Mum Claire completes cross-Channel swim against huge odds
After completing her gargantuan English Channel swim, Claire’s first thought was for her family.
When I first had the pleasure of meeting Claire Humphris, she struck me as a really kind and pleasant lady with an infectious spark and zest for life.
She’s a woman with a passion (or several) and all of us need someone like that in our lives, to inspire us and remind us that it is possible to reach for our goals, however large or small they may be. We just need a little focus and determination.
My admiration for her, as a person and a working mum, has grown and grown since then – capped by her successfully completing a cross-Channel relay swim a few days ago.
When Claire described what she was about to do, the first time I interviewed her for My Working Mummy, I couldn’t quite compute the scale of the challenge. Giant jelly fish, passing tankers in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and pollution – not to mention the obvious physical extremes of endurance required to complete the huge distance from coast to coast.
Frankly, having spoken to her for this piece, I still can’t get my head round it, but that doesn’t make me any less impressed and fascinated by this determined human being, who’s an example of what it’s possible for all of us to achieve. Oh, while being a brilliant mum as well.
Defying real risks
The first thing I was dying to ask Claire, as you’d expect, was the down and dirty of her adventure – what was it like and what obstacles did she come across?
“It’s fair to say that none of us in the team – even Christine, who is already preparing for a solo swim later in the year and had done the most training – was prepared for what we were taking on,” she said.
“I’ll admit that I naively thought I could handle it. I’d done triathlons involving several one-hour swims before, so why wouldn’t I be able to swim for four or five hours across the Channel?
“However, this was beyond anything I could have imagined and by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The experience started with a very blunt safety briefing from the captain of their Channel swimming support vessel.
“We were waiting around in Dover for a couple of days, for the conditions to be right. Then we got the call at 7.30pm on the Tuesday evening, 23 June, and were told to be down at the docks for 12.30, ready to start our swim at 1am,” she added.
“What followed was basically a no-holds-barred pep talk, the crux of which was that it was up to us to follow the boat and get on and off safely, and he wouldn’t be turning around to come and find us if we didn’t stick to the plan. It was a sobering moment.”
The pilot was provided by the Channel Swimmers’ Pilot Federation (CSPF), and had a hugely responsible job to do – making sure the swimmers he’s watching over are kept safe from the multitude of dangers which abound in the Channel. It’s his job to radio passing shipping and make them aware there is a swimmer in the water, as well as keeping them on course.
“We also had a CSPF official onboard, making sure that we did everything by the rule book – including our changeovers from one swimmer to another. One swimmer had to be in the water, pass the other swimmer without touching and wait until they had safely exited the water, before they could set off. If we’d done anything wrong, or deviated from our plotted course, our swim would not have counted,” continued Claire.
“We weren’t prepared for the 5ft waves or the sea sickness, either. The most dangerous thing, apart from battling to swim against these tides, was getting on and off the boat safely. It meant jumping off and grabbing onto, ladders which were three or four feet out of the water, with the boat heaving over onto its side in the wind. One wrong move or a slip and we could have suffered a serious injury or worse.
“This coupled with sleep deprivation, lack of food and being thrown around by huge waves, was more challenging than any of us could have envisaged.
“I remember seeing tankers and ferries in the distance and thinking ‘we’re going to get quite a backwash from him’!”
In fact, the group’s swim was in danger of not going ahead at certain points, due to the conditions. Factors like wind and sea choppiness are graded 0-7 and they were hitting 5/6 during the Sisters of Swim’s crossing.
“We were also very unlucky with the tides,” added Claire. “We got swept right out and ended up swimming a total of 42 miles, when the minimum distance – with better conditions – would have been about 22.
“The other thing we didn’t anticipate was the extreme sea sickness. When we weren’t doing our stints of swimming, we were laid out on the boat completely debilitated by the rocking. Even the crew were laid up sick.
“It wasn’t until we finished that I realised we hadn’t seen the captain for the entire journey, and that brought home to me just how rough the crossing must have been – he’d obviously been busy!”
Eyes like a camera shutter – capturing moments which will last forever
I asked Claire about the poignant moments of the experience, which will stay with her for posterity, and there are plenty.
“The first memory, which I’ll carry forever, was passing through the harbour walls at Dover in the dark and passing the lighthouse as the boat headed round to the legendary Shakespeare Beach, where our swim was to start from. I remember thinking ‘this is it’. Christine was the first member of our team to swim, and she swam the few feet from boat to shore, gave us a wave, and then she was off.
“The most overwhelming thing for me, though, was my first one-hour stint. I felt sick as I prepared to jump into the 14 degree water, in the dark, at around 3am. It was almost too much to comprehend at that point and I knew there was no going back. But as I swam, I happened to be facing East and I saw the dawn start to break over the water. I’ll never forget that sight. Being in the water, with the boat in the distance, made me feel totally at one with the elements. The colours – hues of purple, inky black, yellow and orange, were just out of this world.
“After that first swim,” she admitted, “something switched in my head and I remember saying to myself ‘just keep going and make it to the finish’. It became about endurance and simply getting through it. The sense of dread as I waited on the platform for my turn to jump in, and the sheer relief as I caught sight of the silhouette of the next swimmer in line and knew I could get out.”
The team, comprising of Claire, Christine, Leon and Lucy, dubbed ‘The Sisters of Swim’ completed five one-hour swimming stints each, in relay, before they finally saw the coast of France appear in the distance. They had set off from Dover at 1am on Wednesday 24 June, and arrived in France at 9.19pm on Thursday 25 June. Thankfully, the boat journey back was far quicker, returning them safely to Dover by 12.30am on the Friday.
“We were all absolutely shattered,” Claire went on. The boat pulled as close to the shore as possible and then our final swimmer, Christine, had to continue to shore. It seemed like an age before we saw her get out of the water and wave back to us.
“That was it, we’d actually done it.”
After a return boat trip across the Channel, Claire was so exhausted she climbed into bed, fully clothed and encrusted with sea salt, and slept like a baby – no energy for a shower until the next day.
“I looked like Worzel Gummidge when I woke up later that morning,” she laughed.
How does Claire feel after completing such a momentous thing, I asked?
“It really was incredible and I’m so glad that I’ve fulfilled this dream,” she pondered.
“However, the extremity of it has brought home to me the impact of my extreme sports hobby on my family.
“My kids are clearly really proud of me and what I’ve achieved. However, my youngest son Max, who’s eight, kept asking me when he would see me again, as I prepared to drop him off at school on the Friday before. We sat together on the hallway floor and he kept asking me when I was coming back. I said ‘I’ll call you’ but he wanted to know ‘but when will that be?’
“Max stayed with my ex-husband (his dad) while I completed the swim. It wasn’t until I was in Dover, waiting for the call to start our swim, that I realised what he’d been asking me was to reassure him that I was coming back.
“I called him and did what I could to reassure him that I would be home, and when.
“This made me realise that I do need to think long and hard about the boys and how they will feel about other things I take on.
“The first thing I did when I finished the swim was to call Max, and he said ‘you’re the most amazing mummy in the world and I’m so proud of you, but I’m glad that you’re coming home now’.”
The million dollar question – will she fulfil her dream of completing a solo swim?
“My first thought when I got back to dry land was ‘I will never, ever, do anything like that again’,” she laughs.
“However, after sleep, food and the chance to take it all in, I’m now starting to wonder.
“I’ve done some damage to my shoulder as a result of the swim, so the last stint was incredibly painful, and I just need to see how lasting that damage is likely to be before deciding what further challenges I can take on in the future.
“There’s a two-year waiting list for solo swims, so I’m going to complete the Iron Man Wales competition in the Autumn and see how the land lies after that.”
Claire’s husband Martin, who also enjoys extreme sports, was with Claire all the way, helping out on the support boat.
“We’ve analysed the stats, our journey and the conditions, and Martin thinks I could do a solo swim if we were luckier with the conditions. So we’ll see.”
How does she do it?
Aside from the emotional impact on her family when she undertakes the likes of Channel swims, I asked Claire how she makes it happen, while being a mum to Max and older son Alex, who’s 17 – and holding down a full time job as a call centre manager for a building society.
“I think it’s amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it, and if you really want to do something,” she said.
“I tend to do things like get up at 5am so that I can do my triathlon training and get back by the time the rest of the family are having breakfast.
“Without being sexist though, I think it is harder doing the kinds of things I do as a woman. There’s more equality now so we can take part and compete alongside men, although we still represent a small proportion of the total numbers taking part in things like triathlon.
“Nevertheless, somehow we still need to do the hoovering and hold our homes together when we get back – whereas traditionally the men who take part can come home and veg on the sofa to recuperate!”
She added: “I take the boys with me part of the time – for walks or to the local lido for swim training, and they get the enjoyment, socialising and health benefits too. I do have to watch it though, and maintain a balance, because typically the kind of training I have to do for this kind of event is quite selfish and focused.”
She continued: “When you start training for triathlons, they advise you to sit down with friends, family and work colleagues and explain the kinds of things you’re going to be doing, and the support you’ll need.
“Work-wise it is tricky, and it requires a degree of understanding and support from your employer. I’m in quite a demanding role which isn’t 9 to 5, but I try to work smarter, for example leaving at 5.30 to attend training but taking a laptop home to catch up on admin from the day later in the evening.
“I work hard to balance everything and sometimes make myself step back and focus on the kids and the things that really matter. Achieving amazing things is great, but it’s not as precious as quality time with the people who matter most to me.”
Claire is raising sponsorship for Brooklands School in Skipton, which provides as supportive and stimulating environment for children with various degrees of learning difficulty. The money raised will help to build new sensory garden. You can visit the Just Giving page at www.justgiving.com/Brooklands-Garden if you would like to make a donation.
I’m keen to feature a range of working mums, and how they make it all happen, on My Working Mummy. If you’d like to share your story of how you strike the difficult balance between rearing a family and working for a living, please just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.