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A swim over troubled waters

March 3, 2011
by Melinda Swenson

On July 20 at 5:08 a.m., Joe Bakel (M.B.A. '97) stood barefoot on the rocks of Shakespeare Beach in Dover, England. Lathered with zinc oxide and Vaseline, wearing a bathing suit, cap, and goggles, he was about to attempt an official English Channel swim in 59 degree F water.

Joe Bakel's long swim

(7 images)

Joe Bakel at right; training partner Eliz Albritton (middle); and Albritton's sister, Vivian Cox, with some special training gear.

Joe Bakel and Eliz Albritton at the Dover Beach.

Joe Bakel during a warm-up swim.

Sunrise at Dover.

Joe Bakel with training partner Eliz Albritton.

Joe Bakel and Eliz Albritton at the White Horse Inn in Dover. Their crossing is noted on the wall of fame.

Joe Bakel and Eliz Albritton test the waters during a training swim before the crossing.

The countdown

Behind him rose the White Cliffs of Dover, over which British and German aircraft fought the Battle of Britain. Ahead of him was his objective, the shoreline of Cap Gris Nez, France – 21 miles away.

As Bakel waited for the official countdown to start his swim, he knew he was standing in the footsteps of thousands of swimmers who’d attempted the feat. He hoped to join the very small club of those who had succeeded.

Iron-spirited swimmers

In 1875, a 27-year-old steamship captain named Matthew Webb made the first Channel swim without assistance. He made it to Calais in 21 hours, 45 minutes, bolstered by an occasional sip of warm brandy. In the 135 years since Webb made his crossing, only about 1,100 solo swimmers have managed to endure the cold salt water, darkness, jellyfish, strong currents, wind, and waves to complete the swim.

To put it in perspective, the Ironman – a grueling triathlon – has a 95 percent success rate. The success rate for Channel swimmers is 60 to 70 percent.

Bakel, a three-time Ironman competitor, says the Channel swim is particularly difficult because of the unknowns. “Even if you’ve trained for swimming the distance and conditioned yourself for cold water,” he says, “you can’t replicate what the Channel has in store for you. You don’t know how long you’ll be in the water. If you become hypothermic, you have only a few moments to respond before your mind becomes confused or you simply fall asleep.”

Race against time, tide, and cold

Swimmers, who cannot wear wetsuits and never touch escort boats, are in a grueling race against time and tide. “The key is to get away from England before the tide pushes you northwest,” Bakel says. “If you manage to hold to a certain trajectory, the tide will carry you by Cap Gris Nez. If you overshoot your mark, it adds six miles to the swim.”

Bakel and his training partner, Eliz Albritton, spent years building resilience to cold water by swimming in Lake Loveland in late winter and early spring, then training at Chambers Lake near Cameron Pass. The water was as cold as 46 F, on par with what Navy Seal recruits experience during cold-water endurance training.

“Cold-water training builds brown fat – subcutaneous fat that supplies energy to stay warm,” Bakel says. “Successful Channel swimmers have a genetic makeup that blesses them with bodies that adapt to cold water.”

Long, strange trip

Back on Shakespeare Beach, the observer for Bakel’s swim, who happened to be Kevin Murphy, the “King of the Channel” with a record 34 crossings, has finished his countdown. Bakel enters the water and begins a steady rhythm of 60 strokes per minute. He’s grateful that conditions are optimal.

“My first challenge began at the five-hour mark,” Bakel says. “Shortly after eating, I did my first projectile vomiting.”

Other tests are in store. “At about 8 or 9 hours, every swimmer fights demons,” Bakel says. “Your body has burned through its supply of glycogen. It’s almost like you can hear a voice screaming at you to get out of the water.

“At the 10½ hour mark, my legs cramped and I was momentarily swimming in a semi-fetal position,” he says. “I fought it, but I was struggling. About an hour later, I approached the boat and asked to get out. Kevin came to the side of the boat and matter-of-factly said, ‘If you’re going to make it to France, you’re going to have to pick up your pace.’

“That was all I needed. I thought, ‘If I’m going to make it, I’ve got to put one arm in front of the other and keep going.’ I put my head down and picked it back up to about 52 strokes per minute.”

Rocky ending

Fifteen hours and 8 minutes after beginning his swim, Bakel felt the fist-sized rocks of France’s shoreline under his hands and feet. He had covered more than 33 miles. “I tried lifting my hands in a Rocky-style victory stance, but it was a weak try at best,” he says.

“I recovered enough in the two-hour trip back to stand up and look at the lights shining on Dover Castle in the night air. It was a magnificent view. I’ll never forget it.”

Bakel feels it’s strength of mind over body that’s more important in completing the swim. “When you’re training and you’re standing in blowing snow at the edge of a lake at 5 a.m., it takes determination to swim for two hours when what you really want to do is go somewhere and order a double-stack of pancakes.

“When I was in the Channel, the support of the pilot, crew, and my family and friends back home kept me going. My wife was tweeting 40 or 50 people who were following my progress.”

A life well lived

“I guess you could say I ‘grew’ the mental stamina for the swim through my childhood experiences, educational path, and business endeavors,” says Bakel, who is part owner of Dynamic Group Circuit Design, an engineering firm in Fort Collins that designs printed circuit boards.

Tenacity also helped him finish his degree at CSU. “It took me six years to complete my M.B.A. I remember bottle-feeding my baby son while watching distance-degree videos at home.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of Colorado State Magazine.