Waterskiing for Charley’s life

Skimming stones on lakes is cool. It’s a rite of passage for a child, bouncing rocks on the surface before they sink, with distance and number of bounces being the overall macho goal. Yesterday, for three hours, I was the stone, hurtling out into the lake with nothing but speed to keep me above the surface, bouncing all the way to America and back to Toronto. Over 106km to slowly sink and let sink in what we had just achieved knowing this had not been done before.

Six weeks ago, my wife Laura and I sat at dinner in awe of family and friends coming up with wacky and wonderful ideas to raise money for charity.

Isn’t charity such a generic term? From people shaking tin cans on streets, to table sized cheques at corporate sky scrapers downtown. All collecting for a cause, for some injustice. But the “charity” we thought about that night was a person, a friend, someone that personally has affected our lives. In this case, it’s not charity we worked towards, it’s necessity.

Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in January 2016, meet Charley. I spent six months in France then a further 6 months in Greece with this soft spoken, larger than life character. We worked abroad as beach monkey’s by summer and ski monkey’s by winter. We didn’t stay in touch that well after seasons, but found ourselves living in the same city back in the UK years later, nearly starting a company together. Charley was given literally 2 months to live in January. After battling 6 rounds of chemo to shrink cancers in her gall bladder, peritoneum and stomach, chemo became too great a risk to her heart and by design, in her case, no longer worked. So the focus became immunotherapy…

At a cost of £100,000 GBP, immunotherapy is understandably not available on the NHS in the UK. It provides breakthroughs in diseases previously thought to be incurable within the human body. By reengineering the immune system, Doctors in research (and interestingly, what my wife does for a living at Sick kids Hospital in Toronto, ON.) can program the body to fight these tumours and cancers diminishing them to an operable size.

As an example, a high percentage of readers will have contracted chicken pox once in their lives, but why only once? Because your body reprogrammed itself to recognise this disease and fight it next time it was airborne. You learned something new today….

So back to the dinner and feeling motivated to join (at that time) 23 other events happening across the globe for Charley, we hatched an idea that leads us to this article.

The plan

We looked at our geographical location, what could Toronto provide us as a challenge that people would sit up and take notice and connect with? A city built for outdoorsy people, cycling a long distance is something covered on a weekly bases, SUP’ing 10km is a Saturday morning prerequisite before breakfast for some households, so we focussed our attention to the lake and activities that Charley and I did together in our early 20’s in Greece and France and that we continued to do with Laura as we entered our 30’s in the UK. Laura piped up, “has anyone ever water-skied across Lake Ontario?” Suddenly the “no cell phones at the dinner table” rule went out the window and our planning began.

We measured the distance, assessed the dangers and looked up who had tried this before. Google gave some insight to a team of 4 raising more for the United Way in 2003 taking turns every 10mins 1 way, and we think someone attempted a ski across to America but not the return… So the goal was set.

I became a waterski and wakeboard instructor in my 20s, and have grown up in the watersports industry and to this day, am a confessed wetsuit pervert. Laura, a surfer and wakeboarder herself saw this as a great way to firstly get people to notice the cause, and secondly do something for Charley that she can relate to.

Having competed and represented Great Britain as a skier for a number of years, Charley spent literally years of her childhood competing and travelling to her local lake where her parents own a boat at the waterski club, so we knew this would mean more to her than seeing how many pies we can eat in an hour!!!

Next, securing a boat, rope, skis, charts, a spotter, and finally a date.

Laura volunteered to drive right there and then, I would ski the distance, and as I work at a marina water sports company, we secured a boat, and a local company kindly donated rope and borrowed a pair of skis from my buddy Dan. The whole thing came together rather quickly.

Training

So water-skiing doesn’t appeal to all. It’s a recreational sport that usually associates itself with cottage life and once you are up and skiing, doesn’t hold many alternatives than going from side to side. Distance skiing (as I am learning the day after the ski today) is not about strength or having arms like the Hulk. Its routed deep in the 2 words I repeated as a 20 year old instructor over and over again to my students that I couldn’t get out of my head: “hips forward”. My lower back and waist are really the sore points today with slight over extension in the arms to be expected. Laura and I trained once a week after work so she could get used to the boat and I could learn the best posture for long distance skiing.

Had we set the benchmark too high, just to fail in front of everyone we know?

  • 1st training ski – 10miles,
  • 2nd training ski – 17miles,
  • 3rd training ski- 12 miles and set to take on the 65miles total in 1 week.

I have just realised, including the training, I skied 100miles (160km) in total.

Just off to measure my new arm span…

August 28th 2016 (Sunday) 7am.

Laura and I are up about 5.30am, which even surprised the cats, still dark out, and we are ready to get this train moving. A last minute weather check the night before looked like rain, wind and a miserable 4 hours ahead of us, but my buddy Dan, who leant us the skis, felt like a quick trip to the states and back on a Sunday morning was just what he needed. So he drove us to the boat and we met Tom, another bud, who was to carry out the navigation part of the trip, so Laura could concentrate on the driving, me on the skiing, and Dan checking I was not left in the middle of the lake, while the others enjoyed a jolly trip to the States.

Last minute weather check and a making sure that we had additional gas, radios, first-aid kit, lifejackets, and a back up plan should something go wrong, we pulled out of the dock and headed out to the Eastern gap in Toronto’s inner harbour, to set our sights on America (Fort Niagara @27 miles at 145 degrees SE).

Laura struck gold with an idea to keep the UK in the loop (5hrs ahead of us) by live streaming on Facebook at strategic points en route so Charley, family and friends could be apart of the show as it took place. Our opening live feed scheduled for 7am had over 1000 viewers when I jumped in the water and shouted, “GO”.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 19.17.34

 

The first hour was great, we passed halfway into the lake without a hitch and I sang the “Team America” theme tune over an over out loud to pass the time. I have sailed some long distances in my time including spending a month at sea on a couple of occasions with the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so staring at the horizon with nothing BUT the horizon is nothing new to me. Mentally, it’s a bit more challenging when it’s your physical limitations that will determine whether you will make landfall this time. Still, you dig deep and put your trust in the charts. They wouldn’t lie about America being there would they?

We enter American waters and the wind and wave gods have a different agenda than us that day. We were met by a virtual Customs/Immigration officer in the form of the weather and he was going to make sure his black gloves, blue shirt and dark sunglasses made for a bumpy trip into their territory – Much like arriving at Buffalo I thought.

The faster the boat goes, the easier it is to waterski. Think of it like a bicycle, cycling as slow as possible down a white line on a road, you can’t steer straight can you? Go fast, you can take your hands off the bars and high five pensioners on the sidewalk.

It is the same as skiing – if you slow the boat down due to weather, the ski’s become unstable and the work on your arms (after already covering 20miles) is like swimming in maple syrup, coupled with the fact that all of the US coastline is flat and with no major landmarks, it took us a few minutes to realize we were off course a fraction. A quick alteration on Laura’s part who was still doing live streaming, driving the boat and concentrating on where we should go, let us pick out the green navigational buoy of Fort Niagara which was to be our waypoint turning mark and my only opportunity to stop for a wee! I’m a man – I can’t do 2 things at once!!!

Halfway

Looping the buoy at Niagara is a big milestone for us. Firstly, if we call it quits, my arms snap off or we can’t make it back, at least we have set out and achieved something. A lot of people asked me what happens if you stop, what happens if you can’t do the whole thing. Nothing happens, the support for Charley has already happened and sometimes it takes a whacky idea for people to support the outcome, no matter what.

Secondly, when training for a marathon, you never train to full distance. I ran plenty of half’s, in training a couple of years ago, at one stage Laura and I were running a half marathon every Saturday for a month in preparation for our full 44km (26.2mile) slog. So much the same, getting halfway on this trip made me realise what I needed to pull out the bag to complete the mission, and at THAT stage of the trip, I knew it was doable.

So after admiring the view of Fort Niagara and laughing at 20 American boats away from their wives 8am fishing. I donned the skis for the 2nd leg of the trip, leaving them with bemused looks of “where the hell did they come from”, and more importantly, “where the hell are they going?”.

waterski

I once again, set myself up in the water, my back to the States and the boat pointing firmly for the CN tower, some 27 miles away, Laura opened up the throttle, the engine roared into life, the rope began to pull me and we were off. The difference to the last hour? We were definitely past the half way mark, and the tower, if you really strained your eyes, was a homing beacon, beckoning us home.

A turn in the weather became our saving grace, an hour 36minute crossing from North to South was going to be considerably easier and I felt confident the 5:30am wakeup call from Steve Jobs would not be in vain.

The wind had swung almost 180 degrees to the South West which gave us a gentle nudge the whole way back, much like a jetliner with a tail wind, it gets you there quicker… everyone likes that!

The imaginary coastguard Immigration and customs officer had decided we were not smuggling maple syrup into the country and we experienced really great skiing conditions on the way back. This gave Laura the chance to get the boat going faster, and just like the skimming stone, I sat higher on the water with less work in the arms, so a 1hr36minute crossing turned into an 1hr return trip!

The tower grew taller, I recognised more landmarks leading us towards the opening to the Eastern Gap by Cherry Street but my hands and forearms by the last stages now, were not in a good way….

  • No matter what grip on the handle, what position I pushed my hips into, it was pain all over. Ever gone between a door frame with your back against one bit and your arms and legs against the other, lifting you off the ground? Do that for 3 hours, and then we’ll talk…
  • Lactic acid build-up from tensed muscles that I normally only use for 15 minute ski’s, were now screaming at me.
  • Both my outer toes on each foot were numb, prompting thoughts of “will they just fall off?” and “Can you balance if you lose a small toe? Oh no that’s your big toe, we’re good.”

But one thing kept pulling me back round, something in my mind said “this isn’t a training session, this is the real deal,” all those people who donated online, all those people who watched our live feeds throughout the morning, all rooting for one thing…. Charley.

The finish

We rounded the channel markers at Cherry Street, and with 200m to go, promptly ran out of gas! With Murphy’s Law in full effect, we travel 106km, and only 200m separates us from the finish/pub. Luckily our safety plan had judged an additional 50L just in case. So a minute later, before we went live for our last 200 metres, Laura lined the boat up with the finish line in sight. I dug deep as the shoulders really had nothing left to give, popped out of the water and chased down the final leg to stop where we had started… A to B to A, Toronto to Fort Niagara and back, sinking like that stone that had be slung out of the start gates 3hrs previous for 106km.

Our planning paid off, the guys high fived in the boat, they were awesome, and my wife – amazing! But it’s to all those people who donated, supported and are still saying their congratulations to us that make it more emotional than we realised.

We really, just wanted to do our part – We love you Charley.

 

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