Nothing Great Is Easy
Captain Matthew Webb
Captain Webb (19 January 1848 – 24 July 1883) was the first person to successfully swim across the English Channel from England to France without the use of artificial aids. On 25 August 1875 he swam from Dover to Calais in 21 hours 45 minutes and inspired the world about marathon swimming. His feat was not replicated for another 36 years.
Early Life and Career
Captain Webb was born at Dawley in Shropshire, one of twelve children of a Coalbrookdale doctor. He joined the merchant navy and served a three-year apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool.
While serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, traveling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to rescue a man overboard by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb's daring won him an award of £100 and the Stanhope Medal, and made him a hero of the British press.
English Channel Swim
In 1873 Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. He became inspired to try himself, and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames and the English Channel.
On 12 August 1875 he made his first English Channel attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim.
On 24 August 1875 he began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three escort boats and covered in porpoise oil, he set off into the ebb tide at a steady breaststroke. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez which prevented him reaching the shore for five hours, he finally finished in 21 hours and 45 minutes. He landed near Calais and walked upon the shore under his own power and without touching any boats or other humans, the first successful cross-channel swim in history.
Post English Channel Career
After his English Channel swim that garnered worldwide attention, Webb established himself as a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising for items as commemorative pottery. He also wrote a book called The Art of Swimming and participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
In order to promote the art of swimming as a life-saving skill and to demonstrate that "the man most likely to be rescued in case of shipwreck will not be the one that can swim the fastest but the one that keeps himself afloat the longest time", he settled upon another challenge: a 36 hour swim.
The Lambeth Baths in London, an indoor swimming venue, was the site of the Trials of Endurance in 1879. The winner was the person who covered the most distance in six days (144 hours) of swimming. Of the five contestants, only Captain Webb persisted in using breaststroke rather than sidestroke that was popular at the time. Slow and steady like his English Channel conquest, he easily won the Champion of England title with 119K (74 miles).
His final stunt was to be a dangerous swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls, a feat many observers considered suicidal. Although Webb failed in an attempt at raising interest in funding the event, on 24 July 1883 he jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim. Accounts of the time indicate that in all likelihood Webb successfully survived the first part of the swim, but died in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool.
Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.
- Captain Webb Missing Yet". New York Times, pg. 1. 26 July 1883.
- Captain Webb's Manager". New York Times, pg. 10. 29 July 1883.
- Captain Webb". The Globe and Mail (Toronto), pg. 2. 1 August 1883.
- A Shropshire Lad. www.sanjeev.net website. Retrieval Date: 17 February 2008.
- Open Water Swimming website
- Nothing Great Is Easy
- Nothing Great Is Easy with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation