A quick history of English Channel swimming

This is the first of a series of blog posts to explain a bit more about what is involved in swimming the English Channel. As we researched our trip more, we realised that swimming the Channel is going to require the most training. We’re going to start with a look at the history of Channel swimming, which is very good place to start.

First we must pay homage to Capt. Matthew Webb who became the first person to officially swim from England to France in 1875. It was his second attempt (the first was stopped due to rough seas – no balloon weather forecast back then!), and it took him 21 hours, 45 minutes. Quite a feat. He was an instant celebrity and basked in international adulation, and is revered in Channel swimming circles. However, always pushing his limits, in 1883 he took it one stroke too far by attempting to swim through the whirlpool rapids at Niagara Falls in which he sadly drowned.

There were 80 unsuccessful attempts and 36 years before Thomas Burgess became the second person and successfully swam the Channel in 22 hours, 35 minutes, in 1911, which is testament to Webb’s herculean effort. In 1923 Enrico Tiraboschi (Italy) swam from France to England in 16 hrs, 33mins. For some reason it has always been considered easier to swim from France to England than vice versa. Certainly the times are quicker, although it’s not possible to take this route anymore as the French authorities don’t allow it.

In 1926, nineteen year old American girl, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the Channel, demonstrating that women were just as able to complete the swim as men. Indeed, the current record for the most swims is held by Queen of the Channel, Alison Streeter, who has swam the Channel 43 times! And the first person to swim the Channel butterfly was Vicki Keith, and Julie Bradshaw has swum it butterfly and front crawl.

By 1949, there had been only 20 successful swims since Captain Webb completed his swim, a pretty bleak statistic. From the 50s onwards, the success rate starts to increase. In 1961, remarkably Antonio Abertondo (Argentinia) became the first person to swim from England to France and back again in one go, taking 43 hrs, 10 mins. I’d struggle to stay awake for that long, never mind non-stop swimming. In 1981, John Erikson completed the first three-way (England to France to England to France) in 38hrs 27mins. The mind blows. Just as remarkable, Tom Gregory, swam the Channel aged just 11. Sensibly, there is now a minimum age limit to take it on.

The current record holder is Trent Grimsey, from Australia (he would be, wouldn’t he), completing the crossing impossibly in 6 hrs, 55 mins. There have been a total of 3,726 Channel swims, with 1,731 swimmers completing 2,256 solo swims. Average solo crossing time is 13 hrs, 31 mins now. So there you have it a round up history of the Channel’s greats. The next post will be about what we can expect to face in the Channel and what we need to prepare for it.