For Berwyn swimmer, a somewhat mad open-water dream

Marathon swimmer Anthony McCarley, of Berwyn, on the day of his channel crossing, looks for a stone, a piece of France to take home with him.
Marathon swimmer Anthony McCarley, of Berwyn, on the day of his channel crossing, looks for a stone, a piece of France to take home with him. (ROGER TAYLER / courtesy of the McCarley family)
Posted: September 09, 2013

Anthony McCarley felt the need to cross the English Channel before he even learned to swim.

He doesn't know why or how the dream was born, but suddenly he was 49, living in Berwyn, and decided his chance was slipping away.

So in 2009, he began hitting the pool at the Upper Main Line YMCA. He worked himself up to 10,000 meters - six miles, three to four hours per swim. He wouldn't drink or eat because he wanted to prepare himself for the body in revolt.

He was somewhat mad, admittedly. He didn't wear a coat, hat, or gloves for three winters in a row. He shoveled snow in shorts and flip-flops. He'd fill his bathtub in Berwyn with well water, conveniently 60 degrees exactly, and sit in there working on his laptop. (He is CEO of a small software start-up in Malvern, InteHealth.)

He had learned to swim at age 13 in Pacifica, Calif., and by 18 had swum from Alcatraz across the frigid San Francisco Bay - no wetsuit, just pain. He loved open-water swimming as a young man, but life had gotten in the way.

The English Channel at its narrowest point, from Dover, England, to Cap Gris Nez, France, is 21 miles. It is considered the Mount Everest of open-water swimming. Even Diana Nyad, who just swam 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, failed in two attempts across the English Channel. The water is cold, 58 to 61 degrees in August, and churns as the Atlantic Ocean squeezes through and connects with the North Sea.

McCarley says his dream had nothing to do with fitness, and was admittedly extremely selfish. But he realized he would never be truly happy unless he tried.

McCarley has children, 22 and 20, from a previous marriage, and younger ones, 4 and 1, with a very tolerant wife, Carolyn.

She supported his marathon swimming, willingly at first, and went with him in June 2010 when he swam four miles across the Chesapeake Bay and again, weeks later, when he swam 12 miles around Key West.

But the water temperature in Key West was near 90, the air even warmer, and McCarley was totally unprepared and uneducated. He dangerously failed to drink more than two gulps of water and ate nothing on that swim, barely finished, and collapsed in his hotel bathtub, overheated and dehydrated.

His wife asked, "Should I call an ambulance?"

"I don't think so," he said.

Not the answer she was looking for.

He recovered without harm or hospitalization, but Carolyn hasn't watched him swim in open water since.

He was despondent after Key West. How would he ever swim 20 miles in cold water? He studied. He practiced. He prepared. He swam 24 miles across Tampa Bay in 2011 and the eight-mile Boston Light Swim in 60-degree water in August 2011.

In the summer of 2012, he decided he was ready.

Off he went.

Channel swimmers hire a designated boat and captain, at $4,000, who knows the tides, currents, and weather, and the skill of the swimmer, and who plots a course and optimum departure time. Rather than a straight line, the path of a channel swimmer looks more like a sine curve - oscillating back and forth - due to shifting tides.

A swimmer follows or swims beside the boat, which carries the captain and crew, an official Channel Swim observer, and the swimmer's pit crew to throw him water bottles and packets of Gu - which is exactly what it sounds like, intense energy gel.

A swimmer may stop to eat and drink but is not allowed to touch anyone or any boat. On Sept. 13, McCarley was set to leave at 3:50 a.m., but that evening, his captain told him the boat was broken. He couldn't leave until 5 the next afternoon. So instead of swimming from darkness into dawn, he swam through the sunset into the pitch of night.

McCarley had trouble judging the lights of the boat in the choppy water. He zigzagged a great deal, a sign of hypothermia, which alarmed his friends on the boat. McCarley had no idea they were alarmed. Halfway, he was feeling great, so he picked up his pace. This further worried his friends because speeding up is a second sign of hypothermia: You want the swim to be over, so you go faster.

McCarley was feeling intense pain in his torso, in part, he realized later, because he'd lost 10 pounds since Dover. Still, he knew he could do it.

But he zigzagged again, and that was that.

After 11 hours, at 4:20 a.m., in darkness, the captain ordered him out of the water. He was 800 yards from France, but nobody told him. A channel swimmer had drowned three weeks before in nearly the same spot.

McCarley felt he was fine. But for his support crew, he had foolishly invited three friends who had never seen him swim, who were unfamiliar with open-water swimming. The captain thought these friends knew McCarley, coached McCarley, and if they wanted him out so badly, they must have known he was struggling. One ironclad rule of channel swimming: If the captain orders you into the boat, you obey.

When McCarley found out how close he was to France, 800 yards, he felt despair as never before. He went back to England, showered, and hit the pubs by 9 a.m. to drown his sorrows.

He didn't weep, but his mother did, back in California, following on the Internet.

For the next month, he didn't sleep.

What he felt was worse than failure. It was frustration. He knew he could do it. He decided: He would go back.

The worst part: "I was going to have to go through another winter without a coat."

Two weeks ago, Aug. 14, he was back. Same captain, same crew, but everyone this time knew better, knew what he was capable of.

The boat left Dover harbor at 3:30 a.m. and motored over to the famous Dover cliffs. McCarley needed to leap off the boat, swim 100 yards to shore, walk onto the beach, turn back to the sea, and then officially start his crossing.

As he stood on the rail of the boat, in his Speedo, in darkness, the water 58 degrees, everyone else wearing coats, hats, and gloves, he paused. He nearly cracked. Did he really want this? Really? He knew he was in for such pain.

He jumped in.

He drank every half hour and ate Gu, shoving the empty foil into his Speedo.

The water was roiling. He was tossed and beaten. During the entire first half of the swim, in his mind, he was having a conversation with himself.

What are you doing? Stop!

He would reply: What part of this did you think would be easy? Shut up and swim.

Over and over, stroke after stroke.

Stop!

Swim!

Out in the middle, the waters calmed down. But as they did, the jellyfish rose up. McCarley swam face first into poison tentacles. He screamed and spun like a top in the water, writhing in pain. But rather than break him, the misery set him free.

At that point, he knew nothing would stop him.

He was a little slower than expected, and the changing tides started working against him, carrying him past Cap Gris Nez, the closest point, adding hours to his swim. He could see the shore but couldn't seem to reach it. Even when the crew dropped the dinghy into the water, meaning he had only a few hundred yards to go (a crew member in the dinghy would accompany him to shore), he battled, and the water beat him back.

Only in the last 200 yards did waves finally begin to carry him in. He put his feet down, hoping to hit sand. No bottom. Not yet. He swam some more.

A swimmer cannot be touched by anyone until he is completely clear of water and on the beach. But as McCarley emerged from the sea, a swarm of people, who understood what was happening, rushed to embrace him. How could he get the last 10 yards safely on the beach before they reached him?

The pilot of the dinghy, waiting for him now on the beach, yelled, "Go that way!" and blocked for McCarley as he cut left and ran to safety.

The ship's horn sounded, signaling his crossing was complete, just as the French smothered him with affection.

He'd done it. He fell to his knees, too tired to bend over, and scoured the sand for a stone, a piece of France to take home with him. This is a rite literally of passage.

He was in France for five minutes.

The crewman rolled him into the dinghy and motored back to the boat for the two-hour ride back to England.

Normally a youthful-looking 54, McCarley's face was swollen and withered - from the jellyfish, from 13 hours and 29 minutes in saltwater, from exhaustion. His niece was in the boat. She looked at him in horror and said, "You look 85 years old!" And he did.

He is still processing what it all means.

This he knows: "My definition of what's impossible now has changed." And this: "You are never too old."

 He becomes the second Pennsylvanian, the 32d oldest, and among 1,801 overall who have officially swum the English Channel.

And he's not done yet.

He signed up months ago to join 22 others in the first-ever swim Sept. 14 around the island of Cape May, organized by Jason Malick of Wilmington.

"To have a 15-mile swim right here is a pretty cool thing," McCarley said. But to do it so soon after his channel swim - "Who knows what I was thinking!"


Contact Michael Vitez at mvitez@phillynews.com or 215-854-5639, or follow

on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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