hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2014


Chasing a dream, crossing a channel

Vermont woman achieves ‘Mount Everest’ of long-distance swimming


Contributing writer


Bethany Bosch admits that the last seven hours of her swim across the English Channel were “pretty intense.”

She had already been stroking freestyle through 62-degree water for more than 10 hours as the tidal currents pushed her west toward the Atlantic, then east toward the North Sea, then west again. She was having trouble keeping down the food and drinks her support crew held out to her from a small boat, and night had fallen.

But the crossing, which she completed in the early morning of Sept. 1, fulfilled a dream that began when Bosch, 30, was a child.
“I really loved every minute of it,” Bosch said.
The 21 miles of open water between Dover, England, and Calais, France, have challenged long-distance swimmers since Capt. Matthew Webb made the first successful crossing in 1875.

Strong currents, cold water, fast-moving shipping traffic, and unpredictable seas make the feat especially daunting. Only about 1,500 people, fewer than 500 of them women, have completed solo crossings of the English Channel.

Bosch, born and raised in landlocked Vermont, credited the movie “National Velvet” as her inspiration. In the film, the heroine’s mother is the first woman to swim across the channel.
“I always wanted to swim the channel from the time I was a kid,” Bosch said.

As a child, Bosch joined a swim team through the city recreation department in Rutland, but she lacked speed.

“I didn’t think I was a very good swimmer,” she said. “I didn’t think I was athletic.”
So the dream lay dormant until 2009, when Natalie Boyle, her childhood nanny, entered a triathlon.

“I hadn’t swum since I was a kid,” Boyle said. “Bethany had been on a swim team and offered to help me train. She’d never been fast, but she wanted to see how far she could swim.”


Intensive training
Starting in a swimming pool, Bosch began testing her limits.
“Twenty-five laps became 400, which is 5 1/2 miles,” Bosch said. “I realized that I can really swim a long way.”

Boyle knew of her friend’s dream and encouraged her to pursue it.

“Bethany had always wanted to swim the channel,” Boyle said. “I said she was at the right time of her life: ‘You can do this!’”

Bosch began training in early 2010. Her first long open-water swim was 8 miles in Lake Champlain. Then she completed a two-day, 31-mile swim the length of Lake George and a 10-mile charity swim in Lake Memphremagog in northern Vermont.

In the Memphremagog swim, “one of the prizes for the top fund raiser was going to the Cork Distance Week in Ireland,” Bosch said. “It’s like a boot camp for the channel swim.”

Although she came in last in the swim, her fund raising earned her the trip to the Cork Distance Week.

The first finisher at Lake Memphremagog was David Dammerman.

“I asked him if he could help me swim faster,” Bosch said. “He became my coach. Working with him was a real blessing.”

Two years ago, Bosch committed to crossing the channel in 2014, the earliest date she could arrange.

“I wanted to do it for my 30th birthday, which was just before my crossing,” she said.
To prepare, she did weight training and ran and swam, swam and swam, on her own and at organized events, sometimes in water as cold as 39 degrees.

The weather didn’t always cooperate. She had planned to take part in two group crossings of Long Island Sound, for example, but both were canceled because of rough seas. Organizers also called off a long-distance swim across Tampa Bay, Fla., because high waves were swamping the escort boats.

Boyle, who was part of Bosch’s crew in Tampa, and Bosch agreed that “we came here to swim, whether part of the event or not.” They had the boat take Bosch to sheltered water where she could complete the distance.

“That’s the character that she’s made of,” Boyle said. “Bethany will find a way.”


Raising cash
Swimming across the English Channel is an expensive undertaking. Boyle estimated that including her training and preparatory events, Bosch spent $16,000 to $18,000 on her quest. Major expenses included hiring an experienced pilot and boat through the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation as well as an official observer on the boat. Then there was airfare, food and lodging for Bosch and her support crew.

To raise funds, Boyle and other supporters started Intrepid Athletics in January 2012.
“Our goal is to help amateur athletes with a vision,” Boyle said. “Bethany was the first.”
The fund-raising effort “was all very grassroots and homegrown,” Boyle said. “We sold miles of the channel at bronze, silver and gold levels, gave advertising to our business sponsors, did a concert with bands who donated their time, and did fund raisers at businesses.”

In April, Bosch and her supporters held an icebreaker swim at Lake Bomoseen for pledge money.

“It was painful,” Boyle said. “But Bethany really does start training in April.”

Boyle estimated 50 to 100 people donated time and money to make the channel swim possible.
Among her supporters were Bosch’s parents.

“They came to all my swims,” Bosch said.

Her employer, an Albany firm that inspects road and bridge construction for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, “was very encouraging and flexible,” she said.


Making the crossing
Bosch plunged into the water at Shakespeare Beach in Dover, England, in the late morning of Aug. 31. The timing wasn’t ideal, but sea conditions were good.

Under Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation rules, her swimsuit had to be legless and sleeveless, providing neither warmth nor buoyancy. The exertion would keep her torso warm, but her extremities would be cold for the next 17 1/2 hours.

Alongside her on the boat were Boyle, Dammerman, and her friends Jim and Catherine Schneider. They could hand food -- bagels, bananas, peaches, sports drinks and hot cocoa -- to her from the end of a pole, but touching people or the boat would disqualify her.

The first part of the crossing “was very challenging mentally,” Bosch said. Hours later, she began vomiting her food.

“For the last several hours, I had to be very aware of what my body could do. I asked myself, ‘Can I keep doing this?’ I had to decide to fight for my swim.”

A low point was seeing a light on the French shore that should have been to her right and was now on her left. Because of the currents, she had missed the narrowest part of the channel and had to swim for another three hours.

“My crew was very concerned for my well-being,” Bosch said. “I wanted to be fair to my crew. They needed to be safe.”

Bosch came ashore on a beach near Wissant, west of Calais, at 4:30 a.m. Sept. 1. GPS tracking on her escort boat showed she had covered nearly 42 miles, although Bosch was quick to point out that a good part of that distance was the result of the current carrying her back and forth. She had covered about double the width of the channel at its narrowest point.

After the jubilation of reaching her goal, exhaustion set in.

“I slept for several hours on the boat trip back,” Bosch said. “I woke up very hungry. It was a struggle between being too tired and too hungry. It took me 18 hours to recover enough to start recovering.”

She was back in the water a few days later.

“My shoulders were strong,” she said.


Next dream: Giving back
Some people swim the Channel repeatedly. The current record holder, Alison Streeter of Great Britain, has completed 43 crossings.

Bosch, however, said she won’t do it again.

“Swimming will always be part of my life,” Bosch said. “Now I want to focus on my community. I’ve gotten a lot. It’s time to give back.”

The Rutland area has few opportunities for swimmers. The city and town public pools are only open during the summer, said Cindi Wight, superintendent of the city Recreation Department.
There is a heated therapy pool at the Vermont Achievement Center in downtown Rutland. The Pico Sports Center at Killington and Castleton State College have indoor practice pools, but neither is suited for competition.

“Bethany was traveling to Glens Falls, White River Junction, Brattleboro, Burlington and Keene to train,” Boyle said.

After seeing an empty big-box supermarket on Rutland’s South Main Street, Bosch and Boyle got the idea of developing an aquatic community center for the Rutland area.

“We want it to be something that brings people together,” Boyle said. “We’re looking at the next generation of kids.”

The aquatic center would benefit competitive and distance swimmers in training as well as recreational swimmers, people who need access to a pool for health and rehabilitation, and college students looking for internship opportunities, she said.

“It would be such a good thing for the community,” Bosch said.

Their goal is to set up a nonprofit center that works with existing city programs and doesn’t burden taxpayers, Boyle said.

Everything on their wish list would cost about $18 million.

“Chances are it’ll be done in phases,” Boyle said. “We’re working that out now.”

Wight, at the Rutland Recreation Department, sees a special lesson in Bosch’s channel crossing.
Unlike competitive sports, endurance sports “are available to anyone who wants to work at them,” she said. “You don’t have to be the biggest, strongest, or fastest. Swimming the channel isn’t about speed. It’s about completing the swim.”

Boyle said Bosch’s feat shows the value of sustained effort.

“Perseverance really does make a difference,” she said. “Hard work pays off.”