Monday, September 27, 2010

The Story of Matthew Webb

As Gilles and Jordan prepare to face the English Channel, my thoughts turn towards the pioneer who got us all started...

Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old merchant navy captain, becomes the first known person to successfully swim the English Channel. Captain Webb accomplished the grueling 21-mile crossing, which really entailed 39 miles of swimming because of tidal currents, in 21 hours and 45 minutes. During the overnight crossing from Dover, England, to Calais, France, Captain Webb drank brandy, coffee, and beef tea to keep his strength and heat up. He was hailed as a national hero upon his return to England, and a triumphal arch was erected in his honor in his hometown in Shropshire. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed, "At this moment the Captain is probably the best-known and most popular man in the world."

One of 12 children, Webb learned to swim in the Severn River below Ironbridge. At age 12, he joined the mercantile training ship Conway. He was not remembered as a fast swimmer, but his fellow cadets noted his endurance. While traveling the world with the merchant navy, Webb made his mark with several brave and dangerous swims. Endurance swimming was popular in the 1870s, and Webb decided to swim the English Channel after reading in a newspaper about an unsuccessful attempt. He trained along England's south coast, swimming distances of 10 to 20 miles and becoming acclimatized to the cold water. In August 1875, his first attempt to swim the Channel ended in failure, but he decided to give it another try.

On August 24, 1875, smeared in porpoise fat for insulation and wearing a red swimming costume made of silk, he dove off Dover's Admiralty Pier into the chilly waters of the Channel. He began the race in the late evening because of the tides and kept up a slow and steady pace in the dark, using the breaststroke. Accompanying boats handed him beef tea, brandy, and other liquids to sustain him, and Webb braved stinging jellyfish and patches of seaweed as he plodded on. Seven miles from the French coast, the tide changed, and he appeared to be driven backward, but just after 10 a.m. he approached the French shore. The crew of the outgoing mail ship The Maid of Kent serenaded him with "Rule Britannia," and shortly before 11 a.m. Webb waded ashore.

After sleeping 12 hours in France, Webb returned to England by boat, saying, "the sensation in my limbs is similar to that after the first day of the cricket season." He was honored at a welcoming banquet in Dover, where the mayor proclaimed, "In the future history of the world, I don't believe that any such feat will be performed by anyone else." The London Stock Exchange set up a testimonial fund for him. He toured the country, lecturing and swimming.

For rest of story, go here

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