Halfway into a 21-mile charity challenge across the Channel from England to France, Belfast’s Simon Fullerton felt cold and exhausted ... until a helpful jellyfish gave him a rallying sting
Self-styled Northern Irish ‘bar-room swimmer’ Simon Fullerton thought of his late grandfather every time he needed inspiration during the low-points of his exhausting Channel swim from England to France last month.
And that was enough to help the 38-year-old man from east Belfast to keep swimming in his 21-mile challenge to raise money for research into Parkinson’s disease which blighted the life of his beloved grandfather John McCormick. Simon says: “A young relative also suffered from Parkinson’s but made a brave recovery so the two of them came into my mind when the going got tough. And though I never actually thought about giving up, I had to tell myself that I had nothing to whinge about compared to what they went through.
“I didn’t want to let them or my parents or my friends down. Failure was not an option for me,” says Simon, an actor, cabaret artist, children’s entertainer, writer and promoter who now lives in London.
Simon, was an avid swimmer for most of his early life and represented his school, Campbell College as well as competing with the Penguin club in Newtownards.
“But I let the swimming go in my late teens,” he says. “I was focusing on my drama and my performance stuff. But as time went on I realised I needed to get fit again.
“So I started swimming in the pool for maybe 20 minutes or half an hour at a time. But then I just got this notion into my head that I would like to swim the Channel.
“It was a combination of boredom and a mid-life crisis that made me want to do it, a drunken dare for a bar-room swimmer like me.
“All my friends who had a beer with me used to laugh at the very thought of me doing it. They reckoned it was a stupid hare-brained idea but I told them to keep on laughing because I was going to do it.
“And they’ve had to dig deep into their pockets to donate to my JustGiving page where I’m well on my way to reaching my target of £10,000.”
Simon’s grandfather was an enthusiastic swimmer who worked as a riveter in the shipyard and used to take a dip in the docks and who encouraged his grandson to swim too. Simon had been preparing for his epic voyage for an astonishing three years. "Over that time, I was doing bigger and bigger swims, building up for the Channel.
"I took part in the all-Ireland open water swimming championships at Lough Erne last year which was a gruelling endurance marathon. I was chuffed at finishing as the third Irish male but I was in agony for days afterwards.
"That's when I think I really appreciated just how hard it would be to do the Channel. At the outset I thought I could just jump into the swimming pool and it would all fall into place.
"But very quickly I knew it wouldn't be so easy. I had to see an osteopath about the pains which were coming into my arms. I realised I had to prepare more seriously."
By a 'stroke' of good fortune Simon discovered that he had a link to one of the greatest long distance swimmers of all time – Kevin Murphy, the former TV journalist who's a veteran of 34 Channel swims and who revelled in the nickname of the human fish.
Simon says: "It turned out that the family of my brother's girlfriend knew Kevin and holidayed with him. He very kindly spoke to me and though he was initially sceptical about whether or not I could or would do it, he gave me invaluable advice about how I should get myself ready."
It soon became clear to Simon that he'd have to make sacrifices to make his dream come true. He says: "You have to get your head down. There's no getting around it. Your social life goes at a certain point and you have to start putting in 35 kilometres a week, going to the pool every day and making one big three or four hour swim in the sea every week as well."
Simon's erratic work life, which was mainly centred on the weekends, made his training more difficult than for swimmers in nine to five jobs.
And he wasn't able to partake in the normal preparations in Dover where channel swims are carefully regulated by licensing authorities.
Before anyone can attempt the Channel, they must be able to swim for at least six hours in the sea and they have to undergo strict medical examinations.
Later on, swimmers must complete 13 hours in two stints over a period of 24 hours. "They reckon that is the safest way to re-create a Channel swim without actually doing it," says Simon who questioned his own sanity during his arduous build-up to the real thing.
"I did ask myself what on earth I was doing?"
A month before the Channel swim, Simon's nerves really kicked in as he contemplated the enormity of what he was about to undertake.
"I had never been in the water for more than seven hours at any one time but now I was facing maybe 12 or 13 hours in the sea.
"However, I kept reminding myself how much I was actually enjoying my long swims which provided a wonderful escapism from the phone and from work because no-one could reach me," says Simon, adding that the Channel swim licensing bodies provide the highly-qualified and experienced pilots to guide the participants across to France which he compares to navigating a snail across the M25 motorway.
"It's one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world so the pilots are crucial," says Simon.
"They decide when the weather is right because you are almost frightened to start in case you pick the wrong time to go when the winds are high, for instance."
On the morning of the swim Simon took the plunge into the sea from Shakespeare Beach beside Dover Harbour at 4am.
On the pilot's boat which accompanied him, Simon's father David led a support team which also comprised a coach, a friend and another swimmer.
"At times you are allowed to have another swimmer in the water with you for moral support," says Simon. "If you are slowing down they can jump in with you to get your pace up again."
The coach and the pilot had been authorised to call off the swim if they thought it was proving too much for Simon, whose well-being was a priority.
Just last year, 34-year-old Susan Taylor from Leicestershire died on the final part of the swim which she was attempting to raise money for a number of charities.
In the end Simon was fine but the swim wasn't plain sailing. "It's hard to remember a lot of it. But I know that at the halfway point it was really tough because I realised that I had the same miles to do as I had just done. My body was starting to ache and I was beginning to feel the cold."
Bizarrely, Simon credits a jellyfish and a vomiting spell for helping to get him back on track. He recalls: "I got a painful sting which kind of woke me up and snapped me out of my sluggishness.
"Around the same time I finished off a carbohydrate drink and everything came out of my stomach. That changed the whole swim. My body was lighter, I felt better in myself and I took off again with more energy. I knew I had it in me to go all the way."
One of the most frustrating parts of the swim was when Simon caught his first sight of France. "It looked very close. But it hangs on the horizon for about four hours. You just have to relax into the swim, though and try to enjoy it."
The Channel swim rules are tough, including a ban on participants even touching their support boat. "You can't hold on to anybody or have a rest by holding on to anything at all.
"But feeding is a very important aspect of the theories about getting across. You have to take on the calories and every half hour or so my dad was dropping the carb drinks down to me on a piece of string. But after I vomited I switched to a cup of black tea."
Which was quite a contrast to the first Channel swimmer Captain Matthew Webb in 1875 who was said to have got to France fuelled by brandy, cigars, eggs, bacon and beer.
The actual completion of the swim was another tricky time for Simon. "The tide on the French side is particularly strong and if you don't time it right, it can take you beyond the nearest point to England, the Cap Gris Nez.
"But I was ok. I got myself under my own power, up onto a rocky outcrop. A teenage boy on the beach looked at me in amazement, wondering where I'd come from. I said 'Bonjour' and 'Ca va' to him."
The outsider might imagine Channel swimmers are greeted by a French band and a Mayor. But there are no welcoming parties.
Not that Simon cared. "I was just relieved to get there and to round off a three year crusade. The last hour was a particularly hard swim."
But there was no time for hanging around for Simon. "Obviously I hadn't gone through emigration and though my passport was in the boat there was nothing else for it but to swim back out to the vessel and go home."
The obligatory photographs had been taken in France but Simon wasn't able to stomach the champagne which had been uncorked by his support team.
"It was definitely emotional," says Simon, "but it wasn't as cathartic as I imagined it would be.
"When I arrived in France, it felt like I was ticking a box, more like the beginning of something rather than the end."
Simon doesn't think he would ever repeat the challenge or do what some swimmers do – to make it a round trip. Or even more.
"On the same day I was there, a bloke went to France and back before swimming back to France again.
"That wouldn't be for me," says Simon, though he has fresh targets in mind.
"I would love to swim the Gibraltar Straits and to make it between San Diego and Catalina Island in California but another challenge I would really love to complete is the North Channel swim from Donaghadee to Portpatrick. That's really hard."