Out of the comfort zone and across the Channel

Jonathan Jones is a familiar sight around town – often in green frock coat, wearing a tricorn hat and ringing a bell as befits his position as town crier. From time to time we have seen him dressed in Victorian garb presenting a Dickens and/or Christmas readings evening at St Mark’s Church – he has long been associated with the parish. But just swimming trunks, hat and goggles? This is what he donned in August to take part in a sponsored swim across the English Channel to raise money for Aspire, a charity which supports people with spinal injuries.

The swim was relay-style from Dover to Cap Griz Nez in France, and involved a team of six swimmers, with an observer on board to ensure that everything is done correctly. “Each swimmer takes it in turn to swim for an hour,” said Jonathan. “Once the first rotation is completed, that same order must then be maintained for the rest of the crossing. If, for any reason, a swimmer is not able to take their turn, in the correct order, the team is ‘disqualified’ and the swim abandoned.”

Jonathan was the fifth swimmer. “So just after 8am I got myself ready, which included applying Vaseline to those parts that might chafe owing to the salt water, i.e. under the arms and, for men with beards, around the neck.

“As the swimmer before me, Annie, touched the board, I had to jump over her, into the water behind, before then turning and resuming the swim.

“The sea temperature was just below 18℃ (a public swimming pool is normally 29-31℃) and it was, to say the least, a bit of a shock to the system as I entered. I quickly composed myself, and got into a good rhythm (54 strokes per minute), with the intention of covering at least three kilometres in the next hour.”

As well as a choppy sea, the swimmers had to contend with jelly fish and floating debris, including a lot of plastic which Jonathan was told is increasing each year.

He added “Also, as a consequence of global warming, the sea is now getting a lot warmer, a lot sooner. Our ‘cold water’ qualification, where we have to swim for two hours in Dover Harbour when the sea temperature is 16℃ or less, now has to be done in June, whereas, several years ago, it would be done in July, but by then the sea temperature is too high.”

In between Jonathan’s swimming sessions he rested on the boat. “Once out of the water, the important thing is to get some warm clothing on, particularly on the head and feet, and then to get your wet costume off. You have only five minutes to accomplish this. After that, you start to shiver as blood returns to your extremities, and your hands shake so much that you are incapable of doing up zippers or buttons. Hence a ‘buddy’ system, whereby one of the other swimmers is nominated to help you prepare for your swim but, more importantly, assist once out of the water and with getting dressed, before then providing you with a hot drink. All the other swimmers were perfectly alright after a further five to 10 minutes, but it took me about half-an-hour to fully recover.” At 68, Jonathan was one of the older swimmers to take part.

Resting on the boat gave Jonathan a new perspective. “There is a certain beauty to behold out there, in the middle of this vast expanse of water,” she said. “It was a beautiful clear sunny day, and as we watched the sun rise just after 6am, and the gloom lift, the coast of France became clearly visible in the distance, though somewhat still far off. Apart from the steady beat of the boat’s engine, there was a peaceful sense of tranquility in all that vastness, which left an indelible memory that I will forever savour and cherish.”

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They had to swim with the tides, which did not all turn as expected, and the final swimmer landed at Wimereux, 14 kilometres south of where the team was heading. However, they reached the other side in the correct order in 14 hours and 29 minutes. The return took two-and-a-half hours.

Jonathan said he decided to take part in the swim “primarily because of the challenge it posed, and the opportunity of taking ourselves out of our comfort zones. But secondly, to raise monies for the Aspire charity, which provides much-needed support to people with spinal injuries, and which, since 2009, has been organising these Channel relays. Between the six of us, we will have raised over £20,000 for Aspire.”

He has further watery ambitions: “My personal goal is now to complete the six-hour qualifying swim in Dover Harbour sometime next summer. After that? Well, the oldest person to successfully complete the crossing was a 73-year-old South African heart surgeon. So, in 2023/24, God willing, I may attempt to enter the record books. Watch this space!”

To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jonathanfjones

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