Sarah Philpott aims to become the first English female to conquer the original British Triple Crown of open water swimming in the coming days.
Philpott, from Dover, recently swam the Bristol Channel, having already completed the English Channel swim in 2020, but the biggest challenge awaits. The North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland is the third of three Triple Crown swims and she has been warned about what lies in wait.
It’s not just the distance and the chilling temperatures that challenge swimmers taking on the North Channel route but the jellyfish. With masses of creatures in the waters, including the notorious Lion’s Main jellyfish, one of the largest species in the world, many have failed because of them.
Speaking ahead of her challenge, Philpott, who is in her mid-40s, said: “Up until last month only four people had ever completed the triple crown, all four were men and I wanted to be the first woman but in the last two weeks two other women have just completed it.”
Sian Clement, from Wales, was the first, swimming the North Channel on July 10 in 12hrs 45mins. Last week an Irish female swimmer completed the Triple Crown but as yet no English woman has done it.
The Triple Crown was first completed in 1971 by Dover’s own “King of the English Channel” Kevin Murphy.
“The North Channel is incredibly hard,” said former GB triathlete Philpott.
“There is something called Oceans Seven, consisting of the seven hardest open water channel swims in the world. The English Channel is one of them but of the seven, only 21 people have ever done it. I have met a handful of them and when asked of the seven which is the hardest and they all say the North Channel.
“You could argue that it is considered the hardest channel swim in the world and there are two reasons, one is extreme cold and two it is full of jellyfish, like jellyfish soup. The chances of getting hypothermia and anaphylactic shock what make the swim so difficult.
“Why am I doing it? Living in Dover is a bit like living at the foot of Everest. Why would I not want to try and swim to France if I am a good swimmer? Since the age of 19 I promised myself that when I get my middle aged spread – and you do need a bit of meat on your bones – I would give it a crack.
“The year of the Coronavirus I said goodbye to my 40th birthday, I needed to crack on and do it.
“I am on the beach all the time, you meet lots of other channel swimmers and it is not so unusual, but it is still unusual, three times more people have climbed Everest than have swam the English Channel.”
Once the 21-mile Dover to France route was conquered she then took on the Bristol Channel. In June she swam from Glenthorne Bay in Devon to Porthcawl in Wales, a 12hr 21min swim that went to plan, aside from a badly stubbed toe on her exit.
The sport is not cheap and Philpott – a masters swimmer at the Dover Life Guard Club – is lucky to have been financially supported in her latest pursuit. An escort boat with a pilot can cost up to £4,000.
For the North Channel leg she has been sponsored by the Atlantic Avengers, a trust set up by Folkestone adventurers Ricky Reina – an ex professional footballer – and John Wilson, who rowed across the Atlantic and are now supporting other endurance athletes.
“They have very kindly supported this swim because they want to see me get the Triple Crown,” said a grateful Philpott. “If I end up being the first or third English female I will be happy but I have no idea how I will react to the jellyfish. I will get stung 100%.”
She has been on a course of strong antihistamines for a month to help. It is against the rules of the sport to swim with a wet suit, only a regular costume is allowed, so the best that she can do to protect herself is the grease that she puts on her body.
Her support crew do have whistles onboard their boat to warn of jellyfish blooms but the big ones have tentacles that have been recorded to be as long as 120ft.
“It will be like wading into a field of nettles,” she said.
Most swimmers don’t make it past the six-hour mark because they have been stung so badly and it’s a lottery as to how much you get stung.
The six hour mark is also around the same time that the body has transitioned from its glycogen stores to fat stores. It’s at this point the tiredness will really kick in.
“That is a horrible transition, you just want to stop,” she said. “You feel so tired, you feel like you can’t go on.
“Once you are through it after an hour to an hour and a half, and the body is then fully taking its energy source from your fat it is okay again, but the switch is a real low point.”
She has put on a stone in weight to combat against the cold and completed plenty of cold water training. Warm drinks throughout the journey will also help.
Once in Northern Ireland she will then be waiting on a call. The swim window is between August 6-10 and it will be down to the pilot to decide when the time is right to start the challenge.
While the Triple Crown is a personal challenge, the Dover swimmer hopes her achievements can raise publicity about the environment.
Last year she swam 41 miles around the Channel Island of Jersey to raise £5,000 for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.
In November she swam the length of the White Cliffs to raise awareness of environmental issues including sewage pollution.
“I do swim with sustainability in mind,” she said. “I encourage people to reduce the stuff they buy. Reuse, recycle, repurpose.
“The climate swim coincided with COP 26 (The UN Climate Change Conference) and I got lots of people to make a pledge to make a change to use less resources and help reverse climate change.
“People say I am crazy and ask why I do it, it is a personal challenge for myself but I am passionate about the environment.”
Once she’s conquered the North Channel and the jellyfish, there are plenty more challenges ahead.
She said: “I want to go on and complete Ocean Seven and that has never been done by a British female yet. The English and the North are two of them, the others come with great white sharks although my international friends say don’t worry about the sharks!”