Queenslander (of either gender). Penny also won three awards from the CSA in 2006 for her crossing : fastest time of the year for a female, and courtesy of her joint citizenship, the fastest time for 2006 by a british person, male or female.
What’s next in open water swimming for the Townsville Palfreys. Well Penny is dying to find out what time she could do if she had good conditions, so she has already booked an attempt for August 2007 (too bad you can’t book the weather as well as the set of tides).
In the meantime, being open water swimming nut cases, we are already starting to do the base work for our favourite event on the Australian calendar, the annual Rottnest Channel Swim. We’ll see you on the beach or round the turning cans.
By Chris Palfrey
Foot note : Penny did go back in 2007. Despite suffering from the flu in the two weeks leading up to her crossing, she recorded a time of 9:07. this earned her four awards from the CSA in 2007, including their major annual award, the CSA gold medal for fastest crossing of the year. Only two other Aussies have won this award since it was introduced in 1927. They are Susie Maroney and Tammy Van Wisse. No Australian male has ever taken this honour.