Charlie Connelly on Swimming in the English Channel in Winter

Charlie Connelly wakes up “ridiculously early”, listens to the shipping forecast on the radio, then goes for a swim in the English Channel, stone’s throw away from his home in Dover. It becomes a daily ritual in summers – a season when people swim – until his dips slowly evolve into something more: he falls in love with the Channel and decides to continue to swim.

“As autumn arrived with its fogs and rains I found myself not wanting to give up the Channel for the winter. I wanted to keep going, to keep swimming, even on cold, dark mornings when the combination of a many-togged duvet and central heating made heading out into the sea clad in just a pair of shorts seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world.”

Charlie Connelly “The Channel” 2020

The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates Southern England from northern France and links to the southern part of the North Sea by the Strait of Dover at its northeastern end. It is the busiest shipping area in the world. It is also relatively young.

Apart from swimming author starts to untangle the yarns that English Channel hides. “Wherever you look, whichever sea is laid out in front of you, there are centuries’ worth of them,” he writes, “tales of heroism, disaster, romance, discovery, mystery and ghosts; and the English Channel .. is supplied with more of them per square yard than any sea you’d care to mention.”

Charlie Connelly’s captivating book “The Channel: The Remarkable Men and Women Who Made It the Most Fascinating Waterway in the World” is overflowing with stories about extraordinary personalities – the Channel people, and most of them are women. Like Martha Gunn, who used to “stand in the sea, day in, day out .. for around seventy years.” Wonder why? You’ll have to read the book.

“The Channel” by Charlie Connelly. Photo by Beach Books.

Charlie Connelly writes about pirates, swimmers, flyers, daredevils, refugees and dreamers with precision and care. He even finds a lonely grave, long forgotten, and puts flowers on it. Connelly is a marvellous storyteller with such a good sense of humour, that I believe you will find yourself laughing out loud while alone with the book as I did more than once.

Author goes into the sea in almost every place he visits on his journey exploring the history of the Channel. Even on a stormy November morning in Brighton, where it’s quite a task to stay in the water or to even stay upright, “the Channel had played with me for a bit and then thrown me out, back to where I belonged.”

He calls it his Channel winter. Cold water becomes a strange new world, addictive too, “my skin sang, my heart pumped, I could feel every nerve in my body”. Author writes about “a fizzing reminder” on his skin, a cold aura that doesn’t leave his body even when dressed and back at home. He also promises to be more careful, when one of his fingertips goes numb for a few months. Charlie Connelly is honest: “I’d like to pretend that I glide serenely into the water, smiling beatifically, but in reality I often find myself shouting swearwords I didn’t even know I knew.” But it doesn’t stop him. He is in love.

“I also prefer breaststroke because it’s practically the only one I can do. I am a swimmer in the same way that someone who can pick out the first few notes of ‘Happy Birthday’ is a pianist, but in the Channel that doesn’t matter. I’m not swimming to go anywhere, I’m not trying to meet any physical goal and I’m certainly not competing with anyone. I love the Channel, love living by the Channel and love being in the Channel, and that’s it.”

Charlie Connelly “The Channel” 2020
“I lay awake that night somehow more aware than ever of the ebb and flow of the Channel barely a hundred yards from my bed .. I thought about how in 1849 Herman Melville had come ashore outside my window, disembarking from the steamer Southampton from New York at the spot where ‘some centuries ago a person called Julius Caesar jumped ashore about in this place and took possession’.”

Charlie Connelly also has a podcast “Coastal Stories”. Its first season is filled with mysterious sea serpents, swimmers, foghorns and lighthouse keepers; there’s also a famous message in a bottle and a lifeboat rescue with a happy ending. Second season is coming soon! Sea Library has one of Charlie’s previous books too. It’s called “Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast” and is equally good.