Phil Couch Reflects on the Swimhalers’ Channel Swim

In August 2016, David Shephard and Phil Couch – aka the Swimhalers – made an attempt to swim the English Channel.

Dividing the swim between them, the pair looked set to reach France in great time. But that most capricious of allies – the weather – had other ideas, and the challenge had to be called off just shy of the Pas de Calais.

Now that disappointment’s frustration has eased and the sea-sickness is but a torrid memory, Phil Couch considers the many positives of an event which saw him fulfil a childhood dream.

Leadership Challenges (LC): Would you have done anything differently in terms of training or preparation for the event?

Phil Couch (PC): Dave and I had covered as many angles as possible in training, following a tough regime and completing several swims in excess of two hours, roping in a series of training partners who helped us along the way.
We covered a massive swimming distance of about 900km in 2016, so I’m convinced that we were both capable of the target on the day.

I guess the only thing I would change was our position in the queue for the pilot boat on the week of the swim. Having first choice on ‘go or no-go’ on any given day on that week may have enabled us to choose a day with clearly better weather, such as a couple of days before. It was the weather that got us on the day.

What was the toughest part of the challenge for you?

PC: The early training swims in sea water less than or around 10 C were actually painful! It got better though and I was glad we had got in the water when it was so cold, as it made 17 deg C feel so warm!

Following the swim, I had tendonitis in both forearms and couldn’t train or race for about 6 weeks. This, in addition to the natural depression post swim and the fact that we hadn’t made it to French soil was quite lot to take in.

Did you discover anything unexpected about yourself or the event?

PC: Being hit by the beauty of the channel. Also the surreal effect as all of the classic scenes I had dreamed of unfolded: Shakepeare’s beach from 200m off the coast, the white cliffs of Dover disappearing into the distance. The zone when you can see neither coast, but ferries are scuttling to and fro and container ships are looming large behind and ahead of you. Realising that I could push myself much further than I thought possible and keep getting back into the water.

You had a good team around you, how much did the team influence your performance?

PC: We couldn’t have contemplated it without them. They were fantastic whilst the swim was on and kept us going as the weather got rough. They also helped us make the right decision when it was time to stop as I think Dave and I had lost the ability to make smart decisions by then.

They took time out of their busy lives to help us achieve a dream: you can give money, but time is beyond value. It’s amazing to have support like that. The team had a big impact on our preparation also, joining and encouraging us during training.

5) Would you do it again?

Yes, definitely; a channel swim was a childhood dream. I remember crossing the channel on a ferry for a school trip when I was about 11, thinking, ‘One day I’m going to swim out here’. To actually have done so, regardless that it was 37 years later was a fantastic feeling of achievement.