A few neat photos by Mike Dembeck from our December 2010 issue cover story: That far shore
That far shoreBy Jon Tattrie | Apr 5, 2011
Originally published in our December 2010 issue, this story is a finalist for an Atlantic Journalism Award in the Atlantic Magazine—Best Profile Article category.
Crossing the English Channel is the swimmer’s equivalent of scaling Mount Everest—for Haligonian Kristin Roe, the feat is only the beginning of her life’s work.
To view the photo gallery, click here.
As midnight approached, Kristin Roe lifted her head above the water to try and make out why her panicked crew was shouting from the support boat.
“Swim hard!” hollered her stepfather, David Mills. “There’s a ferry coming!”
The Halifax woman was swimming across the English Channel on July 22, 2010 to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa, but powerful tidal waters had pushed her into a ferry lane. A ship was bearing down on her, bright lights in a black world. Roe had been swimming for 15 hours and now she had to sprint.
The moonlight sparkled on the rough waters, illuminating a shadow on the distant horizon: France. England was 30 kilometres behind her and Calais five hard kilometres ahead. The chop forced her to swim over waves, drifting up and down the Channel. It was like swimming on a treadmill.
She was wiped out. She knew that 90 per cent of swimmers fail in their first attempt at the Channel. She had recently met a strapping Australian that rescuers pulled out of the water four times. Physically he was fine, but the mental strain broke him again and again.
“Can I make it?” she asked weakly, salt water rushing into her mouth. “Just keep swimming!” they called back.
Images of Africa filled her head: women, men and children battling a vicious AIDS epidemic. If they could stay strong, so could she. No one said swimming the aquatic world’s equivalent of Mount Everest was easy. She breathed in over a tongue swollen with salt, put her head down and tried to tear five more kilometres from her battered body.
Eight hours earlier, Roe thought she was done. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world. The regular traffic of cruise ships, passenger ferries and container ships churn the water, washing swimmers off course. Roe constantly retched up the contents of her stomach (“feeding the fish,” she calls it). She felt terrible and just wanted a nap. The seasickness meant she couldn’t hold down any of the nutrients to fuel the second half of her trip.
The looming specter of failure haunted her. Roe, 30, had crisscrossed Canada’s Northumberland Strait and the shark-infested waters off South Africa to Robben Island. But nothing tested her like this.
Paused to tread water. The diesel fumes from the boat turned her stomach. Another container ship slopped its wake over her head. “I don’t know if this is in the cards for me today,” she called to her crew. It was the first time the marathon swimmer had contemplated defeat.
The boat crew huddled. The pilot, hired by the English Channel Association, said Roe needed to get out of the water. He’d never seen someone so sick. “Well, she’s not dying,” countered her stepfather. “She’s not drowning. She’s not hypothermic. She’s not incoherent. How about we do another hour?”
He sent Roe her bottle. She opened it up and took a sip: hot, sugary Earl Gray poured out. Roe had afternoon tea in the English Channel and swam on.
When Roe had stepped into the water, she had waved goodbye to the white cliffs of Dover in good cheer. Her elbows, armpits and knees were covered in grease to prevent chafing. Otherwise, all she wore was a swimsuit, cap and goggles. Her plan was to swim the Channel to raise $100,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Nova Scotia Gambia Association, fighting AIDS in Africa. The disease hadn’t affected her personally but a speech Lewis gave in Nova Scotia moved her. She says the Canadian activist icon inspired her. Lewis says it’s the other way around.
“The Kristin Roes of this world make me feel it’s all worthwhile; she’s an elixir to me.” —Stephen Lewis
“The Kristin Roes of this world make me feel it’s all worthwhile; she’s an elixir to me,” says Lewis. “The impact on people is one almost of incredulity: “Did she really do that to raise money for the foundation? That’s amazing.’ It almost defies belief.”
Lewis is a former Ontario politician who served as UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa before starting his fundraising foundation in 2003 for the same cause. He believes the strength that keeps Roe afloat comes from the same deep well that drives the grandmothers in Africa to raise their grandchildren after the AIDS epidemic has taken their parents.
“At the moment of truth, when the swim seems overpowering, she draws on a sense that it must be completed for the cause,” he says. “Somehow, she overcomes the tremendous ennui and sense of difficulty. It’s quite amazing. She’s very direct, unselfconscious and straightforward. There’s not a shred of false humility. She cares about the world rather more than she cares about herself.”
As the clock struck midnight on July 23, Roe escaped the ferry. Throwing handfuls of sea behind her, she propelled herself ashore. The support boat stopped when the water became too shallow. A Zodiac went ahead to keep watch on Roe. “Follow the light,” the pilot said as he vanished in the enveloping darkness. Roe had been wrestling the Channel for 16 hours.
The green light stick on her swimming cap was the only thing separating her from the pitch black. A little further. Just a little longer.
“Fifteen more strokes!” her stepfather yelled from the darkness. An elation rose in her, the water became dreamlike. Swimming turned to flying as she effortlessly neared shore.
“Stand up! Stand up!” the Zodiac pilot shouted. Roe put her feet on solid ground for the first time in 1,000 minutes. Her jelly legs nearly crumpled under her as she staggered ashore alone on a remote beach in France.
It’s hard to grin when your nose, mouth and tongue are swollen almost shut, but grin she did. She did a little dance, too, and scooped up a handful of sand. “Don’t ever forget this,” she whispered to herself.