Hugh Sellars, who works at Aviva Life, describes his love of open water, and his 17-hour Channel feat
How did you get into it all?
I joined a Masters swimming club in 2007, which improved my technique, and entered the Great North Swim one-mile event at Lake Windermere in 2014.
What made you decide to swim the English Channel?
I built up distance in open-water events, swimming my first 10km and the 10.5-mile Windermere One Way swim in 2016. The last few miles of the latter felt torturous and I thought ‘never again!’. The winner had swum the Channel earlier that week, and it turned out he was a top swim coach. I got training and nutrition tips from him and did the One Way again in 2018, which went much better, and the 21-mile Windermere Two Way in 2019. After that, I decided to swim the Channel, which I did in August 2021, age 49.
What was training for it like?
I trained for six months. At first, pools were closed due to Covid, so I swam in lochs and set up a large paddling pool in the garden, swimming with a bungee tether. Each week, I swam in cold water twice and covered at least 10km. By March 2021, pools had reopened and that summer I did lake events and swam in lochs, at St Andrews and in a cold-water lido. I also trained at the gym. I used the Total Immersion method, which is efficient over long distances and prevents injury. It involves rotating side to side rather than swimming flat, and less kicking. I did my qualifying swim at Lake Ullswater in September 2020. You must complete it in Channel swim gear (small swim shorts, goggles and non-thermal cap – grease is only used to prevent chafing) and a water temperature of below 16°C.
Did you follow a strict diet?
I actually put on weight (and kept my longer lockdown hair!) for warmth, and ate lots of carbs the week of the swim. On the day, I had feeds every 40 minutes, thrown to me by the crew in bottles attached to a rope – mainly gels, bananas, cereal bars and energy drinks.
What’s the lowdown on logistics?
The route is 21 miles, from a beach near Dover to Cap-Gris Nez, south of Calais. Only the fastest swim direct – most get pushed by currents and swim further. The tide switches every six hours. My route was quite direct until I got close to France, where I was pushed north. You have to book your swim through The Channel Swimming Association or The Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation; there is a two-year waiting list. They provide the boat and the pilot takes care of shipping traffic – mine ordered a tanker to make way! Swims take place over a tidal period. Four people are booked for each period and I was in position 2; after the first had swum, I could go the next day, weather permitting.
How did you feel on the day?
I hadn’t slept the night before – I was worried the swim might be aborted for precautionary safety reasons, as the day before, a swimmer had had to be pulled out of the water. Each swim has an official observer who has the final say on this. Thankfully, I made it to the end. The first five hours were the hardest, when I was slower due to choppy water and so got cold. I got a psychological boost when France came into view, which helped me swim faster and so warm up. I did feel sleepy for the last mile or so but thankfully managed to stay awake. I set off at 6am and finished after 11pm, my time being 17 hours 14 minutes. The success rate in 2021 was 56%.
I felt remarkably okay. I was a little too subdued to feel excited, partly due to anti-sickness medicine I’d taken. I enjoyed a guilt-free midnight McDonald’s! I then had a few days off work, and a long weekend in Bournemouth – I didn’t do much swimming! My mouth was stinging from the saltwater and I had two mild jellyfish stings.
Who made up your crew?
Dave Mackay and Tommy Fitzpatrick, with whom I used to work at M&G. They did a tremendous job, not only crewing but also taking photos and videos, updating friends and helping to fundraise – we raised £5,700 for the MS Society and Marie Curie.
What’s your next big challenge?
I have my eye on the record for oldest man to swim the Channel but it is currently age 73, so I have around a quarter of a century to wait! There’s also the oldest man to do a two-way swim – age 59. Only 41 people have ever done that, though, so it must be tough!