There are only about 10 days a month in which tides are slack enough for a Channel swim. Further, for most swimmers July, August and September are the only acceptable months; then the water temperature reaches a tolerable 60� or a little more. But even if water temperature and tides are right, the wind can wreck everything. There are very few days when conditions are good. In some years there are none.
Then last week came the best series of tides of the year, neap tides lasting until Thursday, plus a water temperature of 62�. But the wind came with them. The weather chart was ugly with troughs that lashed up hard southwesters, churning the Channel into short, steep seas that crested and broke in a patternless jumble. There is, however, one mercy: there is no long "fetch" behind the Channel waves as one sees in, say, the Atlantic. They go down as quickly as they rise. And on last Tuesday evening the R.A.F. office reported a lull ahead that might last 12 hours before the next blow started.
Dover exploded. The Texas Volunteers, the Nassau County cops and Des Renford were away by midevening. And at 11:30 p.m. Sandra Keshka was clambering aboard Helen Annmarie in Folkestone Harbor, just down the coast. Chadwick followed with blankets, hot-water bottles, broth and other aids to cross-Channel swimming that filled four big cardboard cartons.
With light southerly winds it was logical to go from France to England. The Helen Annmarie chugged at a stately 15 knots across the Channel and the skipper dropped anchor in the lee of Cap Gris Nez. Other riding lights showed up close by. The New York cops, somebody said. Car headlights flashed on the little beach. It was a band of French friends that Chadwick had called from Dover, mustering to assist as soon as Sandra was ferried ashore in the dinghy.
At 3:22 a.m., plastered leprously with white lanolin, Sandra was in the water, arms moving powerfully, using her legs scarcely at all. But she was too far out from the boat. Kay Law, Chadwick's longtime friend, who had accompanied her on all her record-breaking swims, hung over the side with a blackboard on which was chalked an enormous "C"—"come closer," that meant—and Sandra swung in a little, though she continued to veer out until it was full daylight 90 minutes later. (Afterward she said that the boat's lights were blinding her.) Now she was on the last of the ebb, heading west along the French shore. There would be an hour's slack tide in which to gain ground and after that, everybody hoped, the flood tide with light southerly swells behind it would haul her toward Dover.
On board, there was no need to watch Sandra to time her: one could just listen to the hard slap of her arms plunging into the water, steady and strong. After four hours, the sun up and bright now, glancing off beer cans tossed from the Channel ferryboats, her stroke was still 84. The temperature in mid-Channel had dropped to 60� but Chadwick decided not to chalk up the news. Instead she drew funny faces, the Stars and Stripes, U.S.A. on the board to keep Sandra's morale up. Then she fed her swimmer broth and glucose tablets from a cup held out on a fishing pole. Sandra was well within world-record time for the crossing, men's or women's, and she had nearly five hours of the flood tide to go with her.
The first bad sign came just before 9 a.m., the first snippy little whitecaps brought up by the wind, which had gone southwest and was freshening. Pilot Reg Brickell made a critical decision to head the ship well up-Channel, right up to the South Goodwin lightship so that in the last stage of her attack Sandra could drop back easily into St. Margaret's Bay.
Then a radio report said that Renford had got ashore on the French side—but had taken a bad battering. He had been within two miles of the French coast in eight hours; then, with a bad tide, it had taken him 4� more to get ashore. (Renford was in the water 22 hours and 52 minutes on his unsuccessful double; he conceded eight miles off the English coast on the return leg.)
The other news was that the Nassau cops had hit fog. All seven were known to speak pithily at times; no doubt the Channel air was ringing with oaths.
Chadwick broke the news to Sandra that she wasn't going to make the record when the girl had been in the water for more than nine hours. The rising sea—kicked up strongly by half a gale of wind—was battering her up-Channel constantly, though the white cliffs were plain ahead. She had shown great strength and bravery and when the bad news came she swung up on her back and said, "O.K., now I'd like to eat." Finally Sandra crawled ashore east of St. Margaret's. Her crossing was made in 10 hours and 30 minutes, magnificent under the conditions—less than an hour over Lynne Cox's record.