Channel Tunnel Vision | We Spoke To Howard James About His Double Record-Breaking Channel Swim

"Get up. Swim. Eat pizza. Go to bed"

Words & photos by Danny Burrrows 

In 2016, driven by personal loss and a intrinsic need for a new water-bound challenge, endurance swimmer Howard James set out to achieve two new world records for the earliest and the latest English Channel swims. To complete them would place him among the greats of British open water swimmers and up the ante in the challenging arena of Channel swimming.

In an age where athletes make fortunes billboarding for marketeers and sports live streams are the new gladiator spectacle for thrill seeking screen-sloths the world of endurance swimming slips quietly by without recognition, its participants stoically paddling on in relative anonymity.

Into this cold pond of quiet achievement crawls the hulking figure of Howard James, a London scaffolder who moved to Kent to get more time in the Channel. Measuring 6 foot 3 he has the upper body of a Belgium Blue bull, marked with an gallery of nautical ink illustrating swims he’s ticked off on his personal Ocean’s Seven.

James has always swum, but in 2008 an amateur swim contest between Southend’s pier and the yacht club changed his life, and got him hooked on marathon swimming forever. “It was the only time I ever swam in a wetsuit,” he chuckles. “I met up with a few triathletes, started swimming Box Lake and then one day decided to swim the Channel.” He wrote a cheque out to a boat pilot on New Year’s Eve, went for a run and that was the start of eight months’ training.

The English Channel is a mean sleeve of cold water. Without protective clothing, a normal human will lose dexterity within 10 minutes of splashing into its waters, suffer from exhaustion and unconsciousness within one to two hours and have a projected survival time of under six hours.

“The English Channel is a mean sleeve of cold water…a normal human will suffer exhaustion and unconsciousness within one to two hours…”

It is also the busiest shipping lane in the world with over 500 steel leviathans jostling for space in its narrow waters, and it generates brawny tides that sweep hapless swimmers in a titanic, energy-sapping S as they struggle from Dover and the closest landfall in France, Cap Gris Nez. As the crow flies it is a 21-mile dash from coast to coast but the powerful ebb and flow of tides mean that a swimmer can swim up to 68 miles, as was the case for Jackie Cobell whose swim, the longest in the history of crossings, took 28 hours and 44 minutes.

Fewer people have swum the Channel than have climbed Mount Everest, a total of just 1,731 swimmers, since the first recorded swim in 1875 which took Captain Webb just under 22 hours.

After James’s first Channel crossing in 2008 he became the 13th person to swim the North Channel between Ireland and England and completed a 26km crossing of Lake Zurich. He also ploughed 10km around the shark-infested waters of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned, in South Africa.

Then, in 2015, while training for a two way Lake Windermere swim he and his wife lost their baby daughter Alexa and James plunged headlong into finding an outlet for his grief: “I needed to channel my energy into something and swimming the Channel just for the sake of swimming didn’t excite me. We couldn’t afford to go around the world so with a bit of out the box thinking I came up with the idea of going [across the Channel] early”.

“If I saw one blip of blue sky I was happy,” recalls James “but if it was cloudy, it was a dark place to be.”

After months of cold water training James dropped over the gunwales of the pilot boat Louise Jane off Shakespeare Beach, Dover on May 16, the skies sagging and the sea lump and dark. “If I saw one blip of blue sky I was happy,” recalls James “but if it was cloudy, it was a dark place to be.”

The first couple of hours of any big swim are the worst explains James: “It’s when my body acclimatises and I’m settling into swimming with the boat and the sea state.” It is also when he must overcome the excruciating pain of freezing extremities before they go completely numb.

The water measured 9 degrees celsius while the air temperature was a pleasant 12 degrees. It was the opposite on his later swim record on November 10th when the sea measured 12 degrees and the air was cold enough to give James second thoughts about going in: “Driving down to the harbour it was 4 degrees outside the car and the swell was kind of big outside [Dover] harbour. I was looking at Andy [the pilot] to call it and I have a sneaking suspicion he was waiting for me to.”

“It was hard and horrible and on the second and third feeds I didn’t want to be in there at all,” says James of that second November swim. “But having been in there before and knowing the regime of feed swim feed I knew I was going to have to be in trouble or kicking and screaming for my team on the boat to let me out. They just played dumb.”

Channel swimmers burn 1000 calories an hour on a crossing but have a routine of feeds, thrown to them from the boat consisting of hot sweet tea, mixed with protein powder to keep up their energy and core warmth, plus the occasional dose of Ibuprofen to fight off muscle pain. James’s were every 50 minutes. He also did a minute of sprints every 25 minutes, which in his words “broke the monotony and kept the blood flowing”.

“The salt water takes its toll on the body with sores developing where body parts rub; it also makes your tongue swell and the inside of your mouth fall apart.”

The salt water takes its toll on the body with sores developing where body parts rub; it also makes your tongue swell and the inside of your mouth fall apart. James tells me: “I’ve seen pictures of cauliflower tongue but that was the first time I had experienced it. It was swollen and pitted like the chalk is when the tides out. Just horrible.”

To get to the point of entering the water at Shakespeare Beach it takes months of hardcore training, with cold-water immersion particularly important for both of James’s records.

His workout mantra was: “Get up. Swim. Eat pizza. Go to bed,” which he appropriated from Eddie Izzard when he attempted 27 marathons. “It took his body 10 days to adapt (to the exercise),” says James, “and then all of a sudden getting up at 5.30 it knew what it had to do.”

James took to swimming the 61m Parliament Hill lido in London for his early session, where the water was colder than on the South Coast. He was linking two sets of twenty lengths with an hour break in between before the water dropped from 12 to 7 degrees with the onset of winter. “I remember 7 degrees being a struggle,” recalls James. “I did an hour and had a wobbler, a real wobble. The lifeguard said: ‘Get straight in the sauna!’ I went in and I felt like someone had spiked me. I took me a long time to get over that one.”

He had one word for training for both records: “MANIC”. He says: “Any spare moment I was in the water trying to push as far as I could without going into the danger zone”. Hypothermia was something that scared James after his lido experience: “I would start feeling a little different whether it was hypothermia or I had just started to think about it and panic had set in”.

Daily pre-dawn dips with longer weekend swims were also on James’s schedule and in April 2016 he surprised himself with a four-hour session: “I was walking around with my pigeon chest out thinking I was unstoppable. It was a milestone and I was the happiest man in the world.”

To make his crossing he would have to complete at least four six-hour swims. “Your first six hour swim can be quite gruelling, it’s long; it’s boring. You aren’t sure how to break it down. But after a few marathon swims you come up with ways to keep your mind occupied, whether it’s keeping up with the person in front or just trying for speed to get to the next marker quicker.” James also jokes that he passes the time judging each stroke and getting stoked when he pulls a good one.

“It feels like you could almost touch it but it’s still three or four miles away.”

Cap Gris Nez and its lighthouse is the target for all Channel swimmers but even as it comes into view they must fight fatigue and raging tides to reach the shore. “It is deceptive because you are so exhausted,” explains James. “It feels like you could almost touch it but it’s still three or four miles away.”

On James’s early record attempt he narrowly missed the final tide change off the Cap and rather than beaching in under 10 hours, as was predicted, he had to endure 13 hours and 13 minutes of 9 degrees water before making landfall. “I remember asking: ‘Is this my last feed?’ and someone was like ‘NO’. It gets tough towards the end. Like a long journey, you’ve just got a sweaty bum and you want to get out,” he jokes.

He set a new record for the latest Channel crossing on November 3rd, 2016, in 11hours 38minutes, breaking a record last set by Mike Reed in 1979: “Reaching land knowing you’ve made, it is like: ‘Wow thank god it’s over,’ but it took me three months to get back into enjoying swimming again,” explains James. He’s already doing pool work for his next mission, but hasn’t been in the sea since November 3rd. “The thing is if I don’t have a new challenge I go off the rails and lose motivation to swim.”

The zenith of a marathon swimmers career is completing the Ocean’s Seven challenge, a wet version of the Seven Summit mountaineering Challenge. Traditionally it includes the North Channel between Ireland and England, the English Channel, the Cook Straits, the Straits of Gibraltar, Tsugaru Strait and Molokai Channel in Hawaii and the Catalina Channel.

James already has two of these boxes ticked but his view of what makes endurance swimming a challenge is an idea very much of his own making. “I think I have three or four more marathons left in me,” said James after receiving a host of awards at the end of season gala dinner of the Channel Swimming Association in Dover. “Its not the Ocean Seven that I’m after, it’s my seven.”

To read the rest of February’s ‘Challenge’ Issue head here 

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