A full-time job it is, and whilst not a full time swimmer, Mike Read MBE, 76, who doesn’t look a day over 55, is known as the official ‘King of the Channel’.
He has a staggering 32 crossings under his belt and a house full of old trophies, pictures and mountains of paper work from his job as long running secretary of the Channel Swimming Association. From his home in sleepy Sproughton, Ipswich, he talks about his experiences and how he thinks the sport has changed.
Having had both polio and asthma as a child, Mike spent most of his childhood in bed, and up until 14 had no interest in sport. That was until he was introduced to Neil Tasker, a fellow student who had just made the British swimming team.
“I was really struck by lightning more than anything else. It was one of the moments where your life changes, the headmaster stood up one day and said that Tasker had been selected to swim for Great Britain… and I thought, he doesn’t look any different to anybody else. If he can do it, I’m quite certain I can.” So Read quickly joined Brighton swimming club and five years later he had made the Olympic team.
However, the Olympics was not meant to be, as five days before they were meant to leave for Rome Mike was in a motorcycle accident which caused him to miss the Olympics, standing only as a reserve. But this did not stop him swimming.
Whilst the Olympics was not on the cards for Mike, his prowess in the pool did not stop, “I swam 22 times a week. In the morning I went to the pool before I went to school, at lunchtime I came down from school and swam again, straight after school I went back to the pool or had a club night. And then if it was the weekend I would swim in the afternoon and then probably a gala in the evening.”
Now filled with a new-found drive for long-distance swimming, Mike recalls the gruelling path he swam to become the swimmer he is today, “Instead of doing the 200 and 400, I started doing the 800 and then the mile, and I was doing ok at that so I went up to 3 miles, and then 5 miles. I enjoyed the winning. And so from then 5 miles to 8 miles, 8 miles to 10 miles, then finally I ended up doing 22 mile swims.”
Mike recounts what he describes as his “second lightning moment”, when he said, “The year before I had done a very good swim down at Windermere, I probably won it I expect. The secretary of the swim slapped me on the back and said, ‘Mike have you ever thought about doing the channel?’ and I said no, as even in those days it cost a huge amount of money, and money was something I didn’t have. But the seeds had been sown and I was thinking about it.”
Managing to secure sponsorship from both his employer at the time and an open ticket from British Airways to fly from Edinburgh to London, nothing stood in the way of Mike tackling the 22-mile stretch of water.
“I felt very apprehensive before the start of the swim, it cost so much money, I think now a days the boat alone costs about £3000 for the day, and you have invested months and years of training and again there is a lot of time in which you could let people down. You’re going to get stung by jellyfish, the weather is going to break or the boat might break down. There are so many reasons for giving up, when you get in a pool.”
Finally in 1969 Mike completed his first channel crossing, “I was successful, which was the most important thing, because a channel swim was no longer a race, I think the last of the races was in 68 and I swam in 69.I think I swam it in 12, 08 I did a series of them in 12 hours something, but gradually got slower and slower.”
Any normal man or woman would call it a day, yet for Mike this was not the case, “I thought I want to try and do a two way swim, and so for the next five years I tried to do that because at that time, it had only been done by two swimmers and I wanted to be the third. But each time I had a problem.” In 1975, on his final attempt Michael achieved his goal.
“I swam for 29 hours 5 minutes, and I got within 1 mile of Dover in 24 hours and I was dreaming of being able to say I had done it in less than 24 hours, but I then spent the next 5 hours just caught in the current and I couldn’t get in and I mentally snapped… I just said to the pilot, I’m not swimming another yard and so he let me get out. What he should have done is encourage me, because as soon as I got out he said, if I had waited another 3 hours I would have been taken in with the tide, but that was too late to tell me that.”
Swimming for almost 30 hours in itself is no mean feat, but what you eat during that time is left up to you and your crew and can prove just as challenging as the swim. The CSA rules state, no assistance can be given during the race, food and drink has to be handed to the swimmers via a long pole. But what do you eat?
Mike recounts, “In the early days I tried all sorts of things over the years, but ended up with soups. I can remember on one swim, which just showed how unorganised we were, the observer who was looking after me would say, ‘what soup do you want?’, now all I wanted was the cup of soup but he was asking do I want tomato or cauliflower or leak. So, I started out with tomato soup in the first hour, and then the second hour he asked me again, ‘what do you want?’ and I said, ‘I’ll finish the tomato soup’, ‘no you won’t I finished that when you were swimming.’
“Ok I said, I’ll have beef consume then in the 3rd hour he asked again, and I said I will finish the beef. ‘No you won’t,’ he said, ‘remember that ferry that passed us a short while ago, well it tipped the saucepan over’, so I said ok, I’ll have the mulligatawny no you won’t for some other reason, and then the fifth hour the same thing again with a different soup, then 20 minutes after that I took in a big mouthful of water and suddenly you realise I had: beef soup, tomato soup celery soup, beautiful chicken soup and then you mix that with sea water and you have a volcanic mixture there which made me sick as a dog.”
Whilst flicking through the CSA handbook, Mike, with a wry smile on his face, speaks candidly about how the sport has changed, “The sport as a whole has become a lot more accessible, but equally you have to be careful not to take risks. But now as the sport becomes more popular, there are more people to share it with and to actually swim with, which was not the case in my day. You were on your own in some stretch of water, it was difficult to find someone to swim with and you took your life in your hands. We were pioneers, and I have to be honest we did do stupid things in hindsight. You had no fear, you just went out and swam and thought nothing of it.”
Adding, “It’s got a lot easier because everything has changed. If you look back to the 30s people wore woollen swimming costumes, who knew anything about nutrition? Who knew anything about training? They rowed the boats, who knew about weather forecasting? Only the fisherman. There was not satnav or GPS to name just a few.”
Whilst Read may hold the title, ‘King of the Channel’ as well as the copyright to it, Kevin Murphy, somewhat satirically self-proclaimed the King of the English channel has completed the crossing 34 times. Whilst still a feat not to look down upon, it pales in comparison to the 42 successful crossings completed by Queen of the channel, Alison Streeter, who also holds the record for the fastest crossing doing butterfly.
Each of these swimmers faced their own set of challenges. And whilst some relished in the challenge they faced, others, like Kevin Murphy admit: “ I have swum [the channel] so many times, and some people say that they enjoy it but I hate it when I’m in there, because I don’t like hurting myself. I do it because I enjoy the achievement. I do it because I want to prove that I can. I want to prove something to myself. When you have swum the channel your self esteem goes through the roof, you know that you can push yourself way beyond normal limits.”
What drives these seemingly normal people to do such extraordinary things? Whilst the strength of body is clear for those swimming, it is the inner strength to fight against the most primal of urges to protect ones self that separate these pioneers from the crowd.