12-year-olds become one of the youngest teams ever to swim the English Channel

Taunton School Swimmers in front of statue of William Webb, first man to swim the Channel

Taunton School Swimmers in front of statue of William Webb, first man to swim the Channel

Twelve school girls and boys from Taunton Preparatory School in Somerset have achieved their mission to swim the English Channel becoming one of the youngest teams ever to complete it.

Swimming in two teams of six, the pupils took on the brave challenge of swimming the English Channel on Sunday evening.

Setting off from the shores of Dover late on Sunday afternoon, they accomplished the 21-mile six-person Relay Team Crossing largely during the night through the choppy waters of the Channel, arriving in France at sunrise.

The Channel 4 celebrity “Sink or Swim” team set off at the same time as the Taunton School 12-year-olds who were delighted to get some great advice from Ross Edgley who was the Celeb team’s coach.

Emotionally and physically exhausted, but riding high on adrenaline, the 12 youngsters arrived back at school late on Monday afternoon to a hero’s welcome of cheering peers and teachers.

Most of the students are from Somerset and Devon, so chose to raise money for The Neonatal Unit at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton. Many of the students were born at the maternity unit in Musgrove and so far, they have raised almost £5000.

The squad began their endurance pool based training in May 2018 and then undertook acclimatisation training at Wiveliscombe outdoor pool over the Christmas holidays in water temperatures of only 19degC with frost all around. Since then they have completed over 300 hours each of training in Clevedon and Lyme Regis, as well as in the schools two swimming pools several times a week.

During August, they completed the Clevedon Long Swim and the following day took on The Chestnut Appeal Plymouth Breakwater Swim. They began night swimming training in Lyme Regis a few weeks ago.

The students were supported by Taunton School’s Long Distance Swim Coach Hamish McCarthy who is an experienced open water swimming coach. He led a team of 13 and 14 year-olds across the Channel in 2016. The students then were racing against a team of Marines who they managed to finish just two minutes behind. Hamish is also Head of Geography and Pastoral Head of Years 7 and 8 at Taunton Prep School, and last year won the Somerset Activity and Sport Award for Contribution to School Sport.

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Hamish said: “When you’re 10 years of age and you make the decision to train for the English Channel it’s aspirational; when you are then 12 and swim most of it at night it’s just extraordinary, a great feat of courage and resilience. I believe our students are one of the youngest teams to have undertaken a channel relay swim since the rules changed some 30 years ago. Many of our pupils only turned 12 in July and August. Having spoken to Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation staff, they didn’t know of another team that had been younger. It really is an incredibly overwhelming achievement.”

Isabel said: “It was very dark and difficult at times but the water was warmer than what we’ve been training in so wasn’t too bad. It was good to know that I was safe; Mr McCarthy wouldn’t let anything happen to us and the boats are with you the whole time. When we got to France we landed on massive rocks with waves crashing!”

Martha said: “I felt a bit uneasy at the start. Between the relay we were trying to get to sleep but mostly lying awake because it was cold on the boat. I’d do it again though!”

Poppy commented: “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it at the beginning of the training but I conquered by fears and did it.”

Elizabeth said: “In one of our training sessions we saw a dolphin which was great”.

Louis added: “I cheered on my friends when they were swimming when I wasn’t resting. It was really fun.”

Maddie said: “I’ve been swimming since I was 3 so I can swim quite fast. I don’t know if I could swim the whole thing now but maybe I will when I’m older.”

To qualify under the Channel Swimming and Pilots Federation rules, all students have had to swim for two hours in sea temperatures of 16degsC and pass a stringent medical examination. All have to be 12-years-old when the swim occurs. Cara Cunnginham was the youngest at just 12 years and 8 days old, the minimum age being 12 years and 3 days.

To donate to their incredible challenge, head to their Just Giving page here.

Dan Varley