When thinking about swimming feats, the English channel swim always comes first to mind. At its shortest point, the distance between the English and French coastlines is only 22 miles, but a combination of cold and strong currents mean that only 10% of people who attempt this feat actually make it to the other side.
The first channel attempt was by J.B Johnson, who had to pull out after just over an hour. Three years later, Paul Boyton made it to the other side using a special prototype buoyancy suit. However the first unaided swim went to Captain Matthew Webb, who swam from Dover to Calais in 21 hours and 45 minutes on his second attempt.
Curiously, after this success it was to be 35 years before another was registered, although there were plenty of attempts. One man, Jabez Wolffe tried and failed on no less than 22 occasions, four of them by less than a mile! Thomas Burgess had better success, becoming the second man to swim the channel on is 13th attempt.
The first man to swim in the reverse direction from France to England was Enrico Tiraboschi in 1923 – nowadays France-England is recognised as the ‘easy’ route because of favourable tides. In 1926 Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to complete the distance.
The popularity of channel swimming reached new heights with the staging of a cross-Channel race in 1950; 20 entrants took part in the inaugural race, 9 of whom finished. In 1972, 15-year old Lynne Cox became the youngest person to swim the channel, breaking the men’s and women’s speed records in the process, and in 1988 Thomas Gregory swum the channel aged just 11.
To date, over 1200 people have completed this challenge since the first success more than 130 years ago. The team with the record for the most swims is the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team with now almost forty swims completed by its members. The current speed record is held by Christof Wandratsch in a staggering time of 7 hours and 3 minutes. However, the undisputed channel crossing champion is Alison Streeter, who originally hails from Dover and has crossed the channel 43 times, in addition to setting the first three-way channel crossing – a return journey to Dover and then back to France again! The popularity of Channel swimming is now such that hopeful swimmers must go on a waiting list to secure a boat crew to escort them across.