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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 4 August, 2020

'If I could do all that, I would hold a world record... I was 11 years and 333 days old'

Read our extract from William Hill Sports Book of the Year joint winner, ‘Boy in the Water’.

'A Boy in the Water' was the William Hill Sports Book of the Year joint winner.
'A Boy in the Water' was the William Hill Sports Book of the Year joint winner.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory. 

The light stick snapped in John’s hands, and immediately began to emit a faint green glow. John held it up, looking disappointed, but then, as if remembering forgotten instructions, shook the stick violently.

Suddenly it became as bright as any torch. ‘Hold that,’ he said, as he reached for a length of twine in the box of kit. He threaded the twine into the stick’s moulded plastic hole, before issuing the same instruction.

‘Hold that.’ I grabbed the green glow for a second time. This time a penknife was produced from the box.

Having unfolded the blade John went behind me and grabbed the rim of my swimming trunks. After some fumbling from his chubby fingers, presumably to attach the twine to the now pierced trunks, he grabbed the stick and tied it on. I could feel its slight weight and wiggled my bum, looking anxiously at John as I did so.

‘Don’t worry, Tefal. It floats. You won’t feel it once you’re away.’

At that moment, I heard the buzz of an engine — quite a high-pitched, busy noise that I knew to be an outboard motor.

A small boat, a tender — only a dinghy really — was working its way to shore. Behind it, the fishing boat lay in place, rocking in the swell. One of the people on the tender had a torch, which meant I could track it as it raced to the waterline, still some 50 metres away from me across the sand.

Dennis stubbed out another fag and, without words, walked over to John and patted him on the back. ‘See you in Dover,’ he said. John looked at him and, after a pause, and with a slight smile, said, ‘Thanks for this, mate.’ Then he turned to me.

‘Right, Tefal, it’s time. In a minute I want you to swim out and meet the boat. I’ll be going across to the boat in the tender, so DON’T worry, but I’ll need to go ahead quickly in front of you, so you can keep swimming once you get to us. You can’t get fuckin’ lost . . . just swim out to the big boat. It’s the one with all the lights on,’ he added with a note of sarcasm, coupled with affection.

‘Got it,’ I said, with all the confidence I could muster. And I did get it. John and the others would need time to board the trawler, get their kit on board, and secure the tender before we were ready to move on, which was quite a palaver. I would be cold, swimming fast to warm up, not keen on hanging around.

‘How’re you feeling?’

‘Nervous,’ I replied, with a little more honesty this time.

‘You’ll be fine. Let’s just get it done.’

Source: Penguin Books UK/YouTube

And with that the conversation ended, and we walked down the dark beach, John with his trusty kit bag in hand. The tender was now ashore, half lodged on the gently sloping sand. Another flash went off behind me, as Dennis took another snap. I didn’t look back.

The tender had a crew of two, neither of whom I recognized. The younger man was operating the boat, and by the time I got to the water’s edge, was fiddling urgently with the outboard that had been tilted to allow access to the beach.

Judging by the stopwatch around his neck I guessed the other man was the official observer, from the Channel Swimming Association. Both were dressed in cold weather gear with woollen hats on. It must have been a chilly night coming over from England.

John climbed into the tender, and the young man, who held it steady as John boarded, got more than just wet feet as he struggled to push the boat out to a floating depth. Having boarded himself, he ripped the outboard cord, which fired the engine, and I heard the clunk as the gear was engaged and some low revs moved them gently out to sea. From within the boat, now bobbing, in neutral again, and some 20 metres in front of me, John called out in a measured tone, ‘When you’re ready, Tefal.’

I brought my goggles up in front of me and looked at them. My heart knotted as I noticed that one of the plastic lenses had a good smear of white grease across the front. It must have brushed against my thigh as I walked down the beach. I knew that I’d made a mistake I might come to regret. But it was too late to do anything about it. I wasted no more time and pulled on the goggles. They felt familiar and comfortable.

Then I stepped into the water, ankle deep, and shook out my arms. The waves were still slight, breaking over my calves. My cold feet triggered familiar apprehension – the moment of full immersion was just seconds away. There was never a pleasant way to enter the cold sea. The water out in front appeared quite calm, but it was still dark and my eyes had yet to adjust. I had swum in much worse conditions at any rate. Would these conditions hold? What was it like beyond the shelter of the bay?

The rolling of the fishing boat 200 metres or so away gave a clue that things might be different offshore. So this was it. On the other side of the darkness somewhere in front of me was Dover, and England. I was going to swim there, on a route that would likely become a minimum of 28 miles on account of the tides. It was hard to know how long it would take. I’d only ever swum about half that distance but I thought up to 15 hours was likely — double the time I had managed in cold water before.

If I could do all that, and it was a mighty ‘if ’, I would hold a world record, because at that moment, I was 11 years and 333 days old.

A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory is published by Particular Books. More info here.

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