Carmel Valley resident achieves Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming

Barbara Held swimming the English Channel.
Barbara Held swimming the English Channel.

By Karen Billing

Carmel Valley open water swimmer Barbara Held completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming this summer. The Triple Crown includes 21 miles across the English Channel between England and France, 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, and 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island in New York.

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Barbara Held

Last summer she swam the Manhattan Island Marathon and two years ago, at age 56, the retired firefighter/paramedic broke the record for the oldest woman to swim the Catalina Channel in nine hours, 36 minutes and 53 seconds.

Held crossed the English Channel on Aug. 24, slipping into the water at 2:30 a.m. coated in sunscreen with a light affixed to her American flag swim cap and a glow stick on her back.

“I was the only swimmer that day because the conditions were not ideal,” Held said. “I finished just before a storm came through so I was really lucky.”

She finished in 12 hours and 10 minutes, walking up onto the shore in Cape Gris Net, France, to applause from a handful of strangers.

Completing the solo swim of the English Channel came after a two-year wait to book a boat pilot and get a tide. Tides and weather play a critical role in the crossing and swimmers must wait until the conditions are safe — some swimmers may never even get permitted to cross.

“The channel is 21 miles across but no one ever swims 21 miles because on the English side the river goes north and on the France side the river goes south; two currents that are very strong,” Held said. “I had to go way north out of my way to break the current.”

Held’s crossing boat was “no luxury at all,” just a small shell-fishing boat. There was only one covered area for the captain and his son, and a toilet was given a small amount of privacy by three plywood walls. Her observer and official recorder were on board while she swam.

“It wasn’t a pleasant swim and there’s so much waiting it’s mentally tough,” Held said. “The conditions weren’t terrible but it felt like something was pushing against me the whole way.”

Despite the push, Held kept a 68 strokes per minute count the entire way.

The water temperature was about 60 degrees, slightly choppy and the channel was full of giant ferry boats, so lit up that Held said they looked like Christmas trees on their side as she swam. Sometimes boats can hold a channel swimmer up, but Held was lucky that none crossed her path.

Held completed feedings along the way while treading water, drinking Cytocarb and Cytomax sports performance drinks every three hours, once mixing with a little oatmeal for some “sloppy porridge.”

About six hours in she had some Jelly Babies, an English candy.

“I also had some M&Ms, just to give me a little break from the liquids at 10 hours because I just got so tired of drinking, I needed something to chew,” said Held, noting the saltwater made her mouth a “mess,” coating her teeth and throat.

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