Meet Ella Honey, the first-year Geographer from Girton who swam across the Channel

The Cambridge team completed the Varsity Channel Relay in 9h 58m, taking only slightly more time than a walk from Girton to King’s Parade

Swimming across icy cold, jellyfish-infested, deeply treacherous waters at night may sound like everyone’s worst nightmare, to be avoided at all costs unless as a desperate attempt to flee a submission-hungry DoS. However, at 00:00 hours on 24th June, this is exactly what six Cambridge students (with two reserves on the boat helping to cheer and fuel their teammates) voluntarily did.

The team comprised captain Daniel Shailer (English, Pembroke, third year), Charlotte Rowlands (Medicine, Gonville and Caius, fifth year), Evie Anema (Veterinary Medicine, Newnham, third year), Kazmir Uzwyshyn-Jones (Natural Sciences, Queens, third year), Matthew Penner (Natural Sciences, St. Catharine’s, second year, and Ella Honey (Geography, Girton, first year). The two reserves were Jack Durand (History, Girton, second year) and Isabelle DeSisto (Politics and International Studies, Trinity, MPhil).

We spoke to Ella Honey about her experiences as the only first year on the team, which ranged from cold water swimming wardrobe malfunctions, a run-in with some angry jellyfish, and an unexpected Camfess-based competition. It sounds like it’s been a busy term.

The competition itself

Beginning in 1998, the Varsity Channel Relay is the only race across the Channel still occurring, taking place once every two years. As 2020’s race was postponed due to Covid-19, this year was Cambridge’s 11th face-off against Oxf*rd. The rules stipulate that each team consist of three men and three women plus two reserves. Each swimmer swims for one hour alternating men and women– the order is absolutely set in stone and swimmers must keep going until they reach the other side.

The rules of the competition are strict and precise (for example only specific types of swimsuits are allowed) and an invigilator is on each team’s accompanying boat to ensure no rules are broken. In short, to quote every seafaring movie and also to exaggerate, there is no room for trust, flexibility, or goodwill on the unforgiving waters…

Night swimming slightly resembles a horror movie (Photo credits: Matt Penner)

Fundraising and Camfess

However, goodwill was certainly required prior to the swim. Channel swimming is not cheap, and the team were supported by grants from the various colleges. The Poseidon Club (a group of open water swimming alumni from Oxford and Cambridge) were particularly helpful with this fundraising too, but also offered the team valuable experience and advice. Furthermore, messages and donations from other Cambridge students also poured in.

The prophetic Camfession (Photo credits: Camfess)

Some of these donations by the student body took an unusual form. In a throwaway Camfess that would prove prophetic, a student posted that they’d offer 50 pounds to the charity-of-choice of anyone that would take the King’s College sign out of the country then return it. The team seized upon this Camfess with a vengeance – ‘borrowing’ the sign and taking it to France, then posting the fundraising link of their Channel swim in the comments.

Amazingly, the anonymous author of Camfession 19030 actually donated 50 pounds! Ella added that: “It was challenging to fit [the sign] into the car, and it is surprisingly heavy, but we were honestly more invested in this than the actual race!”

The King’s lawn sign takes a cheeky little trip to France (Photo credits: Dan Shailer)

Preparation for the swim

The lead-up to the competition wasn’t all fun, games, and thrilling sign-capades. Training was intense– despite immense difficulties posed by Covid, the team tried to get in two individual pool swims, one team pool swim and one or two team open water swims in a week (pool training at Parkside and open water locations varying between Grantchester, Milton Lake, the Great Ouse, and the lido). For experience with the sea, they had a weekend trip to Brighton, and for practice with a boat, they had a weekend trip to Dover. (Note to swimmers considering signing up: do consider the travel perks).

An exhausted team captain (Photo credits: Matt Penner)

Ella shared that “the hardest part of the training for me was cold acclimatization, as to be able to swim you have to complete a 2h cold water qualifier with no wetsuit (as you aren’t allowed to wear one in the channel).”

Looking back, this is the part Ella feels most proud about– she was struggling to tolerate an hour in very cold water for many weeks, then one weekend she pushed through and doubled her time to reach the two-hour qualifying mark. All in all, the cold water acclimatization required was (predictably) far more intense than that of the many misguided and inebriated souls who jumped into the Cam to celebrate isolation ending back in Michaelmas 2020.

Jellyfish, changeover crises, swimsuit-loss, and zig-zag lines

The most complicated bit of the experience was the changeovers– which had to be smoothly coordinated and involved an electric ladder that quickly got swimmers in and out of the water. Although the team now considers it a funny story, Ella shares that at the very first changeover the electric ladder collapsed and threw Charlotte back into the water.

Not only was this unfortunate for poor Charlotte but it also meant that Dan (the next swimmer) couldn’t find the ladder to get out. Additional problems included Ella having to swim through two swarms of jellyfish in the last ten minutes of her swim (getting stung all over) and getting very bad swimsuit rub around her chest and arms that required her to do the swim topless, a situation she jokes she is “sure the skippers and invigilator really enjoyed!”

Ella doing the sunrise swim (Photo credits: Charlotte Rowlands)

However, despite equipment malfunction, water wardrobe crises, and vicious attacks by nature’s tentacled villains, many aspects of the experience were absolutely surreal and mesmerizing. Ella had the sunrise swim– she shares that “the side of the boat was reflective so I could watch myself silhouetted against the sunrise as I was swimming!”. The feeling of finishing and hearing the horn blow was absolutely exhilarating– there was even a miscellaneous French couple cheering them on from a nearby cliff!

Matt Penner also doing the sunrise swim (Photo credits: Charlotte Rowlands)

Overall, the unity and coordination of the whole team made it an incredibly satisfying experience and brought the entire team extremely close. Ella shares that while they may have lost to Oxf*rd (Oxf*rd completed the swim in 9h 13m whereas the Cambridge team took 9h 58m), the Cambridge team “definitely had a lot more fun.”

 Balancing the workload

As people who can sometimes barely juggle our degrees with other hobbies that are firmly on land, we were eager to ask Ella how she managed her time between a Cambridge workload, many hours of practice, and zooming around both England and Europe. She shared that it wasn’t too much of an issue as she “needs to be exercising to be able to work productively”, finding that cycling to Parkside or getting out into the river was excellent for clearing her head and providing much-needed breaks in exam term.

Exhilaration just after finishing! (Photo credits: Matt Penner)

She shares that the team aspect was crucial for both motivation and providing social time. Especially as a first-year during Covid, it was great to be able to meet people from different years and colleges, to get acquainted with the wider CUSWP (Cambridge University Swimming and Water Polo Club), and to get introduced to Varsity sports.

All in all, we at the Tab want to wish a hearty congratulations to the entire team and wish them all the best for their future swimming and non-swimming endeavours! Open water swimming can be a hazardous and daunting sport but also immensely rewarding. To find out more (and if you like, donate to their causes) check out the team’s information and fundraising link!

Feature image credit: Provided by Ella Honey, clicked by an anonymous, random passer-by

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