Bathurst teenager braves jellyfish in English Channel

Michael swimming the English Channel in July.

Bathurst swimmer 19-year-old Michael Payne overcame high tides, swelling water, chilly seas, and a 27-degree body temperature to cross the English Channel in July this year.

“When you start swimming and finding a passion in a 50m heated pool, anything else will offer challenges you aren’t prepared for,” he says.

A water baby

The son of marathon swimmer Steve Payne, Michael was in the water from an early age.

“I was thrown into a pool at a few weeks old and never felt like getting out,” he says.

As a boy he spent most of his free time swimming before deciding to go professional towards the end of primary school. Having proved himself a prodigious talent by 15, he continued to train for open water swims and competitions.

Originally from Kurrajong, Michael is now living and studying in Bathurst. He is a lifeguard at the local pool, where he both works and trains.

“I spend almost all my time at the Manning Aquatic Centre; it’s where I train every day and where I get to hang out with people who also love swimming,” he says.

During the end of lockdown last year, Michael and his team began the extensive preparation needed to swim the English Channel.

“Though we hoped to get training before then, most pools were closed due to COVID-19 which meant my dad and I spent most of my time in the Hawkesbury River with water temperatures of 13 degrees,” he says. Father and son had first attempted to swim the English Channel in 2018, with each of them covering a third of the distance. “Having a coach is one thing,” Michael says, “but having your dad who can push you to the max and support you unconditionally is better. After our first attempt, we knew we were going to come back for more.”

A man standing in a pool
Michael Payne training at Manning Aquatic Centre Bathurst. (Photo by Suki Reid)

The English Channel is a body of water in the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France. It is the world’s busiest shipping region and renowned for its chilly water temperatures.

Michael began strength, speed and endurance training to ensure the safest, quickest channel swim. “Over summer I was training twice a day for roughly one and a half to two and a half hours at a time, even when I had COVID I was training from my isolation room, I have never felt more committed and driven,” he says.

“We looked at getting my body prepared and acclimatised for swimming in such low temperatures, we did lots of training in open-water during winter, we adapted my stroke style so I could learn to protect myself from injuries to my arms and legs in high swells.”

The average solo crossing time is just over 13 hours. While navigating the Channel, swimmers must be cautious of looming ships, jellyfish, sharks and dehydration.

“Most people don’t understand the risks that come with swimming in such large and unpredictable bodies of water,” Michael says.

During one of his preparation swims earlier this year, he planned on swimming 20kms from Fremantle, Western Australia, to Rottnest Island, but instead ended up in hospital. “I was continually stung over 50 times by bluebottles and jellyfish, despite wanting to finish, 16kms in I had to stop because my airways were closing.”

A woman sitting on a table
Michael Payne in hospital following a jellyfish attack (Photo supplied by Jenni Payne)

Feeling prepared for anything after that, the Payne family departed Australia for the UK earlier this year,  landing in Dover, England, on July 12. Michael spent the following two days adjusting to the environment, doing some light swimming, resting and preparing.

“If you want your swim across the English Channel to be officially recognised, you can’t just dive in and finish it,” says Michael. “Any official effort to cross the English Channel must be registered well in advance of the swim, and each crossing must be carried out in compliance with stringent guidelines.”

At 11:51pm on July 14, 2022, Michael Payne started swimming the English Channel from Abbott’s Cliff at Samphire Hoe, a few kilometres south of Dover. Payne kept a distance of 10 metres or less from the pilot boat Optimist for the first five hours of his swim. He arrived at Cap Griz Nez in France in 12 hours and 48 minutes.

“The feeling of completing it, after all the preparation and dedication was just unmatched,” he says.

He continues to train most days a week and has set his sights on the Australian Open Water Championships in January.

A person standing next to a body of water
Michael Payne at Abbott’s Cliff (Photo Supplied by Jenni Payne)