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Karteek Alexander Clark

6 time Successful swimmer

From: Karteek Clarke

Date: Sat Jul 31, 2004 10:33 am

Subject: 55,680 strokes across the Channel.

excerpt from

 This year's Channel swimming odyssey can be traced to various starting points, like the pool training in early Spring or the start of the open water work in the cold North Sea on June the 23rd. Instead here I shall focus on my arrival in Dover two weeks before my successful swim and ten days before the first possible date for swimming (24th of July).


The longest swim I had done up to that point had been the Lake Windermere swim, which was just under six hours in time but was done at race pace. At the beach (about twenty miles from Edinburgh) I had done plenty of one to two hour sessions, and towards the end two back to back three hour swims. The water temperature was around 12 degrees, which is extremely cold, so I felt that these counted for a little bit more. My plan for the start in Dover was to do an eight hour swim and then follow it the next day with four hours. That would give me a good double swim and about a week to recover. My preferred preparation is always to do a minimum of three double six hour swims (six hour swims two days in a row and repeated three times usually on three consecutive weekends). The water was just too cold in Scotland to do that, and I hadn't been able to get down to Dover for weekends as I had in previous years.


I managed only four hours that first day as conditions were cold and stormy. After two hours I had the strange experience of being attacked by a cormorant (a big black sea bird). It flew at me and then dived down grabbing my hand in its beak. Often sea birds fly down low overhead thinking you might be something edible, and then disappear when they realise that you are a bit too big for them. It wasn't until I got out of the water about ten minutes later that I noticed its razor sharp beak had drawn blood and there was quite a cut on my finger. These birds are quite rare in the harbour and the way it all happened had a hostile feel to it. No one else had ever heard of it happening to a swimmer.


The following day I managed to do another four hour swim. During this swim there was the most unbelievable thunder and lightning storm. All the street lamps came on as the skies darkened. The torrential rain pelted down on the water, creating a loud roaring sound as forked lightning appeared all around on the horizon. At one point the water literally started bubbling around me, and it was only when I noticed big bits of ice floating in the water that I realised it was hail stones. I have never seen hailstones the size of marbles before, and have never had them beating down on my bare skin. Far from being frightening, it was a special moment as it took away the worry and tension of having to swim for a long time up and down in the cold harbour water. It made me laugh aloud as I imagined how hard the Channel already was without having thick pieces of ice stinging your back and hitting your head. There were some other swimmers around too, and I felt that the lightning would only be dangerous if you were near metal objects. It turned out to be the worst storm Dover had experienced for twenty five years, causing major flooding and knocking out the power and transport systems.


 It was good to have two four hour swims under my belt, but I felt as if I was not prepared enough and knew that it is not a good sign to have these feelings one week before the proposed swim. I toyed with the idea of switching to the August tide three weeks later, but I also knew that there were three other swimmers on this tide and the chances were I would not get to swim. The tide I was booked on was completely free, which meant I would be able to choose the best day out of the whole week.


I awoke from a very peaceful dream on Sunday night. I dreamt that I had successfully swum and was being congratulated by lots of people. The positive feeling was only slightly dampened by the fact that I hadn't actually completed it yet in real life! I walked along the quay that Sunday night feeling somewhat depressed about the swim, and aware that there was some spark missing. I used to love walking around watching the ferries come in with their different coloured navigation lights and the loom of the lighthouses from the French coast. It would always be very peaceful at that time of the evening, with the small waves lapping at the bottom of the promenade and sometimes the glint of moonlight on the water in the bay. This time I looked out and only felt the harshness of the sea and imagined the cold in my bones. I told myself I had completed the swim before, but somehow I felt more alienated from it than ever - perhaps from remembering the difficulties on previous swims and perhaps from not having done so many long six hour swims in preparation. The following day I went in with the aim of trying to complete two hours, which I thought would be manageable and would at least keep up the momentum of the training. It was a beautiful, calm, sunny day and I felt light and in good spirits. I decided to make it four hours, which when added to the first two days, would mean I had done twelve hours over four days. As it happened, I was able to do six hours and still felt good.


My plans changed very quickly, and I decided that I was ready after all for the following weekend. Everything was full steam ahead for that Saturday. I was staying in the Youth Hostel with Jozef, who had just arrived from Prague and who is currently preparing to swim on the August tide. Things were complicated at the Hostel, in that we had to keep moving our bags, and sometimes would end up in the dormitory accommodation with five or six strangers. This wasn't the best arrangement, and contributed to a slight sense of being tired and unready. The Saturday came around all too quickly.


It was a 1:30 am wake-up call for a four o'clock start from the beach. As we got down to the boat, the weather forecast printout looked good - although there was a light northerly breeze blowing down over the cliffs that hadn't been mentioned in the forecast. After a good start to the swim, the water very soon became quite rough and choppy, making swimming extremely uncomfortable. Luckily, the dreaded seasickness didn't bother me the way it did last year. I was trying out some homeopathic pills mixed in with the hourly feed, and they seemed to be working.


As the conditions became more and more unbearable, I was sure that my helpers would stop me or at least suggest stopping and going another day. I was managing all right, and even laughing at the hilarity of the waves crashing over my head and twisting my whole body around as I tried to swim. I knew that unless the conditions changed fairly soon, I would not be able to deal with it for the whole swim. I was desperate to stop and escape from the hellish prospect of having to continue like this for many hours. All I wanted to do was get warm and be back on the boat, regardless of any idea of 'not giving up' or 'persevering through it.' After two and a half hours, I suggested postponing but they didn't really pick up on it; in fact the official observer appeared and said he thought it wasn't too bad. I had the same horrible pangs as I had early on in the previous year's swim when I found it overwhelming and just wanted to give up.


At moments, I would just try to completely surrender my being and almost feel that I didn't exist. This would immediately grant moments of peace and the feeling that the swim could just happen automatically. At the same time, I was extremely frightened of pushing it in that way. It was too close to an annihilation of all the things I wanted to hold onto my life and thoughts and personal ways of doing things. Perhaps this was the call to try to surrender the ego - something I wasn't ready to do. Finally I managed to persuade them that it was really rather nasty, and made an agreement with Dave, the pilot, to take me again on a better day. I would just pay him to cover expenses. Generally if you stop the swim in bad conditions before the three or four hour point, the pilot will take you again without charging you the full amount of hiring a boat and crew for the day. It was great to be out of the torment; but far from being a joyful feeling, it was a feeling of muted dissatisfaction and the worry that maybe I had just given in to something.


The rest of the day was spent relaxing out in the Youth Hostel garden. I had more or less resigned myself at this stage to giving up the whole Channel swimming project it had just become too arduous. I must add at this stage that perhaps with the exception of the second swim, when the weather turned very windy after seven hours, all the swims have been joyful experiences and the idea of giving up has never entered into my head. People have always told me what a nightmare it must be to have to swim the Channel, but I have always had very positive feelings about it and have always looked forward to each summer. Admittedly (and of course you tend to forget the painful parts), there are always times when it's a real hard push, and the training can certainly be quite gruelling. It seemed as if a whole new force of doubt had crept in, and along with it a part of me that felt strong enough to give up on it all and leave it for good.


Last year's swim was very difficult, and I had made up my mind to give up at least three times. I still don't know how I got there. I think I was like an angry screaming child being woken up and carried somewhere it didn't like - but by caring hands that knew what was best.


Everything changed that evening when I got a call from Annam Brahma, the vegetarian restaurant in New York. They called with a short message from Sri Chinmoy. He sent his love and blessings. He had heard that I had to stop due to the weather changing, but he was very happy that I was going again later in the week.


In reporting what had happened that morning, I think I just said in a matter of fact way that it was a problem with the weather, and I would of course go again soon. I hadn't communicated the thoughts that this was now enough for me, hadn't perhaps wanted to admit defeat. When Annam Brahma relayed Sri Chinmoy's message, they also stressed how Guru had 'the sweetest smile.' Something about this message and imagining his smile stirred something deep within me, and I realised I could do it.


All I had to do was conquer that moment of wanting to give up, and the feeling of going through unnecessary suffering that had started to hit me after about three hours. I had the feeling that Guru had known exactly what I had been going through earlier that morning, and that these were difficulties in life that probably hadn't changed much for thousands of years. I started to imagine that this new feeling of wanting to give up was like a nasty monster that tried to attack me at a certain distance out from the beach. All I had to do was slay this beast and then everything would flow according to plan. I started to imagine the various myths and stories about people having to conquer monsters and beasts to get to their goal. I don't know if I can say that I was sure I was going to succeed at this point, but I know that I was determined to give it my all.


The day of the swim was set for the following Wednesday, when there looked to be a particularly clear spell of weather. Far from dreading the prospect, part or me was actually looking forward to getting out there and chopping the monster's head off! Of course, there were the nerves and the times when you just wanted to be free from the upcoming challenge.


A final idea came the day before the swim. The idea was to imagine I was the lead swimmer amongst an army of very powerful swimmers who would be accompanying me. Our combined energy I felt would be able to get us through anything, and with this army to help fight the monster it wouldn't stand a chance.


Wednesday was beautifully sunny, very calm, and it was also the best day for the tide. I couldn't believe my luck and started to think that although it was going to be a hard push, maybe the expected fight wouldn't take place. For the first hour as you twist your head back to breathe you can look back and see the white cliffs receding behind you.


I have always sung lots of songs whilst swimming, and as I started singing I felt that the army of swimmers were singing in unison with me. I felt a strong sense that we were swimming in a 'v' shape - rather like a flock of geese. Then came the feeling that we were carrying an important message from one country to another. This was concealed deep inside the pack of swimmers.


Once you start swimming, you really need a reason to be doing it. You cannot just be out there purely for the sake of swimming and getting to the other side. It's as if you are quickly transported out of the realm of being an independent individual. You rely on strength that is outside you, whether that is coming from thinking about and intensely identifying with people close to you, or from something more spiritual. Besides this, there is always the feeling of a tearing of bonds between you and those you are close to, whether they be family or friends. You feel as if you are going further away from them. Sometimes you can try to imagine that you are producing tremendous positive energy for them, but this is a bit too unsure. In the face of the immensity of it all, you can no longer be just yourself, but must be there for an unselfish reason. On dry land before the swim (and maybe even retrospectively), you may think that it is just a question of the individual getting from one side to the other - but no one has the mental strength for that to be sufficient. The great ocean is always such a reminder of how small and insignificant we are as individuals in comparison to the vastness of what is not us. The idea of being entrusted with some very important secret inner mission was a powerful inspiration.


The large ferries started to appear as the route of the swim took us directly out in front of Dover port. After about three and a half to four hours, I started to see the big tankers and cargo ships coasting effortlessly down the northwest shipping lane. This point is about five miles out, so you know you are at least a quarter of the way across. It is also at this point for some reason that there is a lot of seaweed, and of course the jellyfish that seem to excite the imagination so much in the retelling. Two years ago I had swum through a thick morass of tiny jellyfish that extended for over a mile, so I wasn't too put out to see them again. This time the small ones were out in their hundreds and I had to swim through them, but the patches were relatively isolated. In amongst them there were some bigger ones, some of which have beautiful blue bulbous tops that are picked up by the slanting rays of sunshine penetrating down into the murky depths below you. I remember one sting, but it was not too serious and only ached for a few minutes. You can liken the jellyfish to walking through stinging nettles. There were moments when I would swim into a huge bit of seaweed and it would coil itself around my neck. The initial feeling was that it was the tentacles of a jellyfish, but luckily it was not.


I had started very well in the first hour, but then really felt as if I was slowing down in the second. I wasn't unduly worried as I assumed it was probably necessary to save energy, but was a bit concerned when I had a curious feeling that my arms had turned into massive concrete pillars that I couldn't move. It reminded me of a strange nightmare I had when I was younger in which my limbs would become huge and heavy and I would be unable to move them. However, these feelings again passed and just recurred once more very briefly later in the day.


At the six hour point Dave, the pilot, signalled 'ten' to me with his hands, and my first reaction was that we were on target for a ten hour swim. I immediately felt a surge of inspiration as I thought that meant we could be finished soon. Four hours certainly seemed like a manageable amount, and I could think of the many times I had done that in the pool. Then it occurred to me that maybe he meant we had done ten miles. That would mean that we were just under halfway and, with the toughest part of the swim still to come, was not such good news. Sometimes this ambiguity is good. One part of me was thinking we were less than halfway, whilst another part of me was able to argue that we would be finishing in four hours time. For the time being there was equal evidence for both, though it certainly seemed that we were more than halfway.


It was at about this point that the situation slowly started to deteriorate, as the waves got bigger and started throwing me around a bit. Not that I have ever done it, but I have always likened this to swimming in a washing machine which is spinning back and forth from side to side. At first I thought it might be just isolated wash from shipping, or a small patch of turbulence; but it continued and got slightly stronger right up to the end of the swim. The effects of wind and tide, even though I was swimming fairly strongly, now worked to completely change the curve of the predicted 'ten hour swim' (which Dave later confirmed was what he had been signalling).


By hour eleven I was told we were two and a half miles away from France. I worked out in my head that at that pace it would be about one and a quarter hours, but allowed myself two hours. Two hours later, I asked how far to go and was told one more hour. After this hour again I asked and was told that this was the final hour. After that hour, it was another hour and a quarter. So it was three and a quarter more hours from when I had been told one hour, and five and a quarter from when I had been told we were two and a half miles distant.


This experience with the time at the end of the swim always seems to be the same. Adhiratha, who was the first man in the Sri Chinmoy Centre to swim the Channel (1987), has dubbed it the 'eternal hour.'


The darkness set in quite quickly, and with it a beautiful yellow moon. I knew we were probably relatively safe from the strong tide outside the bay, but I was feeling extremely cold and although the lights seemed clear up ahead on the French coast, I was unsure how long I would be able to continue.


Two luminous light sticks were handed down to me, to be lodged between cap and goggles to enable the crew to see me in the dark. I remember streams of bright phosphorescence every time I moved my hands through the water and thinking how beautiful it was. I was just too tired to appreciate it. The coldness seemed to get more and more intense as the lights, if anything, seemed to fade away into the distance. France didn't seem to want to yield itself.


I had lost track of the time by this stage, as it was dark and I couldn't even see my watch. The white boat was lit up with all the nighttime navigation lights, and each time I looked over at it in the dark blue-black water, the coloured lights seemed to take on different shapes. At times it almost looked like a spacecraft. I don't think this is a hallucination, but rather the effect of staring at the same object for so long while tired that everything seems to merge into one. As a swimmer at sea, your senses are so muted anyway. You look out through misty goggles under a cap that blocks virtually all sound. Since you are breathing from side to side, your head is continually moving so you cannot look directly at an object. Instead it is like a series of camera shots taken at different angles. Each time you look up to breathe, you take in some aspect of the scene - and of course that may be from the trough or the crest of the wave. Sometimes you have strange feelings, imagining that you might have started tagging along with another boat altogether. Sometimes there are feelings of detachment: you feel you are out there doing one thing, and the boat and crew are out there doing their own thing. At that point, the boat and you just happen to be together. It's as if you are part of the group and the little expedition, but they have forgotten about you and you have forgotten about them. As you look at the waves out of the corner of your eyes, you always think you have seen bits of coastline or even walls. One year for hours I thought I was swimming into a bay, as there seemed to be land on either side of me - but it was just the tops of the waves. As we progressed, I wondered if there was a chance that the beach was much closer than the lights, as often with a town the buildings are set well back from the shore. The crew told me later that they didn't know where the beach was because it was so dark. In fact, the observer thought that we had maybe started swimming up a river on the French side. Finally I saw something in the water next to me. It was quite a bizarre sight, but turned out to be Jozef with his multicoloured swimming cap with a light stick on it. Shortly afterwards, I felt that wonderful feeling that you dream about of the sand under my hands. I shouted to him and stood up. I waded and waded only to find that the beach was still quite a way away, so I even started swimming again.


Finally we were standing on a bit of beach out of the water - which is the stipulation for successfully crossing the Channel. It is the moment you dream of, but when you are there you are so tired that all you want to do is get back to the boat and warm up and contemplate it the next day. Normally on the way back I feel reasonably sprightly and sit up at the back watching the lights and the shipping; but this time I was exhausted and very cold. I wrapped up warm and fell asleep for most of the return journey. It had taken a lot longer than expected, but I had finally made it in 16 hours and 13 minutes, to make a total of six successful Channel swims.


Ashrita got back very soon afterwards with a congratulatory message from Sri Chinmoy. One of the things he said was not to worry about the time, that the weather was the hostile forces. It's strange because every time I went to the beach in Scotland to train, the waves were quite big and choppy and I always had to swim through them. Last year it was calm and the water was always clear with views down to the sand and the crabs. When I did my training swims in Dover this year, the water was also generally quite disturbed. During the aborted Saturday swim, I had to fight against these waves and declined the contest in the hope I would get a good calm day. I have had such calm days on two prior swims, the one when I did my best time (10hrs 53 mins) and my very first one (11hrs 57mins). Perhaps there was no point in going through that experience again. I felt that Sri Chinmoy had taken away ninety five percent of the power of the weather in the second half, but left just enough for me to fight against to learn the lesson. Of course, then you realise that the five percent is also all Grace.

I have made very little mention of my two helpers, Dave and Jozef, who were fearless, inspirational and devoted to the cause from start to finish. More than anything else the Channel is a team effort, and they were perfect team members. Jozef (Slovakia) will be joined by Henrik (Finland) to swim an upcoming tide in August. Vijaya from New York will also swim. Watch this space for more news.


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1.00  55,680 strokes across the Channel. Karteeks Account of Swim Jul 2003 55,680 strokes across the Channel.