CHALLENGE 11a. Stand-up Paddle Board across the English Channel
Words By: Jennifer Price
There is something quite iconic about crossing the English Channel. It is a major British lifeline to the rest of Europe, it is where the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea meet, it is where the French and the British have crossed to raid and pillage each other respectively, over the course of centuries. It is the location of the busiest shipping lane in the world, with 500 ships passing through each day, as well, no doubt as many a submarine.
It is for that reason that the idea to cross it was born last year when I was looking (in relative panic) for a challenge that could take the place of another which had to be cancelled. I had taken paddle boarding up during lock down and had never seen it as a particularly adventurous activity, more a relaxing afternoons pursuit. Nevertheless, it seemed to stand out as a way to turn the disappointment of the cancelation of one challenge into the excitement of a new one. It complimented my multidisciplined approach to the 12 / 12 project, it required use of equipment I already had, would take up only a few days of my time and had the type of iconic-ness that might help in raising awareness of the endeavour: thereby improving the chances of raising funds and awareness for the Veterans Foundation.
So, in September 2022 I made a plan to cross the channel in November. That was, put simply, quite stupid. For anyone who has had a go a paddle boarding you will know how even the lightest breeze can stop you in your tracks. How I thought November would be a good month to try and cross I do not know. Maybe I thought it would be even more challenging?! In reality, it would be impossible. Despite this, our safety boat gladly took my booking and remained open minded about the weather forecast, but predictions of 40 knot winds turned out to be surprisingly accurate. It was therefore my decision to conduct a holding paddle along a Surrey canal in November and postpone the actual crossing until the spring.
May and our first tidal window came around fast, and, despite a fair amount of pessimism, our weather window actually came through. We required calm seas and less than 5 knots of wind (roughly 5.5 mph) to get the go ahead. 48 hours out we got the thumbs up from Will at Full Throttle Boat Charters (a veteran at taking idiots like us across on various self-propelled craft). My paddle partner, Charlie, and I jumped into action, booking a BnB in Rye, baking protein balls, and throwing various bits of potentially useful kit into my car. The solid, seaworthy boards were delivered by Cliff at Epic Life first thing on Wednesday, and we awaited Wills arrival in the harbour with a fair amount of excitement.
We set off at about 0945 allowing Will to speed us out to the start point just off Dungeness. Here we scrambled onto our boards for the first time. I think we were both a little worried as we stumbled to find our sea legs on unfamiliar equipment but, thankfully, with a little forward motion and determination, we were off.
It was quickly apparent that the safety boat was not just there for safety because there is absolutely no way we would have had a clue about which direction to point our boards, a fact I had naively not considered. Thankfully Will is a pro and set the course for us to follow with the angle of his boat. This allowed us to focus on not falling in within the first 20 minutes.
Amazingly within the first 5 minutes we were treated to a sighting of a pod of dolphins and 40 min later a lone seal, which showed some interest in our passing, bobbing just 50 meters away and staring intently, reminding me how big they are in real life.
Then it was just onwards and onwards to the horizon. Had we been able to look behind us (our balance did not allow) we would have seen that Dungeness power station did not reduce in size very quickly for quite some time. Despite this morale was high for the first hour; we were pretty pumped from our wildlife sightings and conversation was in full flow. I would say it was about 3 hours in that morale dipped a little, mine due to the threat of sea sickness (thankfully this never materialised) and Charlie because he was on the slower board and therefore working hard to maintain the pace. Afterwards he remarked on how easy it is to get into your own head when you are at the back and feeling like you are not making progress. I thought this was a fitting link to raising awareness for mental health in mental health week. It really is easy to lose perspective sometimes and, from that, enter a negative mental spiral.
In actual fact, we were well matched for pace; the combination of my faster (but much more unstable board) combined with Charlies go go gadget limbs (he is 6ft 5”) on the slower but more stable board, worked really well. And so, we pushed on, grateful in the knowledge that we would get a break two thirds of the way across.
We hadn’t really stopped for breaks; bar being held on the West side of the English shipping lane to wait for a clear route and had managed to fumble some food and liquid into ourselves. By the time we reached the start of the French shipping lane, at 12 nautical miles and 3.5 hours, we were very glad of a breather. The French authorities don’t allow any human powered vessels across (except swimmers during one part of the year) so there is no avoiding getting back in the boat and it is why we cross further south so that the same distance from Dover to Calais (18 nautical miles) can be completed. The boat ride was a blessing, 24 knots really blasts the sea sickness away, so much so that I semi dreaded the reduction in engine noise that was our cue to get going again.
Thankfully we had made the turning of the tide (in most part due to Wills regular requests to give the paddling some beans!) which meant we had both the wind and tide with us for the final 6 nautical miles to Boulogne sur Mer. This did mean slightly choppier water, of which Charlie decided to take a dip in, twice, and also that we had to aim off the end point so as not to get swept past our destination.
Approximately 5 hours and 40 minutes later we cruised into Boulogne harbour and gratefully jumped back into the boat, fairly bedraggled, to make for the shore and a well-earned beer.
All that was left was to get home; a 1.5-hour speed boat ride in the setting sun. For my part I enjoyed this very much, but then I had packed lots of warm clothes. Charlie, on the other hand, had not and his view on the return leg was ‘savage’