Captain Matthew Webb was the first man to successfully swim the English Channel – or was he? Martin Fone investigates.
Like Everest, it presents an irresistible challenge to adventurers simply because, to echo George Mallory, it is there. At its narrowest point – between Shakespeare’s Beach in Dover and Cap Gris Nez, a promontory between Calais and Boulogne – the English Channel may be only 18.2 nautical miles wide, but it forms a formidable barrier which tests everyone’s stamina, skill and entrepreneurial spirit. but a select group of long distance swimmers.
These days the preferred starting point is Abbot’s Cliff beach on the south side of Samphire Hoe, about two miles from Dover, making for a slightly longer swim, starting time is usually from an hour either side of high tide. Permission must be sought from either the Channel Swimming Association or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, while the marked reluctance of the French authorities to sanction swimming means crossings from France to England are almost a thing of the past.
Despite all the obstacles and challenges, to date there have been 4,133 successful swims in the English Channel, with 1,881 swimmers completed 2,428 solo swims, plus another 8,215 swimmers who took part in relay races and special category races. The first of these heroic swimmers was, famously, Captain Matthew Webb – although he was the first to cross the canal without a boat is not as clear as it may seem, as we will see later.
Endurance swimming had become popular in the 1870s and after reading about an unsuccessful attempt to cross the English Channel, Webb, a good swimmer, decided to give it a shot. After some acclimatization in the cold waters of the south coast of England, he made his first attempt on August 12, 1875. Webb was unsuccessful, being beaten by the high winds and adverse weather conditions he experienced.
Unfazed, clad in a red silk bathing suit and his body smothered in porpoise oil, he tried again twelve days later, swimming his best breaststroke while being followed by three boats, supplying him with cognac, coffee and beef tea to fortify it against jellyfish. stings and patches of tangled algae he encountered.
He almost didn’t get there. Eight miles from Cape Gris Nez, a change in the tide forced him to swim for five hours along the French coast, waiting for it to calm down. Finally, at 10:41 a.m. on August 25, 1875, Webb plodded ashore, having swum the equivalent of 39 miles, mostly against the current, in 21 hours and forty-five minutes.
News of his achievement spread around the world. The The telegraph of the day proclaimed the captain as the most famous man in the world; the mayor of Dover felt that no one would ever repeat the feat; and so enthusiastic were the cheering crowds which greeted him at Wellington station on his return to his native Shropshire that part of the crowd unhitched the horses which were to carry him to Ironbridge and pulled him along themselves. At Dawley he received “his native town tribute” and was paraded through the High Street.
Now wealthy and an international celebrity, Webb was not content to rest on his laurels, a decision that was to cost him his life. On July 24, 1883, he attempted to swim down the Whirlpool Rapids at Niagara, just below the falls.
Within ten minutes of entering the water, he was dead, having been sucked into one of the huge whirlpools. His body was found four days later, with an autopsy determining that he had not even had time to drown: Capt Webb’s cause of death has been recorded as ‘crushing’ due to the weight of the water on it.
In 1909, Webb’s older brother Thomas unveiled a memorial to him in Dawley that bore the caption “Nothing Great Comes Easy”. There are also other monuments to his memory elsewhere, from stained glass images to a bust in Dover. There is even a stone commemorating his achievement in Calais.
But was Webb really the first? Rather, it depends on how you define “swimming,” as Paul Boyton’s story shows.
Boyton was born in County Kildare in 1848 and soon after was taken by his family to the United States. He became a good swimmer with a sense of adventure, spending his youth in the Navy and then establishing the United States Life-Saving Service, the precursor to their Coast Guard. An encounter with Clark S Merriman, who had recently invented an inflatable rubber rescue suit, presented him with a challenge that combined his interest in lifesaving, his natural showmanship, and his love of derring-do; to put the costume to the test.
Unable to resist the lure of the English Channel, he decided crossing it would prove his mettle as a long-distance swimmer and demonstrate the seaworthiness of the suit. Nicknamed the Fearless Frogman, his penchant for publicity earned him the attention of the press, The temperature noting that his India rubber suit could be inflated by certain tubes, allowing the wearer to float and propel themselves using a paddle. It was also airtight and waterproof.
On April 10, 1875, onlookers at the Port of Dover were treated to the eerie sight of Boyton wearing his costume over blue serge underwear and woolen stockings. On each foot was a socket in which was placed a small mast which allowed the hoisting and control of a sail, the size of a large handkerchief, using tethers attached to the suit. A fog horn around his neck, a flask of cognac in the pocket of a waistcoat, a large knife, a double-bladed oar for propulsion and a packet of letters well hidden inside, “the Boyton courier for the continent”, complete the whole.
Followed by Hiker, a steam tug full of journalists, Boyton set off, lying on his back and using his oar “deftly” for propulsion, consuming a bizarre diet of beaten eggs, cherry brandy and smoking a cigar along the way. The English Channel, however, was not easily beaten. After fifteen hours at sea and covered 50 miles, the weather got so bad that the French pilot feared for the safety of the swimmer, threatening to leave them at nightfall, if Boyton did not abandon the attempt.
Boyton reluctantly agreed but went to great lengths to prove it was not his decision, forcing the reporters present to sign a statement to that effect and, once ashore, obtain a doctor’s certificate. indicating that he was medically fit to continue. The Fearless Frogman may have demonstrated the seaworthiness of Merriman’s suit, but he wasn’t done with the English Channel.
At 3 a.m. on June 28, 1875, Boyton set out from Cap Gris Nez, again wearing his inflatable bathing suit. There was an important addition, a small screw propeller was attached with hoops to his torso and thighs which allowed him, in a prone position, to propel himself. Maybe it was one of those ideas that sounded good on paper but turned out to be impractical, because there’s no reference to it in the progress reports. He also changed his diet, fortifying along the way with three meals of green tea and beef sandwiches.
The weather was fine, the only alarm being an encounter with a porpoise four miles off Dover. At 2 a.m. the next morning, he landed at Faro Bay in Kent and was taken by steamer to Folkestone, where he was “enthusiastically received”, having completed his crossing almost two months before Webb . Jules Verne presented his costume in Tribulations of a Chinese in China (1879).
After a career in endurance swimming, Boyton settled down and opened Chicago’s first stationary amusement park in 1894 and Sea Lion Park on Coney Island the following year and, unlike Webb, enjoyed a long life before dying in 1924.
For a swim to be sanctioned by the Channel Swimming Association, the swimmer must be self-sufficient and wear only one swimming garment. Clearly, Captain Webb met modern standards and was the first to swim the channel alone, but, undeniably, Paul Boyton got there first, with a little help from Merriman’s wetsuit, an oar and, eventually , a helix.
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