Saturday 24 August 2013

At Swim Two Countries

Matthew Webb, shown here striking a quintessentially Victorian manly pose, was born in Dawley, Shropshire in 1848.  On 24th August 1875 he dived off Admiralty Pier in Dover and started swimming out to sea.  He arrived on the beach in France the next day after swimming for nearly 22 hours.  As the crow (or Louis Bleriot in 1909) flies it's almost exactly 35km from shore to shore, but Webb swam an estimated 62km in the Z-shaped path dictated by the currents swooshing through the narrow gap between two much larger bodies of tidal water. The GPS tracker information shown below is from the unsuccessful swim of Susan Taylor in July last year.  

This shows a) the typical path and b) the potential hazards of this undertaking as Ms Taylor took ill and died 2km from France. 

Captain (of the merchant marine) Webb's record was unparallelled for 36 years until Thomas Burgess repeated the feat in 1911 (slightly slower, mind you).  Over the next hundred years, Channel swimming has got to be a bit of a raree show, with people regularly making the journey: the wrong (France-England) way, both ways, three-ways, without legs, as a four-limb amputee, in less than 7 hours, as young as 11 and as old as 70, as relays back and forth. In all, something in excess of 1800 people have made the cross solo. There's even now an association.

My top certified swimming achievement is "One Length of the Drake Baths" in Plymouth. I gave up about a quarter of the way through my bronze medal life-saving certificate although my brother and sister went on to get silver and gold medals for this.  So I appreciate from a great distance that, apart from natural endowment and a mort o' training, it takes bottle to do things like this.  Burgess, for example, completed his swim on his 11th attempt; I didn't even give my infinitely more modest swimming goal a second go.  In a way the record of records should go to Jackie Cobell (as the Daily Mail had it: 56 year old mother of two from Kent) who took the longest time: spending more than 28 hours, and travelling more than 100km, in the water before stepping ashore for a croissant.  The longer you take the more the tides sweep you back and forth.

And the bold Captain Webb?  He struck his head on a rock and drowned while attempting to swim through the whirlpool rapids below Niagara falls for a purse of £12,000.  He was 35 - his epitaph "Nothing great is easy".  Here he is commemorated by John Betjeman with Tom O'Bedlam reading A Shropshire Lad.

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