Flight Lieutenant Helen McFetridge RAF VR(T), of 511 (Ramsey) Squadron, Air Training Corps, was the Captain of a team of six who, in the early hours of Sunday 13th August, set off from Samphire Hoe Beach in Kent to swim the English Channel in relays.
The relay cross Channel swim, part of last year’s celebration for the 75th Anniversary of the Air Training Corps, had to be postponed last year due to poor weather conditions.
The original “Challenge” was for two teams of six swimmers to conquer the “Everest of the Sea”. Unfortunately, Team 2 were unlucky with the weather so returned this year to complete this epic challenge for the Air Cadets.
The rules for Channel swimming do not permit wetsuits so preparation throughout the year has been in cold water to acclimatise to the conditions of the Channel. The team had a bit of a false start when initially were told by the Captain of the Anastasia, (the teams support boat), Eddie Spelling, that we would be swimming Saturday afternoon. However, after getting into the boat it was evident that the sea was too rough and that the swim would be delayed by 12 hours.
Our first swimmer was Flight Lieutenant Ben Thompson from South West Region, followed by Cadet Joe Wibley of North Region, Cadet Sergeant Caitlin Wynne of the South West Region, Cadet Sergeant Anna Hulme from Wales and West Region, Flight Lieutenant Helen McFetridge Central and East Region and Cadet Sergeant Jack Fitzpatrick from LASER Region.
Each swimmer must swim for an hour at a time, the first 6 hours were less than ideal. The waves were rolling and some breaking on occasions over the swimmers. The boat was very difficult to stand up in and sea sickness was in issue for a couple of the cadets. Once the swimmer is nearly finished their swim the next swimmer jumps from the boat behind the swimmer and continues the relay.
By the time Helen was due to swim the boat had entered the first shipping lane. Helen took the team through most of the South West shipping lane to the Separation Zone. Whilst in the Separation Zone the swimmers encountered many jellyfish but fortunately no stings. The highlight of this part of the swim was when Ben got into the water and saw a dolphin swim under him and the boat. This was followed by a pod of about 8 dolphins.
It was a relief that the wind had started to subside and the waves settled. The second part of the swim was to then navigate the other shipping lane on the French side of the coast. Eddie had told the team that the current was about 4 knots and that swimming would need to be kept at a faster past to stop drifting to far down the coast.
Helen was next to swim and with the conditions much calmer it was time to swim hard to keep the line. At this point France was very close but lots of swimming was still required. Once Helen was out of the water it was a further hard swim for Jack and then Ben was taking us into the beach at Pte du ridden just down from Cap Griz Nez. Eddie told the team that because we were landing at a beach and not on the rocks that when he gave the signal we could all swim into the beach and celebrate with team mate Ben.
The team finished the swim as the third fastest relay this year in a time of 12 hours and 38 minutes.
Helen said ‘This is the most difficult and frustrating challenge I have done so far. I am ecstatic to have been part of the Air Cadet 75th Challenge and will always remember this experience with the Air Cadet Organisation’.