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The ultimate test | My Channel Swim

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The ultimate test

JD05081303-7-SWIM

ONE day between now and around mid-September, when conditions are right, Bryan Avery will stand on Dover’s Shakespeare Beach and raise his hand to signal a boat waiting offshore.

He will then walk into the surf, swim for the boat and keep pace with it as it heads away.

If all goes according to plan, he’ll step ashore at Cap Gris-Nez near Calais between 12 and 20 hours later, adding his name to the still-exclusive list of people who’ve swum the Channel since Matthew Webb made the first crossing back in 1875.

By doing so he aims to raise a lot of money for an organisation called Balls to Cancer, which increases awareness of and openness about male cancers.

Bryan’s training includes regular six-hour sessions off Dover.

He said: “It’s 21 miles in a straight line, but you don’t tend to go in a straight line because of the tides, wind and weather. You end up swimming anywhere up to 30 or 35 miles.

“Physically, the main thing is to keep your arms going and make sure you eat well. You eat food from your support boat during your swim, but one of the rules is that you’re not allowed to touch the boat or anyone in it while you’re swimming.”

That means Bryan’s food – including jelly, bananas, Swiss rolls and Jaffa Cakes – must be dangled from a stick by the five or six friends who’ll make up his support crew. Calls of nature are often welcomed by Channel swimmers, as they offer reassurance that their organs aren’t packing up.

Other potential physical problems are seasickness and jellyfish stings.

“That’s the reason why we do a lot of training in Dover Harbour – because you get to experience jellyfish first hand. They’re nasty. Back in June during a six-hour swim I was being stung every 10 to 15 minutes.”

The worst zone for jellyfish is about halfway into the Channel swim; it’s a hellish 200-metre band between shipping lanes.

And the psychological challenges? “The worst part of it, people always say, is that you could be a mile or two miles from the French coast but it can still take you six hours to get in because of the currents.

“To swim the Channel, they say, is 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental. It’s putting your head in the right place to be able to swim.

“You don’t look at the time, all you do is swim from one feed to the next and keep going. When I’m training I tend to think about what’s going on in the boat and how people are going to feed me. Then I’ll be solving problems from work.”

His love for swimming outweighs all aspects of the challenge, though. As he said in an earlier interview: “To be swimming through the water is like it is part of me. I feel free.”

Bryan was born in Elgin, Scotland, the only child of Royal Navy parents. His father was a chief petty officer and cook, and in civilian life the couple ran a cake shop.

Bryan first swam aged three in Singapore but didn’t take to the water again until he was about 10, and that was in a pool in Kent, where the family was living. The noise of pools in England had previously scared him off. On that first visit he got a badge for swimming 25 metres.

A week or so later he went back for his 50 metres badge and something unusual happened. “Instead of stopping at 50 metres I just kept going and did 400. I got badges for 50, 100, 200 and 400 metres. I think they asked me to stop because other people had to take their badges.”

Bryan attended Dartford College of Technology, obtaining an HND in electronics and electronic engineering. He spent the first part of his career in London as a computer programmer before setting up his own programming consultancy, Indigo Designs, in about 1990.

His career, business and family life has taken him from Kent to Gloucestershire to Chippenham and finally, in 2011, to Swindon.

Family commitment meant his swimming ambitions were shelved for a while, but his fascination with the sport never wavered. A Channel swim has been his dream since his teens, and one of the greatest regrets of his life was having to drop out of a Channel relay effort with friends because he’d been relocated for work.

“I went to a swimming gala in Dover when I was 15 or 16 and there was somebody there who was training in the harbour for a channel swim, and he was about the same age as me. I was quite in awe of him.

“Back in the Eighties, swimming the English Channel hadn’t been done much. It was an up-and-coming challenge for people to do.”

When his children had grown up, Bryan resumed distance work in earnest, entering many triathlons.

“Around that time 10K open water swims were becoming popular, and this was the kick start I needed to get back into it. So some 30 years later I’m fit and ready to attempt the English Channel solo.”

Does he have any fear about what awaits him? “I’m excited and apprehensive but not scared. I’ll be seeing what my body’s capable of.”

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