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In the predawn darkness of Sept. 8, 1977, Cindy Nicholas of Toronto crawled on her hands and knees out of the murky waters of Dover Harbor on England's southeast coast and onto the pebbles of Shakespeare Beach. She crawled because she was afraid if she stood up she would faint, not from exhaustion but from suddenly being vertical after almost 20 hours of having been prone in the water. When Nicholas was well above the waterline she sat up, her arms clasped around her knees against the cold, and looked back at the water from which she had come. As she sat, collecting herself, three men, British Rail workers wending their way home along the beach after the night shift, approached out of the dark.
"Oh," said one, "did you just swim the Channel?"
"Yes," said Nicholas, pleasantly.
"Good work," he said and, with his companions, moved on.
"It was quarter to four," says Nicholas. "Nobody really gives a hoot. I can understand."
The people of Dover and nearby Folkestone pay little heed to the nocturnal comings and goings of Channel swimmers. Every August, when the water temperature has risen into the 60s, they arrive, a few more of them every year, to listen to weather forecasts and wait, to eat fish and chips and wait, and, once in a while, when time, tide and weather cooperate, to swim. By the end of September they are gone again. It has been that way for 106 years, with time out for a war or two, ever since Captain Matthew Webb of the British merchant marine first made it across the 21-mile English Channel in 21 hours 45 minutes.
What the 20-year-old Nicholas had done on that dark night in 1977 was complete a nonstop two-way crossing of the Channel in 19:55, 1:50 less than it took the pioneering Captain Webb to go one way. Nicholas was the fourth swimmer and the first woman ever to do a double, and she broke the existing record by more than 10 hours. It was a feat that Norris McWhirter, the keeper of the Guinness Book of World Records, compared to breaking the record for running the mile by 52 seconds.
Now Nicholas is 23 and a third-year law student at Ontario's University of Windsor who ought to know better. Nevertheless, this month she will try once again to do something no one else—male or female—has done. She will attempt to swim the Channel three ways. If everything goes exactly right, as it did when she swam her historic double, and she can complete the first two legs of the swim—England to France and back—in less than 20 hours, she figures three ways will require 36 to 40 hours. But if the first two legs take 23 or 24 hours and she winds up fighting the tide near the French shore, the last leg would be difficult to complete. "We wouldn't land at our intended destination, Cap Gris Nez," she says. "The tide could take us as far down as Calais or Dunkirk, even Ostend. You just don't know. Everything about a three-way is hypothetical."
There are a hundred things that can foul up a Channel swim—weather and tides can refuse to mesh, flotsam, jetsam and ships can get in the way, diesel fumes can nauseate, oil slicks can sicken, jellyfish can immobilize. But the greatest enemy of Channel swimmers is cold: The cold of the water and the cold of the air take an increasing toll as the hours go by. Because Nicholas has never been in Channel water for longer than 19 hours 55 minutes, she can only guess how her mind and body will react to 36 hours or, worse, more than 40 hours.
"I hate cold water, but everybody else hates it worse than I do," she says.