Victory comes in many ways. That’s the beauty of it and my crossing of the Fehmarn Belt between Denmark and Germany (so-called Beltquerung) was no exception.
After 10 days of waiting for the weather to change, constantly losing and regaining my faith, I finally got the go-ahead from my pilot, but we knew my window was very short. While we expected a few sunny hours at the beginning, the winds were still strong and the forecasts weren’t very promising for the rest of the day.
We left Elsinore at 3:45 am Danish time (i.e. 3:30 Belgian time 😂) and drove all the way to Rødby to meet the official boat crew. My captain Dieter Lorenzen and his wife Ursula had sailed most of the night to have the escort boat ready in Rødby harbour by 5:30 am. We quickly loaded the boat and got everything ready for departure. Dieter started his way out of the harbour with Dennis, Martin, Camilla, Uffe and Britta on board, while Ursula took Alette, Merete and me to the starting point on the beach. Alette was made my personal greaser for the day and I can give her my warmest recommendations, should she choose to make a career out of it one day! 😀
I set off from the beach in Rødby at around 6.30 am. The sun was rising, the skies were blue and the water temperature was slightly under 16 °C. Except for the hordes of jellyfish, everything seemed perfect. It was the most beautiful start. But the wind was there to remind me it wouldn’t be an easy ride. However high or aggressive, waves normally don’t bother me at all – as long as they don’t come from the right-back side. And guess what – that’s exactly the direction they came from that day. Lucky me… 😳😱 Managing the cold and the jellyfish in my head was one thing. Tackling those bloody waves at the same time was another. I quickly lost my temper, my team got nervous (nobody wants to mess with Belgians when they’re pissed!), but my trainer’s words came back to me – things only get as bad as you let them! Embrace the conditions, don’t fight the water and find your flow. Work your technique, ride the waves and keep moving. And that’s exactly what I did for 9 hours and 20 minutes. This crisis is the only one I had during the whole swim. I was mentally in control.
For a couple of hours, the sun kept warming my back and I felt in perfect harmony. My team made sure to pass on encouraging messages to me through our whiteboard. My Facebook page was overflowing with support updates from Denmark to England, through Belgium and Kenya. Some were very touching, others pretty funny, and I loved every single one of them (after some time alone in the water, anyone would kill for some entertainment). Dennis had been made responsible for monitoring me and my position all the way, helping the captain to keep me on course and at a safe distance from the boat. The rest of my team worked their ass off to feed me on time, ask me control questions to ensure I was not hypothermic and make sure everything else went off without a hitch on board with the captain. What I didn’t realize was the waves were so bad that my team was seasick. It was nearly impossible for them to cook my tea and my soup, so they had to improvise and practically confiscated the captain’s hot water in order to prepare my hot meals.
Nevertheless, I was doing perfectly fine in the water. I was already halfway after barely four hours and everyone was confident I would make it all the way to the German coast within eight hours as expected. But then the weather broke. The sun disappeared, it started to rain and the wind went bananas, with waves reaching up to 2 m. One of my feeders got a rib sprain as he fell, while another one grew severely anxious of tipping over – although she’d be proud to tell you she was born and raised on a boat. The boat was rolling so much I could see my team’s feet on the deck. At one point, I felt like the mast was going to knock me down in the water. Ironically, the boat was called “Rocher” in German, which spells like “Rock” in French, and I felt that very rock was about to crash on me anytime. (You know me – I’ve always loved a bit of drama…)
Anyway, that’s where I realized things were bad. My team had stopped writing the distance I had already swum on the whiteboard. They kept avoiding my questions as to how far I was while I was feeding. But instincts can’t be fooled. I finally stopped and urged them to debrief me on my progress. By that time, I had been stuck by the tide for almost three hours. I was now moving with 200 m an hour. The situation was hopeless. My team and the captain had no choice but to pull me out of the water. I could choose to keep fighting the waters pushing me back into the straight, but it would take me at least another six hours. It was not worth it. I would only get more and more tired, colder and colder, and we hadn’t packed supplies for 16 hours or more. The swim was not supposed to take more than 8-10 hours. Not every fight is worth fighting. Safety first. Their decision made sense to me. It was time for me to abort my swim.
I was anything but devastated. My team had done such an amazing job on the boat. There was not one single moment where I didn’t feel safe or taken good care of. I had been in waters around 15,5-16 °C for more than 9 hours. Geographically I had reached 17 km out of 21,5 km – physically I had swum way past 20. And I had done it all in speedos only. Those were reasons enough for me to be fully satisfied and happy.
I may have missed the ultimate goal, but that day was the culmination of two and a half years of preparations and sacrifices. My crazy project has taken a huge toll on my finances and – above all – on my family and social life. The lots of hours I have been training are lots of hours I haven’t spent together with Martin, my mother and Nicolas. A sacrifice I was reminded of by the sudden death of my dog. A few days before I was to leave for Germany to wait for the go-ahead, my dog had a stroke and we had to let him go. 15 years of companionship were suddenly put to an end, leaving me with a feeling of having failed everyone around me. “After this swim we’ll have time to do our long walks in the woods again”, I kept telling him and myself. But life bypassed me and there won’t be any more long walks in the woods. Rufus’ death reminded me of my dearest ones’ own mortality. In this life, our time is only borrowed and I was made aware of the emotional cost of my project. Postposing family moments, challenging myself and pushing off my own limits, it all has come with a price, but it’s also changed me for the better. I have discovered new sides of myself. I have put skeletons of my past to rest. I have done things I’d never dreamt I could. I have grown so close to the most loving and dedicated team members ever. It’s been an amazing journey – both physically, mentally and emotionally. And that’s my victory!
I want to thank Dieter, Ursula and Nadine Lorenzen as the official boat crew. They were extremely kind and service-minded. They were very professional and did their best for me to succeed. Likewise, I can’t thank my team enough for all they have done for me through the last two years. There are no words to express my gratitude. And most of all, I want to thank Martin for the most precious thing of all – his unconditional love. I’m the luckiest bastard in the world! ❤
At this point, not reaching the German coast looks like a simple, minor detail. This straight of water is not going anywhere soon. I will be back and I will nail the Fehmarn Belt. Watch me coming! 😀
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Godt Svømmet Francois!
Folk der ikke har prøvet det, ved ikke hvilke kræfter der er i tidevandet.
Jeg svømmede selv 26km/8:57H 4 oktober 2015 i den Engelske kanal og blev fanget i tidevandet på den franske side. Folk har tvivlet, og der er kommet kommentarer om at “du nok bare var træt”, “er det ikke bare en dårlig undskyldning for at komme op i båden”, “hvorfor svømmede du ikke bare igennem”……. og bla bl bla
Derfor har jeg brugt din historie, så de kan se at tidevandet ikke er sådan at bide skeer med.
Og alt andet lige, så er du i bedre form end mig – ja jeg svømmer i våddragt – men når du “kun” har svømmet 17,5km/9h – så har der været kraftig tidevand!!! Men fedt du er klar til en ny tur – jeg kan kun følge dig.
Se nu bare at få booket den båd til den engelske kanal istedet 🙂
Omvendt – kan du altid tage det som en provokation(virker altid på mænd) – at du har svømmet langsommere end en handicappet i kørestol….
See you in Dover!
Hahaha! Din røv! 😀 Det er mig en ære, at du var hurtigere end mig! Jeg smadrer dig bare næste gang! 😀
Ja, du har fuldstændig ret. Tidevandet er noget helt særligt. Hamrende frustrerende, men også fascinerende. Man er screwed med screwed på, når først tidevandet begynder at drille. Jeg er i den grad selv blevet klogere. Lille moi mod de kæmpe vandmasser – det er for vildt.
Jeg booker først båden til Kanalen, når du har været hele vejen over. :-p I mellemtiden prøver jeg at finde sponsorer eller spare op selv. Du får ikke lov til at have Kanalen for dig selv meget længe! 😀