For Reg Brickell, captain of the 50-foot trawler Helen Ann Marie out of Folkestone, the moment was all too familiar. "It's dodgy," he said, casting a worried eye at Jim (Doc) Counsilman, the Indiana swimming coach who was stroking through the water in the 10th hour of his attempt to swim the English Channel. "Right now is when they go a little scatty." Brickell is a 30-year veteran of piloting swimmers through the Channel's treacherous tides. "They start imaginin' they're birds or bloomin' elephants," he went on. "This is when some of 'em take to screamin' at you, beggin' you to haul 'em out of the water."
Indeed, Counsilman seemed to be in trouble. His crawl, which had been holding steady at 64 strokes a minute, had slipped to 57 and his fingers were rigidly spread apart—a sure sign that the dread "channel freeze" was setting in. Worse yet, slapped by a mounting chop and nauseated from swallowing salt water, he seemed disoriented. As dusk descended, he inexplicably veered away from the wind-shield protection of the boat and, caught in a fast-running flood tide, was oblivious to the cries of his supporters aboard the trawler to alter his course.
At that point Ray Scott, the salty 62-year-old chairman of the Channel Swimming Association and the official observer for the Counsilman swim, stood up on the heaving deck, placed his fingers in his mouth and let loose with a keening whistle that all but rattled the church bells in Wissant, a French coastal village still miles away.
Counsilman looked up and stroked back to within 10 yards of the boat. "C'mon, Doc," Scott roared above the grind of the ship's engines. "Tuck it in, mate, and go. Strike a blow for all us old buggers."
Staring wide-eyed through his goggles and grimacing in pain, Counsilman seemed not to understand. Then, like a man on some mad mission slowly recalling the meaning of it all, he broke into a twisted grin and sputtered, "Oh...yeah...O.K."
Digging in, Counsilman, who has preached a credo of "hurt, pain, agony" to Hoosiers for 23 years, increased his stroke to 60, then 62, 64, 66 and, incredibly, leveled off at a resolute 70.
"My God!" Scott boomed. "The man has a heart big as a pumpkin. He's scudding along like a bloody Hovercraft!"
There were more trying moments ahead, but the rallying cry for old buggers everywhere seemed to renew Counsilman's will. And when he crashed through the rollers and stumbled ashore on a rocky, desolate beach near Calais last Friday, after an excruciating 13 hours and seven minutes in the water, he had indeed struck a blow for the geriatric set. At the venerable age of 58, Doc Counsilman became the oldest person to ever swim the English Channel.
It was more than a personal triumph, and that fact gave Counsilman a ready answer to the question that dogs all who test the Channel: Why? He explained, "I think we have greatly underestimated the physical potential of older people. Who says people my age are over the hill? God, we've got to realize how many productive years we have left after 50, and I'd like to prove that by swimming the Channel and helping to lead a gray revolution to adult fitness."
Counsilman's version of the old man and the sea had its roots in his youth, when he was a national AAU breast-stroke champion at Ohio State. In amassing a library on swimming, he was fascinated by the saga of Captain Matthew Webb, the 27-year-old master of a British sailing vessel who in 1875 coated his body with porpoise grease and, quaffing ale and breaststroking for nearly 22 hours—the crawl was then unknown—became the first person to swim the Channel. Though Webb subsequently perished in an ill-advised attempt to brave the rapids below Niagara Falls, his daring imbued Counsilman with a "lifetime goal" of emulating Webb's Channel feat.