In 1875, Capt. Matthew Webb dove into the cool waters off Admiralty Pier on the Dover coast; he came ashore in Calais 21 hours and 45 minutes later. His was the first unassisted swim across the English Channel. The feat positioned Capt. Webb to become a champion for swimming safety … and a casualty of his own swimming recklessness.
Youth at Sea
Webb started life in 1848, one of a dozen children of a Coalbrookdale doctor. At age 12, he began training as a merchant seaman on the HMS Conway. Five years later, he’d advanced to Second Mate aboard a cruise ship christened Russia.
Webb’s first claim to fame was a rescue attempt from the deck of the Russia. In a daring maneuver, he dove from the ship into the midst of the Atlantic Ocean after a passenger that had gone overboard. Despite his inability to find the passenger, Webb earned the prestigious Stanhope Medal, £100, and the adulation of the British press.
A rescue attempt closer to home may have given Webb a push in the direction of swimming education. In 1863, he pulled his 12-year-old brother to shore, saving him from a death by drowning in the Severn.
Inspiration and Preparation
In 1873, while serving as Captain of the steamship Emerald, Webb read about a failed attempt to swim the English Channel. J.B. Johnson attempted the feat in 1872, only to turn back 1 hour and 3 minutes into the swim.
Inspired, Webb determined to stage his own attempt at an unassisted crossing. He immediately gave up his job and started training at Lambeth Baths.
Soon, he upped the training intensity with swims in the Thames. To acclimate to cold water, he also practiced in Hollingworth Lake and the Channel itself.
Almost two years later, on August 12, 1875, Webb made his first attempt. Unfortunately, strong winds and choppy seas sent him heading back to shore. Thirteen days later, he began his second cross-Channel swim.
Crossing the Channel
Before modern wetsuits and other nifty technological breakthroughs, swimming in open waters was an even more massive test of endurance. To gain some protection from the extreme temperatures, Webb slathered his entire body with porpoise oil and began the swim.
Followed by three escort boats, Webb set off using the breaststroke. Unfavorable tides were not enough to deter him; jellyfish stings were ‘treated’ with a nip of brandy.
Near the end, he encountered rough currents off Cap Griz Nes in the north of France; the delay left him swimming an additional five hours.
In a straight line, the swim would have been 21 miles across, but currents forced Webb onto a zigzag course, which made his total distance a whopping 39 miles.
Webb would remain the only person to successfully cross the Channel for almost 60 years.
Building his Legacy
The marathon swim marked a new beginning for Webb. Now a folk hero, he championed the need for swimming education. Webb encouraged people to learn endurance on the water, not speed; those who stay on top of the water longest are the most likely to be rescued in an emergency.
With this in mind, Webb performed several stunts to demonstrate the possibilities. Some of his most memorable feats include:
The Endurance Trials were a competition where swimmers competed for distance over six days of swimming. Webb claimed the victory with a distance of 74 miles, blowing away his side-stroking competitors.
The Suicidal Swim
Not content with his achievements, Webb continued to strive for ever more exciting swims, including his fateful final swim.
In 1883, despite warnings of its danger, he attempted to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids at the base of Niagara Falls. Reports tell of a strong start, but he was soon overcome. His body was pulled from the water four days later.
Webb was buried near the Falls. He was 35 years old.