Local artist Katie Pumphrey just swam the English Channel – again

You swam from England to France in 13 hours and 44 minutes. What are the rules for swimming in the English Channel?
The rules are actually simple. You have to start beyond the water and end beyond the water. You can’t touch anything, like the boat or anyone else while swimming. You can only wear a standard swimsuit (no wetsuit), cap and goggles. So no neoprene to warm up, no resting on the boat, no snagging or anything. Your crew is allowed to throw water and food at you, what we call “food”. I take a diet of water with protein powder, plus a Gu gel every 30 minutes. A rope is attached to the water bottle, so that the crew brings it back and there is no waste left in the water. I swim freestyle (crawl) all the time. When I “stop” for a feed, I eat and drink while walking or kicking my back. We joke that I eat like a sea otter, but that’s actually very accurate.

During the last two hours of swimming, the wind picked up insanely. I felt like I was in a washing machine, or more precisely, like I was inside a snow globe being shaken by a small child.

What do you think about while swimming?
Honestly, not much. I really try to keep my mind off distance or time, and try not to think about getting warmer or sleeping. But it creeps in there, of course, along with the idea that I’m uncomfortable. Pain and discomfort are part of these swims. There’s no way around it, but it’s best to try not to focus on it. Often I just think at my own pace. Often, I repeatedly count to four. My goal is to get my arms to roll over with the count, which can help keep my pace faster. I focus on the rhythm of my breathing. I breathe every punch to my left. I remain very aware of my surroundings, but I just try to clear my mind, which helps. I spent time thinking about new paintings. And when my mind wanders, I always replay the movie Jaws in my head during a swim, it’s unavoidable and a lot of fun. But for the most part, I kept my thoughts very empty.

The timing of the flows helps though. I eat a meal every 30 minutes, then during those 30 minutes I swim “at pace”, i.e. my forever and comfortable pace, for 25 minutes. And then my crew gives me a cue—a spinning light stick at night or a “Go” sign in daylight—to “sprint” or pick up the pace for five minutes. My favorite “Go” sign reads: “Go Fast for Five Min and Then We’ll Give You a Treat.” And then at the end of the five minutes, I get a “Stop” sign and look up for the stream. This timing structure helps break up the swim. While this was a 13+ hour swim, I aim to think of it as 30 minutes at a time.

You said it was a “difficult swim”. What does this mean for you exactly?
It was a wild swim – big swell, choppy waves and the wind really picked up towards the end making the waves even wilder. I described the beginning of swimming, the dark hours of the night, like riding in a blindfolded bumper car. The waves kept hitting me and knocking me over and it felt like they were coming from all directions. Swimming at night is always a wild ride, especially when it’s so dark and there’s no horizon line. Sometimes a wave hits you and it’s confusing between what’s going on and what’s going on, but my crew helped a lot. They carried glow sticks, which gave me points of light to search for. When the sun came up – one of the most beautiful sunrises – things calmed down a bit. And then in the last two hours of swimming, especially when you saw that the French coast was so close, the wind picked up insanely. It was windy on the tide, which makes white swells everywhere and nasty water. I felt like I was in a washing machine, or more precisely, like I was inside a snow globe being shaken by a small child. While I’m swimming, I’m always trying to find ways to describe what the water is like, so some of these descriptions made me laugh while I was swimming.

Of course, I also like soft conditions and flat water, but it’s oddly fun to fight. La Manche is truly a beast. Something about this body of water keeps bringing me back to it. Even now, speaking of the hard parts, I’m excited to come back to it in a few years. I think this is a swim that I will visit many times in my life.

Do you encounter marine animals while swimming?
Dozens and dozens of jellyfish. Mainly Lions Mane jellyfish, which are particularly hairy and have a pretty nasty sting. A few of the bites even continued to burn periodically for days afterwards. And even now I still have some marks from their tentacles. Some of the stings look like a rubber band snapping. When they got me, let’s just say, there was a lot of swearing. But really, you can’t do anything against them, so might as well consider them friends who are just trying to make me swim faster. They woke me up several times, especially at night when I was a bit sleepy. I didn’t see them coming at all, so it was always a surprise. Didn’t see or hear any other sea life, but I’m sure they saw me.

Walking, really hobbling, on the beach in France and watching my crew on the boat cheering – I just have no words to describe the feeling.

How did you feel right after? How do you feel now?
Tiredness. Happy. All the feelings. Right after, I felt so excited. Walking, really hobbling, on the beach in France and watching my crew on the boat cheering – I just have no words to describe the feeling. I lay on the warm sandy beach and just watched the bluest sky with seagulls flying overhead. It was like the greatest feeling of relief and joy. I made a few sand angels to celebrate, before grabbing four small rocks from the French coast to hold on to.

Doing this swim for the second time is so amazing. So much work has gone into training and planning. There were so many hours spent in the pool and I really went all out every step of the way. I’m so happy with how I trained and prepared for this race. So now I think I feel extremely proud and extremely lucky to have so many wonderful people in my corner cheering me on.

How does your swimming influence your art?
I’ve been really diving into hookups lately, but the simplest answer is I wouldn’t be me without swimming. So swimming is still in my work. Recently, I have drawn shapes and images directly from swimming, but also from much of the repetitiveness of the act itself. I think my work has also become a bit more playful – I really enjoyed exploring how swimming and the darkness of water can cause your imagination to play tricks on you. So, I brought pictures of sharks, fish, and even alligators. It was very fun. Over the past few months I have completed a group of paintings called the 100 paintings project. The 100 paintings measure 10×10 inches and are available for purchase. Sales from this project have helped fund my Channel swim and are now helping to fund a new body of work in response to and relating to my training and big swimming. Many have sold out, but there are still several paintings available.