Madswimmer Emil’s English Channel dream comes true

EMIL Berning, 50, is the eldest son of Rev Pam and Keith Berning of Plettenberg Bay. After matriculating at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, he graduated in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cape Town.
Currently Emil is MD of a high-tech company in Johannesburg. So what made him decide to brave the English Channel… sans boat or engine, under his own personal steam?!
Explains Pam: “Emil has always been a good long-distance swimmer in inland and sea waters and is a member of Madswimmers - a group of like-minded aqua athletes who raise money for charities by raking in sponsorships for each swim.
“These charities are mainly specialist children’s hospitals and schools throughout the continent, but particularly in South Africa.
Some of Emil’s recent long-distance forays include a 34km swim from Zanzibar Island to the Tanzanian mainland. In this case, the beneficiary was a Tanzanian children’s cancer hospital; the length of Sterkfontein Dam brought in another beneficiary, and a swim across the Dead Sea yet another.
Emil traverses Midmar Dam eight times during the annual Midmar Mile weekend, which takes place north of Pietermaritzburg each February, in order to maximise on charity benefit. He also regularly swims to and from Robben Island when on business in Cape Town.
A year ago, Madswimmers raised $3-million for children’s charities, including the training of young disabled swimmers.
Emil trains by swimming 7km every morning before going to work, and more on weekends to keep fit.
“But his iconic swim goal has always been to swim the English Channel to France,” says Pam. “Realising this dream was planned for August this year, but during a swim in the Cape in July, he cracked some ribs and could not train for six weeks.”
Then, late on Saturday night September 16, Emil received a call from the boat pilot associated with the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) to say that there was a channel-swim slot available on Tuesday the 19th.
Flights, transport, a support boat and crew, and the feeds he would require were organised swiftly, and Emil arrived in Dover on the Monday morning in time for a quick swim to test the waters, as it were.
Early on Tuesday morning, wearing only a speedo and cap, Emil started his iconic Channel swim, leaving the English shore from Samphire Hoe between Folkestone and Dover at 9am aiming for Cap Gris Nez on the French coast.
Water temperature hovered around 17 degrees Celsius, with swells of at least one metre and variable wind conditions.
Taking food and liquids every 40 minutes and swimming through the shipping lanes surrounded by navy frigates on manoeuvres, channel ferries and many other craft, Emil reached French turf after 12 hours and 53 minutes.
“The last two hours were swum in pitch darkness and he knew he had reached France only when his hands caught the sand off the beach. Pictures of these final swimming hours showed but a tiny green light, which was an LED mounted on his cap!” recounts Pam.
Keith and Pam were able to monitor Emil’s progress throughout the day by satellite tracking and by receiving commentaries and pictures through Facebook from the support boat.
The route from England to France is quite circuitous because of the changing tides. The direct route is about 21 miles.
Emil’s world-class performance is confirmed when one considers that since the year 1875 only 1,477 solo swimmers, registered with CSA, in the world have completed the channel swim successfully, with an average swim time of 14-16 hours.
Some Channel challengers take up to 20 hours to complete the swim, and many starters give up after two to six hours for a variety of reasons. Only about 740 relay teams (comprising three to six members) registered with CSA have completed the swim.
“An observer was on the support boat to confirm the swim and landing,” explains Pam. “Since there is no welcoming party on the French beach, one finishes alone in the dark, walks up the beach, shouts hurrah and swims back to the boat for the return trip to Dover by 3am.”
The Bernings are incredibly and understandably proud of Emil’s achievement, whose name now appears on a pillar in the White Horse Pub in Dover among those of other brave souls who successfully swam the English Channel.