In the first week of September, a trio of Hong Kong lawyers made history by becoming the first all-Hong Kong relay team to swim across the English Channel. They also raised more than HK$1.5 million for a charitable cause as a result.
The team, made up of Eliza Chang, Eugene Wong and Allen Che, completed the crossing in 13 hours 48 minutes.
The English Channel is known as the Everest of open water swimming, and finishing this arduous task is far from guaranteed, unlike most other endurance events.
Things didn’t go swimmingly at first and remained a struggle till the finish line, which makes this achievement all the more remarkable.
Experience in Water and Law
Chang is a high-profile member of the Law Society. She graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons.) from the University of Hong Kong in 1991, following that up in the next year with a postgraduate certificate in law. Qualified in both in Hong Kong and England and Wales, Chang joined Cheng, Yeung & Co in 1992. She became a partner in 1996, and is now the firm’s managing partner.
Over the years, Chang has been very active in various associations related to her work and in the Law Society. She was vice-chairperson of the Standing Committee on Members Services twice, has sat on the Personal Injuries Committee since June 2007, the Practice Management Committee since 2009 and the Public Policy Committee since 2014. Additionally and was a member of the committee of the Young Solicitors’ Group.
She also represented the Society in the Joint Professional Sports Sub-Committee; and has represented the Society in the Recreation and Sports Club for Hong Kong Professional Bodies since 2010 and chaired the Recreation and Sports Committee. For 10 years in a row, between 2010 and 2019, she was awarded the Society’s Pro Bono and Community Services Gold Awards and, in 2019, received the Pro Bono and Community Service 10-Year Achievement Award.
Meanwhile, Wong is a partner in the real estate practice at Mayer Brown. He has been recognized for his work for, among others, multinational companies and funds.
Che is a partner at Wong, Hui & Co, where he focuses on the conveyance practice of the firm. He became a partner of the firm in 1997 and is a member of the Property Committee of the Law Scoiety as well as the Sub-Committee on New Territories Conveyancing Practice. Che speaks frequently on the issue and is a co-annotator of the Conveyancing and Property Law Handbook 2001.
Each member of the team can attest to a personal connection with being in the water, which was why they all hailed the charity as a “shared vision”. Chang was a member of Hong Kong’s swim team during her school years. Wong trained as a member of his school team, and Che is a certified lifeguard.
For all three lawyers, getting ready for a swim was a serious commitment, one that was almost derailed by COVID-19.
The Race Before the Race
The global pandemic caused disruptions worldwide, including for the trio’s ambitious plans.
“Our swim window was supposed in early July. But because of the pandemic, all the boats faced restrictions. We were under the impression that our swim was cancelled altogether and that we were back at the end of the queue,” said Chang, captain of the team, via Zoom during her quarantine upon returning from the historic swim.
There is a two- to three-year waiting list to book a Channel swim pilot. Despite all plans being up in the air, they kept up their training in the hopes that it would be allowed to resume soon.
Towards the end of July, swimmers started returning to the Channel. Then in early August, they were offered several windows to do the swim.
“But still, even if we agreed with the pilot for the date, there were still a lot of uncertainties with quarantines and flights,” said Chang.
Finally, the trio flew into London Heathrow in the early hours of Saturday, 5 September and made their way to Dover that morning. But it was only by that afternoon that they were told the swim would be starting in the twilight hours of Sunday, 6 September.
Into the Water
Weather in the Channel can be uncertain and mercurial, so swimmers need to grab the chance to do their swim when the opportunity presents itself. For the team, meant swimming the first five hours in the dead of night.
Eric Hartley, an experienced pilot, and the support vessel Pathfinder accompanied the swimmers on this journey. Coming along for the ride was Channel Swimming Association observer, Keith Oiller, who was there to approve that the swim adhered to English Channel rules.
According to the English Channel rules, each team member of a relay is allowed to swim for an hour and is to then be replaced by another member of the team. Chang started the relay at Samphire Hoe Beach underneath the famous White Cliffs of Dover.
Immediately, the first challenge presented itself.
“I didn't expect the water to be so cold and the waves to be so strong! So I need to travel 40 minutes from the pier to the beach, right? It's a stone beach that I have to jump off into the water and swim 50 meters to the beach, and then I need to climb up to the wetland before we will officially start the swim. After reaching the shore, I have to stand up but then a wave from behind just hit me so hard for at least three times that I kept being dragged back into the water and then I have to climb and do it again,” said Chang.
Each swimmer is only permitted to wear a sleeveless and legless swimsuit, a swim cap and a pair of goggles. Wetsuits are not allowed, which made the waters – a frigid 17.2 degrees centigrade on the day – a significant challenge.
The unexpected roughness of the conditions shook her and caused Chang to doubt herself before she even began.
“I struggled to finally stand up on the beach and I was supposed to start right away but then I stood there for a few seconds. And I thought “oh, would I be able to finish this mission?” she recalled.
But the thought of letting her teammates and supporters down made her push all things aside.
“If I cannot complete the first leg, then Eugene and Allen won't have a chance to swim. They came all the way from Hong Kong to UK with me! I was also thinking how could I say to our donors that we cannot complete the mission? So at that point in time, I was going through silly things in my mind, and then when they sound the horn, I know I have to just move on,” said Chang.
The struggle did not end there.
“So I just jumped into the water and started the first hour, which felt like forever. During our training, one hour of swimming is nothing. We get used to it and we feel that we can do a lot more. But in this first hour, I was still trying to find the rhythm of my swim, and I have to find my relative position with the boat because it was so dark. I can only see one light shining on the boat and the moon gave some light. But everything else was in darkness and it was in very turbulent water. So I was a little bit scared,” admitted Chang.
Though she described the beginning as “horrifying”, she found her rhythm after the first 30 minutes and was able to push through.
Chang was relieved an hour later by Wong, who then was replaced by Che. They swam continuously in this order until they reached Wissant Beach in France at 3:25pm the same day. But her teammates also had their own struggles.
According to Wong, their dip in the Channel was actually the first time they touched water on that mission. “We didn’t get a chance to acclimatize. The water was a shock to our bodies,” he said.
It made the points where he had to tread water while waiting for his teammate to ascend the boat before he could swim particularly hard.
“There's a Channel swimming rule for when the previous swimmer finishes and the next swimmer gets into the water, the next swimmer can't swim first and needs to stay in the water next to the boat and wait for the first to be completely on board first. Those 20 to 30 seconds of waiting are particularly freezing, as you can't swim to warm yourself,” said Wong.
Shivering and Trembling
Even being on the boat was no breeze as the team described shivering with cold while waiting between each leg.
“I was shivering, trembling and trying to vomit for the first 15 minutes. I was also cautious about letting the observer see me trembling as I didn’t want him to think I was suffering from hypothermia,” described Chang.
Wong also had to fight through a shoulder pain that came and gnawed at him throughout the race. That gave him pangs of despair.
“Each of us has our dark moments and dark secrets during the attempt. The difficulty we faced at the time we did not share with the other team members. It’s not to hide anything from them, but none of us wanted to ruin the spirit at the time,” said Wong.
“There were a few times when I was yelling to myself in the waters but of course, none of them would have heard it. But it was just fine for me to go on.”
Che, described the crossing as akin to “swimming in a washing machine.”
His description makes sense when you hear of the difficulties faced by Che with the conditions.
“The currents were so strong, it pushed me away from the boat even when I tried to swim back to the boat. So I had no choice but to keep going. It felt like we were swimming in a washing machine and the feeling was that there was no way I could make it,” Che said.
“I wanted to quit but I just failed to quit due to the strong current!” he jokingly added.
Che may have been light hearted about it but in fact, the current actually doubled the team’s journey. At the shortest point, the distance between England and France is around 35 km. But due to tides and high winds, the team ended up swimming over 60 km.
Things did get better as the race progressed and the sun came up.
“This has not been a walk in the park for us. There were times during our respective legs when each of us thought of giving up, whether to the pitch darkness, the cold and choppy waters, the fierce gusts, the unforgiving seasickness, the cramping limbs, the injured shoulders or otherwise,” said Chang.
“But with our commitment to the team and to this cause that we support - in faith go forward - we managed to overcome the difficulties and reached the French soil with a remarkable time elapsed.”
Splashing out for Splash
Besides being a proud achievement for Hong Kong, its legal industry and the team, their success has greatly benefitted charity.
Their cause of choice is Splash, Hong Kong’s only charitable organisation dedicated to running free learn-to-swim programmes for underprivileged groups and children with disabilities in Hong Kong.
“Learning to swim is an essential skill. It is the only sport that can save your life, but beyond that, it is a lifelong activity that benefits people both physically and mentally,” said Libby Alexander, the Executive Director for Splash.
“We’re so grateful to Eliza, Eugene and Allen for their bravery in taking on this challenge. This swim has a big impact symbolically to people in Hong Kong and in terms of the number of kids we areable to reach in the coming years.”
Altogether, the team have raised over HK$1.5 million for Splash.
Friends of Asia Hong Kong supported the team with a $100,000 donation to Splash and offered to match an additional HK$100,000 of donations from the public for a total of HK$200,000. The Hung Hing Ying and Leung Hau Ling Charitable Foundation also provided generous support with a HK$100,000 donation to the cause.
"We’re grateful that our project will allow hundreds of underprivileged children and children with special needs in Hong Kong the opportunity to learn to swim and gain a love for the water. We also hope some may be inspired to become competitive or long-distance swimmers some day!” said Che.
Chang took the time to thank Hartley and Oiller for their help and support in this attempt.
Wong understands that all the glorious moments are made up of “understanding and indulgence” from their loved ones.
"Our team is really grateful for trust and indulgence from our respective other halves and families. We also thank our co-workers for their understanding and in covering our workload while we were away,” said Wong.
“Last but not the least, we express our gratitude to all donors, friends and other members of the general public who supported our cause and made donations in support of Splash's kids programme."
Founded in 2015, the foundation has taught nearly 3,000 people how to swim and trained over 200 volunteer coaches to date. It runs over 80 programmes per year at international schools, private clubs and public pools throughout Hong Kong.
It also has a lot of success stories under its belt as 88 percent of their adult graduates can pass a water safety test and swim 25 metres unaided after 12-weeks.
The three of them are also considering giving their time to teach for Splash, now that their arduous training of the past two years for this event has ended.
Wong can see the connection happening for others close to home too.
“I think being comfortable in water itself is not easy for a lot of kids. But my kids like to be in water. And I can see that ease translate to other aspects of their lives,” he said.
“In Hong Kong, we're surrounded by water essentially. Even when you go to school, there could be opportunities where you will be touch with water. If you're not confident about it, that could be a significant part of your life that you've got to fear. My kids now love the water and it takes that particular element of fear away from them.”
Wading into the Future
Going forth, the team still has plans for more water related goals.
Chang, who is 51 years young, wants to continue doing more swimming competitions until she is 80. She is looking at relays and possibly swimming in icy waters.
“If you take into account the age element, it is really not easy for us because we are not 25. But after the intensive training of the last two years, we feel like our physical strength is that of a 25-year-old. We’ve become much stronger. I think age is no barrier for us to pursue our dreams,” said Chang.
She intends to get Che, 52, and Wong, 40, in the water with her. Both her teammates have also said how swimming has made them feel young, like they are back in the residence halls of their universities.
Swimming also flows in the trio’s professional lives as all are members of the Law Society of Hong Kong’s swim team.
Chang had served as captain of the team for ten years since its inception before becoming its Honorary Captain. She has been highly active in the Society, being Vice Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Member Services and a member on various committees.
The Society has been a pool for them to connect with others.
Wong has been a member for 15 years and connected with his teammates through the Society’s swim team.
In addition, he has participated in various youth related initiatives from the society.
Che, a member since 1993, says being part of the sports team has helped him get to know others in the profession better.
He participates regularly in the teaching of the Continuous Professional Development for the Hong Kong Academy of Law and gives seminars for Estate Agents Authority on New Territory Land Laws. Besides that, he also leads hikes and has completed more than 30 trail walks.
“Being part of the society’s recreational activities has fostered better understanding amongst legal professionals. Getting to know each other in the outdoors is very different from office setting,” said Che.
As a parting note, Chang says it is particularly important for those in the legal industry to carve out ‘me time’ to indulge in a sport.
“I call upon all lawyers to do more exercise other than sitting at a desk and working all day. It’s important to have a work-life balance. All of us are busy with work and family commitments, but it’s about time management and setting out time to do some exercise, said Chang.
“This is especially important for lawyers who are constantly stressed out and in front of a computer working to be healthy and happy.”
Donate to Eliza, Eugene and Allen here: https://www.simplygiving.com/english-channel-hk-july-2020.
More information can be found at www.splashfoundation.org