First ever British Deaf swimmer conquers the English Channel

andrew rees swim english channel

Former Great Britain Deaf swimmer Andrew Rees recently became the first Deaf British swimmer to successfully complete a solo English Channel swim.

Mr Rees, from Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire, completed the swim in around 15 hours.

The 48-year-old accountant, who represented Great Britain’s deaf swimming team in the 1990s, went to Majorca to train for the event earlier in the year.

Mr Rees, who now lives in East Sussex, told the Brighton and Hove News: “It was a challenge. According to the weather forecast it was supposed to be a good day. For the first six hours it was choppy and then it just escalated into a force six.

“For the last eight hours it was mad. There was a 23-knot wind. I was bobbing up and down. It took me a long time to get there. I was hoping for 11 to 12 hours.”

Mr Rees swam the Channel to raise money for the Great Britain Deaflympics swimming team to help them make it to the games in Turkey next year.

He won two golds and a bronze when he took part in 1989 so understands the challenges for swimmers who are unfunded – unlike conventional Olympians.

Eric NIELSON, a close friend of Andrew since school, was with him on the day and tells BDN about the experience:

When I woke up, I was feeling a bit nervous for Andrew and wondered if he had been able to sleep without thinking about it too much.

We all had some good laughs to start off a great day with positive attitudes!!

The weather was overcast, with very little wind and we could see the Channel from our host’s place and it looked pretty calm. The temperature was at the right level which was perfect, not too hot or too cold.

Andrew, his team and I left at 7am for the dock.

His support boat, Louise Jane, arrived around 8ish and we loaded it with food, warm clothes, and all the important things that you need for a Channel swim!!

The boat was ready to go with the observer, the captain, the coach and of course the swimmer!!

The observer looked at his stopwatch and the coach waited for his signal so she could wave the Welsh flag to let Andrew know that he could start the Channel swim! His supporters anxiously waited for Andrew to start. When he got going I felt very emotional. I knew it would be a long day and prayed that he would survive as we all know it isn’t an easy task.

He looked great – nice strokes, and breathing with the right technique.

The coach was responsible for feeding. She had paperwork to keep track of all the details and make sure Andrew was getting the energy he needed for his difficult swim. She also had a tub with the food, water bottles, and a thermos ready.

At the 45 minute mark, it was time for a feed and we called Andrew to come and swim by the boat (he was not allowed to touch the boat or he would be disqualified!!). He had to drink and eat quickly, within 15-20 seconds, so he didn’t waste time and miss the current in France. Timing was critical. For each feeding he drank a warm energy drink and ate half a banana, peach, pear or fruit gums and even chocolate!

After the 45 minute mark, the feeding was done every 30 minutes. His strokes per minute were 65 at the beginning, which was normal and then they went down to 62. He stayed at 62 for a while and kept his pace.

At the 6 hour mark, we were heading for the separation zone between England and France. We witnessed massive ships crossing us and ferries passing by. Social media updates were done.

At the 7 hour mark, the waves and winds were starting to pick up which we weren’t expecting.

The conditions were getting worse and the boat was swaying all over the place and heaving up and down. We kept an eye on Andrew to make sure he was okay.

The waves gave Andrew a bit of a hard time especially knocking out his arms when he tried to swim, but he kept fighting the waves even though they were going in all directions. He stayed close to the boat.

At one time, Andrew’s stroke per minute dropped to 54, so the coach decided to do the feeding every 20 minutes instead of 30 in order to give him more energy.

andrew rees swimming next to p&o cruise boat

Once Andrew stopped for feeding, it was difficult because the wind and current were moving him back to the spot where he’d been a few minutes before and he would have to swim this part again. Of course, if the wind and current were moving towards France, it would have been very helpful, but unfortunately not on that day.

The waves and wind weren’t helping much for the next few hours as Andrew struggled through, but we gave him positive encouragement and told him he was doing well. Luckily, as we know, Andrew has a strong mind and is a strong swimmer so we had confidence in him. I knew he wouldn’t give up unless he really had to. Andrew knew everyone was watching him, whether it was on the boat or on the computer, so that gave him the boost to do well.

After 10 hours, we could see France clearly and it looked close, but the hardest part was the current and knowing that this was where most swimmers gave up.

Earlier that week a swimmer from Brazil was about one hour away from the shore, but eventually gave up due to wrong feeding and burn out. It isn’t as easy as you think.

We all think it is simple – just swim in a straight line to France and be done with it, but there are many obstacles that you have to go through, including Mother Nature, so it’s vital to have the right coach.

After 12 hours, darkness started descending and we saw a beautiful sunset. Andrew might have wanted to know how much further to go, but we weren’t allowed to tell him as it could affect his mind-set.

I could see Andrew struggling in the last few hours, but again with a strong mind he would keep going. I watched him very closely and wished I could communicate with him. France was getting closer and closer, but it was now pitch black.

Finally, the coach said ‘twenty minutes’ to Andrew and you could see his face light up as he put his fist in his mouth, as if he was saying “Thank God”!!

I had been at Mary Hare School with Andrew in 1978, but I’ve known know him even longer – since 1971/72 and I can’t tell you how proud I was of him.

Excitement increased and once the captain said Andrew had done it, we all hugged. I wish we could have seen Andrew walk up to the beach.

english channel swimmer times chart

It took him 15 hours and 14 minutes, but the main thing was that he reached France and became the first Deaf swimmer to swim across the English Channel and in bad conditions where most swimmers would have given up.

To be on that boat alongside him for over 15 hours was an amazing experience and we were extremely proud of Andrew. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

Andrew had conquered the English Channel!!

In all he swam for 914 minutes and his average stroke per minute was probably around 60 meaning 54,840 strokes for the whole trip! Amazing!