By JACK WILSON
Special to the Advocate
Bumping into a friend at a downtown coffee shop recently triggered a flood of experiences we shared on a strikingly warm day in the English Channel more than 25 years ago.
Joe Towers, a huge and likable fellow, was sipping coffee and our conversation eventually turned to the channel swim by former Red Deer firefighter John Cormier.
On that glorious Aug. 8, 1988, afternoon, we helped encourage, guide and cheer Cormier to dodge stinging jellyfish and the flotsam and jetsam of the unforgiving channel. Throw in the occasional container ship and you get the picture.
Cormier, then 29, fought the odds of making the 34-km swim from Dover to the French coast. He had trained in Sylvan Lake, taking long swims to be prepared for the chilly channel.
It takes a strong and determined person to swim the channel. But it also requires science: when to leave Dover is an art that only experienced ocean bass fishers know. The ebb and flow, and the nuances of the channel are the fisher’s stock and trade.
Twenty-seven years ago, Cormier was one of only 340 people and the 10th Canadian to complete the swim — out of almost 4,000 people worldwide who had tried to that point.
And he was out to conquer the channel to raise about $25,000 to help fund the new pediatrics unit at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
The conditions were ideal. The channel was mostly calm and the air temperature was 26C. The water was 15C. The guide captain had picked the perfect day to cross. Tides and sea conditions must be just right or you may encounter problems.
Cormier was plastered head to foot by Towers, his trainer and friend, with grease and zinc paste, to help ward off the cold and glaring sun.
I was along to record the event for Advocate readers, but I was also selected as the observer for the Channel Swimming Association. I was essentially the only neutral person on board that day, so I was selected. Secretly, though, I was probably John’s biggest fan.
Journalists are expected to take a neutral position when covering an event but how could you not cheer for a guy you know from your own city who is plunging into the channel for a charity benefiting children?
I was paid a princely sum of 25 English pounds for the honour of recording hourly stroke rates, feeding times and ensuring no one on board touched John or else he could be disqualified.
Departing Dover’s Shakespeare Beach in the early morning, the thrill of the day was compounded by the thought that little boats like the Swim Ranger left Dover and other ports all across England to bring home 300,000 Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1941.
I also recalled that my dad had sailed from Dover a few weeks after D-Day with the Canadian army in June 1944.
There was a tear in my eye when we shoved off in Dover, remembering all those soldiers who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom.
Bass fisherman Richard Armstrong’s boat, aptly named the Swim Ranger, was like a sheep dog guiding Cormier.
The hours rolled by but each one on board took turns shouting encouragement to John, feeding him at intervals using poles with hooks to give him granola bars, Coca Cola, hot chocolate and bananas.
When Cormier finally hit the beach at Wissant, France, to be greeted by more than 200 sunbathers, a tear came to his eye. He had crossed the channel in 11 hours and 44 minutes.
The reception on the French beach was unparalleled at the time, Armstrong said then.
He had never seen so many people crowd around a swimmer in his many years of guiding. Summer is the low season for bass fishers and guiding swimmers helps pay the way for their families.
Scores of people, who realized a channel attempt was about to end in success, waded into the water to greet John. Little children had made wreaths of daisies to drape around the neck of the powerful Canadian, who was utterly spent and simply sat in the shallow surf revelling in his moment of success.
Exhaustion gripped his body as he barely had the strength left to support himself as tourists and locals surrounded him.
I remember trying to hold onto the camera in one hand to snap pictures and swigging champagne with the other while standing in about a metre of turbulent ocean. The bubbly got a little salty, but who cared.
By the time it was over, the only one left dry was Cormier, because he was bundled up in blankets for the return trip.
Cormier and Towers were honoured that evening after our return to Dover by firefighters from the Dover Fire Department who had befriended them.
Meanwhile, I was in my bed and breakfast room banging out the story to send home. I may have missed the party but I didn’t miss the deadline.
In those days, it had to be read word for word over the telephone to our newsroom assistant in Red Deer. Email and cellphones didn’t exist.
I also remember hustling early the next morning into London on the train to get my negatives to the Canadian Press office so they could be transmitted to Canada.
On their return to Canada, Cormier and Towers were given a hearty welcome. They rode in a convertible through the city, accompanied by the City of Red Deer Fire Department vehicles and RCMP.
Cormier left the city fire department in 2009 after 26 years and is now a health and safety co-ordinator with PCL Construction in London, Ont.
That clear August day was one of the most cherished moments in my three-decade journalistic career.
Two years later, Queen Elizabeth 11 officially opened the pediatric unit that John Cormier had so remarkably contributed to.
Jack Wilson is a retired Red Deer Advocate reporter.