Captain Matthew Webb (GBR)
Honor Swimmer (1965)
FOR THE RECORD: First swimmer to cross the English Channel, 1875.
Immortality doesn’t come often and once is enough for most swimmers, but not for Captain Matthew Webb, who was first to swim the English Channel in 1875. This feat was an accomplishment of the impossible, according to all estimates up to that time. Many tried but it was 36 years before anyone else (Burgess, 1911) ever made it across the Channel. But Webb was not around to greet No. 2. Webb’s feat lasted 28 years longer than he did. In an effort to bolster lagging attendance for his vaudeville act in 1883, just 8 years after his Channel swim, Captain Webb decided to try for immortality a second time by swimming across the rapids just above Niagara Falls. Once again considered opinions said, “impossible” and this time they were right. Webb is buried at Niagara Falls, Ontario.
But enough of Webb’s failure and on to his accomplishment, a swimming record that stood 59 years until 1934. It all started in 1862 when merchant seaman William Hoskins rode a bundle of straw from Griz Nez to South Foreland. Captain Matthew Webb decided to try it without artificial bouyancy. His first attempt failed, but as his fatigue faded, he planned again. On August 25, 1875, he was successful. The start was from Admiralty Pier at Dover; the time 4 minutes to one on Tuesday, August 24th. With the southwesterly stream running at considerable speed, he ran into difficulty from the start. Although ships had navigated the Channel for centuries, swimming it was a different proposition. Tidal calculations, accurate enough for ship navigation, were by no means accurate for man navigation. Therefore, in comparing Webb’s effort with more recent ones, one great point must be constantly appreciated. Not only was the swimmer attempting a new and colossal task, but so were the boatmen and pilots. The present specialized knowledge has been built on the experience of the preceding years. So, as a result of combined inexperience at that time, Webb was last seen from the English shore being swept vigorously westwards into the main English Channel.
For the main part of the passage, he swam breaststroke at 26 strokes a minute. At one period in mid-Channel, a jellyfish sting temporarily slackened his pace. And for the last two and a half hours he was so exhausted that his stroking became weak and irregular; indeed, much anxiety was felt about his ability to finish at all. His cross-Channel diet was beer, brandy and beef tea. Lack of modern knowledge was in some little way compensated by the lack of modern rules. For instance, he had an attendant lugger and two rowing boats throughout. And at the finish an outsize rowing-boat accompanied him on the weather side to keep the cresting waves from getting at him.
Webb finally reached the Calais sands at 19 minutes to eleven on Wednesday, August 25th. A crowd of thousands massed on the French beach. They gave him a rousing welcome as he was assisted into a horse-drawn vehicle in shallow water and taken to recuperate. In England, of course, he became one of the greatest heroes that has ever arisen in peacetime. The whole nation was depressed 8 years later when, at the age of 35, Captain Webb drowned. He went over Niagara Falls, but not successfully.
Note: A special thanks to Cdr. Gerald Forsberg for excerpts from his book, Long Distance Swimming.