Oncologist Dr Joanna Stokoe’s English Channel Solo Swim in Aid of the Sussex Cancer Fund
5th October 2021
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Dr Joanna Stokoe MRCP FRCR MD, Consultant Clinical Oncologist at The Sussex Cancer Centre has completed her epic challenge of swimming the English Channel to raise money for Sussex Cancer Fund and the Roy Castle Lung Foundation. The swim took place on the 16th September and was completed in 15 hours and 29minutes! Jo started from Dover Marina, and aimed to swim to Cap Gris Nez in France.  This distance is 18.2 nautical miles which is approximately 21 land miles. There are 2,000 yards or 1852 meters to a nautical mile. Jo was accompanied by the pilot safety boat, Louise Jane.

Here is Jo’s Story

 

“I just wanted to give you all a bit of insight to my swim from my memory and the account of my amazing crew.

You can see some pics and video clips on my twitter account @joannastokoe and instagram @josto_justkeepswimming.

 

Here is my swim track:

 

 

 

 

It was a nerve racking wait to get the call from my pilot, Andy King, that my swim was on for Thursday 16th September. I got the call at 6.20pm on Wednesday to confirm the plan was to meet at Dover marina at 5.30am the next day for a 6.30am swim start.

 

Solo English Channel swims tend to take place on neap tides (less shift of water up and down the channel) but the weather this summer has been awful and not many swims have got out. I had booked  a slot in this neap tide week over 2 years ago but many swimmers get “blown out” and miss their opportunity to go if the conditions are not ok. Only a limited number of boats have a licence to take swims (solos and relays). Many are fishermen and are based in and around Dover.

 

I started my swim from Samphire Hoe beach, Dover at 6.20am. 

The sea conditions were perfect at the start and it was a comfortable few hours to settle into a rhythm. I had 4 crew to support me, 2 channel swimmer friends Fiona and Roy who were in charge of my feeds, Rolph my sea swimming buddy in Brighton who updated instagram and was in charge of music (which I couldn’t really hear but saw the dancing) and my brother Rupert who updated Facebook, Twitter and friends. They all cheered me on a lot and passed on messages on a whiteboard.

 

There are strict rules around channel swimming. No touching the boat, no neoprene, and quite a few more. An observer from the Channel Swimming Association is on the boat and documents the swim and confirms rules were adhered to. Swims are formally ratified at the end of the season (October). It all went well and my swim is now listed on the CSA website.

There were also 3 boat crew on Louise Jane. Andy and James King are the pilots and Andy crew and they plot the course and make sure I am safe.

 

I was fed on a carbohydrate powder dissolved in water (CNP or Tailwind) that was in a bottle thrown to me on a long rope. Solids were in a pot eg banana, tinned peaches, flapjack, jelly babies. Feeds were hourly for the first few hours and then every 45 minutes until the last 1.5h when they were every 13 mins (I had no clue at that point). The trick is to feed quickly as when you stop you get dragged off course and it adds time to your swim. Ideally drink and eat in less than 20 to 30 seconds.

 

Entering the first shipping lane made me smile as it felt like I was making progress. We got close to some very big ships and saw the ferries crossing. I saw some jellyfish and got the odd sting but nothing too major. My right arm hurt 3-4 hours in so I had some paracetamol and also took some anti-sickness and ibuprofen during the day. They say swimmers should never ask where they are, how long they have been swimming, or how long to go. I didn’t ask, but I could tell the time of day from the sun in the sky. Until it got dark that is…

 

A few times I was asked to sprint to catch the tide. The first one was around  3-4 hours which wasn’t great timing as that is when your body is switching to feed off your glycogen stores and I often feel a slump in training swims at 3.5-5 hours. Anyhow, you have no choice but to do what you are told.

 

I was asked to sprint again later on, not sure when but sometime in the afternoon. Fiona joined me as a support swimmer for 45 mins a few times during the day which helped break up the swim and was a comfort along the way. Support swimmers are not allowed in the water for more than one hour and then cannot get back in until at least another hour has passed. They are also not allowed to pace you or swim in front of you.

 

It was getting dark. I had polarised goggles on so vision was hard from then on. The boat was well lit so I kept breathing every 2 breaths towards my crew, rather than my usual every 3, so that I could see the boat. If I breathed to my left it was pitch black and quite disorientating. Then my crew starting screaming at me. “Push”, “ Swim harder”, “grab the water”, “swim faster”. The pilot, Andy King was on deck waving at me to swim faster. I could sense the panic in their shouts and actions. At that point, I was worried my swim was going to get stopped.

 

The tide had turned again and I was having to swim across it to reach land. That is when my track looked slower and why I could not just swim straight to France if you were wondering what was going on! We were being dragged up towards Calais by the tide, wind, and current. The wind was 20 knots and there was now quite a swell. Many channel swims end at Cap Gris Nez or Wissant. I saw the lighthouse lit up at one point on the Cap but we were too far out for me to reach that point with the strong tide and it soon disappeared.

 

There is a buoy/marker in the channel (Les Quenocs we now know) that if I had swum above, would have meant my swim being aborted. Swims are not allowed in the French shipping lane. The pilot just kept telling my crew to get me to swim faster to ensure I swum under it. When they first stated shouting, I told them to keep shouting at me as it helped me dig deep. Rolph, Fiona, and Ru were leaning over the side screaming. Roy went a bit quiet. Roy is never quiet so another clue all was not well. 

 

They had to shout and I had to sprint for 3.5 hours. The boat crew were in the cabin and not communicating much to my crew at this point. My crew didn’t know where we were. Fiona messaged an experienced endurance swimming friend Mel who sent her my track. Mel kept updating Fiona with my track and was telling them to double my CNP feed and to feed me more often. The last 1.5 hours I was being fed every 13 mins but I had no idea. No solids as no time. My feeling plan record stopped then at it was all hands on deck. Roy joined me for a bit in the water and was shouting at me to keep pushing. Mel told Fiona that I was making good progress on the tracker and to not let the pilot stop the swim.

 

There is a little dolphin on the side of the boat that I just kept aiming to be parallel to so that I was not being seen to tire by anyone. I kicked harder and swung my arms as hard as I could. My stroke rate is usually 54 per min and was that at the start of the swim. I was now at 58-60 and kept this up for 3 hours til the end (all logged by crew). I thought about the charities, about the fact I didn’t want to tell my patients that I hadn’t made it, and also about the £3400 the boat had cost me to do this swim. I didn’t want to pay that out again!!

 

Then Roy jumped back in and told me we were swimming to the beach. I thought he was joking. One of the boat crew started up the little rib to accompany me in and Roy was my safety swimmer. I knew then that the swim was nearly finished. The Louise Jane had to hang back as we were over a reef and it was too shallow.

At first, I swam away from the rib but Roy shouted at me and I followed a white light on the rib. The land was not lit and it was pitch black. The moon was bright in the sky and that was all I could see. As I swam in my hands started to feel sand and the surf was pushing me forward. Roy shouted that I had no time to get a pebble so I started scraping the waterbed to find some. No way was I not getting my souvenir pebble. I got three and shoved them down my cossie. I started crawling in the shallow water on my knees and as I got to the water’s edge tried to stand but I kept falling over as my legs were like jelly. Roy was nearby and I shouted at him to stay away. The swimmer has to clear the water unaided for the swim to count (another rule). After a couple of falls, I managed to stand and put my arms in the air. I waited for the horn on the boat but couldn’t hear it. I waved frantically. They flashed a light and Roy told me they could see me and that I wouldn’t hear the horn due to the wind. I asked him where we were and he said Sangatte which I thought was hilarious. That was what all the shouting was about! Sangatte is the furthest north you can land. 

 Roy got me to swim back to the rib and I was hauled in and taken back to the boat. My arms were weak and my legs were a bit wobbly but my crew got me back on safely. It was a bit tricky with the swell and the wind. I was sat down and Fiona got me dressed and warmed up. Andy crewman came to tell me I was the nicest channel swimmer he has met and that I never complained (bet he says that to everyone!) and that the French coastguard sent his congratulations to me. 

It was rough seas now and the boat was speeding back to Dover. It took 2.5-3 hours. My crew were quite emotional and knackered. I was just knackered! I had a few vomits eventually which pleased Fiona as she was worried about the amount of feed they had given me at the end. She was also worried that I hadn’t spoken for the last 3 hours of the swim but I told her there was no time! We were met by UK Border Force at Dover harbour and had to show our passports before we could leave the boat. Then it was back to the Travelodge for some rest and sleep. Which I couldn’t but am trying to now…

As you can see, a solo channel swim is not a solo effort. I would not have made land without the skill of the pilot and the support of my crew. My crew had very sore throats at breakfast on Friday and were knackered too. I feel a bit battered and bruised but am ok. It will take a while for it all to sink in.

 Thank you everyone for your interest in my sea swimming exploits and this challenge. I have been so touched by all my friends, colleagues, patients, and strangers’ words of support and congratulations. Thank you for all your sponsorship too, lots has been raised for my 2 charities-  over £12K now and climbing.”

 

Thank you so much Jo, what an amazing lady you are! 

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About the Author

Sussex Cancer Fund

Member since: 21st January 2020

The Sussex Cancer Fund was established in 1981 to work with the NHS to create new and improved facilities providing the best possible cancer care for Sussex.

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