Update: Great Channel Swim race cancelled

World class competitors from around the globe will not have the opportunity, this summer, to contest the first Great Channel Swim race for 50 years between England and France.

The revival of the classic endurance event from Dover to Calais was due to place when the tide was expected to be most favourable in a window between 19 and 24 August 2009.

Great Channel Swim
Great Channel Swim

Eight elite male swimmers, headed by Bulgaria’s Peter Stoychev who holds the world record time of six hours 57 minutes for the Channel swim and six women were invited to take part.

“I’m sure this revival of what was regarded as one of the world’s classic distance races will capture the imagination of the public,” said Brendan Foster, Chairman of organisers, Nova International, the sports marketing agency, who staged the first Great North Swim last year.

Foster added: “We are in discussions with some of the worlds leading distance swimmers and the initial feedback is that they are very interested in getting involved in such a historic challenge.

“I am delighted that Cassie Patten, last summer’s Olympic Games 10 kilometres open water swim bronze medallist, will carry British hopes and I’m sure she won’t be overawed by either the opposition or the distance.”

The roots of present day Channel swimming go back to 1875, when Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to successfully cross the channel from Dover to Calais in a time of 21 hours and 45 minutes.

However it wasn’t until 1950 that top class international swimmers from around the world were recruited to take part in the first Daily Mail International Cross Channel Swimming Race. Egyptian Army Lieutenant Hassen Abdel Rehim and Eileen Fenton, a 21-year-old religious studies teacher from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, were the first winners, their victories capturing the imagination and admiration of the nation.

Only nine of the 24 starters – a third of them women – completed the gruelling 22 mile distance across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The second race saw a local success with Sam Rockett, the manager of Folkestone Pool, reaching the shore first as 18 of the 20 entrants completed the swim, thrilling the huge crowds watching from the start and finish landmarks of Shakespeare Beach at Dover and Cap Gris Nez in France.

Holiday Camp founder Billy Butlin also funded the swim in the 1950’s and for a number of years Egyptian swimmers were dominant. However, the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 and the political tension it created saw Butlin take the controversial decision to ban Egyptians, which saw him receive a Government rebuke from the Foreign Office for getting involved in international affairs.

He subsequently withdrew funding, instead donating it to other sporting events and the Channel Swim once again become an individual challenge.

Nova International, who also organise the Bupa Great North Run, the world’s biggest half marathon and Britain’s biggest open water swimming event, the Great North Swim, were determined to ensure the Swim re-enacts the excitement it provoked in its golden years half a century ago.

There were also to be two relay boats of between 6 and 8 swimmers competing on the day of the event.

To build upon the occasion there was to be a Great Channel Swim Relay with 12 boats comprising six to 10 members, on standby from August 20 to take to the sea on the first available good day following the main race.

The Cancellation
Because the French authorities concerns regarding the amount of potential additional traffic in the English Channel were raised, the French Coast Guard did not provide its support to stage the highly anticipated event. Colin Hill, the Great Channel Swim race director, said, “After many months of planning, we are disappointed at this late stage to have encountered objections from the French authorities, leaving us with no alternative but to reluctantly cancel the event.”

Michael Oram of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation has been working diligently with Colin Hill of Nova International since November 2008 to organize the Great Channel Swim.

Michael and Colin attended numerous meetings, written comprehensive risk assessments based on Michael’s experience of personally piloting over 500 English Channel attempts over 27 years, and spent countless hours consulting with the Coastguard authorities, various County and local Councils, police groups, the Dover Harbour Board and local officials to organize the Great Channel Swim.

Groundwork and the planning with the authorities started in November 2008 and, based on a consensus developed by the end of January 2009, the Great Channel Swim was announced officially by Nova International at the beginning of February 2009.

However as the media interest started to build up momentum and additional groups were briefed on the event, the issue of having unknown numbers of spectators in leisure vessels in the English Channel was brought to the attention of the French authorities. Faced with the possibility of safety issues related to hundreds of spectators in a wide variety of boats watching the athletes – going at a relatively slow 2 knots per hour across heavily trafficked international shipping lines – the French authorities reassessed the situation and informed Nova of their new concerns at the logistics meeting on the March 31st.

Largely because of the unknown element of these spectators’ effects on safety, the French cooperation and consent was then formally withdrawn on 29 April 2009.

Throughout April, Michael and Nova tried gallantly to salvage the situation, presenting various alternatives. Because no one could accurately predict how many spectator boats would be on the water on race day, or how they could be controlled, it was impossible to come to an agreement with the French authorities because there was no way to verify the parameters involved.

With a 1 May 2009 deadline looming, the athletes were alerted to the situation and negotiations continued.

Unfortunately, by 1 May, the concerns had still not been resolved and, as a result, the French authorities did not change their assessment.

As Michael explained, “It would have been a great event if it had come to fruition. It might well happen in the future now that the parameters are set, but it will take time and effort to negotiate.”

Nova International, headed by Olympic Medallist Brendan Foster is one of the  UK’s leading event management and sports marketing agencies. The company’s current brand portfolio also includes some of the biggest running events in the world all based on the Great North Run, the world’s biggest event with 52,000 entries and in 2008 they developed the Great North Swim which was won by British Olympic medallists Cassie Patten and David Davies.

Nova International was established in 1988 and has a strong sporting pedigree. Based in Newcastle upon Tyne, Nova have established themselves as a market leader in the world of sports marketing and event management. For more information please visit www.greatswim.org

The Original Detail
Date: 19 August 2009 (window for the Spring tide, 19 – 24 Aug)
Competitors will be on standby for favourable conditions.
Both French and English Coastguards are involved in the planning of the event
Proposed start times 10am start (elite men), 11am start (elite women) 11.15am (two relay teams).
Numbers: 8 elite men, 6 elite women and 2 relay teams, made up of 6 – 8 swimmers per boat.
Elites: Petar Stoychev (current English Channel record holder in 6h 57m and Bulgaria’s Olympic flag-bearer in Beijing), Australian Brendan Capell (2004 world 25K champion and second overall on the 2008 FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuit), Cassandra Patten (Britain’s 2008 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim bronze medalist), Australian Shelley Clark (a consistently high finisher on the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix  circuit events and at the World 25K Open Water Championships), Stefanie Biller (a 6-time German national champion and second overall in the 2008 FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuit). The leading distance swimmers from across the world will be invited and formally announced later.

Great Channel Swim Relay
Date: 20 August 2009 (Swimmers will be on standby for the first available good day after the Great Channel Swim)
Numbers: 12 boats with teams of 6 – 10 . Each member swims approx 1 mile at a time. This event is intended to include charities and business teams.
For further information:
Nicola Hedley, Nova International
0191 2263231

The customer services hotline number is: 0845 389 2200 or email info@greatrun.org

In order to eliminate any actual or perceived advantage of one escort boat pilot over another, the 14 pilots for the world’s best marathon swimmers in the Great Channel Swim will agree on a pre-determined course and communicate throughout the race.

This cooperation and coordination will eliminate differences in the pilots’ skills and experiences and will make the swimmers’ speed the ultimate deciding factor in the race. Given today’s GPS and communications technology, this seems like a fair way to make the race entirely dependent on the swimmers’ abilities.

Additionally, the pilots will be randomly drawn and assigned to the athletes prior to the race.

The race will follow the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation rules and all boats will have an official from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation to officially record each swimmer’s crossing.

The Great Channel Swim will start from the beach at Abbott’s cliff with an estimated start times of 10:30 am for the six elite men, 11:15 am for the four relay teams and 11:30 am for the six elite women start. Besides these swimmers and 16 escort vessels, there will be three television crew boats and one media boat (only to the shipping lane). The pilots will be briefed in advance as to the preferred route, given the tides and weather, with a request to minimize variations in the route to promote equal opportunity for all swimmers.

The key Great Channel Swim rules include the following:

1. No person shall use or be assisted by an artificial aid of any kind, but is permitted to grease the body before a swim, use goggles, wear one cap and one costume. Costume and cap shall mean a garment, not made of neoprene or rubber or any other material considered by the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation to give a similar type of advantage. The costume must be made of material that permits water to pass through it and not in any way designed to retain body heat, and/or aid buoyancy.

2. Nova International and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation will approve the costume and cap before the swim starts. The swim will not be recognized if the costume is later found not to conform.

3. During a swim, no physical contact with the swimmer shall be made by any person other than to pass food and drink or secure such items as light sticks for safety reasons.

4. The race will consist of a beach start, the swimmer must enter into the sea from the shore of departure, swim across the English Channel (i) to finish on dry land, or (ii) to touch steep cliffs of the opposite coast with no sea-water beyond.

5. The completion of each swimmer’s crossing shall be reported to the event control center by the official Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation observer. The official observer shall submit a written report and the required swim information sheets along with 30-minute position updates from the onboard GPS positioning system and/or the pilot’s records. The pilot will record the position of the swimmer and pilot vessel every 30 minutes and make the information available to the organizers. The camera boat observers will be requested to provide proof of the swimmers landing if present.

6. The appointed Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation observer shall be in sole charge of the timing of the swim which shall be coordinated with world time readout from the GPS clock as well as any other means. They shall be responsible for observing compliance with the rules, ratification of the swim will be by the event committee. Where possible information updates and communication with Event Control room during the swim will be required for press and media updates.

7. The timing of a swim shall start from the time of the start signal and continue until the swimmer completes the swim as required by these rules.

8. The use of drugs by participants, other than for therapeutic reasons in accordance with medical advice, is regarded with complete disapproval and is considered contrary to the spirit of the sport. Any swimmer unable to participate without the administration of banned drugs must submit their application to the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation with ample time for consideration. The Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation and Nova International reserve the right to make random drug tests on the swimmers. The official Observer may require a sample of any medication given.

9. Swimmers are required to swim with the allocated pilot boat. The authorities require one swimmer only per pilot boat. No additional support swimmers are allowed. The pilots have the right to split up groups if safety and feeding is proving unacceptable. The pilots have ultimate control over the safety of the swim and swimmer. If the swimmer is in distress the swimmer will be accessed and possibly required to leave the water.