While staying at the Hubert House, a small Victorian haven that has been headquarters for Channel swimmers for 30 years, Counsilman and his wife Marge frequented Wren's Teahouse down the road for tea and scones and liberal servings of advice. "When you can see France from Dover Castle, don't dare go," said one regular. "The wind's too brisk." Another well-wisher counseled, "Remember, when you feel as if you're really finished and absolutely ready to die, you've still got 10 more miles in you." Mike Read, a British nutritionist prepping for his 15th successful crossing, was more succinct. "Just keep going 'til you get there," he said.
Finally, with the neap tide running, the winds light and the water temperature at 60.2°, Counsilman slipped into the lapping surf on Shakespeare Beach at 6:13 a.m. last Friday and, with the white cliffs of Dover rising behind him, headed south for France. Slathered with five pounds of a ghostly white mixture of lanolin and Vaseline, he looked like something out of Creatures of the Deep. Using a two-beat kick to minimize the strain on his lower back and heart, he plowed on rhythmically for four uneventful hours. "When he is finished swimming," says Scott, "he could hire out as a metronome."
Hetzel devised a system of signals to communicate with Counsilman. If he wore a New York Yankees cap it meant that all was going well. He'd don a Texas A&I hat when it was time for Doc to stop for a minute or so to gulp down his hourly container of hot chocolate or coffee laced with fructose. A cap with an Olympic insignia was reserved for the final run to the French coast. In the wheelhouse, a reporter for the Indiana campus radio station used the ship-to-shore radio to relay periodic progress reports back to Bloomington. "Everything is going nicely," she said after Counsilman had been swimming for two hours.
She spoke too soon. Twenty minutes later, Brickell spotted a Russian freighter heading straight at Counsilman and the boat. And when the ship failed to respond to the blasting hoots of the trawler's horn, Brickell radioed the British coast guard for assistance and hastily prepared to pull Counsilman out of the water. But at the last moment the freighter veered off and passed within 50 yards of the Helen Ann Marie, close enough to see the threatening gestures of Brickell and his two crewmen.
When peace was restored, Brickell chatted on the radio with another pilot who was leading a relay team of six young swimmers across the Channel. "We got a good one here," he said. "We got the trainer of Mark Spitz, the bloke that won all them Olympic gold medals."
During the ninth hour, the wind, which had been blowing from the northwest, changed to a stiff southwester, driving Counsilman off his Z-shaped course and past his intended landing point on Cap Gris-Nez. Required by the wind shift to pump for an additional five miles, Counsilman began to slacken. Hetzel, donning the Olympic cap, kept up a steady line of encouragement: "Go for the gold, Doc—two more hours and you swim into history."
Marge Counsilman, white with mal de mer but still watching Doc's every stroke, said, "It reminds me of labor. I was shocked when he told me that he was going to do this, but after 36 years I knew I couldn't stop him. What a guy."
Providentially the wind changed again in the final hours, driving Doc toward the shore in heaving swells. In celebration, Scott broke out his harmonica and played a sea chanty while Captain Brickell danced a jig in the wheelhouse. When Doc touched ashore, everyone cheered, and Brickell let loose with a salute on the ship's horn.
Later, shivering in his sweat suit on the three-hour ride back to England, Counsilman had recovered enough to observe, "It only hurt once—from the beginning to the end. It's like marriage. You should only do it once."
Ray Scott had a different reaction: "As Sir Walter Scott said, 'One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.' This swim today will make everyone who is on the seamy side of 55 walk six inches taller. We should all chuck out our chests."