STUMBLING to fall on his back on a pebbly French beach after battling the English Channel for close to 13 hours, it slowly dawned on Craig Clarke that he'd achieved his childhood dream.
"I took in what had just happened before I thought of getting up, it was like 'I've done it, here it is'," said the veteran ocean swimmer after swimming 50.5 kilometres non-stop in 12 hours and 29 minutes.
Moments after an exhausted Clarke, from Merewether in NSW's Hunter region, staggered from the water then lost his balance on the sloping beach, two French locals ran to his aid.
"I was lying there, trying to get my head from stopping spinning and one of them raced over to try and help. They were just random people," Clarke said with a laugh just after waking up at 5am [British Summer Time] the morning after his epic swim.
Clarke, 57, began the swim from England to France at Samphire Hoe, near Dover, at 2.14am (BST) on Tuesday. With him, his pilot boat operator and his assistant, two support crew and one official Channel Swim observer.
Conditions were good for the first two hours and he was on track to land as hoped at Cap Gris-Nez before the notorious Channel wind kicked in for the next two hours.
"It was hitting me from my left side and bouncing off the boat so I had chop from left and right and that slowed my process for the next two hours and changed the course of my swim," he said.
The choppy conditions knocked off both his goggles and cap, forcing him to swim only with goggles for the next 10 hours.
From the four to seven hour mark the wind abated but the effect of the low tide came into force.
"That was mentally the toughest part of the swim because after seven hours you can see France and it doesn't seem that far away but the tide pushes you out of the Channel to the right and back towards England," he said.
"So I went straight past the Cap and then as you are pushed further away you can only wait until the tide changes so you can hook around and get into land."
Clarke would spend another three hours "running with the tide" and then another two and a half hooking around to get into land. He was fed painkillers to help with a right shoulder injury.
"It was when my abuse on the guys on the boat was at its worse, I couldn't understand why we seemed to be getting further from land, I'm a landmark base person and me looking at one not going to it is hugely frustrating, but they knew what they were doing.
"As my feeds were coming in I was wanting to know how much longer I had to go but [support crewman] Nils just said 'Just keep going, don't let the tide get you, we are heading for France, keep going'. I didn't have any idea and was desperate to know if it was three hours or six hours to go, so I could pace myself."
In the last 200 metres of his swim, Clarke had to draw on all his energy to "swim sprint" across the high tide, moving rapidly from right to left, to reach the shore.
"After 12 and a quarter hours I had to swim sprint and that took me 15 minutes to do 200 metres which would normally take three minutes," he said.
"It's like you are almost there but it's teasing you to the death. I had the adrenaline to swim it hard."
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Once he stumbled ashore, he moved to turn around and raise his arms to the boat but lost his balance, prompting his self-described "inglorious exit".
Clarke ate berry granola before his swim but after spending almost 13 hours in the water could only stomach ice-cream when he finally got home at 11pm (BST) on Tuesday.
"My throat is just starting to feel better but I swallowed so much salt water, it's been very sore," he said.
Clarke is happy his pilot boat operator made the call that conditions were favourable just hours after another swimmer before him had been unable to finish at the 12 hour mark.
"He was coming back at 4pm on Tuesday and I said 'Are we good for tonight?' and he told me to wait until the 6pm forecast but then to be at the marina at 1am, but he still couldn't be sure," he said.
"He knew I was a strong swimmer and knew about my ocean swimming background and he knew that if it was touch and go and I was keen he would go. And that's what it came to."
After his feat, Clarke enjoyed some French champagne as his boat took another two and a half hours to cross the Channel back to Dover, where he went back to his apartment and enjoyed a long hot shower after being awake for 24 hours.
"I am very sore but it's a very happy sore," he said.
Clarke, who is raising money for mental health charity Beyond Blue, said he had been buoyed by the enormous support from friends in the Hunter and further afield.
He will now spend time alone and with friends travelling and savouring his success.
"The great thing I am looking to do later [on Wednesday, BST] if i think I am up to a beer or two if my throat is better ...I get to record my Channel Swim on the wall of a pub, Le Fleurs, in Dover," he said.
He would not be drawn on any further Channel Swim attempts but didn't appear overly keen.
"I've climbed the mountain and now I just want to enjoy the view. I have ticked it off," he said.
The Novocastrian's first successful English Channel attempt follows his 36-kilometre swim from Catherine Hill bay to Nobbys in August 2020, which he did after his preparations to cross the Channel a few months earlier were thwarted by the pandemic.
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