Swimming the Channel is an endangered pursuit

Swimming the Channel is an endangered pursuit.
Swimming the Channel is so popular - so why do the French keep threatening to pull the plug on this fashionable challenge?

source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk By Neil Tweedie

Captain Matthew Webb relied on port and meat pies to get him across – a more civilised, and British, form of nourishment than the nutrient gels favoured by today’s brand of aquatic masochist. Either way, swimming the English Channel is no picnic. Breaking waves, fog, jellyfish and the insidious, debilitating effects of long-term immersion in cold water make it as much of a trial as ever. And now there is another obstacle to success: the French.

You see, the chaps on the other side of the Channel, or La Manche as they insist on calling it for some obscure, foreign reason, have developed a rather po-faced attitude to this salty test of stamina. After banning attempts starting from the French side of the Strait of Dover in 1996, they are now threatening to ban the practice entirely.

“This continuous increase of swimming creates a danger which is getting more and more important every year,” says Jean-Christophe Burvingt, the French coastguard’s chief wet blanket. “I think that there will be a collision.”

A rather one-sided collision, it must be said. The English Channel is the world’s busiest seaway, witnessing some 500 ship movements a day. A 50,000-ton container ship travelling at 25 knots requires the odd mile or two to stop, so getting in the way is not a good idea.

Despite this and other dangers, more and more people insist on attempting to follow Webb, a merchant seaman, who became the first to swim the Channel in 1875. The Channel is the watery equivalent of Everest, not so much a great natural barrier as a ‘‘must do’’ for those in search of a really good dinner table opening gambit. Swimming it has become an increasingly fashionable pursuit. In 2006 the comedian David Walliams smeared himself with goose fat and embarked on what his trainer, former Olympic modern pentathlete Greg Whyte, described as “one of the toughest physical challenges on the planet”. In addition to completing the crossing in a creditable 10 hours and a half hours, Walliams, star of Little Britain, added some showbusiness lustre to what some might regard as an unnecessary anoraky pursuit.

Charitable fund-raising is often the spur and there were some 260 attempts during this year’s season, running from June to October.

“We are concerned these crossings are unregulated and growing at an expedient (sic) rate,” says Chris Newey, passenger director of the ferry company DFDS, and a supporter of more regulation. “We do not want to pour cold water on what can be a fund-raising activity. However, our first and foremost priority is the health and safety and welfare of those at sea.”

Nonsense, says Michael Read, president of the Channel Swimming Association, one of the two unofficial bodies that organise crossings. “Channel swimming has been going for 135 years and I can’t believe the French would want to ban it. The CSA keeps numbers under control and annual quotas are agreed with the French coastguard.”

Michael Oram, secretary of the rival organisation, the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, also dismisses this latest evocation of the ‘‘elf and safety’’ culture. “Safety is first, second and third with us,” he says, pointing out that the number of swimmers has plateaued over the past five years.

Swimmers must be accompanied by pilot boats which cost £2,250 for a single crossing. Their crews use poles with nets on the end to supply them, one touch of a boat’s side resulting in disqualification. It will cost £4,350 for a two-way crossing, now a common occurrence, and some half a dozen people are sufficiently barmy to have completed three crossings in one go.

Anna Wardley, who is 35 and works in PR, swam the Channel last year, after failing in 2007 due to strong tides. “It’s a very English pursuit,” she says. “A maverick thing to do and very, very rare for a Frenchman.”

But why? When more than a thousand people have already done it?

“There’s always someone to remind you that what you’ve done isn’t that great – my friend did the butterfly during her crossing – but there is a mystique. It’s something about swimming from one country to another. When you stand under the White Cliffs there is a tremendous sense of history. It’s you versus the elements and you are doing it in the same way as Webb, with no technology.” Webb, 27 covered himself in porpoise oil to keep himself warm. Today’s swimmers are not allowed wetsuits or flippers.

“It was very tough, certainly the most difficult thing I have ever done,” says Miss Wardley. “The main problem is that the throat swells up after taking in so much salt water. After 12 hours I found it hard even to swallow fluids.” Just over 22 hours, it took her. She was hallucinating by the end. “Carrots started appearing in the noses of the boat crew and my dog appeared on deck, even though he wasn’t there.”

Alison Streeter is ‘‘Queen of the Channel’’ – she has swum it more times than any other woman. “I have done 43 swims – seven in one year once – and every one of them has been different. It’s not about the distance; lots of people can swim the equivalent in a pool. It comes down to the cold. Fit swimmers are often all muscle and don’t have much fat on them; this means they get cold quicker and once the cold gets into your muscles it is very hard to continue.”

The Channel may be only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point but it has seen off plenty of unwelcome visitors, including Napoleon. Maybe that is why his countrymen have no appetite for those grey, choppy narrows.

However, Mark Clark of the Coastguard and Maritime Agency says: “We believe that cross-Channel swimming adds to the gaiety of the nation. But crossings of a more unorthodox nature, such as by bath tub or pedalo, are highly irresponsible given the volume of traffic through the Dover Strait.” Webb took 21 hours and 45 minutes to swim from Dover to Calais, his arrival witnessed by the mailship The Maid of Kent.

“Never shall I forget when the men in the mailboat struck up the tune of Rule Britannia, which they sang, or rather shouted, in a hoarse roar,” he recalled. “I felt a gulping sensation in my throat as the old tune, which I had heard in all parts of the world, once more struck my ears under circumstances so extraordinary. I felt now I should do it, and I did it.”

A fine moment indeed. Less fine was his end.

Driven by the need to earn money, Webb embarked on a series of stunts. In 1883 he attempted to win £12,000 by swimming the whirlpool rapids at the foot of Niagara Falls.

“If I die they will do something for my wife”, he said, looking at the crowd.

His body was recovered four days later.