The Sisterhood

Charity and sisterhood

Channel Crossing 2007

Debra Searle’s Cross Channel Race Report

It was a minor miracle that the conditions were near perfect as we lined up off Shakespeare Beach, Dover with the boys crew, The Brotherhood, next to us.  The boys were super confident that they would beat us.  Shame the same could not be said of their navigating skills.

The night before the race they came to me and asked me how to read a tidal atlas and which way they should point the boat!  After having spent weeks working out the tidal vectors and researching the prevailing conditions there was no way I was going to throw away the one competitive advantage we had over them.

The differences in our approach to calculating tidal drift was obvious as soon as the starter horn sounded as we watched the boys heading off on a bearing for Portugal!  They quickly pulled away but we had mentally prepared ourselves for that and stuck to our tortoise and hare game plan.  I was delighted that they were ahead of us as that way they could not follow our course, which I had every confidence in to take us directly to Wissant, France.

Our pace was fast but controlled at 62 strokes per minute.  The GPS in front of me was fluctuating from 5.5knots and 6.5knots, significantly more than I had hoped we would manage.  I prayed that it wasn’t just everyone getting carried away with the moment and that we would be able to sustain it.

By the end of the first hour I had my proof.  We had sustained the pace and a sub-four hours crossing now seemed within reach – unbelievable!  The boys, way off to our right, were only just visible in the foggy haze that was sitting over the Channel.

But they ceased to be a concern for us as our attention turned to the SW shipping lane that we were crossing.  A huge red-hulled tanker was munching through the water towards us.  Emma at the helm called a power piece and we pushed the rate up.  We were storming along with such strength that we easily passed in front of the tanker.  Another victory to boost our confidence.

By the end of the second hour we were into the NE shipping lane and found plenty of big gaps to cross the ships.  Then we saw the Dover to Calais Fastcat heading straight for us.  The wash of the back of it was mammoth.  I decided not to mention at this point that the previous team to cross had been capsized from the wash of this exact same ferry.

We altered our course slightly and Emma called another power piece.  We were out of its path by the time it passed but the wash eventually caught up with us and the water pumps went into overdrive.  For some the waves were a fun rollercoaster ride producing screams of delight.  For the more nervous members of the crew there were shrieks of terror.

Our first glimpse of France through the haze was very exciting and produced lots of chatter and shouts of ‘where?’ from the girls.  Our support vessel told us that the boys were only just ahead of us but were way off track down the coast.  I knew that the tide would be against them as they fought to gain ground back towards the finish line off the town of Wissant.  This was our big chance.

With 6 miles to go I shouted the news down the boat to the girls and told them we really could win this.  Our stroke pair, Amanda and Amy, who set the rate of strokes per minute responded brilliantly.  They picked up the rate and the 16 girls behind hung on in there for what was going to be a painful last 6 miles.

The lactic acid was burning as we held onto a sprint race pace over a marathon distance course.  With 3 miles to go we could see the Brotherhood and their support boats crawling up the coast at 90 degrees to our position, both of us trying to converge on the same point. It looked like we could still do it.  I pulled even harder, now grunting with every stroke.

With one mile to go my heart sank as the Brotherhood came to a stop on the beach.  We could make out a large group of spectators around them, which could mean only one thing – they had beaten us.

We pushed hard all the way across the finish line with the Brotherhood and our supporters cheering like crazy.  As we beached the boat there were hugs and tears but not of sadness at losing the race.  The tears were of pure joy at the sense of achievement we all felt and that special feeling of knowing that we had pulled together to achieve an incredible goal.

We did it!  And we did it in style.  From now on we will always be able to say that we hold the world record for being the first all female crew to dragon boat across the English Channel.   The previous record for the crossing was 7 hours 45 minutes by a male crew.  We smashed that and crossed the line in 3 hours 42 minutes, only 12 minutes after The Brotherhood.  Not bad for a bunch girls!

Debra Searle

Debra wrote a number of reports for the Telegraph Newspaper.  To read more about the lead up to the Channel Challenge click on the telegraph logo.