It's barely 5:45 a.m. on the fourth day of a favorable tide cycle. We idle 20 yards off the shore of a gray and unfriendly England. "Over the side with you," fisherman Ray Brickell says as he stuffs my wad of $100 bills into his pocket. "We don't plan on being here all day."
That's it. No ceremony, no psych-up. Last week Brickell took a Serb across the English Channel, and tomorrow it will be a Japanese. Elsewhere along this coast, two other swimmers have already begun separate crossings; they are being guided by a sophisticated computer program that factors in conditions and individual ability—the swimmer's recorded time for a standard distance such as a mile-long swim—to determine precisely where a swimmer should begin and to chart his course. None of that for Brickell, the traditionalist, Brickell, the wave reader. For over three decades his family fishing trawler, the Helen Ann-Marie, has guided some 300 swimmers across the Channel, and every one of them has started on desolate Shakespeare Beach, between Dover and Folkestone. "Get in," he says with a hint of irritation.
I dive in. The water is calm. It's also 60�, cold enough to kill a crosser. (At least two have died of hypothermia, the most recent a Brazilian swimmer named Renata Agondi in 1988.)
The human body loses heat 20 times faster in water than on land, according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, which recommends wearing a wet suit in waters colder than 75�, but for now I'm snug as a bug with five pounds of Channel grease gooped over my back and legs (cost: �7 for a one-kilo jar at a Dover pharmacy). I paddle inland, then walk up the beach. On the trawler, snappy John Woodward, an official umpire for the Channel Swimming Association ( CSA), holds his watch against the predawn sky. "At your leisure, sir!" he calls out cheerfully.
I leap into the waves and begin stroking forward. The Helen Ann-Marie draws along-side and sets the course. Behind me, back in Washington, D.C., are three years and more than 3,000 miles of training in 25-yard pools and the Potomac River (7� minutes to swim the length of the Kennedy Center, 1� hours from Georgetown's Key Bridge to Arlington's National Airport). Ahead, over the lip of the glowing horizon, lies the Continent. I'm charged. In the first minutes I breathe hard.
This is still a gentleman's sport. Woodward is dressed top to bottom in whites, as if for Wimbledon. He times me by the minute on a Rolex wristwatch. He is present at crossings primarily to make certain that swimmers wear only a racing suit, a single cap and a pair of goggles. Extras—wet suit, fins, two caps and so on—are strictly forbidden by the CSA, arbiter of Channel swimming rules and records. Grab hold of the gunwale at any time during the swim and you might as well get out and dry off, because you've just disqualified yourself.
Channel swimming ain't cheap. My last dry act was to place in Brickell's callused hand $1,800 for his day's services. He doesn't take checks. Several days earlier the CSA's Honorary Secretary, Mike Oram, plucked $250 from my wallet for "overhead expenses—postage and the like." Should I wish to prove I crossed the Channel, the CSA will gladly sell me a calfskin certificate—for a mere $125.
My freestyle stroke rate quickly climbs to a steady 80 arm cycles per minute. I spin my arms freely, like a cyclist in a high gear. Ideally I will add power by the hour. My legs flutter under the surface and serve mostly to realign me in the choppy waves. Chunks of time begin to slip away.
Every 20 minutes Woodward, who is doubling as my trainer, writes an encouraging message on the dry erase board: GUINNESS ON TAP! Or BLACK & TAN FOR THE GENTLEMAN. Then he passes me 16 ounces of heated energy drink in a cup. I flip onto my back, continue stroking with one arm and chug.
By the end of the first hour my fingers have turned so numb that I must bang them on my head or chest to make them bend. No shakes, though; it's when your hands begin shaking so violently that you miss your mouth with the cup that you've entered a losing race against time. "Tally-ho!" Woodward cries when I throw the empty cup at him. He waves a towel in the air and shouts encouragement. He grins at me for several minutes and then returns to the novel he is reading. And so the morning passes.