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History of Channel swimming between Calais and Dover

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The first person to swim the English Channel was not Captain Webb.

It was an American adventurer called Captain Paul Boyton three months earlier.

Little Britain's David Walliams off Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in 2006.
Little Britain’s David Walliams off Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in 2006.

But because he wore a life preserving inflatable suit he could not be classed as swimming unaided so history now honours Captain Webb as the first.

Boyton crossed from Boulogne to Fan Bay, St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, in May 1875, taking 23-and-a-half hours and meeting a porpoise four miles from Dover.

Details are in a permanent exhibition recently opened at Dover Museum, charting the history of Channel swimming.

It lists both those who succeeded and those who valiantly tried but failed.

The first ever attempt to swim unaided was by J.B. Johnson in 1872. He had to give up after one hour and three minutes.

On August 24, 1875, Matthew Webb dived from Admiralty Pier in Dover and made it to Calais in 21-hours and 45-minutes.

Engraving showing Captain Webb landing in France after his successful swim in 1875. Picture from Dover Museum (50574068)
Engraving showing Captain Webb landing in France after his successful swim in 1875. Picture from Dover Museum (50574068)

He had trained in the River Thames and an earlier attempt from Dover to France, on August 12, had to be abandoned because of rough sea conditions.

After the successful crossing he became a national celebrity and began a career as a professional swimmer, competing around the world.

But Webb later proved to be too courageous for his own good. In 1883 he died in an attempt to swim the treacherous Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls on the American/Canadian border. He was aged just 35.

According to the Channel Swimming Association there have been 2,623 successful crossings since August 1875, as solo or relay efforts, 62 this year.

The second ever person to swim the Channel unaided was Yorkshireman Thomas Burgess, on September 8, 1911. He left Dover near the South Foreland Lighthouse and landed at Le Chatelet in France 22-hours and 35-minutes later.

A music hall song sheet celebrating Captain Webb’s swim in 1875. Picture from Dover Museum
A music hall song sheet celebrating Captain Webb’s swim in 1875. Picture from Dover Museum

All his previous attempts since 1904 had failed and this was his 13th try.

On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the channel.

The American set a new world record by going from France to England in 14-hours and 34-minutes.

She commented: “People said women couldn’t swim the Channel but I proved they could.”

The point was reinforced when fellow American Amelia Gade Clemington Corson did the same, landing on Shakespeare Beach, Dover, on August 28 that year.

Edward Temme being presented with the Dover Gold Cup at Dover Town Hall, following his successful swim, in 1934. Picture from Dover Museum
Edward Temme being presented with the Dover Gold Cup at Dover Town Hall, following his successful swim, in 1934. Picture from Dover Museum

Edward Temme stands out as being the first to cross the English Channel both ways.

This was from Cap Gris Nez near Boulogne to Abbott’s Cliff near Capel-le-Ferne in 1927 and the South Foreland Lighthouse near St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe to Cap Blanc Nez near Calais in 1934.

That last crossing beat Webb’s fastest.

In 1928 and 1936 Temme competed in the Summer Olympic Games, at Amsterdam and Berlin, playing water polo.

The third successful woman was third time lucky.

Ethel Lowry on the beach with her trainer in 1932 Picture from Dover Museum
Ethel Lowry on the beach with her trainer in 1932 Picture from Dover Museum

Mancunian Ethel Lowry, reached England on August 29, 1933 having made two previous attempts, that July and in August 1932.

She had provided a forerunner for the bikini, which wasn’t launched until 1946.

Lowry insisted on wearing a two-piece bathing suit as it was lighter and gave more flexibility in the water than a one-piece.

The 1950s saw a surge in the popularity of Channel swimming with the world’s best swimmers trying.

This led to several organised races being established and relay swims were formally observed in 1954.

Channel swimmers training in Dover, 2013..Picture: Tony Flashman for the Dover Mercury
Channel swimmers training in Dover, 2013..Picture: Tony Flashman for the Dover Mercury

Alison Streeter holds the record for swimming the Channel more often than anyone: 43 times since 1982 when she was 18.

She also completed seven Channel crossings in one year. Her 1988 Channel swim from France to England set a female record of 8-hours 48-minutes.

Streeter was also the first woman to swim the Channel three ways non-stop in 1990, in 34-hours and 40-minutes.

The oldest person to successfully cross was Australian Clifford Batt in 1987, aged 67. The youngest ever was English schoolboy Thomas Gregory,11, in 1988. Rules since then forbid those so young.

The challenge has lured celebrities such as writer and comedian David Walliams.

Comedian David Walliams after his Channel swim, July 2006. Picture supplied by Max Hess
Comedian David Walliams after his Channel swim, July 2006. Picture supplied by Max Hess

On July 4, 2006, he achieved the fastest solo time of that year, just over 10-hours.

The Little Britain TV star had gone from Shakespeare Beach, Dover, to Cap Gris Nez to raise £500,000 for the charity Sport Relief.

The crossing is just 21 miles but it is highly hazardous.

Swimmers have to wear grease on their bodies to keep out the freezing cold and there are treacherous currents and violent weather.

The English Channel is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with hundreds of tankers and ferries passing through it every day.

“Ill-fated Ted May swam towing a tyre inner tube containing brandy and his clothes…”

Swims are therefore highly organised and planned through official bodies.

To stress the dangers the sea is known to have has claimed the lives of nine Channel swimmers, four in the last 10 years.

Dover Museum’s archive lists the first confirmed victim as Dartford father-of-nine Ted May.

On September 8, 1954, he swam alone from Cap Gris Nez but without a pilot boat and against official advice.

May was towing a rubber tyre inner tube raft holding bread, jam and brandy and his clothes. The raft had a 2ft mast with battery operated lights on it.

Many swims from England start at Shakespeare Beach. Picture; Sam Lennon
Many swims from England start at Shakespeare Beach. Picture; Sam Lennon

Unexpected bad weather became his undoing and that evening sailors on a tanker saw a man in the water shouting for help four miles south of the East Goodwin Lightship.

A lifebelt was thrown but it didn’t reach him and the tanker was stopped and turned around to further try to get to him.

In the eight minutes that took, May had disappeared underwater.

A massive air and sea search was launched, including with the Dover and Walmer Lifeboats, but there was no trace of him.

Three weeks later his body was washed ashore at Bakkum, Holland, still wearing his wrist compass.

The last known victim was Douglas Waymark who got into difficulty around 12 miles off the coast of Dover on August 7, 2017.

Mr Waymark, in his 40s and from Cheltenham, was flown by coastguard helicopter to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford but could not be saved.

Details of the Channel swimming exhibition at Dover Museum can be seen on its website and for further details see the museum’s Channel Swimming Archive.

Read more:All the latest news from Dover

Deal Dover Sandwich Sam Lennon



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