Chasing the Dragons
A full report on the Channel Crossing by Karen Trotter

After filming one of the training sessions at Liverpool, we decided to get shots of the brand new expedition dragon boats being transported to Dover. The two video cameras sat idle on the back shelf.. I stared out between them, eyes fixed on the trailer behind. Dan had already got some motorway shots out of the front and rear windows and from out of the sun roof. Probably enough to go with shots of loading the boats at Liverpool earlier that morning.

The back wheels of the trailer drifted over the white lines into the outside line. 'It's going to snake Stassi!' Two lorries behind were already flashing lights urgently, as I yelled at the driver. The unwieldy load swept across all three lanes of the M58. I saw Dan grab one of the cameras, a brand new digital Panasonic, and wrap his arms around it as if protecting a small child. The sideways jerks got violent as the Range Rover was twisted in screeching shapes across the tarmac. 'I'm sorry guys!' Stassi groaned.

A blizzard of sunlit prisms exploded, window glass shattering as the ground rushed to my face. The car skidded on its side, then onto its roof, the trailer crashing down on top, the two white dragon boats pointing to the sky like giant angels.

Six weeks later in an editing studio in Scotland, the video editor flicked keys till a row of images popped up on a screen. 'We'll jazz up the white lines on the road', he suggested, 'then fade into black. Then we'll have Dan's shots from inside the Range Rover with everybody upside down. Then the wide shot of the whole crash scene'

Dan had pressed the 'record' button on the digi-cam before crawling from the wreckage. Our editor described this as 'the sign of a true professional' I wondered what the dragon boaters would make of it! 'I told them you might do some filming of us', Steve Macdonald had announced over the 'phone early this year. We had filmed Steve the previous summer, when he paddled around the coast of mainland Britain in a sea kayak. Now, he was one of six visually impaired participants chosen to take part in the 'Dragons Across the Channel' event. I took down the details: 1st ever attempt to cross English Channel by Chinese Dragon Boat; event to raise 20,000 for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association; 40 paddlers, six of them blind, several others from insurance companies, and a core team of experienced dragon boaters. Sponsored by UAP insurance company. 'And what are Dragon Boats?', I asked, never having seen one. 'Big open canoes with dragon heads and tails. Used for flat water racing....probably not very seaworthy.', explained Steve. 'Not very roadworthy either!' I thought, as we emerged from Ormskirk casualty with white bandages covering remarkably minor injuries. Stassi's Range Rover was written off in the crash, as was the trailer, but the boats themselves were only superficially damaged and repaired ready for the final training session in Dover Harbour one week later.

The escort boats of the Dover Sea School, normally used to accompany cross channel swimmers, were on hand that weekend for the dragon boat 'sea trials'. I took up position on one of these boats with the digicam, while Dan squeezed into one of the two dragon boats with his waterproof Hi-8 for action angles.

Filming wasn't easy as the boat I was on was careering in circles around the dragon boat in an attempt to simulate choppy sea conditions. They were going to practice going over. I watched Dan perched under a dragon figurehead, grinning. Capsizes are his speciality.

The sound as the camera goes underwater is quite deafening, the loudest on the video. Bubbles everywhere, then frantic faces popping to the surface. It made good video. It also made good sense. It's the kind of experience best tried out for the first time in the safety of the harbour - not in the middle of the English Channel.

20th July, the day of the crossing, began with a 4a.m breakfast in Dover Youth Hostel. The camera crew were as bleary eyed as the paddlers. There was great tension at the launch around 7.30am. Here were many, who had never been to sea in anything other than a ferry. We worried for them as they hung poised, waiting for clearance from Mike Oram, head of the safety boat entourage, to exit through the harbour mouth. There was no question they would be safe enough, with four escort boats to hand, but with big tides running that day, and the threat of a sea breeze in the air, it would be more of a challenge than anything they could have encountered in Liverpool docks, where the bulk of training had taken place.

'There's one gone in' the skipper of our boat said, casually, just one hour out. Dan jumped to his camera in disbelief. The scene looked rather spectacular: eighteen figures clinging around the sinking canoe; a red inflatable speeding towards them; one of the bigger escort boats taking up station ready to haul bodies aboard; and a flurry of voices crackling over ships radios. I did a 'piece to camera', describing the atmosphere. This kind of occurrence might be considered a gift for film makers, but by now we felt so inextricably involved with the effort, that we couldn't bear the thought that they might have to call the whole thing off after just four miles. But as the team coach, Dave Bangs, had said before leaving the beach: 'It will take a tidal wave to stop us now', and so after half an hour of bailing, his voice was to be heard across the waves once more: 'Ready!..Attention!...Go!...One!...Two!...One!....Two!..'.and 'Amathus 2' thrust ahead - albeit in the wrong direction.

'We get this with the swimmers.', the skipper explained, pushing on the throttle to take up pursuit. 'They forget that speed's no good if you don't hold the course'. Giant hulks of steel rose on the horizon as we got into the thick of the congested Channel shipping lanes. The support vessels herded the dragon boats in tight formation as we negotiated a passage between the tankers. The jopple got worse. The paddlers got sea sick. Rests became more frequent, and bodies were juggled, reserve paddlers substituted till there was nobody fresh. 'It's hard to get them actually being sick', Dan complained from behind a lens, 'and they don't seem too keen to talk about it on camera.'

France appeared and grew obligingly on the horizon. But not quick enough. Tide was pushing them northwest, away from the intended landing at Cape Griz Nes. 'What do you mean it's still 4 miles?', one paddler yelled up at me. 'You said it was 4 miles an hour ago'

By now their utter fatigue was so evident, that it was painful to watch. But at the very last, the lure of the white beach at Sangatte, seemed to muster some enormous reserve in the padddlers. As they approached the surf, one of the support crew sped us towards the waves, and flung us overboard from the inflatable, to swim ashore. It would have been good for the film if the dragon boaters had held back a few moments while we struggled to set up recording gear in the sand. But after seven and a half hours of fight, nothing could have stopped that final charge to the shore.
And then it was as if the dragon boats had exploded, scattering their hysterical cargo in a chaotic mess of tears and champagne and sand.

UAP Insurance, The Main Sponsors

To Oorder a copy of the video send a cheque or postal order for £15.00 (includes postage and packing) made pyable to: D & K Trotter, to:

Dan and Karen Trotter
3 Pierhead Buildings
North Queensferry
Fife
KY11 1LA


A Donation from the sale proceeds of each video will go to
Guide Dogs for the Blind