I tried to become the youngest person to swim The Channel aged just 11

I tried to become the youngest person ever to swim The Channel aged just 11 (with the help of chocolate digestives, Heinz Tomato Soup and a man in a bobble cap)

  • Tom Gregory, 40, tried to become the youngest person ever to swim the Channel
  • In his new book, he details his trials and tribulations of training and the attempt 
  • He had to swim the 28 mile distance without the help of touching other people 

Thirty years ago, in the middle of the night on September 6, 1988, I waded into the cold, dark waters of the English Channel wearing only my favourite swimming trunks and a pair of goggles. I was 11 years and 333 days old.

The sea off the coast of northern France seemed calm that night, but it was dark and my eyes had yet to adjust. Would these conditions hold? The rolling of the fishing boat ahead of me containing my coach, John Bullet, and his team of medics and observers gave a clue that things might be different farther offshore.

So this was it. On the other side of the darkness, somewhere in front of me, was Dover. I was going to swim there, on a route that would probably be at least 28 miles as I followed the ebb and flow of the tides.

It was hard to know how long it would take. I’d only ever swum half that distance before, but I thought about 15 hours.

If I could do that — and it was a mighty ‘if’ — I would hold a world record as the youngest person to swim the Channel.

A young Tom Gregory greased up and ready for his channel swim

The record holder, Marcus Hooper, had been 12 years old when he smashed the record in 1979. I had 32 days left before my 12th birthday, but soon winter would set in and the sea would be too cold. It was now or never.

Summer 1984

It was Mum who had made my sister Anna and me join our local swimming club in Eltham, South-East London, at the start of the summer holidays four years earlier. It would be good to try a new hobby, she’d said. Anna was about ten years old and I was seven.

I’d thought it a bad idea from the start. Not only was I nearly the slowest swimmer in my class at school, but I could barely get across the width of the pool without having to stop and stand up halfway. Besides, I didn’t need a new hobby — not with a new football-sticker album due out.

My teacher was a girl in her late teens whose name was Clair, but people called her Mother Duck. ‘OK, Thomas. I want you to swim to the other side without stopping, right?’ she said.

We were a bit deeper in the water than I liked — only my toes reached the floor.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I’ll be watching you all the way.’

My goggles, which Mum had bought for me in a toy shop, were already leaking. I kicked as hard as I could and whirled my arms. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop halfway across like I usually did.

After what seemed like an age, I finally bumped into the wall on the other side of the pool. I hadn’t even seen it through my leaky goggles.

‘Well done, young Thomas,’ said Mother Duck.

Standing next to her, looking down at me, was the manager of the pool — a short, stocky man with a bald head, a sharp nose and a stern expression. He was built like a cannonball.

‘Who’s this?’ he asked Clair.

‘This is young Thomas. It’s his first night,’ she replied.

The cannonball nodded at me without smiling, his eyes fixed on mine. ‘Do what Mother Duck tells you,’ he said. I nodded.

‘You’ll need to get an orange club swimming hat,’ he continued. ‘And some proper goggles.’

With that, John Bullet walked off. How he could possibly have seen any potential in me at that point, with my doggy-paddle and comedy goggles, I have no idea. But a dream had been born.

5.45 am, September 6, 1988

30 minutes and one mile west-north-west of Wissant Bay, northern France

I roseto the top of the swell just as the fishing boat entered a trough and rolled backwards. I looked down on the occupants of the little trawler. Someone on board was being sick, but it was hard to know who.

I noted that whoever it was had been instructed to station himself on the other side of the boat from me. John Bullet, conspicuous in his blue-and-white bobble hat, would have insisted on that.

John would have been insisting on a lot of things. There were watch routines to be set, teas to be made, notes to be compiled.

This was a meticulous operation and he would have planned it in fine detail. As ever, my safety — and indeed, my life — were in the hands of this remarkable man.

Easter 1986

According to John, there is no better place to prepare for a Channel swim than Windermere. It is very deep, cold and huge, and conditions are invariably hostile.

Neither my sister Anna nor I had expected to be invited to the Lake District to train that Easter. Although we were both in the club’s senior team by then, we had thought we were too young to be considered — all the other squad members were in their teens.

But I had come to trust John — we both had — even though I was still scared of him. He was completely different from the other adults I knew.

I was used to my parents’ attitudes, which were by and large quite relaxed. For John, everything had to be done in a certain way, from the trivial (the making of tea) to the critical (lifesaving drills in the water).

But I loved the kind of swimming I was doing, encouraged by him. Feelings of fear were being replaced by feelings of confidence. I much preferred it to school, where I was frequently pulled up for bad habits or sloppy work.

‘How are you feeling?’ John asked from under his bobble hat. He was leaning on the boat’s rail and looking down at me as I trod water with both legs and one arm

6.30am, September 6, 1988

1¼ hours, three miles from the French coast

The sea just off the French coast was unlike anything I had experienced before. The swell created an aquatic rollercoaster and I was loving every second.

Ahead of me, the boat was wobbling and bobbing in the darkness like a Weeble toy. I, on the other hand, was part of the elements. As the waters rose and fell rhythmically, I went with them. ‘Only one chance, Tom,’ I said out loud to myself as I exhaled.

Behind us, the sky was slowly changing colour as the day dawned. My night shift, an hour of adrenaline-enhanced swimming, had been an adventure. Now the hard graft began.

7.15 am, September 6, 1988

2 hours, 4½ miles off the French coast

THE sun was dazzling and almost made me lose my bearings. ‘Follow the f*****g boat, Tom!’ I could hear John’s urgent instructions ringing in my head.

The excitement of the night swim had faded, giving way to anxiety. How was this possible? How could I expect to effectively double my best and longest ever swim on Windermere (of 15.5 miles in seven and a quarter hours) at the very first time of asking? And in the Channel? My chances were slim, I knew — around one in ten.

Without a release valve, fear soon becomes panic.

‘Calm down, settle in, recover leading arm, exhale. Calm down, settle in, recover leading arm, exhale.’ I repeated out loud the instructions John had drummed into me. On the boat, breakfast was being served. People were moving busily around the deck, a couple of them holding bacon sandwiches. My favourite.

Cups of tea were handed out. I swore. It helped to make sounds to keep myself company.

I sighted the bows of a large ferry coming out of Calais. I wondered how long the wash of the huge vessel would take to reach me and if it would be fun when it arrived, like a huge wave machine. I felt better.

9am, September 6, 1988

‘How are you feeling?’ John asked from under his bobble hat. He was leaning on the boat’s rail and looking down at me as I trod water with both legs and one arm.

The other arm was holding a chocolate digestive biscuit out of the sea as I munched on it. It had been held up by John as a signal to approach the boat, then lobbed overboard for me to catch.

It was vital I didn’t touch the boat or another person during the whole swim, or it would be abandoned. The rules about this were really strict, hence the presence on board of an observer from the Channel Swimming Association.

‘OK. Fine,’ I said. It was a treat to speak out loud to somebody. ‘How are we doing?’ I followed up. ‘You’re doing really well,’ said John. ‘I want you to settle in for a couple of hours now. Cover some distance.’

I was desperate to carry on the conversation, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘Can I have another biscuit?’ I finally ventured.

‘No,’ came the reply.

‘OK. See you in a couple of hours, then,’ I said matter-of-factly, before resuming my stroke and drifting back off into my private world.

Tom Gregory now, aged 40. He has written a book detailing his remarkable attempt at swimming the Channel

Christmas 1986

I made up my mind to swim the Channel at the club’s Christmas party that year.

An animated conversation was going on. At its centre was John, glass of brandy in hand, surrounded by an entourage of club stalwarts.

‘I’m telling you,’ he was saying, ‘No kid has ever left my swimming club and signed on the dole. Never. And it ain’t about to start, either. Right, Marcus?’

He turned to face the man by his side, a tall, good-looking individual in cool, American-style clothes.

‘Tom, I want you to meet someone,’ he said to me. ‘This is Marcus Hooper. You know who he is?’

I gasped. Marcus Hooper! Holder of the world record for a Channel swim and the greatest swimmer our club had ever produced.

‘Nice to meet you, Tom,’ said the great man. ‘How’s training going?’

‘OK, I think,’ I answered, starstruck. ‘What do you do now? Are you still a swimmer?’

‘No, not really,’ he replied. ‘I work in the City.’

I knew about people who worked in the City. They were always in the news. They wore red braces and drove Porsche 911s — some even had portable telephones.

‘Are you a Yuppie?’ I asked.

Marcus smiled. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a mobile phone so no, probably not.’

I knew in that moment that not only did I like Marcus — even without a mobile phone — but that he was my hero. I made up my mind, in that exact moment, that I wanted to be like him — to break his record and show the world I could be as good as him.

10.15am, September 6, 1988

5 hours, 14 miles off the French coast

‘How are you feeling?’ It was the same question again from John. Time had passed. I didn’t know how much.

John held up a stubby glass bottle. He reached precariously over the side of the boat as I swam towards him, holding up an arm. We had to avoid physical contact at all costs. I grabbed the bottle in mid-air: it held Heinz tomato soup.

‘Not too bad,’ I said. I’d been in the water for several hours now, and my body knew it. My shoulder muscles were beginning to ache.

My legs, at the join with the hip, the bit that always hurt on a long swim, were sore. Worst of all, my mind had wandered off into many different corners in the time since we’d last spoken. I knew from all my months and years of training that the hardest part of a long swim was conquering the emotional isolation.

The sweetness of the soup was sublime. My faculties began to return.

‘You’re halfway, now, you know,’ said John.

Halfway. Two bewildering emotions arrived, in conflict with each other. The first was panic. I already felt as if I’d given my best and swum farther and faster than I’d ever swum before. How could I ever finish?

John was reading my thoughts.

‘Listen to me, lad,’ he said. ‘We are five hours in. Just five hours. And we’re almost halfway.’

And then came the second emotion: euphoria. I looked ahead and there it was. I could see the sun gleaming off the white cliffs of the Kent shoreline. I had left France well and truly behind. Now all I had to do was swim home.

Summer 1987

John and I were on Windermere, he in a boat, me in the water. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked as I winced in pain.

‘The top of my leg hurts, John. Quite bad,’ I replied, grimacing.

‘Right, now listen to me,’ he said. ‘You are doing really well. So now I want you to kick it out for a mile. It’s just a small cramp, so you need to kick it out of your legs. Understand?’ I nodded. He always demanded a reply.

That was the day I became the youngest person, aged ten, ever to swim the length of Windermere. Not even Marcus Hooper had done it.

‘Well done today,’ John said quietly to me later. ‘You know this is quite a big deal?’

‘Yes, I think so,’ I replied. ‘Does it mean I might swim the Channel?’

It was the first time we had ever openly talked about it. He paused. ‘Yes. Yes, it does,’ he said. ‘Maybe even as soon as next year.’

An excited grin crept across my face. John caught my expression and his tone changed instantly.

‘But you are not to get big-headed about it, do you hear me?’ he blurted out, as if releasing pent-up anger. ‘I won’t have you swaggering around, thinking you own the place. Do you hear? It’s just not gonna happen. So you better watch yourself.’

‘OK, John,’ I said, solemnly. But inside I was skipping.

2.15pm, Sept 6, 1988

9 hours, seven miles off the English coast

I lurched out of my trance and rolled on to my back. Something was trying to attack me. It had gone for my legs, so I kicked it ferociously away. As I rolled over the noise it made was terrifying.

Then there was nothing. Silence. Breathless, I tried to process the information. I must have been hallucinating. I looked up at the boat, only half comprehending the scene or the people on board.

‘Calm down. It’s OK, Tom.’ My old friend Clair — Mother Duck from the swimming club — was on the boat’s rail, watching over me, on duty. ‘You just hit a big patch of seaweed, that’s all.’

The taste in my mouth was foul, like petrol. The seaweed must have trapped a fuel spill from a ship. Coming back into full consciousness caused a rush of pain. I needed to find a deeper state. But how?

3.15pm, Sept 6, 1988

10 hours, about four miles from the English coast

Everything went warm. It was blissfully dark and quiet. The sense of comfort was beautiful. My mind and body experienced a rush of pleasure, just like when I’d once been given gas and air in hospital.

But the screaming voices and the thud of the diesel engine snapped me back violently. I was still in the sea. From darkness to bright light, from silence to deafening noise, from warmth to shivering cold. The lurching contrasts were traumatic.

I had fallen asleep, only to be forced awake by all the yelling. A doctor was on the deck, and Mother Duck. They registered extreme anxiety. Was I cold?

For the first time on the swim I lied. ‘No,’ I replied.

Where was Bullet, anyway? This was all his fault and I hated him. How could he put me through this? He clearly didn’t care about me. He wasn’t even there.

And then I saw. The blue-and-white bobble hat was at the prow of the boat, looking forward towards the coast. He looked back at me, raising his arm and pointing.

He was pointing at the cliffs of England. They were closer than I’d remembered before I fell asleep. Much closer.

John stared at me with his trademark half-smile and our eyes locked. Nothing was said. I started to swim again.

The next two or more hours would test every facet of our relationship. I needed him there now, on that rail, and he knew it.

  • Adapted from A Boy In The Water, by Tom Gregory, published by Particular Books on August 30, £14.99. © Tom Gregory 2018. To order a copy for £11.99 (offer valid to 25/8/18), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P free on orders over £15.


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