Julie Bradshaw: It needs to be controlled, but it’s still a great challenge

The original opinion is posted on The Independent since Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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