Trio of area swimmers conquers English Channel
The plan was hatched in early 2013. After a few adjustments, months of training and some anxious moments at the very end, it all came together when Concord’s Joe Bledsoe hit the beach in Cape Gris Nez, France.
Bledsoe, 50, was part of a three-man relay team along with Concord’s Curt Whittaker and Hopkinton’s Bryan Ray that swam the English Channel on Aug. 7. Whittaker, 53, initiated the planning last year. Ray, 60, joined in despite being a short-distance swimmer. And Bledsoe swam the last leg of the 21-mile route, clocking in the final time of 10 hours, 45 minutes and 34 seconds.
“Joe is convinced we set some kind of time record for a three-man team over 50,” said Whittaker, who is an attorney at Rath, Young and Pignatelli. “He looked through the records and couldn’t find anything. I put in a request to the Channel Swimming Federation, but I haven’t heard back. But at the very least we set a record for three guys over 50 from Concord, New Hampshire, I’m sure of that.”
The three men swam competitively as children and in high school, Bledsoe in Stockton, Calif., Ray in New York City and Whittaker in Stamford, Conn. Ray
(Colgate) and Whittaker (William & Mary) went on to swim in college, while Bledsoe joined the Army.
They met more than 20 years ago while swimming at the Concord YMCA and they all compete in U.S. Masters Swimming events. When Whittaker brought up the idea of swimming the channel, both Ray and Bledsoe were willing to try.
“The motivation was simply to try something different in a sport we had been doing all our lives,” Whittaker said. “We wanted to try open-water swimming, and swimming the English Channel is kind of like the ultimate challenge in that sport, it’s kind of the Boston Marathon of open-water swimming, so why not?”
Initially, Whittaker wanted to do a solo swim. But when his family heard that a swimmer had died trying to cross the channel in 2012, they convinced him to reconsider the solo mission and form a team.
That wasn’t the only change in plans. It was originally a four-man team, but when the fourth member went in for the required medical exam, the doctors found a heart problem that not only would prevent him from swimming, but was serious enough to require surgery. So four became three.
Although they were lifelong swimmers, training for the channel was a new experience. Whittaker and Bledsoe, who has also competed in full Ironman Triathalons, had some experience with long-distance open-water swims – the two of them had done a 10-mile swim in Lake Memphremagog in Vermont in 2012, and Whittaker had done some 10K swims in Florida and a 7K in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. But they both said they had to ramp up their training efforts for the channel swim.
And Ray had to completely alter his swimming routine. The longest he had ever been in the water was the two-hour swim the three men did in Lake Sunapee in May, which was required by the Channel Swimming Federation.
“I’m a sprinter, so this was on the extreme other end of the spectrum,” said Ray, who is a vice president at SIPI Metals, a precious metal company based in Chicago. “I took it as a big challenge and went for it, and luckily everything turned out okay.”
Some luck was required for the crossing to take place at all.
Whittaker had reserved a boat to assist in the swim way back in early 2013. He got it for the first week of August, considered one of the best times to make the attempt, but he got the third chair, meaning two other groups had first dibs on the boat, the Sea Leopard, during that week.
So the three men traveled to England on Aug. 1 and began waiting for the right conditions the next day. And the day after, and the one after that. All of a sudden it was Wednesday, the wind was howling and some anxiety started to kick in.
“That was the hardest part, waiting” Ray said. “I just wanted to make sure we had a chance. If we made it across or not, I wanted to give it a try. And some of the conditions were pretty intimidating. We heard some stories from other swimmers when they came back that it was pretty rough out there.”
“We were ready to swim,” said Bledsoe, who recently retired from the military. “By the time Thursday came around, we were ready to go.”
It was near perfect conditions when the New Hampshire trio set out on the Sea Leopard that morning. Whittaker swam the first hour-long leg, followed by Bledsoe and then Ray. Bledsoe’s girlfriend, Jessica Aughenbaugh, was aboard the Sea Leopard providing support. Ray nearly swam through a family of jelly fish, and Whittaker did get stung by one, but other than that, the crossing was smooth.
They passed several other groups of swimmers, but eventually they noticed a boat gaining on them. It was Stuart Johnson, an Australian who is one of the best open-water swimmers in the world and was attempting a three-way crossing (England to France to England and back to France). Johnson didn’t make it – he got caught in tough tides on the third leg – but he did push Whittaker, Ray and Bledsoe.
“It became a race to France. We started calling him the Sheriff. He was chasing us down like wanted criminals, like it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Whittaker said. “It was really fun to be out there on the same day as he was. He’s kind of like the Michael Phelps of distance swimming.”
They beat the Sheriff to France. And when Bledsoe hit the beach, he unfurled an American flag he had brought from New Hampshire.
“I was so happy when he got to the beach,” Ray said. “Even if we had to go 14 or 15 hours, we would have accomplished it, we would have gotten it done, but it was really nice we did it the way we did.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)