François has succeeded in the mad challenge of swimming 25 km between Denmark and Germany: “You need to dare to take a leap into the unknown”
Belgian RTL Info, 21 August 2017
François, a 40-year old Belgian now living in Denmark, swam unaided across the Fehmarn Belt between Denmark and Germany. He is the first Belgian officially recorded to have swum this distance, an extraordinary physical and human experience which he decided to share with us.
“It’s just you alone with your Speedos, nature and the elements”, he summed it up just after swimming the Fehmarn Belt between Denmark and Germany. It was his immensely proud mother Marie-Jeanne who brought it to our attention via the orange “Alertez-nous” button on the website. A still happier mother told us that “François is the first Belgian to have done this crossing unaided and without a wetsuit”.
So what does this crossing truly represent?
The 21-km route runs from Rødby in Denmark to Puttgarden in Germany, in the western Baltic sea. The official distances is 21 km, but in fact François swam somewhere between 25 and 27 km because of factors including currents, in a time of 9 hours 55 minutes. This kind of exercise is far from risk-free, so the swimmer is accompanied by a boat responsible for feeding him (using a rod or a thrown bottle) and to keep an eye on his state of health at all times, but the rules are very strict; in particular he is forbidden to touch the boat.
So a well-supported crossing, but still something of an adventure. Swimmers reserve a solo window from Monday to Monday and then it is up to the pilot to decide when to set out. They must estimate when the swimmer has the greatest chance of success, depending on the current, the wind, shipping traffic, and so on. “You don’t know when you’ll be starting, what day, what time. And if you do start, you don’t know whether you’ll manage to finish, precisely because the weather can change, the sea conditions can change. You never know whereabouts you’ll finish. It’s not like a running race. You are always surrounded by doubt, uncertainty, which makes things a bit more exciting too, because nothing can be taken for granted”, stressed François.
Although he has enormous enthusiasm for the sport, the Belgian took up swimming quite late. So what pushes a forty-year-old man to throw himself into such a mad escapade: swimming 25 km in the open sea?
Falling in love with the sea
Arriving in Denmark in 1999 after studying translation and interpreting at Mons University in Belgium, François worked in that field for ten years. “I worked like a horse to get my business going, I ate well, drank well, lived well and then ten years later I had put on 30 kilos. I was starting to have problems with my back and my hip, and I decided it was time to get a grip on myself again.”
The Belgian then launched his sports coaching practice. With other coaches, he offers customized courses to suit his customers’ needs. He took up swimming in a pool more or less by chance in 2011. “I quite liked it, and then I went out and swam in the sea and that was a bit of a revelation. I fell in love with the sea, the fact of being in the sea. I learned to swim a kilometre, that became five, then ten and now it’s getting on for forty” he explained.
The adoptive Dane trains all year round. He lives beside the sea and goes to swim almost every day because the greatest risk he faces is hypothermia (when the body temperature falls below 35°C from the reference values of 37°). “Even in winter when the water is at two or three degrees, I go and have a swim even if it is just for a couple of hundred metres, to get my body used to the cold and to learn to manage the cold mentally.”
And the closer it gets to the big day, the more he trains, before taking a break for recovery. Every week he swims between 7 and 20 hours. Alongside that there is weight training, running and all the traditional training for any intense long-distance sport. “I have a trainer who follows me day by day. You need to find a balance to avoid overtraining or injuring yourself”, he explains. For the final months before the performance, it’s sport at 300%, no chance of having a social life, but he does point out that during the winter he has time to rest and spend time with the people he loves.
Learning to accept that it’s going to be a struggle
François had already completed swims over shorter distances and he has tried the Fehmarn Belt last year, but the weather conditions were so bad he was forced to abandon his attempt. “The waves, the wind, it was pretty dramatic in the Hollywood sense of the term. After nine hours and twenty minutes they finally pulled me out of the water because for the preceding three hours I had only swum 300 metres an hour instead of 3500 and for the last half hour I was swimming backwards into the Baltic, because the currents were so strong.”
This time, the conditions were good: there was almost no wind, the sea was calm and the water warm at 16°C. Ideal conditions except for one rather major point: arriving on the beach at Rødby at 3 am for the start, François discovered he was going to be swimming against the current. “No pilot ever sets a swimmer off against the current. It is the opposite of everything that we do. I was extremely frustrated” he recalled. Ideally, he should have started from Germany to swim with the current, but the pilot was obliged to start the team from Denmark for personal reasons. “I wanted to pack up all my stuff and go home. But, well, I had to go for it. The worst moment was accepting that I was going to have to struggle on for what would normally take me seven or eight hours but actually took ten in the end. Accepting the uncontrollable, there was nothing I could do.”
Despite this setback, François managed to concentrate on his target: “I was going against the current, it was very hard but the sea was calm. We knew that if I swam steadily, there was a decent chance that I would succeed.”
What goes through your mind when you’re swimming (almost) alone right out at sea?
“Everything and nothing”, he says. “Above all I think about my technique, always working with the water and not against it to try and optimise every arm or leg movement, my balance.” And when the sea is more or less calm? “It’s a bit like meditating, the darkness, the depth, the fact of being alone even if there is a boat close by with people who are responsible for you. There’s no electronic communication, nothing. There is nature, the elements, and me. So I think about everything, I think about nothing, I empty my head” says François.
What do you get out of this experience?
Financially… Nothing, obviously. On the contrary, setting up such an expedition costs plenty of money but as François himself acknowledges, on an emotional level it brings enormous payback. And first of all it teaches you to stay humble. “Swimming in the sea, you are constantly reliant on other people. There needs to be someone on a kayak alongside you, to look at your pupils and see if you are OK. What counts isn’t the title, isn’t the medal, but this whole process where so many people are involved and dedicating their time to you.”
There is also a personal development aspect: “I have learned lots of things about myself that I did not expect at all, my reactions, my temperament, and physically too, learning to fight against the cold, seeing how the body responds. Some things that I value and some that I like rather less.”
But above all, François stresses the openness to nature: “this universe where you are an intruder, because you are never at home in the sea” and an increasing awareness of pollution: “When you are swimming amongst ships and petrol tankers, you start to realise the problem of plastics in the water and what some people throw into the sea.”
His best moment in the water
François does not hesitate for one second. “The last 500 metres. I knew that it was over, that there were no more problems, and I saw my whole team jumping into the water. These men and women who had followed me (and not least his husband, Martin). They swam in alongside me, and I found that truly moving”, said François with a voice trembling with emotion.
The next step?
“Rest, take care of my family and my friends”. And then it will be time to think about his next objective: to swim the Channel between England and France, 35 or 37 km as the crow flies, so a good forty km of swimming. That will probably be in 2018 or 2019. “The problem with the Channel is that you often have to wait a long time to work with the best pilots”, he notes.
For all those who are tempted by adventure with a capital A, whether on the other side of the world or at the end of your street, François has this message to take in without delay: “You need to dare to follow your dream, you need to dare to throw yourself into something that might seem completely impossible, and that doesn’t have to be swimming 25 km, it could be learning to run 5 km, it’s daring to launch yourself into the unknown, daring to believe”.
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