Remember Katie Pumphrey, the artist and chronic-pain sufferer we profiled last year as she started training to swim the English Channel? She’s now in Dover, England, celebrating her successful completion of the swim in 14 hours and 19 minutes. She started out on the support boat Masterpiece at 2 a.m. Friday, and her friends and family helped keep her supporters in the loop via social media. We also caught up with her by phone afterward. Follow along with us.
Pumphrey, 27, flew to England last week with the expectation of setting out on her swim at some point this weekend; start times are determined by the tides, the weather and the boat captains. Pumphrey got the call from her captain, Fred Mardle, at 1:59 p.m. Thursday, saying to meet him at the boat at 2 a.m. Friday. She was at a pub when the phone rang – “Guinness in hand” – expecting a later start, maybe Saturday or Sunday. “I was a little bit speechless and immediately started crying and shaking with fear.” She and her support team – fiancé Joe Mahach, friend Krista Mahler and father Jack Pumphrey – started getting ready.
The boat took Pumphrey and her team near the starting point, Shakespeare Beach under the White Cliffs of Dover. A handful of other boats were doing the same thing with other swimmers. Pumphrey had to jump off and swim to the shore in the darkness, starting from a pebbly beach. A flashlight flicked from the boat, signaling the start of her swim.
Pumphrey wore a glow stick for safety, and according to Channel Swimming Association rules, no more than a swimsuit, cap and goggles.
The first hour went quickly, Pumphrey said, and she took her first nutrition at the one-hour mark (her support team was allowed to pass her Gu packets and bottles of protein mix).
The early-morning hours were rough. The only light she could see was from the boat, and the cold water fogged up her goggles, disorienting her. “I couldn’t see when the waves were coming.” After a strong first hour she spent the next few violently shaking and vomiting from seasickness and coldness. “I kept kind of stopping and saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,’” Pumphrey said. “My right I couldn’t bring my fingers together. My entire body was so tight. It was very hard to kick, which was extremely painful. So yeah, vomiting, crying – sobbing, basically – and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ then ‘I don’t think I can.’”
“I was reaching that ‘If I quit, what would I tell people, what would I say?’ I didn’t think I was unprepared, just maybe I was having a bad day.”
Pumphrey’s team encouraged her to keep going a little longer, and at two hours Mahach was allowed to jump in and swim with her. Perhaps more importantly, the sun started rising, giving much-needed warmth.
Things turned around at hour 4 or 5, and Pumphrey started loosening back up. “I feel kind of silly for all that, but I was scared.” She had heard stories of hypothermia hitting people quickly. Though it was still cold with the sun out, she was able to get back to her normal stroke. Another thing that helped? The jellyfish. “I started getting stung a lot, maybe a dozen times. … But the burning was a good distraction … it was also warm.”
Despite jellyfish stings, Pumphrey started enjoying herself more – and eating more, to make up for the food she’d lost to seasickness. At hour 8 or 9, she looked up and saw land looming in the distance. She asked her crew, “Is that France?” They nodded yes, and she put her head back down. “Once I had my head together, I tried to keep my emotional meter at neutral” – not too high, not too low.
Pumphrey estimated maybe a handful of other swimmers started around the same time as her – some solo, some on relays – and though they pulled ahead in the early part of her swim, she was able to catch up and even pass some.
Pumphrey’s beloved “cookie water” is Hammer Perpetuem endurance fuel powder mixed with water. She also ate vanilla bean Gu and most of a Lara bar.
At hour 12, France looked “really close.” At first she was going against the current, but when she got closer in, it started pushing her toward the shore. All of the sudden, the water was much warmer.
Pumphrey swam as far as she could – “I tried to wait until my fingertips hit sand” – and then stood up and tried to walk. She fell. Once she found her footing, she walked out of the water and ran up the beach past the water line. “I threw my hands up and turned around, and everyone on the boat was jumping and screaming. They sounded the horn, which was amazing.”
A dinghy brought Pumphrey back to the boat, where her support team helped warm her up with lots of clothes and blankets and a bit of hot tea. She fell asleep, and when she awoke she could see the White Cliffs of Dover.
Post-swim, she hung around Dover for a few days to explore and recuperate. She also had to sign the wall at the White Horse Pub in Dover, a tradition for every English Channel swimmer.
Though the most direct route across the channel is 21 miles, swimmers end up in an S-shaped route as the tide changes. The GPS on Pumphrey’s boat logged 37 miles across.
So what’s next? Pumphrey, a professional painter, is moving to the District with Mahach, who is attending graduate school, and she hopes to devote more time to painting, which took a back seat to swim training. “I definitely want to keep swimming, but maybe, for now, just for fun.”