A new interest in long-distance and open water swimming means exciting new challenges for pupils, says Sally Jones

Open water swimming (Image: Unsplash)

Open water swimming (Image: Unsplash)

When I started sea swimming, I couldn’t have stayed in for a few minutes, let alone an hour,’ says Clara Burton-Dowsett, from Roedean School near Brighton. ‘At first it was 30 seconds at a time as the cold water felt really painful on our fingers and feet. But I was determined to be part of the team and I kept going. It took ages to stay in the water for an hour and to qualify, you had to do a two-hour swim.’ 

After months of dawn training sessions off Brighton beach, Clara and five teammates, including gutsy 12-year-old Bella Mapledoram successfully crossed the Channel in a relay last June. They completed the crossing from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez in 13 hours 13 minutes, swimming overnight beside the pilot boat in one-hour rotation. 

On paper it hardly sounds like every parent’s ideal school trip: negotiating choppy, pitch-black water, coping with strong tides, two metre-high waves and even jellyfish. And all this in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, criss-crossed by 600 tankers and 200 ferries a day. Shockingly, for those of us inured through Mediterranean holidays, to seas like tepid bathwater, it’s swimming costumes only in breathtakingly cold water with no wetsuits allowed. 

Despite the discomfort, the girls had the extra motivation of fundraising for a great cause. The £8,000 they raised in sponsorship has helped to provide full bursaries for six Ukraininan refugees who joined the school last September.

The achievement has made sea-swimming a hot ticket at Roedean: this year 48 girls joined the sea-swimming club, part of the school’s strong tradition dating back to 1896. It even boasts a historic tunnel built in 1910, cut through the chalk cliff from school to shore for early bathing forays. Rarely used these days, it was originally unlit, three feet wide and with 144 steps. Health and Safety? Bah!

Chanel swimming at Roedean

Chanel swimming at Roedean

Although it is a rare feat for an all-girls’ squad to swim the Channel, the crossing has become the ultimate challenge for numerous independent schools, helping their pupils develop teamwork, resilience and sheer determination. Malvern College even made headlines in 2019 when a team of 10 teenagers became the first school group to cross the Channel on a stand-up paddleboard. 

Like Roedean, Taunton School is a stalwart of long-distance swimming, with club members racing round iconic spots like St Michael’s Mount and Burgh Island. In 2022, three teams of 12-year-olds from their prep school swam the Channel after training for two years – while their rivals, a group of pampered luminaries from ‘Celebrity Sink or Swim’ gave up half-way. 

For Atul Gudsoorkar, now 13, the success was particularly satisfying because of the sheer effort required. ‘I joined the club to improve my fitness, endurance and swimming ability,’ he remembers, ‘but also because I though it would be a great achievement as I was weak at swimming previously. The best bit is how everyone supports each other.’

Roedean’s youngest Channel swimmer Bella Mapledorham agrees, recalling how the camaraderie and fun carried her through the toughest moments.

‘Each time I had a wobble, I looked up to see the rest of the girls on the boat dancing to Elton John’s I’m Still Standing she said, ‘They were wolfing pasta to keep their strength up and urging me on so I knew
I couldn’t let the team down.’ 

For Kate Wakeling, Roedean’s Director of Sport, who herself trained as a backup squad member, despite admitting, ‘I’m not an amazing swimmer’, the endeavour has a wider resonance for everyone. ‘Several of the girls hadn’t swum much before they started training,’ she says. ‘My message to them all is ‘You don’t have be special to achieve great things in life – all you need is hard work and a dream.’

Taunton School pupils taking part in the St Michael’s Mount Swim

Taunton School pupils taking part in the St Michael’s Mount Swim

Why swim the Channel?

‘Distance swimming facilitates team spirit, engenders self-discipline and builds resilience,’ says Hamish McCarthy, Taunton School’s Long Distance Swimming Club Lead and Head of Geography. 

‘The swimmers build strong social bonds. It’s not a quick-fix sport but about the long game; there is a build-up process before a challenge and this requires great mental strength and patience.’

‘Our swimmers take away something really valuable and unforgettable from distance swimming,’ adds Kate Wakeling. ‘Whether it’s getting into the water for the first time ever, or screwing up their courage to swim under the pier or through jelly fish, it gives every child a huge sense of accomplishment and enjoyment.  

‘The cold water and exercise produces an endorphin rush which is great for everyone’s mental health They turn up to training, sleepy-eyed, eyes half shut and they get out buzzing.’ 

Packing List

What to wear, what to read…

1 Cosy changing robe 

Invest in a padded, weatherproof changing robe such as a Dryrobe. From £160,

2 Appropriate footwear 

Those in the know also recommend a pair of Crocs for exiting the sea over sharp pebbles and shingles. From £29.99, crocs.co.uk

3 Protective goggles 

A pair of mist-proof goggles with clear lenses and designed for open water swimming. From £9, speedo.com

4 Skin protection 

A mixture of petroleum jelly and zinc oxide to keep out the cold and jellyfish stings. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly £3.75, boots.com

An inspirational read

The Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory is an autobiographical account  of his Channel swim in 1988, aged 11 years and 333 days.  Inspirational for everyone. £7.99, Particular Books.