Like Everest, it presents an irresistible challenge to the adventurous, simply because, to echo George Mallory, it’s there. At its narrowest point, between Shakespeare’s Beach at Dover and Cap Gris Nez, a headland between Calais and Boulogne, the English Channel might just be 18.2 nautical miles wide, but it forms a formidable barrier that tests the endurance, skill, and enterprise of all but a select band of long-distance swimmers.
These days the favoured starting point is Abbot’s Cliff beach on the south side of Samphire Hoe, about two kilometres from Dover, making it a slightly longer swim, the starting time usually an hour either side of high tide. Permission has to be sought from either the Channel Swimming Association or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, while the French authorities’ marked reluctance to sanction swims means that crossings from France to England are almost a thing of the past.
Despite all the hurdles and challenges, to date there have been 4,133 successful Channel swims, with 1,881 swimmers completing 2,428 solo swims, plus another 8,215 swimmers who have taken part in relay swims and special category swims. Famously, Captain Matthew Webb was the first.
Endurance swimming had become popular in the 1870s and after reading of an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Channel, Webb, a strong swimmer, decided to try his luck. After some acclimatisation in the cold waters of the southern English coast, he made his first attempt on August 12, 1875. Webb, though, was beaten by the high winds and adverse weather conditions he experienced.
Undaunted, wearing a red silken swimming costume and his body smothered in porpoise oil, he tried again twelve days later, followed by three boats, supplying him with brandy, coffee, and beef tea. Swimming the breaststroke, he had to endure jellyfish stings, avoid patches of seaweed, and disconcertingly, eight miles short of Cap Gris Nez, a change in tide which forced him to swim for five hours along the French coast waiting for it to abate. Eventually, at 10.41 am on August 25, 1875, Webb clambered wearily on to the shore, having swum the equivalent of 39 miles, mostly against the tide, in 21 hours and forty-five minutes.
News of his achievement spread around the world. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the Captain to be the best-known man in the world, the mayor of Dover opined that no one would repeat the feat, and so enthusiastic was the crowd that greeted him at Wellington station on his return to his native Shropshire that a section uncoupled the horses that were to convey him on to Ironbridge and pulled him along themselves. At Dawley he received “the homage of the town of his birth” and was paraded down 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 across the Niagara Rivers, just down from the Falls. Within ten minutes of entering the water, he was drowned in a whirlpool, his body only recovered four days later. In 1909 Webb’s older brother, Thomas, unveiled a memorial to him in Dawley which bore the legend “Nothing great is easy”.
Next week we will take another dip into the English Channel.