The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Ready to Take the Plunge

By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian

DOVER, ENGLAND - At sunset, Sunday, France glowed like the best-dressed woman at a party.  Her distant coastline blushed peachy pink in the sun's last rays.

A group of Oregon swimmers stood above the rocky beach at Dover, gazed across the 21-mile stretch of water and wondered about how that coastline will look up close.

They might find out today.

Team Gaffney -- a dozen Oregonians who agreed to help Portlander Karen Gaffney swim a relay across the English Channel -- is scheduled to begin swimming this morning in a crossing members hope will take about 12 hours.  Their swim will begin about 10:00 a.m. from the beach below Shakespeare's Cliff near Dover; with an eight-hour time difference, that's about 2 a.m. in Oregon.

Gaffney, 23, will be the first athlete with Down syndrome to attempt an English Channel swim.  The story of how Gaffney grew into an accomplished swimmer was featured last week in a series of articles in The Oregonian.

Sunday morning, about the time many of the relay swimmers were arriving in England bleary-eyed after flying over night from Portland, Duncan Taylor broke the news:

"You get a forecast like this, you go for it," he told Gaffney.  "You can't ask for a better day."

Taylor is the secretary of the Channel Swimming Association, which sets strict rules for and keeps official records of solo swimmers and relay teams attempting the watery conquest.

Swimmers are given a four-day window in which to plan their swim.  The captains of the pilot boats that accompany swimmers watch the weather forecasts and tides.  They make the call on when and if swimmers will go.

The channel's weather and water conditions are notoriously fickle.

Gaffney and her mother, father, and brother arrived in England on July 10 so Gaffney could train in the channel with Taylor.  They have seen gale-force winds, rain, crashing waves and white capped seas during their stay.  So they couldn't help but smile at today's comparatively serene forecast.

In recent weeks, several prospective channel swimmers have been turned away by snarly weather.

Each July to September, when the seas are least formidable, about 50 solo swimmers and 10 to 12 relay teams form around the world attempt the crossing.  Fewer than 50 percent of the solo swimmers succeed, but relay teams tend to fare far better.

Sunday night, Team Gaffney, plus assorted friends and relatives, gathered in a Dover restaurant to fuel its muscular and mental resolve for the morning.  With pints of English beer and bottles of water, they toasted one another, worked out final logistics and listened as Taylor explained how the day might go.

Holding up a navigational chart of the channel, he pointed toward the English shore and slid his finger smoothly across to France.  Then he told the swimmers it would not be that easy.

Taylor explained how the tide is likely to push them north first thing in the morning, then south later on.  If the swimmers are too slow and end up too far south, he warned, the next tidal change could send them back toward England.

The team members, who will rotate through one-hour shifts in the water, swimming at least two legs apiece, will have to be especially efficient mid channel or risk making such slower progress toward the end.

The English Channel, where currents from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet, holds plenty of hazards; shipping traffic so dense you'd think there must be a sale on French wine or English cheese; jellyfish keen to sting swimmers happening by; marine fuel residue that leaves a dirty film on swimmers skin; a water temperature that varies from 59 to 64 degrees -- it was 61 on Sunday; and, of course, seasickness.

On Sunday afternoon, Taylor took Lindy Mount 41, of Southwest Portland and Sara Quan, 28, of Bend out on his fishing boat, the Mary Mane, for a practice run.  The channel frothed with wind whipped whitecaps, so Taylor suggested the Oregon swimmers take a dip close to the harbor wall in Folkestone, west of Dover, whether the water was calmer.

Gaffney took a rare day off from training and coached Mount and Quan from the vessel's pilothouse.  The swimmers learned hand signals telling them to move farther from the boat, to come closer, to ease up and to pick up speed.

They emerged from the water adorned in goose bumps but glad for the sneak peek at what today is likely to hold.

"It's really good to get the feel for what it's like to be near the boat," Mount said, her cheeks red from the cold.  "I totally feel more confident."

Gaffney is comfortable, too.  After swimming several times from Taylor's boat and daily from shore or in a nearby pool during the last two weeks in England, she wants to get the show on the road.

Jim Gaffney, Karen's father and the man who taught her to swim, summed it up: "Karen's on cloud nine."

The evening before Team Gaffney was to swim toward France, she agreed.

"I've been training for this all my life," she said.

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