Turbulent waters

source all 3 articles: http://www.independent.co.uk

Turbulent waters - Cross-Channel swimmers have become very cross Channel swimmers. The French coastguard has proclaimed that the 140-year-old practice of swimming the narrowest 21-mile stretch dividing England from the Continent should stop on health and safety grounds.

For all their talk about liberté, the French are a pretty tightly-regulated bunch. They banned swims starting from their side 17 years ago. Now they want to stop our swimmers from landing sur leur plage. There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people attempting the challenge since it was completed for Comic Relief in 2006 by the comedian David Walliams. Some 266 swimmers crossed between late June and early October – when the temperature is at what is laughingly called its warmest – a number which has remained fairly steady for the past five years.

It is true that the waters are perhaps the busiest shipping lane in the world; more than 500 vessels plough through each day. But events organised by the two British channel associations have been consistently safe, well supervised and have gone, well, swimmingly. There has never been a fatal collision in the entire history of the sport.

So when les killjoys protest that the challenge is "as dangerous as trying to cross the M25", most British swimmers respond by laughing up La Manche.

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Julie Bradshaw: It needs to be controlled, but it's still a great challenge - I first swam the Channel back in 1979, when I was 15. I'd swum the length of Lake Windermere, which is about 10 miles, and have done open water swims all over the world, breaking 19 world records, but the Channel is still the blue riband event – the swim people travel miles to do.

It's such a hard stretch of water that changes from one day to the next. When I was 15 I lived in Blackpool and we were travelling up and down to Dover all the time before we made the first attempt. Even then I was given a 50-50 chance. The tide changed suddenly but I was fast enough to swim across it and landed in France when it was dark. It took me 10 hours and nine minutes, which is still a British junior record.

Back then there were just a handful of people doing it – there used to be two or three boats in the season, from June to October. Today, the Channel Swimming Association has six boats and this year, including relays, we have run more than 90 attempts. The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation assists in almost 150 further attempts each summer.

Channel swimming has become very popular, and David Walliams certainly helped to put it on the map with his charity attempt in 2006. But not anyone is allowed to turn up and do it. To do it legally you have to have registered with the Association or the Federation and have passed medical tests and proved you have what it takes to swim long distances. Safety is paramount and we are in regular contact with the coastguards on both sides of the Channel to make sure everyone is happy.

The concern is that people would start turning up and making attempts without the necessary training or support from pilot boats. You'd be crazy to try it because your life would be at risk. If it takes two miles for a tanker to stop you're not going to have much chance of getting out of its way unless you are with people who know what they are doing.

As long as it's controlled, Channel swimming is a great challenge that follows a tradition that dates back decades. And it will always be popular because to say that you have done it is something phenomenal, and for now it's still only a small number of people who can say they have done it.

Dr Julie Bradshaw MBE is secretary of the Channel Swimming Association

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French call for ban on Channel swimming - Armed with little more than a bathing suit, nose plugs and a liberal application of Vaseline, hundreds of cross-Channel swimmers have sought out one of sport's toughest challenge since Captain Matthew Webb first performed the feat in 1875.

More than 1,200 hardy souls have journeyed from all over the world to make the 21-mile crossing between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, near Calais, braving exhaustion, chafing and 100,000-ton container ships in order to achieve their dream. Many more have failed.

Now growing concern over safety and fears of mounting numbers attempting the challenge has led some to call for stricter rules on cross- Channel swimming.

A coalition of ferry operators and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) urged greater regulation of swimming in the world's busiest shipping lane, which they said was "like trying to cross the M25 on foot". The call came after the deputy director of the French Coastguard, Jean-Christophe Burvingt, said he was in favour of a complete ban.

France outlawed swimmers setting off from its shores to Dover 17 years ago. In an interview with the BBC Mr Burvingt said it was only a matter of time before someone was badly hurt in the busy stretch of water used by 500 vessels each day. He said: "This continuous increase of swimming in the Channel creates a danger which is getting more and more important every year. I think that there will be a collision. There will be an accident."

The organisations claim there has been an explosion in the number of people attempting to swim the Channel since the successful crossing by the Little Britain star, David Walliams, for Comic Relief in 2006 in an impressive 10 hours and 34 minutes.

But representatives of the sport say numbers have not grown and that the swim is already highly regulated. Michael Oram, the honourary secretary of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation who has been piloting swimmers for the past 30 years, said safety measures were already highly effective.

Mr Oram said: "We are one of the safest extreme endurance sports going. There have been four deaths with the official swims since 1875 and these were heart attacks and problems like that. In 1953 one man couldn't afford an escort boat and towed a rubber ring behind him and was never seen again. You can get four deaths in the London Marathon or 11-15 a year on Everest." He said the number of people crossing was already controlled by a voluntary agreement limiting the number of escort boats operated by the two cross-Channel swimming associations. All swimmers must charter to comply with rules. Mr Oram said the number of crossings had remained static for the past four years at about 250, many of them completed for charity, and that the boats, which cost £2,250 to hire, were fully booked until 2014.

Tide and weather meant there were only about 30 possible crossing days a year in the season between June and October, while technology enabled pilots to spot approaching vessels from up to 20 miles away. "Imagine if the government decided that only 32-ton juggernauts could drive on the M25 – there would be an uproar," Mr Oram said.

Brian Rees, of P&O Ferries, which operates 46 daily crossings, said it was time to hold an open debate on the subject. He said: "It would be a desperately sad day if the UK tried to follow the French but it is the growing number of attempts that is starting to raise concerns. What increasingly worries us is the number of swimmers who go off on a single day."

Chris Newey, passenger director of DFDS Seaways, which operates ships between Dover and Dunkirk, said there was nothing to stop new organisations setting up to take swimmers across. He said: "We do not want to pour cold water on what can be a fundraising activity. However, our first and foremost priority is the health and safety and welfare of those at sea. We are concerned these crossings are unregulated and growing at an expedient rate."