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Today in history... Captain Webb swims the Channel!

12:00am | & News

Last year there were 53 successful solo swims across the English Channel and another 36 already this year, taking the total to date to 1,373.

The oldest swimmer to make the crossing is Australian Clifford Batt, who did it in 1987 at the age of 67 years 240 days. The youngest is England's Thomas Gregory, who did it in 1988 at the age of 11 years 330 days. One woman, Alison Streeter MBE, has swum the Channel 43 times, more than anyone else in the world, earning her the title 'Queen of the English Channel'.

But like any tough challenge, there had to be a first, and that began 141 years ago today, on August 24th, 1875. After a previous failed attempt, Captain Matthew Webb became the first man to swim the English Channel without the assistance of any buoyancy aid. 

Webb's first attempt had been on August 12th, but high winds and bad conditions forced him to abandon the effort after seven hours in the water. Undaunted he set out again less than two weeks later, diving in from Dover's Admiralty Pier on August 24th. After swimming for 21 hours and 45 minutes he finally waded exhausted onto the beach at Cape Gris Nez, near Calais, at 10-40am on August 25th.

Although the actual distance across the Channel is 21 miles, it was reckoned Webb had swum more than 39 miles due to his zigzag route caused by swimming against the tide. The outgoing tide off the French coast had prevented him reaching the shore for five hours!

News of his remarkable feat spread quickly and Captain Webb became an international celebrity, admired both for his prowess as a swimmer and his reputation as a risk taker. His image appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world, and as advertising on various products including Bryant & May matchboxes.

Born in Shropshire in 1848, Webb taught himself to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. At just 12 years old he joined the training shop HMS Conway for two years before serving a three-year apprenticeship in the Merchant Navy.

His first real taste of fame came in 1872 when he dived into the Atlantic to rescue a passenger who had fallen overboard from the Cunard ship he was serving on as Second Mate. Although the man was never found, Webb emerged unscathed after 35 minutes in the ocean and his act of selfless bravery was widely publicised and rewarded with the prestigious Stanhope Medal and £100.

The episode seemed to give Webb a taste for celebrity and the following year, while serving as captain of the steamship Emerald, he read of a failed attempt by British swimmer J.B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. Inspired by the bold attempt and determined to be the first to achieve the feat, he resigned from his job and set about training, first in Lambeth Baths and later in the cold waters of the Thames and the Channel.

Before setting out on August 24th he doused himself with porpoise oil in order to stave off the cold, and was followed by three escort boats to make sure he was going the right way and rescue him if he got into difficulty. About eight hours in he was stung by a jellyfish, but persevered after taking a swallow of brandy. He was also sustained by beef tea and roast beef sandwiches throughout the crossing.

Even by today's standards it was a remarkable feat of endurance. Sadly, it wasn't enough for Webb who, eight years later and with his fame beginning to dwindle, took one risk too many. He had resolved to swim across the notorious Whirlpool Rapids below the Niagra Falls, despite warnings that such an attempt was suicide. Unfortunately the warnings proved correct and Captain Webb drowned in the whirlpool 10 minutes after entering the water, his body found four days later.

If anything his death only added to his reputation as the ultimate Victorian adventurer.

The Channel Swimming Association was formed in 1927 in a bid to regulate the growing numbers of those trying to emulate Webb's feat, and to authenticate the claims of those who said they had. Over the years it has developed into the internationally recognised authority on the sport of Channel Swimming.

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