Alexander Popov, just 20 years old, will be attempting to swim the Channel in mid August 2019. A student at Imperial College in London, he will start at Shakespeare Beach near Dover and he expects the crossing to take between 12- and 15 hours. This is his first attempt at the classic swim.
First completed in 1875, the cross-Channel swim is 21 miles long, though swimmers end up covering a greater distance than this because of tides. Wetsuits are not allowed - gear is limited to swimsuit, goggles, a swim cap, ear plugs and a nose clip . Swimmers are acompanied by a safety boat with crew who can help with feeding and encouragement but no physical contact is allowed. Swimmers book a boat for a week and the captain decides on the best moment for the crossing.
Alexander has a Just Giving page, with proceeds going to Crisis, a UK charity dedicated to helping the homeless.
First a bit of Form
Alexander Popov: I’ve enjoyed swimming for as long as I can remember, and for the last few years we have been to Greece as a family every summer for a week by the sea. One year I had a go at swimming for a long time in open water and found I got a kick out of it. So each time I have been back I have tried swimming longer and longer distances. This will be my first challenge on such a big scale, but perhaps not the last…
Why the Channel? Why now?
The Channel is considered one of the ultimate challenges in the sport, and since I live in England it always seemed like a natural goal to go for. I spent a few months mulling over the decision in 2018, then a year ago I booked a slot with an escort boat for August 2019. Since then there’s been no turning back!
I haven’t really thought too much about what to do after swimming the Channel, but there are quite a lot of other big swims around the world which would be fun to try.
What training have you done?
In the months while I was still deciding whether to go for it, I made sure to do a few good pool swims each week just to stay fit, but nothing too serious.
Then in September 2018 I started proper training, around 11 months before the scheduled week of my attempt. Initially I was doing four or five pool swims per week, trying to get comfortable swimming at a consistent and fast pace. In October I did a few outdoor swims in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, just to have a feel for some cold water swimming, but over the winter months I worked solely in the pool, focussing on technique, strength and stamina.
The Channel is pretty cold, particularly after several hours in the water, so I had to get more resilient against low temperatures. This meant gaining quite a lot of fat through excessive consumption - of ice cream, cakes and fatty meat - as well as never wearing more than one layer outside in the winter.
Since May, almost all my swimming has been outside, building up the distances in the sea (in June I have been doing exclusively 6 and 7 hour swims). My swimming style may have got a bit prettier recently as well as I try to look the part for the curious spectators on the beach!
What about fitness and nutritional ?
There is no single correct way to prepare for a Channel swim. While I have been fortunate to receive advice from a few past Channel swimmers, each person’s regime is unique to them. Typically everyone does the same sort of sea training, but there is much more variation over the winter, when it’s important to figure out a balance between quality and quantity to maintain a high level of fitness whilst also maintaining the focus on technique.
My nutritional regime hasn’t been too precise – obviously it’s not very easy to gain fat whilst doing so much training, so the main requirement has just been to eat a lot!
A lot more thought has been required to work out a feeding routine for the actual swim. In my long training swims I have been trying various combinations of bananas, jelly babies, chocolate, shakes and water – after a bit of trial and error I have now settled on a routine which will give me enough energy without the risk of making me sick.
What support are you allowed in the attempt?
I will have an escort boat alongside me the whole way. The boat pilot is responsible for planning and executing the route, as well as deciding on the best window in which to attempt the crossing. I will also have a small support crew on board – their main job is to feed me, but they will also serve as enthusiastic fans! If things start going wrong, I’m expecting them to show me a bit of tough love to keep me going. If necessary, my brother may jump in and swim alongside me for a bit just to keep me at a decent pace.
What’s the balance of mental and physical?
The physical challenge is obviously very tough – I will be trying to keep a consistent stroke rate for perhaps upwards of 12 hours in cold water. However, I have done so much preparation and my fitness is really good right now, so my body should manage.
Any swimmer would admit that the mental battle is the true challenge in such a long swim. I will be in the water for many hours, and I am not allowed to even touch the boat. Between the cold, fatigue, jellyfish stings and all the other aches and pains that can arise, I will face many things which may tempt me to get out of the water, but I’ll have to ignore those thoughts and just keep swimming.
What will be the most challenging aspect/moment of the crossing?
It’s hard to say what the biggest challenge will be on the day. In my last training swim I got painful jellyfish stings on both my arms and on my right leg – having avoided any hairy encounters all summer, I got attacked twice in the space of half an hour! It is very likely I’ll come across quite a lot more jellyfish on the day, and even if I get loads of stings I will just have to swim through the pain.
The changing tides in the Channel can also pose significant problems. As a swimmer enters French waters, they tend to drift sideways a lot due to the strong currents (no one swims the Channel in a straight line – it always ends up being more of an S shape). It’s very important that I don’t flag at this point, as I will need to be swimming well to avoid being pushed past the nearest point of the French coastline as this would add several hours to my swim. In some cases, the sea can start pushing a swimmer backwards – this usually leads to the swim being aborted, regardless of how close to France they got.
What is achievement?
To me achievement is the reward for dedication and sacrifice – it’s always good to know that all this hard work can lead to something great.
What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure is trying something new or difficult or crazy, pushing the limits of what you can do.