Professor braves the elements

English Channel swim is successful


Swimming in darkness with only a small headlight to follow, enduring jellyfish stings with every crashing wave and doing it all after a sleepless night — that was the experience Los Medanos College professor Briana McCarthy during her swim across the English Channel.

Departing Sept. 14, McCarthy and her team of five swimmers landed in Dover, England and eagerly waited for their time to swim. The team, titled Brown Phatz, prepared for over a year for this swim and would be swimming the 21-mile trek relay-style — each swimming one-hour intervals.

Brown Phatz didn’t have to wait long to conquer the Channel, as their boat driver, who went by the name “Steady Eddie,” declared they would embark on the swim Sept. 18 at 8 a.m.

The team made headway through the English Channel. Working in a rotation to swim the distance, Brown Phatz completed 75 percent of the journey when they were told that they would have to forfeit the swim. At the time of the forfeit, McCarthy was swimming in the ocean when Steady Eddie told her that the currents were too dangerous for them to continue. 

“When I realized that even our team captain had acquiesced and that forfeiting was non-negotiable, I reluctantly climbed up the ladder to the deck of the boat to join my crying teammates,” explained McCarthy. “We were devastated.”

McCarthy and the other members of Brown Phatz spent the two-hour boat ride back to Dover in defeat, with some team members sleeping, others feeling seasick and all very heartbroken.

After returning to Dover, the team regrouped and decided if they would swim the Channel again. After a week of waiting and finalizing some changes, they got their second chance to swim the Channel Sept. 25 at 2 a.m.

As the strongest swimmer of the team, McCarthy, wearing a grey “shark-bite” swimsuit, was the first swimmer to hop into the water. The boat that would be following the team during their journey was anchored off the shore of Dover, and to officially swim the entirety of the Channel, McCarthy had to jump off the boat, swim back to the shore of Dover, and then swim back out into the ocean.

Since she had a 2 a.m. start time, McCarthy did all of this in complete darkness with only the light of the boat to guide her.

“Swimming in the dark with a giant floodlight from the boat illuminating me was really disorienting, and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the water,” explained McCarthy. 

The team worked together the same as before: each member swimming one-hour at a time in relay style. While they made their way across the Channel, the swimming conditions didn’t prove to be far easier than the first time.

During McCarthy’s swim, she not only had to put up with the ocean currents and her own exhaustion, but for an entire hour she swam through a large patch of jellyfish.

“It was like getting tiny electric shocks over and over for an hour, and the water felt like a washing machine,” recalled McCarthy “I kept repeating, ‘I¹m having fun, I¹m having fun, I¹m having fun’ and at some point, I got to, ‘No! I¹m not having fun, I’m just going to have to suck it up and swim through it.’”

McCarthy and her team did swim through it.

Seeing the shores of France in the horizon with only a few miles to go, the team was determined to finish – no matter what happened. The team was pulled off their track by a very strong tide pull and they watched as another swim team in the distance forfeited due to the strong current. This did not deter them from finishing what they flew out to England to accomplish.

“We fought it so hard. I got in for my final leg, and although my wrist and shoulder hurt and I had gotten maybe one hour of sleep in the last 36 hours, I pushed myself hard to fight the eddy, which our observer and pilot told me I¹d need to do to get our team into a better place.”

After a few hours of swimming against a strong current, the last swimmer of Brown Phatz reached the French shoreline and finished their English Channel swim, completed in 17 hours and 19 minutes.

“We cheered on deck, popped a bottle of champagne, and celebrated with our teammate when she finally got back to the boat,” reminisced McCarthy, adding that the whole team sadly could not touch the shore of France due to the rough ocean conditions although her teammate grabbed a “souvenir” from France for them: “She brought back a little ziplock bag of French sand in her (swim) suit to share with us.”

Through all of the stressful, tiring and at times, painful moments of their time swimming the Channel, McCarthy and the Brown Phatz conquered the English Channel – the strong currents, exhaustion, jellyfish and all.