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Assessing the risk of a cross-Channel swim

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Kathy Stevenson, project manager at Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions UK, took on her Channel swimming project on somewhat of a whim. Her friend Liz was looking for a team member for an English Channel relay challenge, and Stevenson volunteered. The pair had 22 months to train in preparation for an arduous, 14-hour relay.

Once on board, Stevenson started to do what project managers do best – plan and assess the risks. The risks involved in a Channel swim are extremely difficult to control or mitigate for. “Although the distance between England and France is 21 miles, depending on the tides, weather and currents of the swim day, you will swim far further than that,” she says.

Benefits: bragging rights

“The benefits for me are clearly the bragging rights that would come with being a Channel swimmer, having a new and revered swimming goal to train for, and having a personal project to organise,” Stevenson explains.

The objective is not to get across in a certain number of hours, or to get across – both of those things involve too many risks that are impossible to manage. The objective, in that case can only be to train and prepare enough that, should the weather and sea conditions allow, Stevenson could swim to France.

Fitness risk assessment

Stevenson and her friend were prepping to cross in a relay – swimmers alternate between swimming and resting on a boat. As it was just the two of them, they would each be swimming then resting every two hours.

Once they started training, they started to have their doubts. Stevenson was worried about her fitness levels, and Liz was concerned she wouldn’t be able to stand the cold. Stevenson did a risk assessment for both of these and decided that they could be mitigated for through the right diet and training.

“There is a wealth of online advice from past Channel swimmers,” says Stevenson. “We even went to a seminar weekend run by the legendary Dover Channel Training. The key success factor that is evident from all our conversations is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you, so you must tailor everything to suit you – and practise.”

Implementing the project – through increasingly long swims

Training consists of swims in rivers, lakes and the sea year-round to get used to the water. In winter, the focus is on building distance, skill and sprint training in the pool to improve fitness and stamina. “I looked at other people’s training plans but quickly found that working full time is not conducive to Channel training,” says Stevenson.

Stevenson wanted to enjoy the training – she wanted to avoid any unwanted effects on her mindset, and the risk of injury. “I decided that I would build up to swimming a set distance each week (between 12km and 15km) in three two-hour sessions. This would be complemented with at least one boot camp, weight training or yoga session a week.”

Managing stakeholders (AKA the family)

Training meant that Stevenson was giving up a lot of free time. As a result, she had to engage her stakeholder management and planning skills to ensure a good balance. “I’ve become very adept at reactively scheduling evenings and weekends and have the timetables of the local pools committed to memory.”

Creating test conditions

Stevenson and Liz have achieved some already impressive feats as part of their training: 10.5 miles across Lake Windermere, the Dart 10k and the 15km-swim/10km-walk Scilly Swim Challenge.

The next stage of the training is to start testing conditions: increase the distance while wearing a swimming costume, cap and goggles, in accordance with Channel swimming rules, to increase their tolerance for the cold. “We will also practise getting warm quickly and feeding ourselves to mimic the situation we’ll find ourselves in on the day.”

A lot of it comes down to steeling yourself mentally for the challenge, Stevenson explains, but swimming with groups can help maintain the fun of it. “I’m enjoying the training and planning so far…Time will tell whether this is enough to get us across the Channel.”

This story appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Project journal, which is available for free to APM members.

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