Channel surfer

By Chris Rodley

In 1953, a young Bob Hawke drained a yard glass of ale in just 11 seconds while studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. As well as writing himself into the record books, the future Prime Minister also gave Australian Rhodes Scholars a reputation for larger-than-life physical feats during their time at the university. Opposition leader, Tony Abbott (BEc ’79, LLB ’81), who won two Oxford Blues in boxing, is another who has contributed to the national stereotype.

This year, Rhodes Scholar Eric Knight (BA ’06, LLB ’07) continued in the Australian tradition by taking on another ambitious physical challenge: swimming the English Channel. The idea to cross one of the world’s busiest and chilliest stretches of water was initially floated in jest by fellow Australian Rhodes Scholar Scott Draper: “He suggested it and I called his bluff and said I’d do it,” says Knight.

Photograph of Eric Knight

Eric Knight

Rather than going solo, Knight and Draper joined with four other Australians at Oxford – Hsien Chan, Travers McLeod, Michael Molinari and Laith Tapper – to attempt the crossing of the 35-kilometre strait as a relay team, with each swimmer to swim twice. They decided to use their adventure as a fund-raiser for two hospitals in Perth and Oxford, which had provided treatment for Draper’s daughter, who was born prematurely at 23 weeks.

The team quickly discovered that swimming the Channel isn’t simply a matter of donning a wetsuit and diving in. To have their achievement officially recognised, they had to register with Britain’s venerable Channel Swimming Association and submit to its strict rules. For instance, the Association demands that swimmers be monitored at all times (by an adjudicator on board a pilot boat) and wear only a cap, goggles and ordinary swimwear while in the water. Crucially, any kind of wetsuit is banned; the team even had to submit a photo of their swimmers – somewhat less revealing than the infamous Abbott budgie smugglers – to ensure they met the criteria.

Group photograph of the team

The team: Scott Draper, Eric Knight, Hsien Chan, Travers McLeod, Michael Molinari and Laith Tapper

While dealing with the bureaucracy of the Channel Swimming Association, the team also undertook a punishing training schedule. The icy temperature of the Channel was a far more daunting challenge than the distance of the swim, Knight says. To acclimatise themselves, the group took cold baths and swam laps at a gravel pit where the water hovered just above 12 degrees: “Afterwards it’s like being out for the count in boxing – you can’t walk straight and can’t respond to questions for about 40 minutes.”

Following almost a year of preparations – as well as a tough qualifying swim in Dover Harbour before an Association representative known as the “Channel General” – the six were ready to depart. They set out from Dover on the morning of 10 July. “It looked like a perfect day,” Knight recalls. “We could see across to France and were feeling confident.”

But soon after the first two swimmers had completed their legs, a thick fog descended. “The pilot came down, swearing under his breath, and started navigating our course off the computer screen like a game of Battleships,” says Knight. “We had all these cargo ships moving across our path and couldn’t see them until just before they crossed by.”

The team decided to continue despite the risk of a collision, giving Knight his chance to swim. “It’s an absolute sudden shock, like being in a Salvador Dali painting where time and space end,” he says of the experience. “All you’re doing is fighting against the current and trying to stay [the required] 10 metres from the boat. Your world shrinks to the cold of the water, the taste of the salt, the smell of the boat’s fumes and the white of the fog.” At one point, he drew 50 metres ahead of the boat and the pilot lost sight of him completely.

Photograph of swimmer heading to Dover on second leg

Heading to Dover on the second leg

After his first leg, Eric clambered back on board and put on seven layers of clothing to warm up while he waited for his second swim. The rest of the friends also got through their legs successfully, despite problems with the boat’s engine and one team member becoming disoriented with seasickness.
Knowing what to expect, Knight found his second stint in the water easier and managed to bring the team within striking distance of France. They had no idea where they would make landfall and night had fallen when the last swimmer touched bottom at what turned out to be the fishing village of Wissant, between Cap Gris Nez and Calais.

Thirteen hours after setting out from Dover, the team had done it, and in the process raised almost $10,000 for their charities. Yet rather than toast their achievement with a glass of wine in a French bar, they turned the boat around and chugged back to England.

As Knight explains, that’s another requirement of crossing the Channel, according to the Association’s esoteric rules: “You can’t stay in France more than 10 minutes or your swim is disqualified.”