History: The English Channel

Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel on the 25th of August 1875.

IMG_6182


Photo: The white cliffs of Dover


The first known attempt to swim the English Channel was in 1872 by J. B. Johnson of England. Clearly, he was completely unprepared for the challenge and he retired after one hour and 3 minutes.

Inspired by an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson, Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel on the 25th of August 1875. It was his second attempt and he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 21 hours 45 minutes. Captain Webb then built a career as a professional swimmer, licensing merchandise and authoring a book called The Art of Swimming. He participated in a number of exhibition swimming events and stunts, such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours. Many people considered his attempt to swim through the whirlpool rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls as suicidal. Unfortunately for Captain Webb, these people were proven correct and he died on 24th July 1883 shortly after he jumped into the rapids.

Despite numerous attempts, it took 36 years for someone to swim the channel again. Thomas William Burgess swum from England to France in 22 hours 35 minutes on September 6th 1911, on his eleventh attempt. He later trained Olympian Gertrude Ederle who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Gertrude set a then record of 14 hours and 39 minutes and also started the trend of women swimming the channel more successfully than men.

To date about 1,200 individuals have swum the English Channel. One of the most recent, in September of 2012, Trent Grimsey of Australia, set the record for the fastest swim in 6 hrs 55 minutes