Until three weeks ago, when I thought of the English Channel, I visualized the Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, an underwater rail tunnel that connects England to France.
Today when I think of the English Channel, I visualize my 31-year-old daughter, Karah Nazor, swimming for 12 hours and 28 minutes.
She completed her crossing on July 13, making her the 943rd person to have successfully crossed the Channel since Matthew Webb of England first accomplished the feat in 1875 in 21 hours and 45 minutes.
It was the longest 12 hours and 28 minutes of our lives. It was also an amazing experience for Karah and her “team” — me; my husband, Hank; and Karah’s aunt and uncle, Les and Janice Herring of Birmingham, Ala.
We were on the boat that trailed her across the Channel, often referred to as the Mount Everest for swimmers. Also on board was the boat’s pilot, his first mate and two Channel Swimming Association officials.
YEARS OF PREPARATION
Karah, who has been a competitive swimmer since age 7, became an open-water swimmer after moving to San Francisco in 2006 to do her post-doctorate work at University of California San Francisco. Shortly after moving there, she won the first 3.5-mile “Swim Around the Rock,” an open-water swim around Alcatraz.
A few months later, she joined the South End Rowing Club. She spends most of her free time with the group participating in swims in and around the San Francisco Bay, Hawaii and Nevada.
Her friends at the club supported her long-time ambition to swim across the English Channel and also mapped out her year-long intensive training schedule.
The San Francisco Bay, it turns out, is the ideal training course for English Channel swimmers. The choppy water is similar, and the bay water, at around 52 degrees, is colder than the average 60-degree English Channel temperature. The challenge of the Channel, of course, is the distance: 21 miles from the shoreline of England to the shoreline of France.
Because of the changing tides, Channel swimmers go further than the 21-mile straight-line distance. Karah’s swim was 26 miles.
The adventure began on Sunday, July 13, at 6:45 a.m., in Folkstone, England, when we climbed aboard the Pathfinder, a fishing boat belonging to Channel Swimming Association-certified pilot Eric Hartley.
We motored to nearby Shakespeare Point, between Folkstone and Dover, where Karah jumped from the boat and swam to the shore to officially begin her long journey to Calais, France.
English Channel swimmers typically register a year before their swims. They are given a week’s window to swim, because swims are often delayed because of inclement weather. Karah’s window was July 9 to July 17.
There’s always a chance a swimmer might not get to swim during their time window and might have to wait a year to again attempt the swim, depending on the availability of pilots working with the Channel Swimming Association and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation.
Rain and winds up to 50 miles per hour during the first four days of her window delayed Karah’s swim until July 13. Then, on the 13th, the sun broke through the clouds, and the sea, for the first six hours, was minimally choppy. The conditions were ideal for a swim across the Channel.
Karah took off at a good pace. The Channel Swimming Association official, Keith Jeffries, immediately took note of her stroke rate, about 60 strokes per minute.
“It’s not a race,” Mr. Jeffries told her before she jumped into the water. He explained that she needed to save energy for the last mile of the swim — the mile that is typically the most challenging because of exhaustion and sometimes treacherous tides.
The English Channel is the busiest shipping Channel in the world, Mr. Jeffries said. At one time during Karah’s swim, there were 17 ships in sight.
Because the swim can last from seven to 24 hours, swimmers must eat along the way. Typically, a swimmer will stop every 30-60 minutes for a snack and drink. Karah’s snack was either a portion of a banana or energy bar, hot chocolate or Gatorade to drink, and a mouthful of water to wash the salt water from her mouth.
Because the swimmer is not allowed physical contact with people or the boat, feedings, which lasts about two minutes, are served in a bucket at the end of a long pole while the swimmer treads water.
Swimmers are permitted to grease their bodies before a swim (to prevent chaffing), use goggles, wear one cap, wear ear plugs and don a regular bathing suit.
Because swimmers can become confused and even incoherent during these marathon swims, it is the job of the official and pilot to determine whether or not a swimmer should continue. At every feeding, Mr. Jeffries asked Karah questions to determine her state of mind.
Karah had warned me prior to leaving for England that swimmers sometimes do become incoherent. She said that even if she begged to stop the swim, I should make her continue. Fortunately, we never reached that stage.
At her last feeding, France was about 500 yards away. Though she was completely exhausted and a little hypothermic, she was very aware that her goal was in reach. As she swam toward the shore, Mr. Jeffries yelled, “It’s all hers.”
Her stroke count, which had gone down to about 40 strokes per minute, picked up as the shore grew nearer. When she reached the water’s edge, she stood up, fell to her knees and momentarily passed out. Then, she stood up for a few seconds, turned to the side, and passed out again.
The first mate, who had piloted a dingy to pick her up and bring her back to the Pathfinder, brought her back to the boat. Though she was somewhat incoherent, she mumbled the words “thank you” to everyone.
Her aunt and I dressed her in warm clothes and she held onto me until we reached Folkstone about two hours later.
My daughter had crossed the English Channel. I will never forget her stamina, determination and the same, beautiful freestyle strokes I’ve been watching for 24 years.
Contributed photo by Hank Hill
Karah Nazor leaves the white cliffs of Dover for France as she swam across the English Channel Sunday.
But during this year-long quest to cross the Channel, Karah has been equally devoted to raising awareness of the non-profit organization the Wounded Warrior Project.
Many English Channel swimmers raise money for a favorite charitable organization. Karah chose the Wounded Warrior Project, www.woundedwarriorproject.org, after watching a documentary about Jeremy Feldbusch, a soldier who was blinded and suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq.
“One of the key components of Jeremy’s physical and mental rehabilitation was getting outside to engage in sports,” Karah writes on her Web site, www.karahnazor.com. “The Wounded Warrior Outdoor Sports and Disabled Sports Projects make this possible for the most severely wounded service men and women.”
A dedicated athlete, Karah understands the need to get the wounded veterans back into the sports they love.
“My swim was tough, but I believe that the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq exert themselves to that same extent daily while serving our country,” Karah said. “And those who come back injured, like Jeremy Feldbusch, continue to make such efforts in their daily lives.”
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...