Piers Hale in Dover, Kent, UK where his English Channel swim will begin.
Piers Hale in Dover, Kent, UK where his English Channel swim will begin.

Channel surfing

An Oklahoma University professor is attempting to swim across the English Channel this June.

Go to Lake Thunderbird any day in any season of the year and you just might spot Piers J. Hale putting in the work.

Most swimmers track their distance in meters or yards. Hale counts miles. At the end of June, weather permitting, he will swim across the English Channel. This feat, known as the “Mt. Everest of swimming,” is expected to take him just under 13 hours. The distance across the channel, depending on the tides and currents, could be anywhere from 21 to 35 miles.

Hale, who is English, learned to swim at an outdoor pool in his hometown of Woodhall Spa. A retired Royal Navy veteran — or at least a man with lots of anchors, ships and a mermaid or two tattooed on him — ran an informal distance swimming club at the pool. Under his tutelage, Hale swam his first mile when he was 6 years old and has dreamt of this challenge for more than four decades.

“I think it was the ultimate aim of all the kids who swam distance at the pool each year. I remember making plans with my neighbor back in about 1978 or 1979. We were going to be the youngest to ever swim the channel. Of course, this never happened, and I figure if I don’t do it soon, I won’t do it at all,” he said.

Hale is an associate professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma where he’s been on the faculty since 2007. His expertise is in evolutionary ideas in 19th and 20-century England and America as well as medical ethics.

“I swim quite a lot given my other commitments. I swam just over 500 miles last year, for instance. I am currently ramping up the weekly yardage and currently fit in about 50,000 yards each week,” he said.

That ends up being between 15 and 20 hours worth of swimming each week in preparation for both temperature and weather range in addition to the duration. There is no guarantee of success even for the best-trained swimmer.

“Open water swimming is totally unlike pool swimming. High waves, swells and tides mean that the time can vary a lot,” he said.

click to enlarge Channel surfing
Photo provided
Kids’ Sailing Camp with Lake Thunderbird Educational Foundation, June 2021.

Hale is also conditioning his body to tolerate the cold waters he’ll encounter. Luckily, winter is his favorite time to swim.

“It is cold, but so very quiet in the lake. You can hear the fish thinking … I have been working on cold water acclimatization for several winters and am now comfortable swimming at [around] 60 degrees. The water in June, when I will make my attempt, will be between 57 and 59 degrees. This is cold water to endure for such a long time.Hypothermia is one of the main reasons why people who make the attempt fail,” he said.

The regulation attire is minimal — just a cap, goggles and swim briefs — and there are natural hazards like darkness, jellyfish and small sharks.

“Swimming at night can be hard psychologically. The cold can feel colder, and the miles longer when all around is blackness,” he said.

There is also the need for food and water as he pushes his body to its limits, with plans to consume a high-calorie drink every hour and supplement with Snickers bars as needed.

“The channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world with strong currents. A registered channel pilot is essential (and required) to make the attempt. Then it’s just a matter of booking accommodation, flights and talking some friends into making the trip who will be on the boat to help with the hourly feeding plan. You also have to register your effort with the Channel Swimming Association, who will provide an official to observe the swim and check that you abide by the rules,” Hale said.

The friends he has convinced to go with him likely didn’t need much coaxing. One of them is his partner, Sarah Luthman, as well as Steven English and John Krause, all of whom are also swimmers and active with Hale with the Triathlon Club of Oklahoma City.

[They] will be my support crew on the boat. They are there to prepare and hand down feeding bottles, to offer moral support and to drink a beer or two with me in either celebration or commiseration afterwards. The most important member of the team, though, is the pilot. I have booked Andy King and his boat the Louise Jane. Andy has been a channel pilot for decades, and he will ensure I swim the shortest route. [He] will also pick what he thinks is the best weather window to make the attempt,” Hale said.

Hale is using his effort and GoFundMe to raise money for the Lake Thunderbird Educational Foundation (LTEF), founded in 1998 to advance knowledge of water safety, and facilitate safe and environmentally aware recreational use of the Norman lake.

For experienced swimmers interested in open water, Hale recommends joining one of the Triathlon Club of Oklahoma City group sessions that takes place at Lake Thunderbird at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. For people who are less experienced, an indoor pool is a better place to start. Hale recommends the YMCA or swim classes with U.S. Masters Swimming coach David Gray in Norman.

To follow his swim attempt, follow the Louise Jane Charters page on Facebook: facebook.com/LouiseJaneCharters

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