Channel swim sunk by storms
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DOVER, England -- Horrific weather and crashing 5-foot waves combined yesterday to thwart Brent McAuliffe's attempt to become the first Pennsylvanian to swim the English Channel.
Mr. McAuliffe, of Canonsburg, attempted to swim the 21 miles from Dover, England, to Calais, France, to raise funds and awareness for childhood friend Marissa Boyan, of Bethel Park, who has been battling a brain tumor.
With just 748 of an 7,700 attempts successful over the years, it never promised to be easy. With the weather and sea conditions, Mr. McAuliffe's attempt was to prove impossible.
The assistant swim coach at the University of Pittsburgh managed to cover 7 miles before swallowing so much sea water that he was vomiting and had to be dragged from the sea.
"It just wasn't my day," said the 26-year-old. "I'm upset and disappointed because I feel I have let a lot of people down. It was just such bad weather. I was told no one had ever tried it in that kind of weather before, so at least I was first for something."
Fred Mardle, the escort boat captain assigned by the Channel Swimming Association, was brutal in his pre-swim assessment.
As lightning strikes lit up the early-morning sky, Mr. Mardle, a weather-beaten fisherman of more than 30 years, insisted: "You're crazy if you decide to go for it because there's no way you're going to make it, Brent."
With those words ringing in his ears, Mr. McAuliffe announced he would go for it and made last-minute preparations on Dover's Shakespeare Beach while his mother, Kathy Schilling, father, Terry McAuliffe, and stepfather, Wally Schilling, waited anxiously on the support boat moored 100 yards offshore.
At 5:04 a.m. British Standard Time, Mr. McAuliffe dived into the 58-degree water. Within 10 minutes, the dark thunderheads that had been rumbling away in the distance raced in from the west and pounded the already-choppy sea with heavy rain.
As the thunder crashed loudly from all directions, and with visibility down to about 50 yards, Mr. McAuliffe continued to slice through the huge waves in textbook fashion.
Yet he seemed to make no progress and on more than one occasion was in very real danger of being knocked out by his own support boat.
"It was a case of two strokes forward and one stroke back," he said.
Terry McAuliffe, who was yelling instructions and passing food and drink on a pole from the support boat, added: "That water looked impossible to swim in. I have no idea how Brent managed to keep going for so long."
While he avoided the shoals of jellyfish that patrol the English Channel, Mr. McAuliffe did fall victim to the strong currents that have been known to turn a 21-mile swim into a 30-mile test of stamina and will to succeed.
"I kept getting turned around and pulled north back toward England and that was when I was five miles off the coast," he explained. "I was having to go my hardest in the first two hours and then I looked to my right and there was another storm coming. And the second storm was darker and worse than the first.
"I swallowed about a gallon of sea water and I was throwing up every other stroke. The waves got me under a good amount and I was just trying to survive out there."
When he was finally dragged onto the support boat, Mr. McAuliffe was too sick to realize how bitterly cold it was.
Yet despite what he considered a failure, he had raised more than $5,000 -- with more donations to come -- for the Marissa Boyan Scholarship Fund, which will assist in taking care of the medical costs for the friend he met at the Washington, Pa., YMCA more than two decades ago.
His mother said: "I admire my son for what he did in that water. The conditions were horrible, but his perseverance and attitude were inspiring. Brent physically couldn't fight it anymore, but he left everything in the water."Reynolds Media Services
Brent McAuliffe prepares to enter the English Channel yesterday at Shakespeare Beach in Dover, England. He made it just 7 miles out.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published July 22, 2007 10:59 pm