Last Friday night, after 12 hours in the water, and just 1,000 yards from her destination on a French beach, Karen Zemlin’s English Channel swim was over. In near-darkness, overcome with fatigue and hypothermia, her cramped hands were unable to pry open tubs of food; her smooth, powerful stroke was awkward and labored; her answers didn’t match questions from her escort boat; and, finally, a quickening tide began to sweep her back out to sea.
About 9 p.m. local time, Zemlin’s husband, Tom, leaned over the railing of the trawler West Winds and told her, “Karen, that’s it.”
“But I couldn’t process what he was saying,” said Zemlin, 47, of Plymouth. “There is no question that I wasn’t making forward progress at that point. I just kept going.”
That is when Zemlin’s brother, Brian Bosveld, climbed down a ladder to the water, grabbed her arm, and she allowed herself to be pulled aboard. She momentarily lost consciousness and did not, for more than 15 minutes, totally understand what had happened. At one point, wrapped in a blanket below deck, Zemlin said, “Don’t touch me,” dreaming she was still in the water and fearing disqualification under channel swimming rules.
“We could see trees on the coast at that point — we were that close,” said Tom Zemlin. “But I never want to see my wife in that condition again. She was beyond exhaustion. The cold just sucked her dry.”
That small drama, described this week in a phone conversation from England, ended Zemlin’s years of training for one of open-water swimming’s big prizes — the challenge of the 21 turbulent and murky miles between English Dover and Calais on the French coast. Since 1875, about 1,500 people have made it; many thousands more have not. Last Friday, six swimmers tried, including Zemlin, and none of them succeeded.
But Zemlin came closest that day, according to GPS tracking from the official Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation. She hit the water in sunshine, with a gentle three-knot current and 2- to- 3-foot waves. The swim was apparently uneventful until, about half way across, Zemlin met the channel’s jellyfish: first purple ones, then larger specimens that were “kind of yellow-creamy-looking.” And they stung.
“I became so distracted by them [jellyfish], that I kind of lost my focus on speed,” Zemlin said.
Then the wind and waves picked up. The sun set. The water temperature dropped. And, near the coast, the tide surged, sweeping her away and south from Calais.
“If I could have finished in 11 hours, I would have been OK,” Zemlin said. “But it didn’t work out.”
It is too soon, Zemlin said, to sort through all the emotions and expectations she will take from her adventure.
“I feel like I had a full experience of the swim,” Zemlin said. “I just didn’t, of course, get to the shore. Now I think I just want to go home, ride my bike and swim like a normal person. … Before I came, I looked at all this and said, ‘Yikes.’ Now, I say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.