In the half-light of an early September morning, Jim Clifford was conspicuous on the rear deck of Anastasia as the 42-foot cruiser idled off Dover’s Shakespeare Beach Five of us fought the chill air with wool caps, hoodies and multiple layers. Jim wore Speedo trunks, a latex swimming cap festooned with shamrocks, and some home-blended goop to prevent chafing of his neck and armpits from the 40,000overhand strokes it would take to swim the 21 miles across the English Channel. Despite a summer of grueling cold-water swims to prepare, Jim hesitated when it was time to jump in the cold water. “It was tough to do,” he said later, “but the water turned out to be warmer than the air, which gave me a shot of confidence.”
“In that first hour,” Jim said, “I thought there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.” He swam like it. Seven weeks shy of his 64th birthday, he was about to set two open-water swimming records.
The road to Dover
Out of the water, Jim Clifford seems like the least driven guy in a Washington region where world-class compulsives swarm like gnats. With a happy-go-lucky smile and bouncy stride, he starts weekdays at his farm in Poolesville, a still-rural stretch of Montgomery County, Md. This year’s crop is mostly corn with a little sorghum.
He practices law in nearby Gaithersburg, where he helps landowners grope through complex land regulations and an uncertain market. Deals suit him and his knack for winning trust and getting people together. Some of the day is devoted to his wife of nearly 40 years, two married sons within driving distance and two young grandsons.
But for the past decade, Jim has logged up to 30 miles a week at the Germantown Indoor Swim Center, his only training for open-water swims.
Splashing through lakes and rivers and oceans, open-water swimmers are tested in ways that pool rats can’t imagine: pushed by powerful currents, vision blocked by waves, cold water shriveling the spirit. At 15, Jim swam well in the national open-water championships but returned to the pool to swim varsity at the University of Maryland’s top-shelf program. Then came life, 40 years of it.
Eight years ago he rediscovered the open water. He liked it and turned out to be faster than swimmers decades younger. Then he heard about the Open Water Triple Crown: circling Manhattan Island (28.5 miles), crossing from Catalina Island to Long Beach, Calif., (20 miles) and swimming the English Channel. Only a few dozen swimmers had completed the Triple by then. He decided to become one of them.
In 2014, he suppressed his fears of polluted water for the Manhattan swim. Then he became the oldest swimmer to cross from Catalina. That left the Channel, with water temperatures of 60 degrees or lower, far colder than the other two.
The night before the Channel swim, a Sunday, Jim was tetchy. He muttered as he drove three of us through Dover’s irregular streets in search of a pasta dinner. He wanted to turn in by 8, maybe 8:30. He had to be up by 4 a.m.
When sleepy Dover finally produced an open Italian restaurant, we were placed next to Yuta Tsuboiand his two crew members. Yuta, from New York and Tokyo, also would be swimming the Channel in the morning.
We ordered quickly while Jim and Yuta chatted awkwardly. Both were jumpy. The conversation flagged. The service was glacial. It was already 8 p.m. Jim complained about one of us ordering pizza. That, he snapped, was slowing everything down.
Then he recovered. He smiled and turned to Yuta. “Tomorrow,” he said, “it’s a day we’ll remember the rest of our lives.” Yuta’s face relaxed, and he nodded with an answering grin.
It was 9 before Jim got to bed, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t sleep. He was excited, and also afraid. He had never swum in such cold water for so long. Although estimates of the failure rate vary, lots of attempts to swim the Channel don’t succeed. Eight people have died trying.
‘So this is the English Channel’
The Channel swim season runs when the water is warmest and the tides most favorable, from late July through early October. A swimmer reserves a slot with a licensed boat captain, sometimes a year in advance, for one week of the season. The captain may have five slots for that week.
If the weather is bad — and 2015 had the worst swimming weather in memory — many swimmers don’t even get to try the Channel. Two swimmers had slots on Anastasia ahead of Jim, but nerves persuaded them to pass on the chance to swim on Sept. 7, leaving the way open for him.
In the late morning, the mood on Anastasia was upbeat, a mixture of anxiety, optimism and the boredom of crossing a large body of water at a swimmer’s pace. Anastasia lurched unpredictably in the Channel’s swells, a soft rock station from Dover playing over the audio.
The professionals on board — Roger Finch and Tracy Clark, plus Captain Eddie Spelling and his mate — watched Jim off the port side, alert for signs of distress or a breakdown in his stroke.
Alex Judd, an undergraduate on summer break, was the official observer from the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation. He would attest to a successful swim and its time.
Jake Clifford had seen his father through many open-water swims, including the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He was the one who best knew Jim and his swimming. I was there to cheer on my friend, hoping to write about his quest and not get seasick.
Those onboard swapped tales of swims gone wrong, some ending after only an hour. Those swimmers, the crew agreed, weren’t mentally ready.
Jim’s mind ranged far while he plowed through the water and his body adapted to the cold. In the early hours, thinking about his luck in getting a slot to swim, a single phrase ran through his mind: “Through adversity comes opportunity.”
When the rising sun lit the sky, Jim recalled words from a religious hymn: “This is the day the Lord has made; blessed be the Lord.” That played through his head for more miles, on into the buffer zone that separates the Channel’s two shipping lanes.
At 7:30 a.m., Jim had his third “feed.” Under Channel swim rules, he couldn’t touch the boat or another person, so every half-hour Tracy and Roger, Channel swimmers themselves, tossed him provisions tied to a line that ran off a large spinning reel. Each time he got a bottle of warm water with a calorie-rich mix to keep his energy up and ward off dehydration. For this feed, Tracy added two chunks of energy chew, delivered in a plastic container, but a wave knocked them from Jim’s hand. Then the container filled and sank. Jim shrugged. “So this is the English Channel,” he shouted, smiling, and started swimming again.
His opening pace was 72 strokes per minute, and he stayed close to that all day. An early coach had told him, “Don’t be afraid to set the pace at the beginning that you want to end at.” Open-water swimmers rely on their arms and shoulders, using their legs mostly for balance and steering.
For the first hour or two, Jim struggled to match his stroke to the waves, which sometimes lifted his feet out of the water or shoved his face into the swells. He swallowed a lot of the Channel.
Over the past year, Jim taught himself bilateral breathing so that he could breathe from either side and adjust to the direction of the waves. He hasn’t had a coach or a trainer since college. He listens to other swimmers and to his body.
Viewed from Anastasia, his stroke was hypnotic in its regularity, though asymmetrical. His right hand reached forward and knifed into the water, then pulled down hard. He threw his left hand forward over his head less precisely, then pulled down with it.
In the first hours, Jim made solid progress toward the southwest shipping lane, the British side of the Channel, which is reserved for ships headed from Europe into the Atlantic. He sometimes swam with his eyes closed. Sometimes he smiled. He rolled right for a breath, then left, then skipped a breath, then took three breaths on the right side, and on and on.
The Channel’s notorious weather, which destroyed the Spanish Armada more than four centuries before, was holding. The sun was out. The wind seemed manageable. It was cold on Anastasia and cold in the water, but Jim kept stroking.
He thought about his father, a favorite uncle and his wife’s parents. He looked over at us on the boat and watched us watching him. The longer he swam, the more he thought about the Channel’s history, World War II’s Battle of Britain in the skies above, how bandleader Glenn Miller died in a Channel plane crash. And he thought about how much he was enjoying himself.
‘I like the chop’
By the 11:08 feed, five hours into the swim, Captain Eddie was ticked. “Get your man closer to the boat,” he shouted. “He can’t be over there. Get him where I can see him.”
The captain charts the best course across the Channel; the swimmer’s job is to follow. Jim was staying parallel to Anastasia but drifting 50 feet and more away. Some swimmers, Jake explained, like to stay close to encouraging faces and thumbs-up signals from the escort boat, eagerly reading uplifting messages scrawled on a whiteboard.
“My father doesn’t like that,” Jake said. “He gets in the zone. He wants to screen everything out.”
Jim admits it: “If I could swim all alone, with no boat, no one else around, that would be best.”
But there are giant ships hurrying by, jellyfish and sharks, bad weather ever on the horizon. With their heads mostly in the water, swimmers can’t hear, so eye contact with the boat is critical.
During the feed, Tracy passed on the captain’s scolding. She added an inducement to bring Jim closer. The swells were strengthening, coming from different directions, disrupting Jim’s breathing, forcing seawater into his mouth, making him shorten his stroke. The seawater probably caused an early bout of acute nausea. After he took a break and belched, the nausea eased.
“Come around to the other side,” Tracy shouted. “The boat can shield you from the chop.” Many Channel swimmers use this strategy.
Jim smiled and nodded the way a man learns how to smile and nod after 40 years of marriage. “I like the chop,” he shouted back. After that he swam closer to the boat, but only a little. And he stayed on the unsheltered side.
Roger shrugged. “He’s tough.”
In the buffer zone, the rough midpoint, Captain Eddie announced that Jim might reach France in a time of 10 hours, maybe less. That would be a record for swimmers over 50.
We buzzed over the projection but agreed not to tell Jim. No reason to risk breaking up his pace. He didn’t need encouragement to swim harder.
Jim knew he was going well. That morning, when he stepped off Shakespeare Beach, he could see four swimmers and their escort boats out ahead of him. By the 11:08 feed, he had passed all except Yuta, our dining companion the night before. And he was about to pass Yuta.
When we started up again, two dolphins jumped about 100 feet off our starboard, lifting our spirits further. Roger, sitting on the bow, waited until no one else was around, then spun and dropped his trousers to moon Jim. Jim smiled and kept swimming.
Five miles from France
By 3 p.m., France lay close before us. Captain Eddie was aiming for Cape Gris-Nez, 21 miles from Dover.
The sky had clouded over. The water and air hovered at 60 degrees. The wind ranged between eight and 13 mph. Jim’s path across the Channel was a shallow curve, not the S shape that some have to follow.
Because of variations in conditions, luck plays a role in every record-setting swim. The fastest ever came in September 2012, when an Australian crossed in 6 hours 55 minutes. For swimmers over 50, the record was 10 hours 29 minutes.
Tracy started stretching the 30 minutes between feeds to 32 or 34 minutes. If she could eliminate one entire feed, it would save minutes. She also lamented that because Jim hadn’t mastered the art of urinating while swimming, he was losing precious momentum when he paused to pee.
By 2014, nearly 1,600 swimmers had crossed the Channel. A handful made double crossings (over and back), and four swam the “triple” (over and back and over), a 63-mile swim that would seem to careen past obsession and into derangement.
Every swimmer leaves from Dover because France banned Channel swims in 1993, claiming they’re unsafe in the busiest shipping lanes on the globe.
Alex Judd, our official British observer, took a simpler view of the French policy, pointing to Matthew Webb’s first-ever Channel crossing in 1875: “We swam it first, so they don’t care about it.” He dismissed the safety argument. “We’re the princesses of the Channel,” he said. “Everyone has to steer away from us.”
The potential for congestion is undeniable. In 1956, one swimmer made the crossing; in 2014, 119 did. On the day of Jim’s swim, Captain Eddie reported that 11 crossings were underway.
The open-water community welcomes all ages and nationalities. In a three-day stretch in September 2014, Roger and Tracy crewed for the youngest ever to complete an Open Water Triple Crown (16-year-old Charlotte Samuels of New Jersey) and the oldest to cross the Channel (Otto Thaning, 73, of South Africa). Half the Channel swimmers through 2014 were British, but 46 Egyptians also had crossed, as had 47 Indians and 31 Mexicans.
No single body type works best. Some open-water swimmers have trim, athletic physiques. Most do not. When it’s time to spend 10 hours in really cold water, body fat is useful. As Jim points out, “You don’t see a lot of skinny walruses.” Jim is average height, average build, though with a swimmer’s deep chest.
The night before Jim’s swim, Roger proclaimed, “The Channel swim doesn’t start until you’re five miles from France and the current comes out at you. Then it gets tough.” His words resonated as Anastasia neared France.
The neap tide swept us southward, pulling us past the Cape. Jim would have to swim an extra mile to reach shore. When we shouted the news to him during the 3 p.m. feed, he nodded, finished his drink and resumed swimming.
About a half-mile from France, Roger jumped in to swim behind Jim, a waterproof camera in his swimsuit for photos. As Anastasia approached the shore, we puzzled over an odd-looking group wearing black on the otherwise deserted beach. Were they a cult? Migrants from Africa or the Middle East? Some migrants recently had tried to break into the Channel Tunnel to reach England.
Jim and Roger clambered over rock ledges to reach the beach. Out of the water, they laughed in exultation and triumph while Roger snapped pictures. That wasn’t so bad, Jim thought, almost with regret. He wondered if he could swim back to Dover. He thought he could get halfway. But he knew he would never stop halfway.
Roger was eyeing the people on the beach. They carried ceremonial crosses. One man approached. In English, he asked if they had swum from Dover. Roger said that Jim had. Delighted, the stranger gestured to the camera and offered to take photos.
Jim was getting chilled. Seeing Anastasia standing well out from shore, he suddenly felt tired. “Why are they out so far?” he asked. He tucked some small rocks in his swimsuit as souvenirs.
As Jim and Roger reentered the surf, the boulders seemed more numerous. They tried to float over them. A wave threw them against one, sweeping away Roger’s camera. They scrambled to deeper water, cutting their legs and feet.
Back on board, Jake took charge of his father, helping him change and warm up. Captain Eddie slammed the engine into high for the run back to Dover.
Jim rode back on the rear deck, bundled up in the wind and wearing a permanent grin. He was not only the oldest Open Water Triple Crown swimmer ever but had just set the Channel speed record for swimmers over 50: 10 hours 3 minutes. He complained about not finishing under 10 hours. “You need to learn how to pee and swim,” Tracy teased.
Back in Dover, after cleaning up, we struggled again to find an open restaurant. We ended up at a kebab house that served mostly carryout. Hot food tasted great.
Two weeks later, sitting at the Silver Diner in Rockville, Md., Jim admitted he was thinking about more swims. He wants to try “something that will really test me,” a tacit message that the Channel seemed almost too easy. But he has no plans. There’s the rest of his life right now.
The key to open-water swimming, he insisted, is training your body to adjust to the effort and to the cold, while also training your mind to trust that your body will do it. The mind part, he believes, is hardest.
“Your body can do amazing things,” he said.
His surely has.
David O. Stewart is a writer based in Montgomery County. His historical thriller, “The Wilson Deception,” was published in September. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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