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James Islander Ready For Plunge

Clay Barbour

Posted online: Sunday, 05 August 2001

The buoy's name is NDBC Station 62304.

Somewhere in the middle of the English Channel it sits - a silent, floating monitor - placed there by the National Data Buoy Center to record weather patterns.

If the water temperature drops, Station 62304 knows it. If the wind picks up, it takes notice. If the seas get rough, the buoy records it.

And if NDBC Station 62304 knows it, Kathleen Wilson knows it.

Every morning, Wilson, 38, climbs out of bed, logs onto her computer and scrolls directly to the NDBC Web site.

In two weeks, the James Island mother of two leaves for Dover, England, where she will attempt to become the first South Carolina resident to successfully swim the English Channel. She has trained for three years with that single goal in mind.

But now, with most of her training done and little but space between her and the channel, Wilson has turned her attention to an intangible that could derail her crossing before it begins.

"I've turned into a total weather junkie," Wilson says, clicking 62304's icon. "I must check this two or three times a day. This buoy lets me know what's going on over there. And when it comes to the channel, weather is huge."

This morning the channel's air temperature is a nice 65.5 degrees. The water temperature is 63 degrees. The wave height is barely 1 foot.

"Now those are good swimming conditions," she says. "I hope it's like that when I get over there."

Wilson, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's principal harpist, is an experienced long-distance swimmer. In 1997 she swam 12.5 miles around Key West, Fla., her first long-distance event. And in 1999, she successfully completed the Manhattan Island swim, a 28.5-mile race that gave her the confidence to tackle the channel.

While the distance between Dover, and Calais, France, is only 21.8 miles, the obstacles faced by channel swimmers make it the toughest swim of its kind in the world.

More than 4,400 people have attempted a solo crossing of the English Channel in the event's 126-year history; only 582 have been successful, 180 of them women. Two swimmers have died.

It is the busiest shipping lane in the world, one that hides sewage, oil slicks, patches of scratchy seaweed and swarms of jellyfish. And those aren't even the biggest concerns.

Hypothermia from the channel's frigid waters - between 55 and 63 degrees, depending on the time of year - account for a full 80 percent of failures.

But while hypothermia is the biggest threat, weather runs a close second.

The English Channel's climate is notoriously fickle, changing from calm to rough within a few hours, making it a perilous journey, even for the strongest swimmer.

And this year the weather has been especially unforgiving.

According to officials with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, the organization piloting Wilson across the channel, only two of its six scheduled solo crossings have been successful. Two were postponed due to weather. And in at least one case, the rough weather forced a swimmer to give up. (Officials with the Channel Swimming Association, the other organization piloting swimmers across the channel, would not release information on this year's swims until the end of the season.)

Channel hopeful Nick Olmos-lau, a doctor from Washington, D.C., ended his July 15 attempt after just 3 hours and 51 minutes, due to seasickness.

"If the swells get big enough, seasickness is a real issue," says Mike Oram, CS&FP secretary and 20-year channel pilot.

Oram and his crew have supervised more than 450 attempts. They've seen enough to know that sometimes a successful crossing depends on the channel's mood.

"You have to be a strong swimmer even to try the channel," Oram says. "So it's often other elements, like weather, that get them."

Such matters concern Wilson, who finds herself in a lull these days, following the most intense training period of her life.

She is done with the daily 10,000-meter swims, the vigorous workouts in the gym and the open water swims in the Folly and Cooper rivers. Wilson is not willing to risk an injury so close to her swim.

So from now until she boards a plane bound for England on Aug. 19, Wilson will limit her training to light 7,000-meter swims, five days a week.

This gives her body time to heal from the wear and tear of the past year. But it also frees up her mind to focus - or perhaps fixate - on the challenge ahead.

"For the longest time this has been almost surreal, just a mark on my calendar," Wilson says. "But now, it's very real. And at times, kind of scary."

Wilson's mood alternates daily, from nonchalant to confident to scared. She has experienced similar mood swings before her other big swims.

"It just gets worse, the closer I get to the actual swim," she says. "Once I'm in Dover, it'll really hit me."

- The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)