In the early morning of Oct. 3, just after midnight, John Donlon of Scituate stepped into the water off a beach in Dover, England.
He didn’t touch ground for more than 15 hours after that, and by then, he was in France.
“I feel so fortunate that I even had an opportunity to go,” Donlon, 45, who grew up in Sudbury, said of his swim across the English Channel. Bad weather had kept away many hopeful Channel swimmers this year, he said, and kept him from attempting the swim until late in the time period he had set aside.
“When I first started to swim, the stars were beautiful. It was unreal. I had never really done any night swimming, and all I could think to myself is, ‘This is such a gift that I’m experiencing right now.’”
Donlon said the hardest part of his swim came just two hours in, when the water suddenly got rough.
“I just wasn’t feeling right,” he said. “The right side of my body felt colder than the left, and that was strange. I have to admit, I was thinking about bailing at that point.”
But he received encouragement to keep going from his friend, John Perantoni, and father-in-law, Nick Psillos, who were part of a team that accompanied him in a boat as he crossed the channel. The pair told Donlon of the increasing number of people engaging with social media posts about the swim, and they made sure he had plenty of nourishment.
“I just kind of slowly started to steel myself a little bit,” Donlon said, “and after a while I told myself, you’re not cold. Eventually, it got better. Then I kept telling myself, just get to daylight, just get to daylight.”
With daylight, he said, came warmth from sunlight, better visibility, and an improved mood.
“It’s hard to really know it until you’ve been through it,” Donlon said, “but it really was the mental part of it that was the toughest.”
When he finally stepped onto shore, he said, he was shaking and repeatedly fell. The three-hour boat ride back to Dover gave him time to recover. Soon, like many successful Channel swimmers before him, he was writing his name on the wall of a local tavern, The White Horse.
To do that, he said, was “better than any medal, any certificate. It’s just unbelievable.”
And through the swim he raised more than $7,500 for the American Liver Foundation.
“It’s amazing how much people got behind this and were so supportive,” Donlon said. “It’s really overwhelming and humbling.”