The 2010 channel swim took place on Tuesday 13th July. Due to the strong winds forecast for the afternoon and the remainder of the week, the swim began at 3am. With only 5 hours notice and a five-a-side football match to contend with, very little sleep had been managed by the team. However, lit by glowing green head and tail lights, our first swimmer, Tom Varley, dived into the pitch black sea to swim to Shakespeare beach, the starting point for all channel swims. After a quick handshake with Cambridge, the boat’s klaxon was sounded and the race was underway. Tom showed impressive form on land, but he was up against one of Cambridge’s top swimmers, Tom Rootsey, an experienced open water freestyler widely feared and often spoken about in the Oxford camp throughout the year. Tom suffered from severe cramp just 15 minutes in but fought on admirably and managed to stay close to the Cambridge boat, even reducing the deficit towards the end of his hour.
The second swimmer, Katherine Rollins, was already suffering from seasickness. Despite this, she was able to claw Cambridge back in to within touching distance, as the sun rose and the lights of England faded into the distance. The third hour was to be a captains’ race, with Kouji Urata representing the dark blues. He was up against arguably the strongest of the light blues squad, Andrew Corley. He was the winner of the trophy for best swimmer at last year’s Varsity match, having easily won the 400m freestyle. Kouji, the only member of the team with any channel swimming experience, fought tooth and nail to limit the damage done by Corley and to keep us with a shout of chasing the light blues down.
Next to brave the cold was Rozz Bray, who took on what was a very lonely swim. With the other swimmers being sick, getting ready or recovering, Rozz set her sights on the Cambridge boat and gained ground on the fastest female swimmer in the light blue squad. As one of the few not to succumb to sea sickness, Rozz also played a key role on the boat, always cheering those swimming, and helping those who were about to swim, or had just left the water. As England disappeared into the haze behind us, we were only around 5mins behind Cambridge, and the team were still hopeful of at least getting within 2mins of the tabs to earn a draw.
The fifth swimmer, Joe Northover, began his hour hopeful of catching the Cambridge boat, whose lights we had become accustomed to seeing just ahead of our boat. His swim was mostly uneventful, and the distance to Cambridge remained almost constant. However, with about 10 minutes to go, the number of jellyfish, which was increasing all the time, had meant that they were no longer avoidable. Having previously been stung during one of our training swims, Joe was not phased and continued to battle on, knowing that the Cambridge swimmer up ahead was also suffering from the stings.
That left the final Oxford swimmer, Izzy Ricard the unenviable task of diving into the shoal of jellyfish. Izzy’s first observation was to scream out to the boat: “they’re everywhere!” However, after a couple of encouraging shouts of “It’ll be fine” from the boat, not that we thought that having heard Joe’s tales, she made her way through the shoal and out to the clear water on the other side.
6 hours into the swim, and with France looking closer with every minute, the moral on the boat was high. We had almost crossed the shipping lanes, Cambridge were not far ahead, and the tide was turning in our favour. Also, our pilot was suggesting that we were on for a much faster time than the previous Oxford team. Boosted by this news, but still weary from his first swim, the two Tom’s, Varley and Rootsey, met for the second time. Although we lost ground to Cambridge, the effort shown by Tom was admirable.
Without having consumed so much as a bottle of water without losing it to the sea, a pale and drained Katherine returned to the water for her second swim. Despite the adversity that she faced, to our astonishment, she was able to claw the Cambridge boat slightly closer again.
By now the shore was clearly visible, with the target beach and the surrounding houses getting larger with every stroke. Kouji got back in as he had left off, pounding away with trademark energy and grit despite having joined Katherine and Joe with seasickness. Fully aware that he could be the last swimmer to take to the water, Kouji knew that if we were to get at least a draw he would need to close the gap further on the talented Cambridge captain. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and Corley reached the shore a mere 700 meters ahead following more than 36,000 meters of racing. Kouji’s hour ended just short of the beach, and the responsibility of reaching France was left to Rozz.
Rozz took just two minutes to reach the shore, giving us a finishing time of 9 hours 2 minutes – 58 minutes faster than the winning time last time around. Cambridge had arrived in a blistering 8 hours 51 minutes. This time is even more remarkable as we missed Cape Griz Nez due to the unusual tides, resulting in us having to swim further than in an ideal channel swim. Unlike in previous years, both pilots steered identical courses, so we swam for 9 hours with Cambridge in our sights, encouraging us to maintain the intensity of the race throughout. Despite having lost, we knew we had done so against a supremely talented long distance specialist team. As the race was so close, the Cambridge team were able to join us to watch Rozz reach land, and there was a great sense of camaraderie between the two teams as we said three cheers across the sea.
With such a young team, we left with fire in our bellies knowing that 2 years from now, we will take to the Channel again, and we will be better placed than ever to win our trophy back. Currently, with the overall standings now at three wins a piece, as well as one draw, the 2012 race will determine which university will take the overall lead once again.
For the first time, the swim also raised money for charity. Donations from friends and family of both the Oxford and Cambridge teams raised £1,500 for the RNLI.
The whole team would like to thank the Alumni for their generous financial contribution towards the swim, and Lennard Lee for providing us with accommodation, and much channel swimming advice. Without this support, the swim would have not been possible, and all of the team would have missed out on what was such an incredible experience that will not be forgotten for many years to come.