Captain Gary Bruce: I Swam the Channel

By: Maxine Sheppard

April 11, 2014

Icy dips, training injuries and years of cold showers: it’s all par for the course for the would-be Channel swimmer. But after four years of training and a lifetime of dreaming, Captain Gary Bruce – one of our 747 pilots – was finally ready to take the plunge, and recently swam from England to France across the busiest shipping lane in the world.

We’re constantly amazed by the lengths our people go to to achieve their personal goals. Flying in the face of ordinary is more than just a slogan here at Virgin Atlantic – for people like Gary it’s a way of life. Here’s his story in his own words…

I swam the Channel

At 3.15am on 24 September 2013, I slipped into the cold dark waters; the white cliffs of Dover at Samphire Hoe beach in Kent looming behind me.

My name is Gary Bruce, I am 49 years old and a Virgin Atlantic B747 Captain… and I had decided to do something slightly out of the ordinary. After four years’ planning and training, I was about to begin the home straight of my journey to swim the English Channel.

This is no ordinary swim, but we are we are no ordinary set of employees in the Virgin Group. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have successfully swum the English Channel solo. The tides are formidable and most failures occur within the last mile of the swim where a tide can beat the swimmer into submission as the French coast sweeps by.


The sea temperatures range between 16C and 17C so you must condition your body to the cold. I slept with nothing more than a sheet for two winters, showered in cold water and took frequent icy dips.

My training regime was intense, covering 30-45km a week, using a combination of speed, strength and endurance sets. I also did some resistance training and yoga. I had to gain weight, too, to insulate my core to allow my vital organs to function after many hours in the cold water.

The morning of the swim, I struck out into the night. It was eerie swimming in the blackness. The Viking Princess support boat glowed in the distance where my fantastic crew of friends were waiting for me to join them.

Setting off

It was still dark when I entered the first shipping lane – and a huge container ship towering above me effortlessly slipped by.  I was also stung during the first hour but never saw the “˜Lion’s Man’ jellyfish that got me. It warmed my arm, then stung like hell.  After four hours, I felt a bad twinge in my right shoulder and the crew snapped into action, pumping anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers into me.

Gary Bruce Swim.jpg

A few hours later it passed and dawn arrived.  We were now in “˜the separation zone’ between the East/West shipping lanes.  I’d drifted west because of the twinge and it was time to up my game and get back on course.

I swam harder – it was tiring, but I’d trained for this. My throat was burning and my tongue was painful due to the salt water. I heaved through the water, reaching further forward, my stroke rate going back up to about 54/56 per minute. My brain was going into overdrive as I spluttered and choked n the chop, but I dug in.

We hit the final tide off the French coast and once I drew level with Cap Gris Nez, the tide began to ease and I started making headway. I was approaching that dizzy, senseless, giddiness when you’ve pushed your body to the absolute limit.

The final push

Gary Bruce recovering after Channel swim.jpg

I saw the dinghy being lowered to escort me to the beach – just 1,000m left to swim. I was going to make it, bar any disaster! I fought through the surf and after 13 hours and 53 minutes, and 55km in 16.5C water, I crawled onto the beach. I’d done it! I’d joined the club of English Channel swimmers.

YOU raised more than £10,500 plus gift aid for ‘Free The Children’.. These donations spurred me on more than you will ever know, along with your messages of support. So thank you!

You can read more about my experience at or if you’d like to make a donation, visit

If you liked Gary’s story and you want to learn more about becoming a part of the Virgin Atlantic culture click here.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

Categories: Our People