Fewer people have swam the English Channel than have climbed Mount Everest. In 2016, Howard James completed the swim not once but twice, and both times in near-freezing water.
At 1 a.m. he stepped into the water and began his long swim from England to France. But this was just another step in a longer and more painful journey for James and his wife, Esmari. In 2015, they lost their baby daughter and part of the reason for James's two records was to raise funds for the charity they set up in memory of their daughter, The Alexa Trust.
This is the story of his latest crossing. But we must warn you: You're going to want to grab a warm blanket.
Out with the old, in with the new
On November 3, 2016, James crossed the English Channel in 11 hours, 38 minutes. It was a new world record for the latest English Channel swim ever, breaking a record last set by Mike Reed in 1979.
A repeat crossing
This wasn't James's first Channel swim. On May 16, he set a new world record for the earliest Channel crossing, with a time of 13 hours, 13 minutes in water as cold as 48 degrees.
At these temperatures, without protective clothing, a person is expected to lose dexterity within 10 minutes, suffer from exhaustion and unconsciousness within one to two hours and have a projected survival time of only a maximum of six hours.
No wetsuits allowed
Contrary to popular myth, smothering your body with goose fat doesn't keep out the cold and Channel swimmers can only wear trunks, goggles and a single swim cap for their crossing to count.
Wicked early, wicked chilly
When James dropped into the waters of Shakespeare Beach in Dover at 1 a.m., it was the coldest night of autumn. "The first two hours were the hardest," James says. "It's when my body acclimatizes and I'm settling into swimming with the boat and the sea state, as well as fully feeling the wind chill on my back."
Food … lots and lots of food
Swimmers burn up to 1,000 calories per hour crossing the Channel, and since they can't touch a boat during the crossing, their support crew has to throw them food and water bottles, which are nearly impossible to catch when there's no feeling left in a swimmer's hands.
James survived on routine feedings every 50 minutes, interspersed with a one-minute sprint every 25 minutes, which, in his words, "Broke the monotony and kept the blood flowing."
Training in an ice box
Training in cold water is essential to complete a Channel swim, and James had set himself an intense regime while holding down his full-time job as a scaffolder.
"First off, I didn't wear a jumper when working," he jokes. "On weekdays it involved evening swims for up to two and a half hours into the night to acclimatize to the temperature drop. On Sunday mornings, I was up at 5 a.m. for a four-hour swim after a six- to seven-hour swim on a Saturday. It was meant to shock the system with an earlier, colder start."
The longest 20.7-mile swim
The shortest distance between Dover and the rocky outcrop of Cap Griz Nez, France is 20.7 miles. But a Channel swimmer's passage is governed by massive tides, which draw a looping "S" across the straits as they fight the ebb and flow of the cold water. This is where the knowledge of the captain comes into play, and a swimmer's ability to step things up when they need to push through.
All that traffic
The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with over 500 ships cutting through its waters each day. By the time James reached the shipping lanes, he'd burst through the pain barrier of the cold, lost sensation in his extremities and his form was gone. But he was still swimming hard.
So close but so far
James was within the parameters of a 10-hour crossing, but when he passed the last marker buoy before Cap Griz Nez, the tide changed and he was trapped in a raging torrent that drove him north and away from his desired landing spot on the Cap. "I was hoping it was taking me in rather than past it, but it was moving faster than I thought," he remembers.
Done and dusted
But James, standing 6'2", with hands like shovels and a bottomless well of power, dug deep, broke through the current and landed on a white sand beach just north of the Cap, 11 hours and 38 minutes after leaving the pebbles of Shakespeare Beach.
Just three more
"I think I have three more swims, three marathons left, in me," James said after receiving a pile of awards at the end-of-season gala dinner of the Channel Swimming Association in Dover. "It's not the ocean seven that I'm after, it's my seven."