In the predawn darkness of Sept. 8, 1977, Cindy Nicholas of Toronto crawled on her hands and knees out of the murky waters of Dover Harbor on England's southeast coast and onto the pebbles of Shakespeare Beach. She crawled because she was afraid if she stood up she would faint, not from exhaustion but from suddenly being vertical after almost 20 hours of having been prone in the water. When Nicholas was well above the waterline she sat up, her arms clasped around her knees against the cold, and looked back at the water from which she had come. As she sat, collecting herself, three men, British Rail workers wending their way home along the beach after the night shift, approached out of the dark.
"Oh," said one, "did you just swim the Channel?"
"Yes," said Nicholas, pleasantly.
"Good work," he said and, with his companions, moved on.
August 9, 1981
"It was quarter to four," says Nicholas. "Nobody really gives a hoot. I can understand."
The people of Dover and nearby Folkestone pay little heed to the nocturnal comings and goings of Channel swimmers. Every August, when the water temperature has risen into the 60s, they arrive, a few more of them every year, to listen to weather forecasts and wait, to eat fish and chips and wait, and, once in a while, when time, tide and weather cooperate, to swim. By the end of September they are gone again. It has been that way for 106 years, with time out for a war or two, ever since Captain Matthew Webb of the British merchant marine first made it across the 21-mile English Channel in 21 hours 45 minutes.
What the 20-year-old Nicholas had done on that dark night in 1977 was complete a nonstop two-way crossing of the Channel in 19:55, 1:50 less than it took the pioneering Captain Webb to go one way. Nicholas was the fourth swimmer and the first woman ever to do a double, and she broke the existing record by more than 10 hours. It was a feat that Norris McWhirter, the keeper of the Guinness Book of World Records, compared to breaking the record for running the mile by 52 seconds.
Now Nicholas is 23 and a third-year law student at Ontario's University of Windsor who ought to know better. Nevertheless, this month she will try once again to do something no one else—male or female—has done. She will attempt to swim the Channel three ways. If everything goes exactly right, as it did when she swam her historic double, and she can complete the first two legs of the swim—England to France and back—in less than 20 hours, she figures three ways will require 36 to 40 hours. But if the first two legs take 23 or 24 hours and she winds up fighting the tide near the French shore, the last leg would be difficult to complete. "We wouldn't land at our intended destination, Cap Gris Nez," she says. "The tide could take us as far down as Calais or Dunkirk, even Ostend. You just don't know. Everything about a three-way is hypothetical."
There are a hundred things that can foul up a Channel swim—weather and tides can refuse to mesh, flotsam, jetsam and ships can get in the way, diesel fumes can nauseate, oil slicks can sicken, jellyfish can immobilize. But the greatest enemy of Channel swimmers is cold: The cold of the water and the cold of the air take an increasing toll as the hours go by. Because Nicholas has never been in Channel water for longer than 19 hours 55 minutes, she can only guess how her mind and body will react to 36 hours or, worse, more than 40 hours.
"I hate cold water, but everybody else hates it worse than I do," she says.
Weight is crucial to Channel swimmers in their struggle against the cold. Most of the men swimmers are large to begin with and put on as much weight as they can handle as August approaches. Nicholas, who is 5'5", began her intensive two-a-day training in May at 147 pounds. Now she is down to 135, having been careful not to lose more than two or three pounds in any week. "Six would have been easy," she says. Rather than coat herself with a thick layer of lanolin as many swimmers do for warmth, she uses only a light covering of Vaseline. "Seaweed sticks to lanolin, and you feel dirty enough as it is," she says. "I'd rather keep on as many pounds as I can and still be in shape."
Nicholas is a professional marathon swimmer. She has swum many of the world's major distance events for prize money, but she prefers the test of the Channel, where it costs her and her hardworking parents and, on rare occasions, a commercial sponsor at least $15,000 each summer that she swims.
"A race is interesting," she says, "but it's hardly any challenge. You race and you get money and that's all. Money for me has always been very secondary. If someone said to me, 'If you finish this, you'll get this much money,' it wouldn't help me. You need something more than that to get you to the finish."
In spite of her disinterest in racing, Nicholas is fast for a marathon swimmer, a fact she attributes to her training as a youth. She holds the record of nine hours and 46 minutes for a France-to-England Channel crossing, and only three of the 200-odd swimmers who have swum the Channel have faster times for England to France than her eight hours, 58 minutes. Her pace for a Channel swim is 84 to 88 strokes a minute—52 to 70 is normal for a woman—and she maintains virtually the same pace throughout the swim, no matter what the distance or the conditions. Thus, in a two-way swim, her speed shows to better advantage on the second leg, after about 10 hours. Though her time for one leg can be beaten, nobody has beaten her for two, and the only swimmer close to her is Jon Erickson of Chicago, who also intends to attempt a three-way this summer. It was Erickson's 1975 two-way record that Nicholas, swimming in perfect conditions, surpassed by 10 hours.
"Jon's stronger than I am on the first leg, but I catch up on the second and tend to get stronger," she says. "We're about five minutes apart on a one-way. But Jon has the advantage of having been in the water 30 hours a couple of times. I've only done 20."
Another contender for the triple is Kevin Murphy, a 32-year-old reporter for Independent Radio News in London, who is reputed to be able to sleep while he swims. Murphy is very slow, which means that the tides hinder him even more than most swimmers, but his persistence was demonstrated in 1979 when he was in the water for 56 hours in an unsuccessful three-way attempt.
Having swum the Channel 12 times since her debut in 1975, Nicholas is well acquainted with most of its hazards. She has transited viscous masses of jellyfish and once was so badly stung that she had to complete the crossing using only one arm because she could no longer lift the other. She has been menaced by tankers bearing down on her out of the night. Large swells have thrown her repeatedly against the barnacled rocks of Cap Gris Nez as she tried to push off the French shore. Her arms have been bruised from hitting the long snouts of garfish that are attracted by the phosphorescence that gathers around a swimmer's body at night. She has had to dive under or plow through thick beds of seaweed that can be as much as a quarter of a mile across. She has been tangled in fishermen's nets and banged on the arm by her pilot boat.
"That's the trouble with marathon swimming," Nicholas says. "You don't enjoy it. When you start you're waiting to finish. Sometimes you'll be swimming at night and there'll be ships going by that are really nicely lit up, and it'll be so peaceful and quiet and beautiful, but you can't appreciate it because you're worrying that between where you are and the shore something's going to go wrong." Her worst crossing of all, according to Nicholas, was the one in 1978 when, with, as it turned out, nine hours to go, she ran out of things to think about. Her goal that summer was to become what is known as Queen of the Channel, the woman with the most crossings to her credit. She had tied the record of Greta Andersen the previous summer on the second leg of her two-way, and now she was going for No. 6.
"It was my fifth swim of the summer," she says. "I'd done the Lake Ontario race and just before that the Lake Pemibiac [Quebec] swim, 15 hours in 52-degree water. By the time I got to the Channel I'd had a swim almost every week and I'd thought about everything. I'd planned out my whole next 10 years. When we crossed over to the French side by boat it was flat calm, but I hadn't been in the water 10 minutes before it started breezing up. The rollers started before I'd even gotten to the big boat [members of her crew ride in an inflatable boat for the 900 yards to and from the beach]. I thought, This isn't fair at all.' But once you start, that's it. You've paid for the boats [around $1,500 per crossing] and you've paid for the registration [$ 170 for a three-way] and you've gone over to France [2 l/2 hours] and you've waited to start [five hours] and you really don't want to do it all over again. I was in the vilest mood you'd ever want to know. All I could think of was, 'When is this going to be over?' That swim took 12:15, and I usually do a one-way in nine hours. Every minute over nine was like an hour. I mean I've had more awful swims than good ones, but this was the real loser. It was so long and so lonely you wanted a shark to come up beside you so you could say 'Hi, how're you doing?' "
With Queen of the Channel under her belt, Nicholas was again without an immediate goal, a situation that causes her a certain amount of anguish, in or out of the water. But at the back of her very busy mind was the idea of the three-way. It had been planted there by her fisherman-pilot, Val Noakes of Folkestone, the night she finished her record two-way in 1977. From Shakespeare Beach, where she had encountered the night-shift workers, Nicholas had swum back to Noakes' 40-foot fishing boat, Fair Chance, and climbed aboard for the seven-mile trip to Folkestone. Feeling pleased with herself, she went into the wheelhouse, the warmest spot, and there Noakes, who has piloted all but one of her 12 crossings, looked her over and said, "Well, you look fit. Why didn't you turn around and do a three-way?"
Noakes is 52. He's a fisherman by trade, but for 28 years he has been piloting for Channel swimmers, including an Argentinian who required 43 hours to complete the first two-way in 1961. Noakes' house overlooks Folkestone Harbour, and on fine days he can see the French coast from his kitchen windows.
On the whole, Noakes doesn't think highly of Channel swimmers ("You see these blokes, these mountains of men, who perhaps take 15 or more hours to do a one-way, crawling up the beach after their swim..."), but Nicholas is different. "Cindy's rather like a marathon runner," he says. "Her strokes never vary and she keeps up a continual pace no matter how long she goes on swimming. At feeding time I don't have to signal to her that it's time to stop. She automatically knows the time to the very second and pauses by the boat. Most swimmers take up to 10 minutes for a feeding break, but not Cindy. She takes about three seconds, and all told she probably doesn't stop for more than 10 minutes during her entire crossing."
The three-way idea, once planted, grew slowly, and by August 1979 Nicholas was ready. The weather was decent and she swam well, but the water was unsettled, patched with cold spots.
She finished the two-way in 19:12, reducing her own record by 43 minutes, but she chose not to go on. "Had I not been cold, I would've given it a try because a two-way is not all that easy. In fact, I don't ever want to do a two-way again, but because that's the only way I can get to a three-way, I'm more or less stuck with it."
Last summer she set out twice again but both times was beaten by the weather. She and her crew—her father, Jim, who teaches fourth-graders at Our Lady of Fatima parochial school in Scarborough, Ontario; Vickie, her mum, a nursing supervisor of the operating and recovery rooms at Scarborough General Hospital; Noakes; and two official observers from the Channel Swimming Association—waited until Aug. 19 for her first 1980 try, having sat tight for 23 days hoping for "triple weather"—favorable tides and flat calm.
As it turned out, the wind blew so hard that although she eventually finished a one-way in 10:19, she knew after only five hours there was no point going on.
Her next try came on Sept. 3, and it was much worse. Miles off course, buffeted by winds of near gale force, plowing through seas so heavy that sometimes she found herself looking down on the Fair Chance and faced with having to walk after dark and in the muck of low tide half a mile across a bar called Goodwin Sands while her pilot boat sailed around it, Nicholas finally threw in the towel. She was two-thirds of the way through her second leg and had been in the water 18 hours 35 minutes.
It was a difficult decision to make and she treaded water for five minutes, talking it over with her crew. Twice she reached out toward the boat and then withdrew her hand as if from a hot stove. (According to the CSA, holding onto the boat disqualifies the swimmer.) For one thing, it meant that a year's work had been for nothing. For another, she had never before failed to complete a crossing. And then, with her third reach toward the Fair Chance, her summer was over; she was already overdue at law school, and she still hadn't had a real shot at her goal.
"The Channel has become sort of an obsession," she says. "I have this three-way on my mind and I want to be the first to do it. There's nothing else I want to do. The only good try was '79 with that two-way. I didn't even get to the point last year when I could say, 'I can't go another stroke.' It was just, 'Look at this weather! A boat shouldn't be out here, let alone a swimmer.' I think if anyone can give it a good try, I can."
Of the 200-odd swimmers Noakes has guided into the Channel, Nicholas, he thinks, is the best by far. He admires her courage, but he worries about her health, and with reason. In May of 1980, a week after completing her first-year law exams, Nicholas and her father went to Egypt for the 32-km. Nile River Swim. The prize money was not enough to pay even a one-way air fare, but Nicholas felt she could use the event as training for the Channel. Besides, she wanted to see Egypt.
The race was a disaster, the aftermath even worse. "The Nile has a current down the middle," says Cindy. "So you go down the course in about 10 minutes. Then you cut toward one shore and return along it, because you can't fight the current in the middle. So you're swimming in water that's not even knee-deep and where all the sewage and guck is."
Of the 21 swimmers who started the race, eight finished. For placing fourth, Nicholas won $272. For being so foolish as to swim at all, she got schistosomiasis, a tropical disease that affects more people around the world than cancer and high blood pressure put together.
"Travel books say 'Don't wade in the water,' " says Nicholas. "I didn't wade. I really lingered."
Nicholas now knows a great deal about schistosomiasis. It is caused by a parasite that lives in the tissue of certain freshwater snails. In humans the parasite passes through the lungs and lodges primarily in the liver, causing periodic high fevers, diarrhea, fatigue and discomfort in the areas of the liver and the intestines.
"I was so sick," she says. "I had good days and bad days. Days that were bad I could hardly walk, felt really dragged, really sick, really flushed. When I trained in the morning, I was exhausted and would go to bed all day and then get up and train again."
In late July, at the height of her Channel training schedule, Nicholas checked into Toronto's County General Hospital for a week of treatment with the agreement that she be allowed to leave twice a day for her workouts at a nearby pool. "You can't take a week off just before you go to the Channel," she says. "You can't even take two days off."
For Nicholas, the cure, as it turned out, was considerably worse than the disease. Its goal was to kill the parasites before they produced their first batch of eggs, but Niridazole, the drug used to do that, produces, among other unpleasant things, severe headaches, intense nausea and diarrhea.
"There's a whole bunch of side effects, and you get them all," she says. "The first night I was lying there trying to go to sleep, and my heart rate, at rest, was 98. Normally it's 48 to 50." She was offered Tylenol and Valium for curbing the side effects, but with her departure for England only two weeks away she decided not to take them.
One day, during her early evening workout, when Nicholas was pushing a bit, trying to keep pace with a sprinter in the next lane, her chest began to feel tight and she stopped. Then, thinking of the Channel, she pushed on, and the tightness got worse. She stopped again, but the pain continued to increase. Now it was running down her arms. She tried a couple more lengths, then gave up and went into the dressing room where she was unable to raise her arms to open her locker. Thinking she might be having a heart attack but not wanting to make a scene, Nicholas lay down on the gummy locker-room floor and concentrated on breathing. When 15 minutes passed and she still felt as though a house were on her chest, she called for help. "I don't feel so hot," she told Bruce Gibson, a coach who sometimes oversees her workouts.
"She couldn't move or get up," says Gibson. "We knew what was causing it, but all we could do was try to comfort her. Her whole chest cavity hurt terribly and she was crying."
After 15 more minutes, the crisis passed as suddenly as it had arrived. The next day the muscles of her chest, neck and arms felt bruised, but two days later she went straight from the hospital to the airport to catch her plane for London. She claims that her two unsuccessful attempts at a three-way last summer were unaffected by her illness, but she admits that if the weather had allowed a swim longer than 18:35, things might have been different. Her last fever occurred in March, and although she still periodically consults a Toronto tropical-disease specialist, she thinks it's primarily to satisfy his professional curiosity, there being few victims of such diseases around Lake Ontario.
Most marathon swimmers train outdoors from May until September, but water temperatures in many lakes in Ontario are still in the 40s in May, so Nicholas stays indoors until July, swimming six or eight high-quality miles a day with two local swim clubs.
In mid-July, when the waters north of Toronto have warmed, the Nicholas family moves for two weeks to a rented cabin on Penetang Lake, 100 miles away. There Cindy becomes reaccustomed to cold and choppy water, to swimming without turns and without lines on the bottom to guide her. She gets used to lifting her head to look around, to running into debris and to the knowledge that yucky things lurk unseen in the water.
"Imagine if you could see the bottom of the Channel!" she says. "There are always things biting at your feet, slimy things. I close my eyes. I don't want to know what they are." Her only reward at Penetang Lake is that she can sleep in until 6:30—two hours later than her schedule the rest of the year permits. She swims 12 miles a day there, back and forth across the 1½-mile-wide lake at a pace of 22½ to 23 minutes a mile, with two-minute rests between crossings. Jim is always at her side in an aluminum boat with an outboard motor, both to keep her company during her lonely hours and to fend off other boats.
Jim has been beside his daughter from the beginning. He was a swimmer himself when he was young, and he taught Cindy, his only child, to swim when she was 2½. She began competing at five and reached her peak as an age-group swimmer in the 10-to-12 bracket when she held several Ontario and Canadian records in freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events. After that the returns on her training gradually diminished. She still harbors an almost morbid distaste for birthdays, which she dates to her age-group swimming period when a birthday meant plunging overnight from the top of the heap in the 12-and-unders to the cellar of the 14-and-unders.
Her switch to marathon swimming came when she was 16, and it occurred quite suddenly. One day father and daughter were looking down at the vast-ness of Lake Ontario and talking about Marilyn Bell, who first swam it in 1955. "We thought, wouldn't it be nice if I did it," says Cindy.
On Aug. 16, 1974, with a compass, a 10-foot wooden dinghy, a 10-hp. outboard motor, a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail who was pursuing a scoop, a sack of leftovers from the fridge and no idea at all what they were doing—"I mean green, green, green!" says Cindy—Jim and Cindy set out for the starting point at Youngstown, N.Y., 32 miles across the lake from Toronto. Arriving there at 2 a.m., Cindy talked two boys with a larger boat into accompanying them in exchange for free gas, and they were off. At 8 a.m. the boys announced they had to leave, and for the next five hours the little party was alone, far from the sight of shore. Finally, with 14 miles to go, the pilot of a small plane noticed them and spread the word that someone was trying to swim the lake. Because no one had attempted it for 13 years, the news stirred up some excitement on the waterfront, and before long a flotilla of small boats had appeared to escort Cindy the rest of the way.
She finished at Ontario Place, site of the Canadian National Exhibition in the center of Toronto's lakefront, in 15:10. The first thing she did was stand up too quickly and faint. The next was to hold a press conference. When a reporter asked what she was going to do next, she said, "You mean I have to do something else?"
"I didn't consider myself a longdistance swimmer," she says. "I was just swimming Lake Ontario. But he said, 'Well, you must do the Channel,' so I said, 'O.K., fine. Whatever.' "
Thus a Channel swimmer was born. The next year, 1975, before she had even heard of Gertrude Ederle, 17-year-old Cynthia Maria Theresa Nicholas swam the Channel, England to France, in the then-record time of 9:46. Because it was the 100th anniversary of the first swim, the Channel Swimming Association presented her with the Captain Webb Silver Salver, and she was hooked.
This week the Nicholas family will be back in Folkestone for the seventh time. Again they will be consulting the skies, listening to the forecasts, eating fish and chips, and playing cards to pass the empty evenings. If the day finally comes when the tides are right and the forecasters agree that the wind will be no more than force two or three and something in Noakes' fisherman bones tells him the weathermen are right, and if Cindy agrees, then they will go. Vickie will sit on the deck of the Fair Chance, next to the rail, and there she will stay for as long as it takes. Vickie will have a suitcase full of food and gear at her side, and she will fill paper cups with liquids and diced peaches and write brief messages to Cindy on a pad with a felt-tip pen.
Jim will sit nearby, watching every stroke, and when he wants a sandwich he'll move to the opposite side of the boat so that Cindy won't think about food. Noakes will stand in the wheel-house with the door open. He won't be able to see Cindy because she swims close to the boat, but he'll listen for the steady splashes of her strokes.
Cindy, down in the water, under the curve of the boat's hull, will feel as secure as one can in her circumstances, knowing that even if it takes 44 hours and no matter how cold and tired and hungry and wet those three people get, one or another or all of them will be looking after her.
"It's very important to have people you trust watching you, people who are so concerned for you that they don't mind watching you the whole time," Nicholas says. "A lot of things can happen. Last year especially I felt I was getting strength from them as I swam."
However, the iron will that propels Nicholas in spite of her fears—of the real dangers in the Channel as well as the ones that go squish in the night—is all her own. "If I do that three-way," she says, "nobody can bring out a history book and point to someone else who did it first. Who are they going to compare me to? Nobody! After that I think I'll be a lawyer."