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Life at a crawl

It may be the ultimate feat of synchronized swimming. Each year, endurance swimmers travel to England and France and wait for just the right weather and tide conditions to swim the English Channel. They are fueled by the dream of joining an elite rank of swimmers.

To be certified, swimmers must follow the tradition of Capt. Matthew Webb, who swam from Dover to Calais in 1875 in 22 hours -- doing the breaststroke -- armed only with a swim cap, cotton earplugs, a wool swimsuit and a bottle of whiskey. Today’s swimmers must adhere to the spirit of that swim by forgoing wetsuits or flotation devices.

In his first attempt to swim the channel, nearly a year ago, Jim Fitzpatrick of Laguna Niguel waited in Dover for eight days for the right convergence of weather and tide conditions, only to go home without ever venturing into the channel.

On July 13, Fitzpatrick, 50, was back for a second try, along with first-timer Forrest Nelson of Eagle Rock, above, a 40-year-old writer who’d been training for months by swimming between the Manhattan and Hermosa Beach piers and bulking up by 40 pounds to pack on insulation against the 60-degree water.

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Nelson’s swim: Here’s a play-by-play of his adventure, as chronicled in a series of e-mails from his sisters.

Forrest just called and the weather is still more of the same. No swim tonight. But he spoke with another boat captain who predicts Wednesday is the day.

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Forrest walked into the water at 3:45 a.m. Dover time on July 13. The weather is good and the seas calm. Swim, Forrest, swim!

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Forrest is on course and is going about 2 mph. There are nine swimmers in the water today, and he has passed two. There are a few whitecaps.

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Forrest has been swimming 4.5 hours and is about half way. He is eating every 30 minutes and swimming 48-49 strokes per minute. The tidal flow has almost stopped and will switch and start running the other direction. They were heading on a course of 140 degrees but the tide has pushed them to 90 degrees, or due east.

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Forrest is in French waters now so the escort boat has raised the Union Jack and the California flag. The food goes on a line on a fishing pole. They cast it out to Forrest. He treads water to retrieve it and then they reel it back in.

Three miles to the French coast. It’s hazy and the seas are flat, and Forrest is still swimming strong. The air is 65 degrees and the water is 60. He has been in the water 8 hours, 10 minutes. Swim, Forrest, swim, just a little bit more!

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Forrest can see France. He is going to pick up the pace and finish it off.

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He’s in France! 10 hours, 26 minutes. He made his 12-hour goal. There were people up on the cliffs cheering as he came in.

Fitzpatrick’s swim: For Fitzpatrick, a competitive swimmer in high school and college who’d dreamed of swimming the channel for 15 years, it wasn’t such smooth sailing. After three hours, he swallowed seawater and started vomiting -- which continued until the eight-hour mark.

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He was ready to quit and swam over to the escort boat. But when the captain extended his hand to hoist him aboard, Fitzpatrick changed his mind. If he had made any contact with the captain, he would have been disqualified. He kept swimming and finished in 15 hours.

“I’m happy that I accomplished it,” says Fitzpatrick, “but there’s more to do too. I’m thinking of a swim from Catalina to Laguna Beach -- about 31 miles, but warmer and easier to catch the tide.”

-- Janet Cromley


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