We profiled the irrepressible Christie back in June. On July 20th, she and the Mighty Mermaids swam the Channel. Starting in the pitch dark, in frigid waters, they did it. It is a horrendous swim for so many reasons, not least of which is the fearsome current which reverses every 6 hours and the reason so many people fail. A slight miscalculation and it becomes impossible to make shore. The map of the swim is below and you will see how the route takes a massive turn south about halfway through. That is the current effect, although they are still swimming due east. No swimmer can fight a current that strong, and if one has miscalculated, one is looking at being pulled from the water. But Christie and team are world-class swimmers and, much to the shock of some of the officials, a group of 60-plus-year-old women can be mighty fast.
How many Mighty Mermaids swam the English Channel relay?
Our relay consists of six Mighty Mermaids: Karen Farnsworth Einsidler, Nancy Steadman Martin, Christie Ciraulo, Veronica “Roni” Hibben, Tracy Grilli and Jenny Cook. In addition, David Grilli is what I love to refer to as our Mermaid Wrangler. He keeps us all in line, makes sure we have everything we need, keeps the captain apprised of our order and preferred side to breathe on — important details like that. He is our spokesman on board the boat and keeps the boat crew from having to deal with six Mighty Mermaids all talking at once! Onshore, David Ciraulo and John Hibben were posting updates on social media while following the live tracker as we swam across.
Triple Crown of Open-Water Swimming
Why did you decide to do this?
The English Channel is the ultimate open-water swim and everyone, swimmer and non-swimmer alike, knows of the English Channel and its challenges. There is a triple crown of open-water swimming and we wanted to earn it. We successfully completed the Catalina Channel Crossing and the swim around Manhattan, NY. The last jewel is the English Channel and we wanted to try for it. We reserved our boat and captain two years in advance to get the conditions that were most advantageous which includes: everyone is 60+, being number one position in the queue, a neap tide, and late enough in the summer for the warmest water. This is our 12th swim together. We come together annually to share our common passion: rough-water swimming!
How far in advance did you arrive in England and what is your travel regime?
We all came together in Dover, England, on July 19th, with our swimming window confirmed for July 22-30. The days before the window opened was spent exploring Dover, eating and sleeping properly (to avoid jet lag), and doing workout swims together in Dover Harbor. We also had fun meeting up with new friends, as the Harbor is famous for being a practice course for open-water swimmers. Each of us has her own routine when we travel. I like to eat my heaviest meal at midday and I always be sure to stay hydrated and emphasize protein in my diet. I also need a lot of sleep before a big swim. As a team, we all made sure that we help each other fit into her own best schedule. Arriving a few days early helped us develop a working schedule for meals, sleep, and fun.
A Rough Start
You do a lot of these epic swims. How was this one different or more challenging?
This is by far the most challenging relay we have done together. The currents and tides, the cold water, and the weather all come together in the English Channel to make it the perfect storm. Every day upon arrival in Dover, we call into the boat captain and he says yea or nay on a start day and time based on conditions. Our first “go” came on July 22 at 2 pm. We motored out to the start and the wind and swell was so extreme that several of our swimmers were seasick. After much deliberation (in a severely bouncing boat), the captain called it a non-start and we went back to the hotel. It was incredibly stressful, as we didn’t know if we would have a chance to go. We had an early dinner, went to bed to try and get some sleep, and were back at the boat at 1 am on July 23. We officially started the swim at 2:07 am. To everyone’s great relief, the wind had calmed down and the swells had flattened out and we were able to start. It had been a worry that the weather would never clear and we would never have our chance to start.
How do you set up the relay?
Our relay order was based on the strength of each swimmer. Karen and Nancy have both soloed the English Channel. They went first and second and both swam in the pitch dark. I was third and the sun came up during my swim. Roni, Tracy, and Jenny all swam in the sunlight but had to contend with jellyfish. Luckily it turned out that they were beautiful and although a bit disconcerting, not dangerous. Each swimmer rotates in an hour until the swim is finished. Four of us did two full one-hour rotations. Tracy went in for the sprint to the finish and swam the final 36 minutes.
Staying Warm Without a Wetsuit
How cold was the water, and do you do anything to stay warm?
I was the most affected by the cold. My first leg (the third hour of the relay) started in the dark and was well into the Channel. The water was 60-61F and I felt chilled to the bone. I tried to ignore the cold by counting to 100 and staying focused on my stroke cadence. I also knew if I counted to 100, at least a minute would have gone by. I kept a sharp eye on the boat pilot, who sits at the water level inside the boat cabin. I could see him checking on me every stroke and it made me feel safe. We’re often asked about wetsuits — the black neoprene full-length suits worn by triathletes. Channel swimming rules allow for only a traditional suit, one swim cap, goggles, earplugs and a nose plug. We are not allowed to wear wetsuits or any form of neoprene to keep us warm. My second-hour rotation was much more comfortable. By then the sun was out full force and we were much closer to France, where the water is warmer.
“I TOLD you we were fast!”
How long did the team take to get across?
We did an amazingly fast swim in 10 hours and 36 minutes. We kept telling the boat captain that we were fast, and we were sure he was thinking, “Hmmmm, six ladies over 60…” The captain, who had been up all night readying the boat, went below to take a nap and the pilot, navigator and independent observer took over our swim. Into the sixth hour, the captain awoke, reviewed the navigation and positioning, and started up the stairs to the main deck. I could see this look of amazement on his face. I started laughing and said, “I TOLD you we were fast!” Although he wouldn’t confirm it (he didn’t want to jinx us) we knew that we were making fantastic time.
How was the finish?
Much to our delight, we were invited to follow Tracy into the beach in France. The rules allow us to swim in behind her, and as we treaded water, we were able to watch her run up on the beach to dry land and raise her arms over her head. The boat horn went off and we followed her onto French soil. It was a tremendous experience — and a huge relief to have finished. The fact that it was an amazingly fast time was a bonus.
Connect with the Mermaids
If someone wants to connect to the Mermaids, what would they do?
The best way to reach out to the Mighty Mermaids is to message me on Facebook.
All photos above by David Grilli.