Tony Marshall. What could I possibly tell you about Tony Marshall? Those who know him might refer to him as a joke cracking, truck driving, mirror gazing, ice-cream eating, hair sculpting, smooth talking softie. At precisely 03:58 BST on 16th July 2015 Tony Marshall staggered and stumbled through knee-deep waters, marched onto a deserted beach outside Calais then turned around and held his hands high as he staked his claim on French soil. Tony Marshall? Who is he? Why he’s that larger than life joker who SWAM THE ENGLISH CHANNEL!!
Me and Tony go back five or so years. A member of the Chalkwell Redcaps, we’ve swum, laughed and cried plenty together. Tony was the one who pulled me through my 11 degrees two-hour CSPF qualifying swim for Team DUKES Channel Relay back in 2013. More to the point he was the other half of the double act that was the ‘2Tones’, being very close to my sorely missed wingman, Tony Mellett. Their relationship was not dissimilar to that shared between Roald Dahl’s Mr. & Mrs. Twit. So many fond memories of prank-pulling and one-upmanship. Giving wrong directions, filling swim bags with stones, stealing clothes or tying up their arms and legs, making apple pie beds. The list goes on. A pair of absolute clowns…. Channel Fever struck us all in 2013 and our Dover Roadtrips began as we prepared for respective relay swims. We howled and scoffed our way through various camping and caravan trips and tried to do a bit of swimming along the way. Take ourselves seriously? Not capable I’m afraid.
Hideous conditions in 2013 sadly put a stop to the 2Tones first relay attempt with the Southend Sharks and they turned back just six miles off the French Coast. A re-group and shuffle saw formation of the 2014 team, the Southend Sea Urchins, but that team was also destined for heartbreak when 2Tone Tony Mellett collapsed and died very suddenly after one of our regular pool sprint sessions. Devastated comes nowhere near the upset that ripped through and still grips our swimming community. Sarah Mellett gave me her husband’s favourite swim cap as a keepsake and insisted that we carry on. And so the ‘Mellett Memorial Smiley Swim Hat Tours’ were born. The Urchins’ French Invasion took on a new meaning and in addition to their personal vendetta with the Channel they smashed it in memory of their fallen comrade in September 2014. Swimmer Lizzie Long sported Tony’s Smiley for their last leg and for their Moment de Victoire.
Shortly afterwards Tony Marshall fessed up that he’d booked an English Channel solo for the summer of 2015. He had been badly affected by the death of his closest friend and wanted to swim in Tone’s memory raising money for Little Havens Children’s Hospice, Tony Mellett’s chosen charity for the ill-fated Sharks 2013 Channel relay attempt. He wanted to give something back and to make a difference to the lives of terminally ill children and their grieving families. I did not doubt his capabilities but, while understanding and applauding his intentions, my instant reaction was that he simply hadn’t given himself enough time to prepare. He didn’t have any significant distance swimming to his name and, with the cold water season just around the corner, there would be limited opportunities to crack out decent long-uns in the sea until May/June time. Why 2015 Tony? Good on you, do it. Yes great. But give yourself a chance man!!
Tony’s plans weren’t all fickle though. He hooked up with Lorraine Rate, AKA Mrs. Tyrant, and tasked her with the job of whooping him into shape enough to make said crossing. When I say shape I don’t mean that he wanted her to transform him into some svelte and buff long-distance swoon merchant. Neither man nor beast could reduce Tony’s appetite for meat pies and Mr. Whippy. No, Lorraine worked him bloody hard. Doing all that sprinty stuff which would increase his aerobic capacity and endurance. Or some other shit that I know nothing about and will leave to her to explain….. Tony was a willing and committed water slave of Lorraine’s, obediently following all of her orders when it came to horror sessions. As an expert in nutrition for endurance swimming she tried her hardest to enforce a healthy eating regime alongside his fitness program. But if you took that horse to the water he’d not only drink but gallop off for seconds. Mostly of the secret variety!!
As the 2015 training season opened up Tony took weekly trips down to Dover to train with Freeda Streeter and the Channel Swimming Crew. With my own (stupidly) long distance swimming plans for the year looming, I travelled there too and we spent the best part of six weekends training together. We upped our time spent in the water from four to five to six and to seven hours. By the end we were swimming back to back Saturday and Sunday cracking out 13 hours over the weekend. And when we weren’t swimming we were laughing, camping and eating. It was during these activities that we had our heart to hearts. Tony wanted this swim so badly. In spite of him saying ‘If I don’t make it, I don’t make it, but at least I will have tried’, his desire for success was written all over his face. Pep talks ensued aplenty. Just as much to quash my own anxieties as to boost his confidence. The conversation that we came back to time and time again was that time should be irrelevant. ‘Don’t think for one minute that this swim is going to be over quickly’. ‘Swim between feeds’. ‘Kill the time’. ‘Head down and keep going’. ‘Prepare yourself for 21 hours in the water’. Blah de blah de blah!!!!! Another favourite technique was visualisation. ‘Have you seen the end Tone? Have you pictured yourself rocking up on the beach in France?’. ‘Yeah, a million times’, ‘What does it look like?’, ‘Well I’m punching the air and kissing the sand’. ‘Cool, hold that image. You might need it’. Again, just as much to encourage him as to give myself a good talking to. By the time Tony’s swim window opened he was rattling off all the right words without any prompting. He knew exactly what he had to do and exactly how to do it. Unstoppable.
Tony’s support crew on the day would be head coach Lorraine Rate, secret lover Matthew Skidmore, Southend Shark and Urchin John Willis and myself (not sure what title to give myself here so let’s just settle with the usual: Bitch). His tide window opened on 15th July and we needed to be prepared to bolt down to Dover at the drop of a hat to board the pilot vessel Sea Satin, Captained by Lance Oram. We watched the weather reports obsessively, second-guessed as to when we’d be off and slowly but surely came around to the idea that we might, just might get out on day one of Tony’s window. Yeah Wednesday 15th into Thursday 16th, that’s when we would kick off. Set off in the dark, swim into the light…..
Myself and John travelled to Lake Bala in North Wales on Friday 10th for the annual BLDSA Championships. Arriving home very late on Sunday evening, soaking wet and knackered after a seven hour drive, we thought we’d get a bit of a breather before heading for the Continent. But on Tuesday afternoon, with our cars not yet unpacked and kayaks still strapped to the roofs, things started rumbling. An e-mail pinged into our inboxes ‘07:00 Wednesday morning. Be prepared to meet at the Marina. Call back at 19:30hrs for confirmation’. And there it was. Just like that. Status Amber gave way to a green light. Shit. Totally unprepared. Scrabble around getting bags together, ring out for a pizza (no time for supermarket shopping), alarm clocks set for 03:30 and hit the road.
When we arrived in the Marina the wind was howling. White horses were visible out in the Channel and I seriously thought that the plug would (and should) be pulled. But no. We locked and loaded, submitted our passport details then chugged out around the harbour wall and approached Shakespeare Beach. Lorraine got out the sunblock and Vaseline and began smothering it in every crack and orifice. Well not quite. She wasn’t prepared to go ‘below deck’ and rather matter-of-fact questioned ‘Who wants to do Tony from behind?’. That unfortunate job fell to John. Well I was filming so it couldn’t possibly have been my duty. Besides I’m a married woman and that would be just wrong!! And as if doing him from behind wasn’t bad enough, there was the FRONT to do too. While I leave that to your imagination I’ll work on erasing the images and trauma that said groin greasing have left me with…..
Tony plonked himself overboard and swam ashore to begin his epic crossing. Off went the siren and in he went. Into what must have been four foot waves….. Again came that feeling ‘this really isn’t the day for a solo’, ‘have we jumped the gun?’, ‘should we have said no and waited for a better day?’. The boat rocked and rolled. Sometimes Tony was above us, sometimes below. Standing was virtually impossible and there were many falling over incidents. Queasiness set in and I clearly remember saying ‘there’s no way I’m going to make it on this boat without throwing up’. The name ‘Sea Satin’ soon morphed into ‘Sea Sick’ in my mind. I took myself quietly around to the other side of the boat and released my breakfast. Not once, not twice, hell not even three times. Oh bollocks. We’d been going less than an hour……
Tony favours breathing to the left so he was positioned starboard where he’d be able to keep an eye on the boat better. The water was rough as you like on that side. He swam a fair slap out from the boat and calling him in for feeds took some time. We lost the reel at one point and had to stop the boat to fish it out. After a couple of hours the pilots moved him to the more sheltered port-side. And as he switched sides, so did I. Well it would be most unfair and rude to yak over somebody swimming the Channel eh?
Under CSPF rules Tony wasn’t allowed a support swimmer in until he’d been going for three hours. He started asking for me, ‘Jane, when you getting in?’, ‘Come on, swim with me’. Oh Christ, OK, I’ll get changed. One layer off. Hurl. Two off. Barf. Cozzy on. Puke puke puke. GET ME OFF THIS SODDING BOAT!! I dived in and the water was surprisingly (shockingly) cold. Gasping for air as the cold reflex hit I swam to catch him up. I remember Lorraine telling me about being a support swimmer for a crossing a few years earlier. How it was actually quite stressful as you are not allowed to touch the swimmer or overtake them. Well there I was, green about the gills but with fresh shoulders and having to keep the brakes on. There was no way I wanted to jeopardise Tony’s crossing so I made sure not to commit any terminal offences as I swam alongside him for a full hour.
Sea Sick was being tossed about in the waves and there was no stable point to fix my gaze on. A most disorienting experience. I had hoped that being in the water would go some way towards quelling my queasiness but it didn’t and I heaved several times in the water, glad to get out when my hour was up. Climbing back aboard there came the conundrum. What to do first? Throw up? Or get dressed? Throwing up seemed the sensible option. So off to feed the fish once more before retiring to the upper deck to get dressed. With the boat rocking and my stomach churning this was no mean feat. I managed to get my swim suit off before lying back in my dry robe. OK I’ll just stay here for a bit with my eyes closed…… In a semi-coma I could hear myself shouting ‘come on, get dressed, don’t let yourself get cold’, but body and mind were well and truly out of synch. The travel pills I’d taken were making me drowsy. They’d have done better to stop me puking. I lay flat on my back fighting my head for a full 15 minutes before finally summonsing the energy to get dry and dressed then promptly conked out. Lorraine, Matthew and John. Over to you. This ‘support crew’ member is totally useless….
I simply must commend the rest of the team for the attention that they paid to our swimmer. Feeds were prepared and administered every half hour. Words of encouragement were shouted. Banter was exchanged. I joined in on the occasions that I wasn’t barfing or unconscious but it was they who kept the whole operation running to schedule. The pilots were second to none too, with Lance Oram, Sean ‘Foxy’ and Dan Hawkes encouraging and abusing Tony every step of the way. The observer was Jeff Cox, an amenable chap himself married to a long distance swimmer. He was full of useful information about so many aspects of Channel swimming. Ask a question and he would answer. He showed me the rule-of-thumb ‘formula’ for working out the expected crossing time, apparently all sussed by the time the swimmer hits the South-West shipping lane just five miles into the swim! In the end it turned out to be very accurate indeed. Amazing stuff and borne out of years and years of experience of escorting nutters like Tone across La Manche. From that info the pilots could start thinking about where their swimmer might emerge from the water. They had all sorts of maps and mathematical-looking gadgets below deck but I quickly realised that these were highly flexible guys who, above all else, wanted to keep spirits light and not have their swimmer focus on anything else but the next feed. Whenever Tony asked ‘how much further’ they would point towards France and say ‘about that far’. No more info and actually the best way to deal with the question! It was like being on a pirate ship with all the raucous laughter emanating from their cabin. All day and all night long they kept it up. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they didn’t have a parrot down there with them or break out into a medley of sea shanties….. The humour aboard rubbed off on Tony too. Thinking of his chosen charity, he regularly enquired as to how the children were getting along at Little Havens. And coming up for air he would shout an assortment of words and demands in our direction. ‘Love You!!’, ‘Peaches’, ‘Painkillers’, and ‘Cup of tea’ were regular features. At one point his arse went off and he looked up at us to check if we’d noticed. We did Tone. You stinker. He asked for jaffa cakes, even though he knew we didn’t have any and even asked Lance for a drag on his fag. Yeah mate, that’d help……
Matthew had a wonderful support swim with Tony, taking in his camera and capturing footage from a perspective that I’ve never before seen on a Channel crossing. Tony sported a pair of Smiley trunks and a matching cap courtesy of Gary Standen of Torquay based ‘Happy Wild Swimming Caps’. Gary had knocked up a Smiley flag too and this flapped in the breeze over the side of the boat. Happy and wild, yeah that’s what this swim was all about. John went in for the next support swim and there was a near miss with DFDS Seaways (on a rare day that they weren’t striking). Ferry and tanker dodging, just how Channel swimming is supposed to be!
Into the Separation Zone we went. We put on silly wigs to mark the halfway point and blasted Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on a Prayer’ to up Tony’s spirits. He punched the air in time to the music, although I’m sure the lift he got from knowing he that he was mid-Channel was off-set by the sinking reality that he had to swim another ten plus hours before he would hit France. Meh, nothing else to do so head down and on he went, swimming a consistent pace and never once complaining.
Darkness fell so on with the green flashy LED lights. Tony had one pinned to his butt cheeks but had to have one on his goggles too. The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to change to clear goggles but he wanted to stick with his tinted prescription ones. Hmmmm? What is there to see but the floodlit boat? But OK and on he went. He also had his watch on and had been checking it regularly since setting off all those hours ago. Double Hmmmmm?? It was my turn to jump back in and swim next to him so ditto with the LEDs. With my clear goggles on I could see fuck all in neither blackness nor glare. Tony was obsessed about swimming in the spot light outside the pilots cabin and it didn’t take a genius to work out why….. After an uneventful hour I got out and spoke my mind about the goggle situation. The pilots called him in for a bollocking. The air turned blue with sailor cursing. Sometimes a good string of expletives is the only way of getting a point across. Firm but fair, Tony was ordered to switch to clear goggs and at the end of the conversation Foxy shouted at him ‘Oh and stop all this asking about where you are. You’re in the middle of the fucking English Channel. You’re exactly where we need you to be right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Listen to our instructions, obey and you’ll make it. Follow the boat. We know where we are going. And GIVE ME THAT FUCKING WATCH’. Tony dutifully followed orders and it didn’t take him long to settle into his night swim. Confident to swim away from the light now he calmed down massively. Just in time for the mist to set in…… Fog horns filled the midnight air. One could describe it as eerie but magical would be an equally fitting description. I got semi-dry again and dozed off into another seasick/shivvery/drug induced coma……
When I came to again the lights on the French shore were significantly closer. I was pleased to see that Tony was holding pace and that the pilots were still happy. There were fish a-plenty about and a big shoal was approaching. There was no point in shouting for him to change course as the little bastards were everywhere. One got tangled up around Tony’s neck and, with his clear goggles on, the look of surprise and fear was hard to miss. He sprinted away like a startled rabbit. Only to swim into a shoal of jelly fish and get stung on the arm…… Many would have freaked at this point and got out. Not Tony though. He was on a mission now. ‘You’re SO close’, we shouted (we knew there was a good six hours left in it but what he didn’t know couldn’t kill him. Right?). 16 hours in came the first and only wobble. Tony’s shoulder was playing up and he shouted ‘how much longer’. ‘You’re doing great, we can see France, it’s really really close now’. Oh the lies, the lies and the lies. How they go on and on……. ‘I’ve only got an hour left in me’, he proclaimed. Time to pull another card out of the deck. ‘Tone, remember that picture of you invading France? Call it up now and hold onto it. Now is the time. See the end and go for it. Unstoppable mate. Unstoppable’. Motivational speke was hurled at him from every single one of us. ‘You’re bang on track’, ‘No way are you giving up now’, ‘Think of the children’, ‘SHUT UP AND SWIM’. Tony ploughed on in utter defiance towards the lights of Calais as they grew nearer and clearer.
As they did myself, Lorraine and Matthew changed into our swim gear to see him home. John unfortunately had to stay on the boat. Somebody had to be there to help Tony get changed ASAP into warm and dry clothes. After such an extended time in the water his core temperature would surely have taken a beating and, having stormed the beach with Tony in 2014 as part of the Urchins relay team, John so very kindly agreed to do that honour. I was, and remain, thankful to him for making that decision. I had a score to settle with the Channel having been ‘off shift’ when my relay team touched down in 2013 and with a pilot who refused to let us stake our claim on France as a team. The rib was deployed and in we got, sprinting to catch Tony up as he approached the silo just the other side of the ferry port at Calais. When he promised me a trip to France I had no idea it would be so romantic……
Tony hit the shallows, stood up and began wading his way in. He staggered and fell. We hung on back, unable to assist or overtake. ‘ON YOUR FEET CHANNEL SWIMMER’, we shouted. ‘FINISH IT OFF NOW’. He stood up and stumbled his way into ankle deep waters. We could hear him chuckling to himself. The pre-dawn air was thick with emotion. Bloody hell, he’s done it. ‘CLEAR THE WATER TONY, CLEAR THE WATER!!!!!’. He kept on walking, his back to us the whole time. And then there it was. No more water between him and the sea wall. ‘TURN AROUND TONY!!!!!! YOU’VE DONE IT!!!! YOU’VE FINISHED!!!!! TURN AROUND!!!!!’. He turned and punched the air. Lorraine ran up to him and grabbed hold of him. ‘I’ve done it’, he shouted softly, ‘I’ve done it!!!! I swam to France. I swam to France!!!!!’. Brief interlude for bottom lip quivering, group hugs and photo opportunities……………
We were probably only on that beach for around five minutes and how the cops didn’t descend on us is beyond me. The noise we were making. Shouting, screaming, rejoicing. Tony fell to his knees and kissed the sand. Then he turned to me and said ‘Hey will you write in the sand for me?’. ‘Sure Tone, what shall I write?’. He looked me right in the eyes and whispered ‘For Tony’. Cue bottom lip quivverage take two. In the intensity of the whole boat crew thing (puking, supporting, swimming, sleeping, puking) I hadn’t once thought of what motivational factors must have been going through Tony’s mind for his 20 hours and 12 minutes in the water. But those two brief words summed up his journey. Tony had booked this solo in the aftermath of the untimely death of our closest friend. He had raised a significant sum for Tony Mellett’s favourite local charity and he missed that man every bit as I did. Every day. Every swim. All the bloody time.
While we had done our bit to support him and gee him along his merry way, it had been Tony Mellett who had kept him going through the darker moments. That’s what the Smiley Faces were all about. His own slant on the Mellett Memorial Smiley and all the adventures it has had since Tony’s death. For Tony? Yeah, of course FOR TONY. Our writing didn’t stay for long in the wet sand. But long enough to honour a great man and for us to reflect. With tears in our eyes we swam back to the boat and slept all the way home…..
To date Tony’s efforts have raised nearly £2,000 for Little Havens. Please do visit his fundraising page at https://www.justgiving.com/Tonys-channel-swim. If not to donate then just to read his ‘Why’ story. It certainly moves me every time I read it. What an amazing place the hospice is and what great work it does for youngsters and their families facing such awfully sad times.
Tony Marshall. What can I say? Blinding swim mate. Bloody brilliant. First Redcap to swim the Channel. Such a great statement. Such a great cause. Thanks for having me along for the ride. For the laughter along the way, for the heart to hearts and for memories that will last a lifetime. So many more swims to be conquered. Take a bit of time now then start plotting. You truly are unstoppable. This is just the beginning 🙂
Here’s chief whip Lorraine’s epic movie take on the swim. If you can down tools for 40 minutes then go ahead and watch. If you’re too busy for that then please have a think about the reasons why people do crazy horse-shit stuff. On the inside of every story of endurance there’s always a deeper quest. This was a story of massive loss and of one man’s struggle to keep his friend’s dreams alive by making a change and helping people in need.
God Bless You All.
By Tony, For Tony
And spreading smiles for all the children at Little Havens Hospice xx