As she reached the coast of northern France, cold and exhausted, Bekki Kingshott swore she would never, ever undertake such a gruelling challenge again.
But two minutes later, with a glass of Champagne and four of her best friends by her side, she’d already changed her mind.
The 49-year-old is part of the Eastney Dippers, a group of five women who swam the English Channel in relay.
Led by 66-year-old Bedhampton swimming teacher Chris Pitman, they banded together 12 months ago with just one goal in mind – to conquer one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
And, two weeks ago, they did just that.
Now, the inspirational quintet are encouraging others to dip their toes into the sea and absorb the many benefits that come with being in the water...
‘Conditions were interesting. We set off at 5am on July 4,’ says Chris, who took up open-water swimming aged 58.
‘The water was about 16 degrees and the challenge involved getting from Dover to a shore in northern France.
‘Each of us swam alongside a pilot boat, named Anastasia, for an hour on rotation – right up until the journey was complete.
‘It took exactly 14 hours and 24 minutes and at one point, our pilot Eddie Spelling referred to the conditions as being “the same as swimming in a washing machine”.’
They each completed three one-hour swims except for chef Charlie Becké, 40, who after two sessions then swam the last 24-minute part of the journey, landing at Cap Blanc Nez, near Calais.
Her four friends then swam ashore to join her, at which point they celebrated their wonderful achievement with ‘a glass of something fizzy’.
The youngest Eastney Dipper is 37 and the eldest 66. They each have different levels of experience with swimming but a shared determination to reach their goals.
Some have been in the water for much longer than others, but the group worked hard to complete the challenge as a team.
Along with Chris, who teaches at Havant Leisure Centre, Bekki Kingshott is also a swimming teacher. The 49-year-old works for Rusalka Swim School in Waterlooville, and says: ‘The challenge was tough, and you almost use your first swim to get used to moving alongside the boat, but you feel a real sense of achievement after it’s all done with.
‘As I reached the shore I thought “I’m never doing that again”, but by the time I was back on the boat, on the way home, I’d already changed my mind.
‘It’s a tradition when you swim the Channel to collect a pebble and take it back. So we all did that. Doing the whole thing as a team did it for me.
‘We’ve become so close, friends for life in fact. And in terms of my swimming ability my confidence has grown.’
Bekki admits she almost drowned as a toddler but it didn’t stop her swimming.
‘Being in water, moving through it, you feel a sense of freedom – like there’s nobody else around when you’re swimming,’ she adds.
‘It allows you to take a step back from all of the stressful things in life, switch off, and zone out, especially with open-water swimming. It’s very therapeutic.’
In order to take on the channel, the Eastney Dippers had to prove they were capable with a two-hour qualifying swim and a medical examination, laid down by the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation.
The group did at least four hours per week of pool training in order to build stamina and strength, as well as swim sessions in the sea.
Also part of the group is Trish Ellam-Speed, a 44-year-old dental hygienist from Stubbington, and Heather Massey, a 37-year-old senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.
Trish, who swims for Havant and Waterlooville Masters, says: ‘During the challenge we all swam freestyle, and it felt absolutely brilliant to reach France.
‘To swim for an hour at a time in the windy conditions we were presented with was tough, but you always have someone on the boat looking out for you while you’re in the water – it was really nice to have that incentive.
‘When I was eight I completely shattered my left knee, so I swim because it’s non-weight bearing.
‘I wouldn’t be able to run or circuit-train very well. You don’t pick up as many injuries swimming as you do cycling, for example, and nothing beats being in the water at Eastney, looking up at the stars at night and being able to see the fort and the other surroundings.
‘Some days you can feel so lethargic you don’t want to exercise – but you’re still able to get in the pool and have a really good session.
‘Plus, it leaves you feeling great for the rest of the day.
‘Anyone can swim. Those who can’t can take lessons and either swim about in a pool, or have fun in the sea with children and grandchildren.’
If being part of one channel relay wasn’t enough, group leader Chris decided to do the same challenge, in the same format, with another group of women one week later.
In a potentially record-breaking move, Chris swam in a team called The Last of the Summer Waves, with five other women aged 60-76.
Chris adds: ‘It’s yet to be ratified, but we’ve potentially set the record for the oldest ladies’ relay team ever to swim across the English Channel.
‘Our combined age was almost 400.
‘I really do love swimming. It’s worth it for so many reasons, including wellbeing. There’s research that shows cold-water swimming is good for people with depression, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone does it unless they are acclimatised to the temperature.
‘Even in the summer, if you’re not used to it, the sea can strike very cold, and you can get cold water shock response which takes your breath away.
‘One of the benefits of being able to swim is being able to do other things like canoeing and sailing, and the latest fashion – paddle-boarding.
‘Swimming contributes to fitness too, even if you’re just a head-up breast stroke swimmer, moving along and talking to someone else, you’re still getting the exercise.’
As well as keeping people fit, being in the water can help improve health conditions too, says Bekki.
‘As a swim teacher I come across a lot of ladies with joint problems who enjoy aqua aerobics. They wear flotation belts in the water and can start to move body parts they couldn’t move well beforehand. They say it brings their confidence up to start swimming.’
The group will take on a two-way channel relay to France and back next year. The Eastney Dippers have raised £1,300 for the RNLI as part of their challenge.
To donate, visit uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/EastneyDippers.
THE EASTNEY DIPPERS
Formed 12 months ago
Are a group of five women aged from 37 to 66
Swam across the English Channel as a relay team from Dover to France
Completed the challenge in 14 hours and 24 minutes
Did it in rotations of one hour each
BENEFITS OF SWIMMING – Acccording to the Swimming and Health Commission
Lowers the risk of early death by 28 per cent
Good for health and wellbeing
Helps children to develop other skills
The unique benefits of water make it the perfect place for people of all ages to exercise, particularly those with long-term health conditions
A safe, cost-effective and viable option for healthcare professionals to signpost patients