The motivation behind Jack’s English Channel Swim
In September 2021, Jack Symonds successfully swam across the English Channel in an incredible fundraising effort for Butterfly and Black Dog Institute.
At the time of writing, he has raised over $275,000, which will directly support those living with eating disorders and depression. Here at Butterfly, we are honoured and in awe of Jack’s dedication to improving the treatment and research of mental illness in Australia. Jack’s tenacious spirit and ‘never give up’ attitude is a testament to anyone currently recovering from mental illness; the sun will always come up, we just have to take things day by day.
A big Butterfly thank you to Jack and everyone involved in this successful fundraiser.
Jack’s experience swimming from England to France
In all honesty the conditions yesterday were not at all what I had expected or planned for. The weather had been un-swimmable for nearly four weeks so we were very keen to take any chance we could get. When I was told that we would be starting the swim at 9.30pm I was surprised and quite nervous but I just said okay and did my final preparations. I checked the forecast in the morning and could see that the winds from earlier in day were shifting later so I knew that it was likely that there was going to be some big swell. I also knew that we were swimming on a king tide which people normally don’t do, so we would be dragged quite aggressively up the channel and then back down.
As we got on the boat I had my pre-swim meal, and took some anti-nausea medication and some anti-inflammatories for my shoulder. It was the first day of the lunar cycle, so there was no moon at all and it was pitch black. My coach Nils gave me a debrief and then went to prepare the materials for the feeds. I sat on the side of the boat as we drove around to the beach where the swim starts, Samphire Hoe.
At that point Peter Reed Jr, one of the two pilots, grabbed my arm and said ‘Look, it’s very dark tonight. If we do lose you out there, we’ll stay put and you will need to try to find us – there’s no use in us driving around to look for you when we might be going completely the wrong way’. To that I just said ‘Okay, that’s fine’, and wondered if the king tide would take me towards Norway faster than I could find my way back to them.
We arrived at Samphire Hoe and I jumped in and swam to the beach. I got out of the water, raised my arm to start the clock and started swimming. My first reaction was that it was extremely dark and the swell was aggressive. It was cold but not too cold.
The boat looked enormous from water level, and it would rear up into the air like a horse and come crashing down onto the waves. I swallowed a lot of water in that early period but physically I was feeling good so I just tried to stay calm and keep my pace up. The first few feeds went well but I knew the swell was slowing us down more than we would want.
The Channel is organised like a freeway. On either side you have your ‘hard shoulders’ or rest areas which are the English inshore water and French inshore water. As you leave English inshore water you enter the South West shipping lane (where all the tankers and containerships move in a south westerly direction). In the middle there is the Separation Zone, which is like a median strip. And then you enter the North East Shipping lane, and finally French inshore water. It’s the busiest shipping lane in the world.
After about three hours we left English inshore water and entered the South West shipping lane. It was tough swimming and at the four hour mark my neck and upper back started to tighten up and hurt. We pushed on for another few hours with Nils giving me clear instructions at each feed. We had to feed quickly to avoid being taken by the tide, and I was aiming for about 10 seconds per feed.
At around the six hour mark I had lost count of how many feeds we had done and I couldn’t get my memory to work properly. I knew that I had been going for a long time but I also knew that we weren’t in the Separation Zone yet, which made it hard to stay positive. I was getting cold and struggling to get into a rhythm.
I kept telling myself that eventually the sun will come up. I kept saying the sun will come up because it always does over and over again in my head and that kept me going.
I knew that when I could start to see again and feel the warmth of the sun things would improve and I would get a boost. We went through the separation zone and into the North East shipping lane, grinding it out for another two and half hours in the dark. Finally, after about eight and a half hours of continuous swimming I looked to my left and saw a small piece of orange on the horizon. Sure enough the sun was coming up and I can honestly say that in 26 years I have never been so happy to see it.
With the sun coming up and the swell calming I could feel the energy of my support crew improving. I got a real boost. But just as I was getting into some sort of rhythm I got stung by a long jelly fish across my chest and on both my arms. It was quite painful but psychologically it was a bigger blow. I felt a tightening in my throat and I thought I was having an allergic reaction to the sting.
I’ve never been stung by a jelly fish before and my mind was let loose with all sorts of negative thoughts. I didn’t say anything to my team because I thought they might pull me out, I just focused on my breathing and decided to wait and see. After about half an hour I realised that I was okay, and that the tightening in my throat was just from my tongue swelling up from all the salt water – I was still in it.
France is in sight
We entered French inshore waters after 11 hours, and I was really exhausted. I’ve been having issues with my left shoulder since my first training session two years ago. I had an MRI a few weeks ago so I knew there was fluid in the joint and that it was inflamed. The anti inflammatories had worn off and I was having quite severe shooting pains down my left arm and into my hand. I knew I wasn’t generating enough power on that side to swim fast and I was worried that the tide would turn again and that I would be taken back out to sea. We got to within 1500m of land before the tide turned.
Then we started moving quickly north away from France, and at that point I honestly thought it was all over. I saw Nils on the phone and I thought it was Tim, my other coach, telling him to pull me out. In my head I was preparing my response to them. I was going to refuse to get in the boat and say that I would rather wait until the tide turns again in six hours. I knew we had enough feeds because I brought most of them. I was in a big panic but I couldn’t formulate any sentences during my 10 second feeds. At the 13 hour mark Nils said I had to give it absolutely everything because we were being taken by the tide.
To swim fast I knew I would have to swim as if my shoulder was fine and ignore the pain. I started doing full strokes with a proper ‘catch’ in the water and I was making some forward progress. At that point I was gradually overcome by emotion. For whatever reason I started to think about my own journey with mental health and some of the experiences I have had. The kind of memories that stick in your mind for all the wrong reasons. I kept pushing and when I saw Peter Reed Jr preparing the dinghy that goes into shore I just said to myself ‘I do not believe it’. I thought for sure it wasn’t going to happen.
13 hours and 35 minutes
After a final push I saw some pebbles underneath me and then I was able to touch the ground. I crawled up the beach, stood up and raised my arm to stop the clock before falling back down to the ground. 13 hours and 35 minutes. Channel swimmer number to be confirmed by Channel Swimming Association – somewhere around the 1800th person since the first crossing in 1875.
The whole social media side of the swim happened more or less by accident. A few days before the event I thought Tom wasn’t going to be able to come and I had decided that if he wasn’t there I would probably just leave it or maybe ask mum to post the odd thing. The fact that Tom and Christian were able to come, and that the swim happened at a time of day where friends from Sydney and London could follow along was just good fortune.
I didn’t know anything was being filmed or posted when I was out there. By chance my swim also ended at the very beginning of Jewish New Year, a time which symbolises journeys ending and others beginning. The 6th of September 2021. Also the 31st anniversary of the death of my grandfather Meyer who I always felt a strong connection to as a boy. Sometimes things just align I suppose.
Looking back on the last few years I feel mostly gratitude. At the end of 2019 I went to Byron on my own for nine days for a ‘think week’ with no phone or laptop. I rented a small cabin in a national park to read books and spend time in nature. It was during that period that I decided that I wanted to have more purpose in my life, to focus fully on something, and to make a positive difference in some small way.
I decided then to take up swimming and that I would try and swim the English Channel. Something about the symbolism of it appealed to me, and I knew that it would give me time to reflect on my own journey and an opportunity to lean in to things which I had been avoiding. I can promise you that those first few laps in Byron Bay pool were not Channel-swimming quality. From there the hardest step was reaching out to my coach Tim, because I knew that once I did that it would become ‘real’. I delayed for a few months but eventually I sent him an email. He called me, and with a healthy dose of a scepticism concerning my complete absence of swimming history he said he would ‘make a decision’ once I came down to training. That first proper step really was the hardest one, as I think it often is.
For the first year I trained alone and didn’t tell anyone about the swim aside from Tim and my nutritionists. It was personal and in all honesty I wanted to keep the whole thing very small even including the swim itself. I told mum about it on new year’s day of this year, by chance also in Byron one year later.
I told some more family and friends and at first it was a difficult transition from being something that I did alone to having people asking questions and wanting to talk about it. Swimming had become a way for me to focus fully on perfecting something from first principles, and a time for me to be on my own – it was quite calming. Once I had told a few people it was strange to suddenly be discussing it. The fact that this mailing list now has over 400 people on it is beyond comprehension to me when thinking back to those first laps in Byron Bay pool.
My original fundraising target was $10,000. Evan from the Black Dog Institute and Libby from the Butterfly Foundation were amazing. ‘Make sure your target is achievable’ they would say. I started with $10,000 and worried that it would be embarrassing if it flopped. It started to gained momentum and we put in a lot of hard work.
Dad and I would have weekly zoom calls to talk about what we should do or who might be willing to donate. He helped tremendously, and so did many others. It became a team effort. Countless people reached out to me to share their own experiences with mental ill-health, and the generosity was truly amazing. The target kept getting moved and the money kept coming in. At $200,000 we decided to stop updating the target. $269,352 raised at last count.
With this money the Black Dog Institute will continue its leading research and care for depression and anxiety, particularly in young people. The Butterfly Foundation will continue to destigmatise, understand, and treat eating disorders – including through their development of a new in-patient facility in Queensland, the first of its kind in Australia.
I guess all that’s left is to say thank you for what has been a totally unexpected journey. I’m looking forward to a long rest and to going offline for an extended period – maybe take a think week. To anyone struggling with their mental health I hope that maybe this swim plays a small role in normalising what you are going through.
From my own experiences the best thing I can share with you is what came to me in the dark during the swim. The sun will come up because it always does. Eventually you will reach the other side and things will get better.
Lots of love everyone,