Over a fortnight ago Cindy Nicholas, a 20-year-old University of Toronto chemistry and biology major from Scarborough, Ontario, beat the English Channel as it has never been beaten before, swimming it both ways and knocking a staggering 10 hours and five minutes off the record. One hundred and eighty people, including Nicholas, have now swum the Channel but only five have achieved the double, all of the others men.
Nicholas, a sturdy 5'5", 140 pounds, had already swum the Channel three times, setting the existing women's record of nine hours and 46 minutes when she was 17, and crossing it twice more, last year, within a space of 11 days.
The route to the Dover Straits from the Agincourt Aquatic Club of Scarborough was a logical progression. "I was swimming competitively at 5½," she says, "mostly instigated by my father, James Nicholas, who was a swimmer himself. Of course," she adds, raising her light voice so that her father doesn't miss it, "he wasn't as good as I am."
Cindy Nicholas continued swimming competitively, mostly the 100 and 200 butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, until she was 15, setting many Ontario and Canadian age-group records. "I was always a little better in the long distances, however, and, ultimately, competitive swimming doesn't offer that. I decided to swim Lake Ontario in 1974 and turned out to be the only person to succeed that year. The Channel was the natural follow-up. If you're to be considered a marathon swimmer as such, you swim the English Channel."
September 25, 1977
Timing is a crucial element in any Channel swim. Usually it can best be crossed in August, though periods in July and September may do, and on fewer than half a dozen days in those months, when the Channel is in the neap-tide stage. Neap tides occur when the moon is in its first or third quarter and the gravitational pulls on the earth by the sun and moon are at right angles to each other, thereby reducing tidal flow.
High tides come 12½ hours apart, and it is believed that an hour after high water is the optimum time to begin a Channel crossing. Even so, the tide sweeps through the Channel at 5 to 7 mph, while the best speed a swimmer can hope for is about 2½ mph. "So it doesn't do any good to talk about how wide the Channel is," Nicholas says. "The tides won't let you swim straight across."
Cindy and her parents arrived in Folkestone in August this year, planning to catch the first tides, from Aug. 21 to Aug. 26, but the weather was bad and they had to wait. On Sept. 7 the winds were blowing through the Channel like a freight train, but the tides were right and at 7:50 a.m. she entered the water from Shakespeare Beach and started across the Dover Straits, about 21 miles at their narrowest point, for Cap Gris-Nez. She completed the crossing in eight hours and 58 minutes, two minutes off the England-France one-way record, and as soon as she had cleared the water to French soil she turned around and headed back for England—the Channel Swimming Association no longer allows those attempting a double a 10-minute rest. She emerged from the water at 3:45 a.m., 19 hours and 55 minutes after she had entered it, coming out again at Shakespeare Beach, "maybe 10 yards from where I started. It is very unusual to come out so close." Not until the official observer reached her did Nicholas learn she had smashed the record for the two-way crossing set by Jon Erikson of Chicago in 1975.
She was seemingly less surprised to hear she had beaten that record by more than 10 hours than she had been at Gris-Nez to learn she had missed the record for the single crossing. "The tides were good," she says. "I was swimming 88 to 90 strokes a minute, and knew I was close to the record, so I speeded up to 92 at the end. Then, when I learned I'd missed it, I knew I'd have to go back."
Asked to what extent the tides might have contributed to her record, Nicholas said cheerfully but firmly that indeed, the tides had been very good, "but to be able to swim the Channel at all in under 10 hours, you have to be a very quick swimmer. And this year at points it felt more like a sprint to me."
Nicholas sounded almost blasé about her feat. "I don't mean to sound as if it was nothing," she says. "Nineteen hours of anything, even staying awake, is very difficult. But for what it was, it wasn't as difficult as I had thought. Of course, I had done it three times, so there were no surprises. I knew about the garbage, seaweed, jellyfish, the darkness and the ocean liners that pretty well run you over. So I just plowed right through the seaweed, and there were no jellyfish.
"Last year when I swam it, I literally crawled over jellyfish and was stung so badly I couldn't raise my arm properly for four days. This time it was overcast, and they were down two feet or so. The only difficult part this time was when I landed on the rocks at Cap Gris-Nez. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get away."
For seven or eight minutes she was battered against those rocks as she tried to break free of the shoreline. When she finally got under way again, she realized she was bleeding from cuts on her legs, but all she could do was to rub in a handful of Vaseline from a tube her parents tossed her from the pilot boat. Cut and bruised, she crawled out of the Channel on her hands and knees over the rocks of Shakespeare Beach, under the startled gaze of three British Railway workmen, the only ones there to meet her.
When Gertrude Ederle returned to her native New York in 1926, after becoming the first woman to swim the Channel, Mayor James J. Walker likened her achievement, with more enthusiasm than felicity, to Moses' crossing of the Red Sea. She also was given a ticker-tape parade before multitudes of cheering New Yorkers. After her swim, Cindy Nicholas got four hours to herself, during which time she fainted and sprained her wrist, having stood up too quickly from a rest and a hot bath. She then had to deal with the world press for 16 straight hours. "Those 16 hours were harder for me than the swim," she says.
Back home in Canada, Toronto greeted her with what was billed as a ticker-tape parade, but a steady drizzle held the crowd down to about 50, and the ticker tape never materialized. She did get a personal letter from Prime Minister Trudeau and while still in England got an invitation to meet the Queen.
She could not accept the latter, as she would have had to go home to register for school, return and go home again, and it had already cost the Nicholas family some $7,000 to get to and swim the English Channel. But Queen Elizabeth will be in Ottawa next month, and Cindy has been invited to meet her at a luncheon. "I know she sees millions of people, but the Queen is...there's so much protocol, and, well, I feel it to be an honor."
So it is. And well deserved.