David Bair warms up between swimming legs as his relay team crossed the English Channel.
Carey Rowan, left, and Alex Hill, right, assist David Bair after his swim.
CLEARWATER – Lifelong Clearwater resident, David Bair, has swam all his life.
Whether it was at the old Pier 60 pool and YWCA as a kid, which no longer exist, or the Ross Norton pool, Carlouel Swim or for the Clearwater High swim team, Bair swam his way through his youth. Swimming also got him involved in the Rotary Club, through the Rotary Swim Invitational. Years later, he is still involved in Rotary, and at a recent meeting, he gave a presentation about his experience swimming across the English Channel in 2009 as part of a relay team.
Bair graduated from Clearwater High in 1988 and then returned to be the swim team’s assistant coach in 1992 to 2000. The water remained a key part of Bair’s life, and he is now the owner of Quality Boats in Clearwater. However, swimming came into particular focus again in 2009 when his friends asked him to join their relay team to swim across the English Channel. A member of the team had dropped out at the last minute, and swimmers need to apply at least a year in advance. Bair agreed to join, they received permission from England, and their swim was set for August 2010.
Bair’s relay team included Dr. Carey Rowan, also of Clearwater, and Dave Brown, Alex Mideas, and Bouke Noordzij, all of various states up north. As a lifelong Floridian, Bair is used to southern weather and corresponding warm water temperatures. However, even in the middle of August, the water temperature in the English Channel is only about 56 degrees, with air temperatures only about 10 degrees warmer, he said.
“The ambient temperature of the air that day was 65,” Bair said. “And I’m from Florida. To give an example, (the local Tampa Bay) temperature last year never got below 57. So you take the coldest day in Clearwater or St. Pete last year, it still never got to 57 degrees. So it’s colder than it appears. Now, it did warm up to about 76 throughout the day, and the temperature that we started out at was 57 degrees and it warmed up and was about 58 by the time we got to France.”
In order to qualify for the swim, all swimmers have to prove that they can swim for at least an hour in 57-degree water. Therefore, Bair and the others gathered in Cape Cod, Mass. for their pre-swim. This was also the first time that Bair had ever experienced water that cold.
“It was horrible,” Bair said. “It was brutal. It’s cold, cold.”
The first man to swim the English Channel did it in 1875, and the first female swimmer crossed it in 1926. Since the first swimmer did it in only a swimsuit, the English do not allow people to swim in wetsuits – only Speedos for men, Bair said. Swimmers can coat themselves in Bear Grease if they choose, but Bair did not.
“Thin people get hypothermia,” Bair said. “Bigger people and weight is certainly one of the things to go ahead and do there. The balance is that you don’t want to go so fast that you burn out. That you start going hypoxic. But you don’t want to go so slow that you get cold.”
Getting in the zone and the perfect speed that Bair calls 85 percent effort that was fast enough to stay warm but not burn out was the key to deal with the cold, he said.
England sanctions just six crossings a day — three solo swims and three relay teams. There are four to five crossings a week, with a few days built in just in case of bad weather, Bair said. There are about 30 successful crossings each year, Bair said. At its narrowest point, the English Channel is 21 miles wide, though due to strong currents, people usually end up swimming a longer route, as they drift.
Bair and the team arrived in London on a Wednesday in August 2010, and the plan was to do the swim on Wednesday, after their bodies had time to adjust to the time difference. However, soon they received a call alerting them that a Monday slot had opened up and they were welcome to swim then instead. Bair’s friends were hesitant, but Bair thought this was a great idea and wanted to get it over with. Ultimately, everyone agreed. They had to meet the boat at 3 a.m. in order to have a 4 a.m. launch.
“Being that my background was highly competitive in swimming, originally I thought I was going to go at the end, but they said no, you have to go first,” Bair said. “So I was wrapped up in warm clothes and the next thing I know, I’m starting off here.”
At 4 a.m., it is pitch black out and it was only 57 degrees air temperature, Bair said. He had to attach glow sticks to his body so that the people on the boat could see where he was. First, however, he had to swim from the boat back to land so that the trek truly went from the shore of England to the shore of France.
The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, Bair said, with 500 ships a day that pass through it. It is extremely well organized, but there are plenty of massive ships that are not terribly far away as one is swimming, which can be a little intense at times. While swimming, he could clearly hear ships’ engines in the water.
During the day it warmed up to 76 degrees in the air, and the relay team took turns, swimming for one hour at a time. When a new swimmer would take over, he would jump in behind the previous swimmer, and then the retired swimmer could climb back onto the boat. Fortunately, the water is too cold to have to worry about sharks, Bair said, although there are jellyfish in the water. He managed to avoid most of their stings. But despite the cold and the stings, Bair said he handled the conditions well.
“It really worked out for me well,” Bair said. “Some of the other guys had a tougher time on it. I don’t know, I kind of rise to the big events. I was used to swim events and mentally was strong as far as that.”
For Bair, swimming has always been a peaceful, reflective time.
“I just think all good thoughts,” Bair said. “It gives me a lot of time to just think, reminisce. It’s a chance to just be by myself. I motivate myself pretty good. I’m at peace with the water. I’m very comfortable with it.”
As it turned out, Bair swam the last leg of the relay as well as the first, so he got the privilege of being the one who officially swam from touching England and got to be the first one to touch land in France. He was the only one to do three swims — the other team members each swam two rounds. They finished it all in 10 hours and 20 minutes, and Bair’s part was about 7.5 miles.
France does not officially sanction the swims, so they are only allowed a few minutes on the France beaches before they must leave, but it was enough time for the other team members to jump into the water and swim to France and to pose for a few pictures. There was a nice, sandy beach about a half mile from where they ultimately landed, Bair said. They had been aiming for that beach, but the currents pulled them away, so they were happy with the rocky shore where they landed. It was exhilarating to touch land, he said, knowing that not long ago, they had all been in England, and they had collectively just swam to a whole other country.
The greatness of the accomplishment didn’t really hit Bair until he had finally returned home. He had swam all his life and it was just what he did, he said.
“I don’t know if I’d do it again,” Bair said. “I certainly had grown up trying for Olympic trials and had aspirations about that. I’ve done (swimming) enough recreationally to enjoy things. I certainly have gotten more educated on open-water swims and some of the big events. ... Really, the English Channel, it’s the Mount Everest of swimming, so as far as open-water swimming, it’s the top.”
Since swimming the channel, Bair still keeps up with his swimming. He does about four open-water events a year, as well as recreational activities. He grew up boating, fishing and now dives and goes scalloping and lobstering. He has two kids, ages 7 and 9, and he has loved introducing them to the water. But no matter what adventures life brings next, one can be sure that water will continue to play a large role in Bair’s life.