At the narrowest point of the English Channel, between Dover, England and Audinghen, France lies the famous 21mi (34km) stretch of water that is annually flocked by keen swimmers who attempt to swim across the Channel. It is regarded as the “ultimate long distance challenge”.
Taking off from Shakespeare Beach or the nearby Samphire Hoe, the swimmer lathered in grease to retain body heat and reduce chafing is supported by a team on an escort boat whose responsibility is their safety, provide the swimmer with food and ensure they maintain clear access to passing ships.
The Pilot of the boat is a licensed and highly experienced Skipper with deep knowledge and understanding of the Channel. The Pilot and the swimmer have a symbiotic relationship with one target in mind, reach the French shore.
The Pilot will continuously course correct so the swimmer swims the most direct route and with minimal deviation that may occur due to unfavourable weather conditions and currents.
Heading for Cap Gris Nez near Audinghen, the swim across the Channel is rigorous and challenging due to its varying conditions. Besides having to swim in a basic swimsuit (arms and legs must be showing, no buoyancy material), the water is cold often between 14-18°C (57-64°F) and if unlucky even as low as 6°C (43°F). The Channel may be a perfect glassy condition or as wild as 2m (6ft) high waves with strong winds.
As such the swim is rarely a direct straight line. It will usually look more like an “S” bend, navigating currents, wind, waves and of course the ever present ships.
Putting the Channel swim aside, Dover is a major port town and the closest point to continental Europe. Famous for its White Cliffs and the strategically located Dover Castle, Dover’s history traces back to Roman days. A Roman lighthouse, built circa first century AD, continues to stand on the grounds of Dover Castle.
Built in the 12th century above the white cliffs, Dover Castle played strategically important roles throughout its 800 years of history. Its grounds have been shaped and reshaped, walls and towers raised, tunnels dug from the cliff face, continuously adapting and altering to meet the changing needs of weapons and warfare.
Garrisoned until 1958, the Castle was twice besieged in the 13th century, faced the threat of invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte late 18th century, maintained naval operations during both World Wars and served as a regional seat of Government during the Cold War era.
Flanking both sides of Dover are the imposing White Cliffs of Dover. Standing at 110m (350ft) tall and stretching along 13km (8mi) of coastline, on a clear day the cliffs can be seen from the French coast.
The Cliffs’ striking white colour is a result of its chalk composition mixed with streaks of black flint. Following a fundraising campaign by Dame Vera Lynn, known for her 1942 White Cliffs of Dover wartime classic, to purchase 170 acres of land atop the cliffs and save the cliffs from developers.
The campaign was so successful it raised one million pounds in just three weeks. It is now in the hands of the National Trust for preservation and protection for future generations.