Wading through international (open) waters – An interview with the oldest Indian to cross The English Channel
At the age of 47, Srikaanth Viswanathan is the oldest Indian to have completed solo-swimming across the English Channel. He achieved this feat in July 2018, after successfully completing multiple team events in a span of three years. From being an engineer to now a professional open-water swimmer, he talks about the circumstances under which his journey began and the challenges he faced along the way.
In a conversation with The Manipal Journal, he revealed his dream of wanting to complete The Oceans Seven, a marathon swimming challenge, and eventually publishing a book in the future.
You were a competitive swimmer earlier, and then you shifted to swimming across the English Channel. Was your plan to try it a few times and then attempt it solo, or was it always your motive to complete the task, in whichever way possible?
I learned to swim at the age of 33. I was not a competitive swimmer at a young age; I became one as a master where I competed with people of a similar age group. I spent a good four years trying to compete with the masters at the state and national level. During the process, I understood that there are so many things that I can achieve. Typically, we tend to put a lot of limitations on ourselves, saying it’s not possible – but I realised when I won a lot of medals there, that the more I dream about something, the more I can go after and accomplish it. Prior to getting into masters swimming, I had this dream to complete the English Channel; for any swimmer, it’s like the Mecca of swimming. The dream was always present but I did not know how to go after it. Being a leisure swimmer, I went on to do competitive masters swimming and from there I saw an opportunity to attempt the English Channel as part of a relay team. One day, a bunch of us masters swimmers were walking, doing our morning workout when someone asked how many times we’d keep doing the same thing, and if we’d look at a bigger challenge.
That’s when I suggested crossing the English Channel – many people did not know about it. Some showed interest and asked if I could get more information since all of us were pool swimmers and swimming in the ocean was a completely different paradigm altogether. After a lot of research, eight of us signed up for a swim in 2015 and went to Dover. The water there was cold, something we did not expect – and after the first few minutes of the swim, it felt like our whole body was on fire. However, we continued to swim and get our bodies used to the conditions, successfully completing the swim. I did a four-member relay the next year, which became more complex as the team size reduced and I had to cover more distance for a longer duration. Last June I went again and did a two-member relay, which was the most gruelling swim as you get only an hour to recover and re-energise yourself before jumping into the water again, alternating till you reach the shore. It so happened that we were the first Asian team to accomplish this. It’s very tough and I pushed it to that limit before my big solo swim because I wanted to test where I stood there. I really wanted to see my level of fitness and preparedness, because if I succeeded in it, it would give me a big boost of confidence.
After finishing in Dover, I stayed back and continued to train there. I did not come back as there was a gap of a month and a half before my solo event, which was a big turning point. That decision became very important because during that time, I trained in the English waters and tried to get my body adapted to the cold water. If you are not suitably adapted to it, you can get hypothermia – which was my biggest fear as in India you do not get water this cold, and the difference in temperatures is high. So, I trained and got my body used to it, taking the more knowledgeable route, knowing the risks involved.
It could not have been easy to begin the journey, even though you were well-prepared. Can you elaborate on your fears through the training process and after, and how you conquered these challenges?
I had many fears, primarily because I started much later in life. The biggest fear I had was of drowning because of an incident that happened during the initial stages of my learning when I almost drowned in the deep end of a pool in Bangalore. Though I was rescued, that fear lingered for a long time and I was afraid to go to the deeper ends of the pool, and always remained in the shallow end. The second fear was the darkness of the sea water – the moment you put your head in sea water, you can barely see anything. Unlike pool swimming where the environment is controlled, in motion swimming, you have no control of your surroundings. There is the presence of wildlife and marine life. While training, there were times when I felt something rub against my body. Initially I used to get scared, but later on, I realised that once you are at the mercy of marine life, there’s no point in being worried about it. I surrendered myself and became a little relaxed as there was no more pressure to see what was touching me or biting me. Even while training at Dover, there were times when I would touch jellyfish or come across sea lions but I had to keep going. These are things that you train for, so you become used to these conditions.
With the challenges that you mentioned that arise while swimming in such conditions, there would be times when people have lost their lives. So, what is the rate of such cases?
At least in the English Channel, it is a very well organised sport that is managed by an association called Channel Swimming Association and they have very stringent rules and regulations. It is good for the sport as they maintain the records of all the people who have successfully completed the swim over its history of 150 years. The same rules under which the first person completed the swim are applied now, with minor tweaks here and there to add more safety, but there have been few fatalities in the process. Even last year there was one person who lost his life just a few hundred metres away from the French shore. He had to be airlifted, yet they could not rescue him.
However, there is a lot of emphasis on the safety of the swimmers. So, there are rules – for example, the swimmer cannot swim beyond the 10-metre radius of the boat. You have to be in its line of sight and within a certain distance; if you tend to drift further, you are pulled or called and asked to stay closer. If there is a sighting of dangerous marine life, they will immediately fish you out. There is an independent observer who monitors the swim. From the beginning of the swim, they make a note of the number of strokes that you do every hour. For them, it’s an important measure of the swimmer’s performance as well as their mental and physical state. For example, if the swimmer was doing 60 strokes per minute and then it suddenly drops to 20 strokes per minute then it could be an indication for an early onset of hypothermia, after which they immediately put the swimmer on a close watch and try to communicate. This is because due to hypothermia you speak incoherently and do not make sense to others.
Hypothermia does not give you any warning, so the swimmer will not get to know that he is getting hypothermia and neither will the person on the boat unless they are trained for it. It’s a silent killer and is the biggest threat in the ocean for any swimmer. The observer looks for those signals and sees if the swimmer is safe. Every pilot and crew member is a trained paramedic. This is the importance they attach to safety; after all, people attempt this not for medals but to push their dreams or their physical and mental endurance.
You’ve moved from swimming across the English Channel with an eight-member team to as a solo swimmer, all in the span of three years. The experience must’ve been arduous, no doubt. However, did it become easier the fourth time around?
No, it did not. Swimming solo is the ultimate test of mental and physical endurance and there’s a huge difference in doing a relay and doing it solo. The efforts that go into each kind of swim cannot be compared, as the challenges are also very different. I’m not undermining the relay swim – to be in a rocky boat for that duration, which is almost at the same pace as a swimmer, is extremely challenging. All of us encountered sea-sickness and motion sickness and started throwing up, immediately causing the body’s energy level to drop. This would cause cramps and if you’re not ready when your turn to swim comes under the difficult and cold conditions, it is called off. So, the pressure is enormous in relay swim. This challenge is different from swimming non-stop for 14 hours, where you have to feed yourself, and are not allowed to touch the boat or any pole; you cannot hold on to anything. Sometimes I would try having sandwiches and biscuits that people would throw from the boat but my fingers were so numb that I could not open the box. Eventually, I asked just for liquids, and the following times they mixed everything in the liquids and I would gulp it. I could not taste it as after four hours in the salt water my mouth was not in a condition to identify any taste.
To complete the Triple Crown, you only have two swims left and as you said, you have already finished the toughest of the three – which is the English Channel. Are you planning on setting forth for the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim anytime soon?
Yes, my Catalina swim is scheduled for August 1 and Manhattan is for August 31. Those two are my target for this year and then I’ll complete the Triple Crown. Catalina Channel is entirely a night swim. During the day, the wind speed picks up; typically you start around 9 PM and swim through the entire night with only a kayak by your side. Catalina water is more prominent in terms of marine life than the English Channel. They have a lot of dolphins, a breed of whales, and sometimes sharks. So, these factors play a major role in the psyche as you do not know what might be touching you; therefore, you have to be very mentally strong. The distance per se is very identical to that of the English Channel. One of the advantages is that the water’s temperature is not as cold as the Channel’s. It’s supposed to be slightly better, around 16-18 degrees Celsius. But given global warming and the changes that are happening, you cannot predict what it is going to be. The Manhattan island swim is more around the 20 bridges – you swim around the islands, under the bridges. At one point you also join the Hudson River, a very iconic river, where sometimes you might swim against the tide. But along with you are a group of 15 swimmers or so. I will not be alone, there will be 15 boats one behind the other, starting every five minutes. During the Catalina swim, I’ll be alone; although there is a possibility that somebody might swim, you cannot be sure whether you will have a companion.
Open water swimming as a field is now becoming more popular and people who have tired themselves with competitive swimming are now venturing to this area, be it the young or old. Although it is known that this requires practice, what is something you wish you had known before you set forth for the task so that beginners can know what they’re in for?
As I said, ocean swimming is very different from pool swimming primarily because of the uncertainty of conditions there. It could be due to the wind temperature, wind speed, sometimes the tides, marine lives, and sometimes our own physiological parameters like cramping up. At least in the pool, you have a wall or a rope to cling to whereas in the ocean, once you are inside you are on your own. You have to have confidence and fitness. All I suggest to newcomers is to never venture out all alone, it’s very important to not underestimate the challenges in open swimming. It’s definitely enjoyable, you do not have to keep turning every few meters back and forth like in a fish tank, and you have the opportunity to swim non-stop forever. But you have to take care, and always have a boat or a lifeguard at your side. Make sure you also feed well, not only before or at the start of the swim, but also during the swim as it’s important that you feed adequately and get the right kind of nutrition, to avoid all the exhaustion or cramps that happen.
More than a handful of the youth in our country have participated in open-water swimming in cities like Mumbai, and they have also taken their skills to cities like San Francisco and channels like the Strait of Gibraltar. This obviously comes with hardships like the dangers and for most families, the expenses. Considering this, what do you think is the future for the sport?
Definitely, more and more people are taking to the sport and any sport that you wish to pursue at a professional level involves a lot of sacrifices – be it your career, education, finance or family – one has to make so many sacrifices to succeed. From the future of the sports perspective, it’s very bright. In the English Channel, for the next 2-3 years, all the boats and flights are booked, that’s how popular it is. You can imagine that if I have to make another attempt at the Channel, I’ll have to wait till 2021 or 2022.
You started swimming at the age of 33, and this is the age where many are settled in life, so what was the driving force behind this?
For one, I was very active in sports right from my childhood. I used to play cricket and had captained my school team, then my corporate teams. But in the early 2000s I had a recurring ACL or ligament injury in my knee, so my orthopaedic advised against any kind of physical sport which involved jumping and running. That’s when I looked for other ways to keep myself fit, and swimming was somewhere deep down in me. I always enjoyed the sensation of floating and the experience of weightlessness in water so my doctor advised me to take up swimming. It’s a non-impact sport unlike running, so I joined it to keep myself fit. For the first six years, I swam for leisure, and then I used to swim in the club every morning just to keep fit. Initially, I used to do a kilometre every day but I realised that as I kept pushing my boundaries, one kilometre became nothing. That is the kind of proficiency you achieve after practising over a period of time.
Featured Image Courtesy: Ekta Sinha
Edited by: Karthika Venugopal