The Apex of the Seas
- I haven't been writing articles as frequently as I was hoping to,
due to so many other projects (like last weekend's awesome
Self-Transcendence Triple-Triathlon). So, without further ado,
here's another article...
THE APEX OF THE SEAS
It is known as the Mount Everest of swimming: the 22-mile
stretch of water between Dover, England, and the coast of
France, presents the highest goal, the pinnacle of achievement
for distance swimmers.
There are longer swimming routes, of course, but it is not
merely the distance that gives the English Channel its
reputation. Turbulence, powerful currents and low water
temperatures conspire against the determined swimmer, along
with all the traffic of the world's busiest shipping lane. Small
wonder that, for years, many considered the Channel swim an
The person who proved them wrong was an Englishman,
Matthew Webb, who crossed the Channel in 21 hours 45
minutes back in 1875, battling nausea from a jellyfish sting, and
taking swigs of brandy from his support crew to resist the water
temperature of 14 degrees Celsius (about 58 degrees
Fahrenheit). Despite more than 70 attempts, this feat was not
repeated for another 36 years!
Nowadays, swimming the Channel is slightly more common --
English swimmer Alison Streeter has swum the Channel a
record 39 times -- but even so, only the toughest swimmers
Karteek Clarke, from Edinburgh, has run several marathons and
a few ultra distance races. However, like several other students
of Sri Chinmoy, he has also been inspired to take his endurance
capacity to the water. He has now swum the Channel five times,
one of only a handful of people to do so.
"On the one level," he says, "it's a great goal to have through the
winter, to keep you focused on your training. On another level, it's
just a great thrill to do an event like that. It links in very closely
with meditation to me, going beyond your capacities. You find
yourself doubting your capacities, but when you meditate on it,
you find that you can tap in to the energy and capacity."
Karteek discusses his achievements with humility. To him, the
"hero of the Channel" is not himself, nor any of his fellow
swimmers, but his friend Devashishu Torpy, who has led the
support crew for Karteek and others on several
Channel-swimming expeditions. (Despite the time it takes to
swim the Channel, the UK-based Channel Swimming
Association doesn't permit swimmers to hold on to the boat at
any time, not even during rest breaks. However, for obvious
safety reasons, swimmers must be accompanied by a vessel.)
Before the event itself, Karteek trains for several months. He
swims three miles, a few times each week, usually in a pool.
Three months before the event, he increases his training to
longer swims, in open water. His spare time is spent raising (or
earning) money for his swims, which cost a minimum of £2,000
each time (including £1,500 to hire a boat with a crew).
Astonishingly, Karteek never wears a wetsuit for his
Channel-crossing, following CSA rules. While training, he has a
high-fat diet, partly so that his body can withstand the cold
waters. However, while undergoing this training, it can be very
difficult to gain weight.
When Webb swam the Channel, over 120 years ago, the strong
currents meant that the 22-mile distance became a 50-mile
swim. Today's swimmers time their swims for better conditions,
so Karteek's times have always been safely under Webb's
21-hour milestone. When he first swam the Channel in 1997, he
did so in under 12 hours. Three years later, his second attempt
was dogged by bad weather and force five winds, leaving him
seasick. Nonetheless, he still made it to the end within 15 hours.
His third attempt, in 2001, was blessed with good weather,
allowing him to finish in less than 13 hours. His personal best
time, the following year, was an excellent 10 hours 53 minutes.
"It's a great metaphor for life," he says. "You have to fight against
the tides, the bad weather and the feeling of seasickness to get
to the Golden Shore. It then gives you a lot of strength in your
In 2003, he was plagued with seasickness again, to an even
greater extent. However, he persevered, reaching the coast of
France in 16 hours -- his slowest time so far, but still reaching
To some swimmers, this was possibly his most impressive
swim. Speed is one mark of achievement, but enduring the
remorseless waters of the English Channel, for so many hours,
is a victory of another sort. When you have swum the Channel,
how can you be anything less than a champion?