Book Review: In Cold Water, Mike Humphreys

Last week I read In Cold Water by Mike Humphreys, his account of preparing to swim the English Channel. I will avoid all spoilers here about what happens on his swim, except to say that there are surprises. I thoroughly enjoyed this book; I read it over the course of a few days, whenever I got a chance to sit down and read a few chapters. It’s that kind of book: many short chapters, each a complete whole, so that you can read it in pieces. The book is a memoir, but it focuses less on personal introspection and more on the depiction of a community of swimmers and supporters centered physically and emotionally around Dover.

I ran into mention of this book on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, in a discussion of books about swimming. The author himself is a participant on the forum. In the book, we hear about Humphreys’s training and his injuries. But even more we hear about the friends he makes through the sport, the people who accompany him on his training swims (I love the depiction of Dale McKinnon, his kayaker, a woman who is not putting up with any of his nonsense), the owners of the B&B where he stays in Dover, and the swimmers, pilots, and support teams that embark on the Channel swims together. He devotes chapters to swimmers like Miyuki Fujita (and her coach Haruyuki Ishii) and coaches like Tanya Harding (and her swimmers, including Ros Hardiman).

One of my favorite parts is the chapter on Freda Streeter. I thought I knew a little about how Channel swims work, but I knew nothing about Streeter or the other volunteers who maintain the safety of the swimmers training at Swimmer’s Beach in Dover. We meet her when she is berating Humphreys about getting in the water; she also tells him off for swimming alone and directs him on how long to train that day (much longer than he planned). Humphreys calls her “the Channel General ruling Dover Beach with a velvet fist.” Throughout the book, we get a real sense of people like Freda Streeter–those who work to help others realize their dreams of swimming the English Channel. Long-distance swimming looks like an individual sport, but for every swimmer there is a team of people helping make that swim possible.

Humphreys himself comes across as a likeable guy, honest about his shortcomings, willing to poke fun at himself. We repeatedly see him sit down in front of his computer with a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups–he needs to put on some fat to keep him warm in the Channel–and he describes the “swimmer’s belly” he’s developed as a result. He doesn’t spend a lot of time in psychoanalysis, but he describes his worries and his fears, as well as his love of being in the open water. Reading the book is like going out for coffee with a new friend; the book is not overly confiding, but it’s thoughtful and charming. I liked hanging out with Humphreys, and I want to know what will happen to him next.

In Cold Water came out in July 2013 through AuthorHouse. I read it using the Kindle app on my phone.

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