In the early afternoon of 24th August 1875 Matthew Webb dived into the English Channel from Admiralty Pier in Dover. His swim took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. He sipped on warm brandy while swimming breaststroke the whole way. There are some very good examples of just how far sports physiology, nutrition and psychology have come. One attempt was made eating a roast! However Captain Webb was not the first to attempt the feat.
The first known attempt was by J B Johnson who in 1872 swam for just over 1 hour before finally giving up. In 1926 American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the Channel in a then world record time of 14 hours and 39 minutes.
How far is it?
The channel is 21 miles as the crow flies from Shakespeare Beach in England to Cap Gris-Nez in France. Also critical is the fact that the landing spot in France is a point, where landing is accomplished by climbing up rocks whilst getting bombarded by waves. If this is missed, one is required to swim (usually at least a couple of additional hours) until they roll up the sandy beach on either side of the point.
Overall, the swim can be up to double this distance as the tide pushes you up and down the channel in an ‘S’ curve.
How many people are successful?
I’ve heard many versions of these statistics. It appears that historically the success rate used to be in the region of 1 in 6. However, more recent statistics indicate that the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation achieve a success rate of approximately 80%. Much of this can be attributed to the training and guidance on offer in Dover by a small band of dedicated people who turn out come rain or shine to help and advise swimmers led by the ‘Channel General’ Freda Streeter.
Are you allowed to stop?
Yes. You stop for regular ‘feeds’ of warm carbohydrate drink and some light food such as banana and most of the swimmer’s favourite, cadburys mini rolls. During this feed you cannot touch anything or anyone except the pole or net used to pass the food. The stops are kept as short as possible, as the more you stop, the more you risk being pushed back by the tide – the time delayed may cause the swimmer to miss a run of tide into France and extend the time of the swim quite considerably
Can you wear a wetsuit?
On ratified swims, no! For a ratified swim you are only permitted to wear one traditional swimming costume, one swimming hat, goggles, earplugs and grease. This ensures that the rules and conditions of the swim have remained the same throughout history.
What about Goose Fat?
The grease was traditionally a mixture of Lanoline and Petroleum Jelly. However, not many swimmers wear channel grease now, though, most just use Vaseline to prevent chaffing. Contrary to popular belief it doesn't keep you warm!
I have heard of people applying up to one and a half kilos of grease on themselves. Not only will this stop your skin from breathing, but also it can clump up on your body, particularly your arms and actually inhibit your swimming. I think people primarily use the grease to keep warm which is a fallacy. Initially it may, but after that it would be psychological.
What about for Jellyfish stings? I’m not sure whether the grease would help here, but my own view is to just embrace them. Firstly you should be watching where you’re going (famous last words!), but it is also a bit of a wake up call, where they bring you back into focus.
WILL I GET LONELY OUT THERE?
Nope! The English Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. There are two separate shipping lanes. Every day over 400 boats pass through and across them, including super tankers and the numerous ferries. All boats are frequently alerted over the radio whenever there are swimmers in the water, sometimes shipping gets very close.
ANYTHING ELSE TO ENJOY DURING MY SWIM?
Jellyfish, sewage, debris, seasickness and hypothermia. The good news is that when you have swum it you will have joined an immortal band of incredible swimmers and feel proud of it for the rest of your days.