A DIP IN THE OCEAN
Michelle Weber breaks SA women’s record for fastest English Channel crossing
South African Olympic 10km swimmer Michelle Weber broke the South African women’s record for the fastest English Channel crossing on 24 August 2022. She was one of seven South Africans who swam the Channel in the last month. Of these, five succeeded, while two pulled out due to injury and illness. And of those two, one went on to complete the iconic Catalina Straits.
If WhatsApp could go hoarse from giddy superlatives, it would have done so this week. Hundreds of friends and family piled onto new and existing swimming groups to scream encouragement to Franschhoek-based Michelle Weber (23) as she ploughed a perfectly curved 32km line from Dover beach right onto the sand outside La Sirène restaurant on the beach near Cap Gris-Nez on the French mainland, in a time of 10hr21.
Diners at La Sirène might not have known, but that is eight minutes off the previous record, held by Jeanine Pearse. The messages didn’t stop once her feet had touched the sand, either, and it was the same two days earlier for Joburger Troy Mayers. His WhatsApp Channel swim group started pinging madly at 7am and continued well after 6pm, as he burned his way across in a time of 12hr17. Friends and family from as far afield as New York and Sorrento were yelling encouragement at him. Mates were stuck in the gym car park not daring to put their phones down in case they missed something. Cell batteries were dying left, right and centre.
When the news came that Mayers had just entered the notoriously busy southwest shipping lanes, but was moaning about the lack of honey in his Rooibos feeds, rather than keeping an eye out for giant super-tankers, his fans went wild. “Go Troyka!” came the chant from his Old Eds swimming club mates in Joburg, referring to Mayers kick-boxing past, and the Scott Adkins martial arts movie Boyka.
Joburger Peet Crowthers was the first South African this year to swim across the Channel. He flew across in 11hr 26 in early August. He reckons he is about 80% recovered now. “The memory is still strong and will be there forever,” he says.
Cape Long Distance Swimming Association committee member Kat Persson completed her swim in 13hr 48, enduring what she described as a ‘pickled’ tongue, due to all the seawater. She says that finishing her swim, only to realise that hundreds of people had been tracking her progress, was humbling.
“It is amazing to see how we have all taken so many people along with us on the journey. This aspect of the Channel swim was an unexpected, but very appreciated piece of the journey for me. And this Channel swimming season and our SA swimmers have been responsible for a fair few hours of reduced work productivity and increased data utilisation over the past weeks!”
A visibly exhausted Josh Ackerman, grandson of Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman, had to dig deep in the setting sun and fight a turning tide to come home in 12hr47.
Lee Saudan, a London-based South African, swam in rough conditions and jellyfish in 17 hours 44. She had the hardest swim by far of all of them.
Melkbosstrand’s businessman Jon Vickers came within several lengths of a rugby pitch to the French coast, when he felt a twanging sensation in his right shoulder, and a sudden intense pain. He says that he suspects the fact that he only breathes to the left side when swimming had placed an intolerable strain on his rotator cuff. But he’ll be back next year, after dedicating some time to stroke correction, he adds.
Joburger Ross Duncan also pulled out. He was still on a course of antibiotics for what was later diagnosed as pneumonia on his left lung. He says he felt like he had just lost all power. However, a few days later, antibiotics finished, he went on to complete one of the world’s toughest swims, the 32km Catalina Strait, between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles in California, in a time of 13hr17. He will also be back, hopefully, next July.
Derrick and Debbie Frazer of Bloubergstrand’s water safety outfit BigBayEvents, who did the support for all seven South Africans, and two other swimmers, have been averaging two hours’ sleep during the last two weeks.
“Nothing is consistent. You can’t really plan too far in advance. You do it day by day. We make sure everything is fully packed two or three days ahead, so if the forecast changes, which it does quickly in the Channel, we are ready for anything all the time. Everything else works around that. Then as each swimmer finishes, we are starting to get ready for the next swimmer,” Derrick explains.
He adds that when South African swimmers get to Dover, they are under no false illusions as to what is in store.
“I have been chatting to other pilots here, and you get the feeling that we arrive here with a much deeper preparation and understanding than other swimmers. Some of the local swimmers seem to think it’s going to be like a bigger Midmar Mile. They don’t really understand how tough the Channel is going to be.”
And after all is said and swum, there is just one thing left to attend to. The time-honoured Channel swimmer’s right and tradition of scrawling your name on the walls of the local pub, Les Fleurs, at 6 Ladywell Road, Dover. DM/ ML