A full report on the Channel Crossing
by Karen Trotter
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
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.
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
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
had pressed the 'record' button on the
digi-cam before crawling from the wreckage.
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
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.
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.
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
'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.'
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.