Sunday, 2 August 2015

Swimming The English Channel - Liz Richardson Speaks About Her Experience

My name is Liz Richardson. I am originally from England and moved to New Zealand this January.

I have an amazing friend, Mary Stanley-Duke who I met playing water polo at University back in 1997. In 2007 we were both pregnant with our first children, we lived about 30 minutes from each other and planned the time that we would spend together on maternity leave. In May of that year my son was born, happy and healthy, but 5 weeks early. Three weeks later Mary called me to tell me that her baby had stopped moving and scans showed that she had died at 36 weeks. She was devastated and I had no words to console her. She was admitted to hospital to be induced and her daughter, Martha, was stillborn on 25th May.

Happily Mary now has 3 gorgeous children. She had always wanted to do one significant thing in memory of Martha and in June last year, while I was living in Hong Kong, I woke up to an email asking if I would be willing to swim the English Channel with her to raise awareness and funds for SANDS, a stillbirth and neonatal death charity.

Swimming had given Mary some form of solace as she grieved for Martha and so when she was looking for a challenge to take up in Martha’s memory, swimming the English Channel seemed the obvious choice and she got in touch with the old polo team to join her.

The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and channel swimming is strictly regulated. To swim, you must be supported by a pilot from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. You can swim individually or as a relay of up to 6 people. For the swim to qualify as official, no wetsuits are allowed, you can only wear one hat and one swimming costume and there are a whole heap of rules around starting, changeovers, swimming and landing in France. With our pilot booked, we all set about training. While I sea swam in Hong Kong in water temperatures of around 26 degrees, the rest of the girls were battled strong currents in the Bristol Channel and sea temperatures as low of 6 degrees through the winter in the UK (all without wetsuits). At the beginning of the year, I moved to New Zealand and joined Waitakere Masters. I continued to sea swim and as water temperatures dropped in New Zealand, they were slowly climbing in the UK.

In June I flew to the UK and met up with the girls. Our pilot sent us a message and we were all set to

leave at 4:30am on 25th June. We were exceptionally lucky with the weather, we left Dover Harbour as the sun was rising on a beautiful day. Our Pilot took us around to Shakespear Beach. The first of the girls jumped into the water, swam in to the beach, walked clear of the wash, raised her hand and the official observer started his watch. She ran back in to the sea and we were away. The sea was a balmy 14 degrees, it wasn’t too choppy and the shoals of jellyfish that we swam through were small and relatively benign. It took a good 5 minutes or so to get control of your breathing and for the cold water to stop stinging your skin but once you were acclimatised, it was almost enjoyable. We pressed on through the day, swapping every hour and keeping the swimmers updated on progress through messages on a white board. Point to point, from Shakespear Beach to Cap Gris Nez the total distance is 21miles, the currents though the channel are very strong, channel crossings are only attempted for a few days each month through the summer on the weaker neap tides. Even with the weaker tides, the currents mean that you actually swim much further. This is the GPS track from our swim (the straight line is the boat heading home)

After 11 hours of swimming we made what we thought would be our last change over, France looked in touching distance and the water looked calm. Claire, number 6 in our team, swam for all she was worth, but the current around the cap was fierce and pushed her north. After an hour of swimming she swapped out, one of the crew launched the dinghy and sat at the boundary of the still water. With a relatively fresh pair of arms, Suzi sprinted for the boat and we were in. We completed the swim in 12 hours and 18 minutes. Everyone jumped in and swam to meet her on the boat ramp that she landed on, being careful to stay well behind her to not break any rules. We all walked up the ramp holding hands, full of a sense of accomplishment, emotion and to applause from French tourists. (photo from left to right: Rebecca Vivian, Claire Talbot, Mary Stanley-Duke, Suzy Brown, Jane Hamilton, Liz Richardson)

Having collected a few pebbles from the beach of posterity, we swam back to Anastasia, our boat. As the boat turned to head back to England Mary dropped a yellow rose in to the sea, the flowers that were on Martha’s coffin. We all had a good hug and cry and opened a bottle of champagne.

The White Horse Inn is the oldest pub in Dover dating back from 1365. There is a tradition amongst channel swimmers, that a qualifying swim earns you the entitlement to write your name on the wall of the pub. The day after our swim we went to add our names to the wall and have a well-earned pint in the beer garden.

I am extremely proud of what we achieved. Not many have swum the English Channel, that aside, Mary found the whole process very cathartic. Swimming and water polo bound our friendships and for me, the most significant benefit was supporting a friend in coming to terms with the most devastating event in her life by doing something that we all love, just swimming.

Blog of our swim:
Channel Swimming:


  1. Great swim and great article, Liz.
    Jacky Tasker

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