Channel race revived after half a century

The original article by Doug Gillon is posted on The Herald since 2009-02-05

It is one of sport's more exclusive clubs, but there is hardly a queue for membership. Little wonder. You have to smear yourself in various types of noisome grease, and seasickness and being stung by jellyfish are just two of the perks.

We are talking about swimming the Channel, a quaint eccentricity founded by the English. It attained such popularity that it became an annual race, but it has been defunct for 50 years - until today.

It's being revived, with details being announced in London. Eight men and six women, the world's fastest endurance swimmers, will take the plunge at Dover during the spring tide window in mid-August. Two relay teams will compete the next day.

Exclusive? Just over 800 people have swum the Channel. Distinctly elite compared with the 1300 who are members of the St Moritz Toboggan Club (home of the Cresta Run) and the 5000+ allowed to wear the Ejector tie - those whose lives have been saved by an ejector seat.

The so-called King of the Channel, ITN radio news reporter Kevin Murphy, will be attempting the crossing for the 36th time at the age of 60. The world's leading endurance swimmers have been invited. These include Petar Stoychev, the Bulgarian who is eight-times world open water champion. He set the record for the Channel in 2007 at 6hr 57min. The women's race will include Cassie Paton, Britain's bronze-medal Olympic 10,000m swimmer in Beijing.

Open water swimming is back in vogue, having been reintroduced to the Games last year. But in the first Olympics in 1896, all of the swimming events were held in the open sea. The temperature then was an unseasonal 55F (12C); the Channel should be warmer in August.

Captain Matthew Webb started it in 1875. Smearing himself in porpoise oil, he became the first man to swim the Channel without artificial aids. It took him almost 22 hours from Dover to Cap Gris Nez. He died in 1883, attempting to swim across the Niagara Falls.

The man who is organising the event is Andy Caine of promoting company Nova. He's a former Scottish international athlete who came close to selection for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. "We've been looking at some Scottish representation," he said, "but the swimmers have to be the very best in the world."

Scots swept the first three places in the men's British Open Water 10k last year, but lack the Channel pedigree.

The Channel race was launched in 1950, with a £1000 prize, which would have bought a house. Only 19 people had succeeded since Webb, and it caught the public immagination.

Eileen Fenton, a 21-year-old religious studies teacher from West Yorkshire, spotted a man swimming beside her when she was training for the event. She was surprised they were both preparing for the same challenge.

It was Hassan Abd el Rahim, and they remained close together for most of the race itself, following the pilot light of their rowing boat.

The Egyptian army lieutenant, who consumed five cups of tea and coffee, two cheese sandwiches, a pear and a pound of honey during the crossing, managed to sprint clear of Fenton who had injured an arm. Finishing in a record 10hr 53min, he shouted: "Allah, Allah, a record!". Nine of 24 finished.

The race landed sponsorship from holiday entrepreneur Billy Butlin, but when the Suez Crisis erupted, he banned Egyptians. He was ordered by the Foreign Office not to meddle in foreign affairs and soon switched his interests elsewhere. The Channel challenge reverted to an individual one.

Nova is owned by Brendan Foster, the former international athlete who launched the Great North Run and built it into Britain's largest mass participation event. But there's no chance of such an explosion in this race. Each entrant must be accompanied by a pilot boat. The Coastguard allow only 200 boats in that area of the Channel at one time - more than 400 boats a day navigate the world's busiest sea lane, and race boats are included in the restriction to 200.