Jurzynski retires from channel swimming

The intrinsic irony of long-distance, cold-water channel swimming is that the less body fat a swimmer has to insulate himself against the cold, the harder it becomes to endure, regardless of his physical fitness.

Peter Jurzynski (at left) with Mayor Guy Allemand of Sangatte, France earlier this month

Peter Jurzynski, the borough man who can claim more successful solo swims across the English Channel (14) than any other American, learned this lesson during his Aug. 5, 2009 attempt to paddle across the 21-mile-wide Strait of Dover. The cold proved overwhelming for a newly lean Jurzynski, who had lost a significant amount of weight after undergoing coronary bypass surgery in May 2008 and amending his diet to prevent future heart problems.

Jurzynski faced the same problem when he made another attempt Tuesday—his second since the operation, 20th overall and last, he says.

He set off just before 5:30 a.m from Shakespeare Beach in southeast England, near Dover. He made it about one-quarter of the way across the channel after swimming for about 4.5 hours, he said, before realizing that while he could have continued for a few more hours, we wouldn’t have been able to make it all the way to Calais, France, a typical landing for channel swimmers.

“When you’re in the channel, you know it’s a long swim and that’s the point,” Jurzynski said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s not that you couldn’t do 8 hours or 9 hours, but to double that is a whole different thing. … I think I made a prudent decision. I knew I was a fourth or maybe even a third of the way across, so I could see that it would be 16 to 18 hours, and I was getting cold at that point and I felt I wouldn’t be able to make it.”

Jurzynski said his weight loss was the key factor—and perhaps the only factor—in this attempt’s failure. He said he was in peak physical condition, had been acclimating to the cold waters of the channel since early June and commanded a faster, more graceful stroke than he’d ever had in his life.

“I did a lot of training,” he said. “I don’t think, really, I could have done any more training. I was really at my peak. If I had waited until the end of August, I might not have gotten such a good day.”

Jurzysnki had intended to wait until then, when the water will be several degrees warmer, to start the familiar journey—but July 20 dawned too ideal a day for a channel swim to pass up.

“It was a perfect day; it was my call,” he said. “The wind was down, the seascape was slight. … Everything was good, except I was getting cold.” He said he might not have gotten as good a day as Tuesday in August, when channel waters tend to be choppier.

“There’s very few good days to do a channel swim in the summer,” he said. “There’s a handful of days. … I’m so experienced with what to look for: wind conditions, shipping forecast—I knew today was going to be the best day for the stillness of the seascape.”

The lack of windchill kept the cold at bay, but the 59-degree channel waters were cold enough for Jurzynski, who said he’ll continue training and traveling in France and the U.K. but “retire” from solo channel swimming.

That’s not to say he’s discouraged by this most recent failed attempt. While he conceded it was certainly disappointing, he said he was still batting .700, so to speak, having succeeded in 14 of 20 channel swims.

“I don’t view it as a failure; I view it as a success. … Some of the best swimmers in the world fail the English Channel. I made it 14 times.”