The temperature hovers a few degrees above freezing, and under a night sky, the only sound is that of waves slapping the side of a boat.

Erik Rushton stands on its side, just a few feet above those waves. And then he jumps in. It’s not a dare, but it is a challenge. Rushton is part of a four-person team trying to relay round-trip across the English Channel.

And it’s his turn.

“You’ve got to go in, and you know your teammates are counting on you. … You kind of have a bit of that teammate pressure,” he said. “You’ve got to psyche yourself each time, and say ‘OK, it’s time to get in.’ “

Crossing the English Channel is one of the more daunting feats in open water swimming, and Rushton can tell you all about it. The 42-year-old Messalonskee graduate, along with his teammates with Team Feniks of ZwemAnalyse, successfully completed both legs across the Channel in September, making the trip from England to France and back to England, a route covering 71 miles, in 24 hours and 43 minutes.

“It was just relief, in a way, and excitement that we did it,” said Rushton, now a Netherlands resident who completed the journey along with Jannie Vennik, Rick de Cocq and Raymond Oosterbaan. “You’ve got that whole team-bonding experience. We all managed to support each other. There was no bickering, there was no fighting, everyone stayed positive.”

Rushton gained an affinity for open water swimming while growing up in the Belgrade Lakes region and spending one summer after another swimming in North Pond.

“Swimming open water was always interesting to me,” he said. “I’m also not a sprinter, so anything involving long distance, no flip turns, that was always appealing to me.”

When work as a toxicologist took him to Europe, Rushton looked for ways to further stoke that passion. He found ZwemAnalyse on Facebook, and found people with the shared goal of tackling the English Channel.

“Just fortuitously, we had similar speeds and, all four of us, an interest,” he said. “That worked out well for us.”

Much like running the Boston Marathon, however, swimming the English Channel isn’t as simple as getting off the couch and giving it a shot. Rushton’s team, one of 10 attempting the swim, had to qualify and prove it could handle the rigors of constant currents and water that never reaches 60 degrees. There was first a time test, which Rushton’s team passed with a 13.6-mile swim across IJsselmeer, a bay in the northern Netherlands, and then a cold water test, which Rushton accomplished by swimming for two hours in sub-60 degree water in Rotterdam.

The time then came to try the Channel, a swim that, at it’s shortest distance across the Strait of Dover, is just under 21 miles.

“It’s 21 miles … if you can nail it exactly,” said Rushton, whose team began at about 12:40 p.m. on Sept. 26. “We didn’t quite (do it).”

A more meandering path was the least of the team’s concerns. The water is unrelentingly cold, and Rushton said the start of each hour-long swim brought the same icy jolt.

“Every time that you jumped in, you get that first shock and it took your breath away a bit,” he said. “But then you start swimming, and afterward you’re like ‘Oh OK, it’s like swimming in the ocean in Maine.’ … I don’t know, you go numb or something.”

As the journey progressed, the challenges of crossing the Channel hit Rushton and his team full-force. The support boat only goes as fast as the swimmers, and the crawling pace caused one of Rushton’s teammates to feel seasick. Currents got so strong, one swimmer only went forward about 10 meters in an hour. With only three hours in between swims, there was hardly any time to rest after drying off. And when each swimmer started to warm up aboard the boat, it was time to go back in.

“You don’t realize how cold it is, until you get out and lay on your towel again and go back in,” Rushton said. “(You) get nice and warm, and two hours later you have to jump back in and do it again. And again. And again.”

As night fell, that meant undressing again in air temperatures between 35 and 38 degrees, and jumping back into the chilling sea.

“A bit of it is mind over matter,” Rushton said. “I thought (Oosterbaan) was going to pass out and say ‘We only go one way. We’re not going to go back.’ I didn’t want to be the one to do it.”

As if that wasn’t enough, fatigue soon set in. Swimmers see signs from the boat every 15 minutes notifying them how much time is left. Rushton began to notice he wasn’t seeing any.

“You’re thinking ‘Why haven’t I gotten a sign? They must have forgotten me,’ ” he said.

Rushton figured he had about 15 minutes left when he saw it.

“Finally, they show the sign. ‘You have 45 minutes remaining,’ ” he said. “You swear in your mind you’ve already swam 45 minutes. … You’re like ‘I’ve got a ways to go.’ “

Rushton, however, was the one to finally reach the French coast, stepping on land shortly after 1 a.m. At that point, despite the elements they had endured, the team was rejuvenated. They had crossed the English Channel. They could do it again.

“You get there and you’re like ‘We’ve done it, we’ve managed. We’re good. We can definitely go back,’ ” Rushton said. “(You think) ‘Let’s just get going, because now we can go back and the sooner we get started, the sooner we get done.’ “

They were done around 2 p.m., back in England and with a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s just relief and smiles, and we’re like ‘We did it,’ ” Rushton said. “Looking around, head nods from each person.

“Then we’re thinking ‘We’re all really tired. Let’s get back to the boat so we can get home and take a nap.’ “

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM


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