David Dammerman traveled to France just for the chance to pocket some beach stones.
It’s a tradition for long-distance swimmers. Once miles and hours in water are complete, men and women dry off and examine solid ground.
“You look forward to finding some souvenir pebbles,” Dammerman said.
The 44-year-old Saratoga Springs swimmer found his prizes Sept. 25, a few minutes after completing a solo swim across the English Channel. Dammerman spent 10 hours and 38 minutes in the water to finish a 27-mile international workout he began planning in 2011.
Dammerman, CEO of Great Mountain Investment Associates, knows caps and goggles. He’s been swimming competitively since age 8, swam for his high school team in Connecticut and later for Hamilton College. Not long after college, he got out of the pool and stayed out for 16 years.
Dammerman began swimming again in 2008 at the Saratoga Springs YMCA. He met some workout partners and was soon out of the pool and into open water. In 2011, as Dammerman prepared for a 25-mile crossing of Lake Memphremagog — from Newport, Vt., to Magog, Quebec — the English Channel plan took shape. He found an English boat pilot who would make the trip, but the best booking was two years away.
Dammerman trained, beginning days with 4 a.m. visits to pools or lakes. He swam at least two hours a day. Focus became difficult during the summer when Dammerman’s father, Dennis, former vice chairman and chief financial officer of the General Electric Co., died July 23.
Still, Dammerman was fit for his early autumn appointment, and ready for an endeavor fewer than 350 solo Americans have made. About 1,400 people around the world have conquered the channel.
People seem interested in athletic mariners. Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is scheduled to complete a 48-hour marathon lap swim in New York’s Herald Square today. In September, the 64-year-old Nyad became the first person confirmed to have swum from Cuba to Florida without a protective shark cage.
Dammerman’s party included his boat pilot and the vessel’s first mate. An observer from the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, a governing body for channel crossings, also was on board. Swimmers Bob Singer and Deb Roberts, of Queensbury, and coach Dennie Swan-Scott from the Glens Falls YMCA were on the swimmer’s support crew. Judith Dore, Dammerman’s wife, tracked progress on the Dover shore through a GPS feed on the Internet and text messages from the crew.
The swimmer expected darkness when he entered the channel at 2 a.m. He had to deal with fog and not much of a moon. And early going in the 62-degree water was rough.
“The hardest part is trying to find any kind of a rhythm,” Dammerman said. “If you can find a rhythm, you can get into a zone, and I just couldn’t find it for the first four or five hours with waves hitting me. There was a spotlight on the boat that was trying to keep track of me so they knew where I was, and it was kind of shining in my face. I couldn’t really figure out how close I was to the boat, so I was having a lot of trouble tracking where I needed to be and not get too far from the boat, not run into the boat. Between that and the waves kind of crashing onto my arms and my head and my face, I just couldn’t find a rhythm.”
Some jellyfish found him, though, and Dammerman weathered some stings.
“I had great people on the boat, they just kept feeding me every half-hour, and I kept ticking off the minutes and counting my strokes until the next time I got to have a nice warm bottle of sports drink,” Dammerman said.
He said he counted a lot during the trip.
“The other things I thought about were just images of swimming next to all the friends that I’ve swum with, all the swimming partners I’ve swum with over the years and different lakes and imagining their different styles and trying to keep up with some of them,” Dammerman said.
Swimming in channel water provided a unique sensation.
“It’s extremely salty, and that’s good and bad,” Dammerman said of the water. “You don’t want to swallow too much of it, but it also gives you some really nice buoyancy, and that really helps the swim. As you reach the coast, the water gets very, very cloudy, so you know you’re close. But you don’t know how close.”
The approach to France can be tricky. Swimmers must find the Cap Gris Nez — the cliffs of the Cap are the closest point of France to England. They don’t want the tidal flow pushing them off course.
“If you miss the Cap Gris Nez, France gets further and further away. That’s the closest point,” Dammerman said.
There were other concerns.
“I was worried the entire time that I would have some kind of shoulder problem or something like that that would cause me to have to abandon the swim, because I’ve had those kinds of problems in the past,” Dammerman said. “I was just hoping I’d get to the other side and have it not be too terribly painful, and everything worked out really well. I came out of the water really healthy.”
Dammerman completed the trip — at Audinghen, France — just in time. Smart swimmers will now begin their channel projects next year.
“The weather is traditionally difficult in the channel anyway, difficult to predict, rainy and windy,” Dammerman said. “But as you get through the end of September, the water starts getting colder, the air temperature starts getting colder, which also contributes to your feeling of cold in the water, and the weather starts to deteriorate a bit. This is the very end of the season.”
Dammerman will keep swimming. He plans to help fellow distance buff Bethany Bosch, of Rutland, Vt., prepare for her channel attempt.
Pebbles from France will be used inside the Dammerman residence.
“They’re good paperweights,” Dammerman said.