It is probably best to get this out of the way early and then move on to "failure is not an option" mode. Based on what I have learned from other people's experience (oodles of website/blog personal accounts, and three print books) there seem to be several common reasons people fail to make it across the Channel.
But first, donate now! (click on the green button on the lelt side of that page). You can help build a school for smart and eager, but very poor and educationally underserved kids in Waku Kungo, Angola. More about the school in the next few days. Okay, on to ways to fail at this swim.
1. Bad luck - This may seem like a poor excuse, but everyone says that luck, simple random chance, has a significant role in your swim. The biggest variable is the weather. Sometimes, with basically a one week window of opportunity, you just don't get a day that gives you a reasonable shot at success - the wind and waves are just too much. People do occasionally complete all the prep and do everything right, and then not even get a chance to swim. That would be a major bummer! Then there are the marginal weather days, when an attempt is possible, but not promising. If you get one of those, and the weather turns worse instead of better, then the swim can be nearly impossible. Then there are the simply surprising days, when the weather gurus predict a good day, but it doesn't pan out that way. The tides and currents can also be slightly variable depending on the weather and lunar alignment. Your boat pilot knows the basic patterns and timing, but the wind can make things change a little early or late, which can ruin the timing of your swim - and timing is critical (the pilot charts your path based on expected swimming speed and expected tide/current pattern).
Outside of the weather, jellyfish stings are also unpredictable and can keep you from continuing - although most stings do not seem to be very severe and most people tough it out.
Then there is also regular illness or injury. Either can keep you from having a successful swim.
Of course, you can take these situations of "bad luck" and deal with them more or less successfully. A very strong swimmer in good shape will be able to deal with worse weather than those less prepared. You can be mentally prepared to swim through the pain of a jellyfish sting, and carefully control your training to decrease your chances of illness or injury. Still though, sometimes stuff (especially the weather) is just beyond your control. It is one of the things that makes swimming the Channel such a challenge.
2. Cold water - Given decent weather, the number one reason people fail to make it across the Channel is succumbing to the cold water. When I swim the water will likely be somewhere between 60 - 64 degrees. (It was 63 at the equivalent time this year.) For the Channel, that's not too bad. Getting used to swimming in cold water is absolutely essential to a successful swim. If you don't acclimate, you don't celebrate! Of course, this is completely within your control. People do seem to acclimate to cold water more or less easily, but everyone can do it with enough effort. This summer/fall I found it fairly easy to get used to water down to 64 degrees, but only was up to 2 hours at that temp. Swimming for many hours in cold water will be a top priority next spring and summer.
Oh, I should probably say that body fat is also a key to staying warm enough in the water. This might be the only athletic challenge for which a significant amount of body fat is better (I suppose that's also true for sumo wrestling - but is that really a sport?). Being in shape and lean is a good way to lose to the cold. Being in shape and having quite a few extra pounds on you is good. I am about 20 pounds over my Ironman weight (which honestly was too high for an Ironman who focuses on time - but I don't), so at least I have that one covered!
3. Inadequate training - Of course, you also have to put in the mileage. Sometimes people are not able to complete their crossing because of sheer exhaustion or pain, due to inadequate training. In reality though, even in this case, the thing that stops you is the cold. When you are so tired, or in pain, that you have to slow down, then your body is no longer producing enough heat to keep you warm, no matter how well acclimated you are. The key is to be in good enough shape that you can keep working hard and producing enough body heat for the many hours of your swim.
4. Mental mistakes - You can greatly decrease your chances of a successful swim by poor mental training, and poor planning and poor decision making. Training your brain for the boredom is important, because if you get bored and get discouraged you can pysche yourself out and give up. Training your brain for swimming in the dark is also important, as most swims include at least a few hours in the dark (if your window of good weather starts at 8:00 p.m., you swim anyway), and those can be pretty tough hours mentally.
As for planning, your nutrition plan for the swim is key. Of course, you have to eat and drink during the swim, and that means you have to eat and drink in the same way during your training swims to find out exactly what works to keep you going, and what doesn't. You have to develop a successful plan and then stick with it during the swim, allowing for real time adjustments. If you don't take in calories, you end up with no energy, and you slow down and get cold and get out. If you don't take in water/fluid, you get dehydrated, your muscles can't function, and you slow down and get cold and get out.
The other main mental mistake is probably failing to be honest and accurate about your swimming speed. Your pilot calculates the best path across the Channel based on your predicted speed. If you tell your pilot you expect to swim the Channel in 14 hours, you are going to be in trouble if it really takes you 16. The pilot can make some adjustments mid-swim, but if you are slower than you said, and you "miss the point" at Cap Griz Nez, you make things very difficult for yourself, adding hours of depressing, and sometimes fruitless, effort. (Going faster than you said is not disasterous, although your swim won't be as fast as if you predicted your speed properly.)
So, from what I have learned, that's how you fail! A few years ago, "they" used to say that fewer than one in five people were successful in their attempt to swim the Channel. It seems that the success rate has increased in recent years, due to better boat piloting (thanks to more experience and available information), and better swimmer preparation. If I understand right, the success rate is now about 40-50%.
As I prepare for my swim, I like knowing about all the things that can go wrong. The more you know, the more you can control. The more you can control, the better your chances of success. If I give it my best mentally and physically, I think I have a very good shot at becoming one of the first 1000 people to swim the English Channel!
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