Tag Archives: Captain Webb

Primus Inter Pares.

Captain Webb, Dawley and Webb Miscellenea

Captain Matthew Webb, Dover Memorial

Captain Webb is synonymous with Dover for most swimmers. (Though I’ve never been able to figure out why his Dover memorial is situated so badly in front of a block of flats instead of in front of the sea).  But his birthplace was Dawley, in Shropshire.

I’ve read a few times, by people who haven’t seen it, that the Dover memorial has on it the famous phrase attributed to Webb and embraced as the motto of Channel swimmers, Nothing Great is Easy, which is not in fact true. The possibly apocryphal (but unimportant if so) motto is on the Dawley Memorial which was erected 26 years after his death, in 1909.

There are a few sources of very interesting photographs from his time, various stories, and in particular of the Captain Webb Dawley Memorial. Site navigation isn’t the greatest. Go here for older images of the memorial before restoration and re-situation.

You can buy a print of a contemporary newspaper illustration of his death. Of the  less well-know aspects of Webb’s life were a 60 hour continuous swim in Westminster Aquarium, illustrated in 1880 and 128 hours floating in a tank in Boston, for which he won £1000. The newspapers caricature of him shows him as hypertrophically barrel-chested and he was celebrated by John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate.

Images of the renovated Memorial.

And of course …

Memorial Images source. This post is to save CS&PF President Nick Adams a trip.

 

No one swims to France by accident – Channel Season & Channel Fever

For some, there is no greater sporting event than the English Channel. Sporting event isn’t even a good description. The Australian surfer Nat Young once said the worst thing to happen surfing was that surfing was seen as a sport instead of art. Similarly, for most swimmers, Channel swimming should be thought more as a prolonged life-change than some short duration swimming event. It is a unique fascination of which millions dream, (every Soloist will tell you of the multiple times they hear this), who dream it without knowing why nor or of what they dream and it goes beyond swimmers to the whole world.

Few phrases in the entire canon of sporting terminology reach out to others like “I’m going to swim the English Channel”, more even than “I’ve swum the Channel”. Few phrases convey absolute commitment in the same way and the bonds that exist between Channel swimmers tend to reflect this. Those words express more than most people understand, a desire to go not just up to but beyond personal physical and mental limits. Something in the idea of swimming the Channel conveys transcendence, of someone aspiring outside the normal, maybe outside themselves.

One hundred and thirty-seven years since Captain Webb’s Solo, eighty-seven since Gertrude Ederle’s; (a swim that had at least if not more effect on the global awareness of Channel swimming, simply because she was woman doing what was considered impossible, and she was photographed); ideals of Channel swimming still exist beyond most modern adventure and extreme sports. Channel swimming itself now transcends the English Channel and includes the Catalina, Gibraltar, Molokai, North, Cook, Tsugaru and other Channels.

Channel swimming is carried out in private. It’s mostly done away from public visibility. Sure, if you are connected with or following a Channel swim you’ll follow GPS trackers and Twitter, get SMS messages and even see uploaded images. But a Channel swim happens as much inside the swimmer’s mind, when they take the decision, during the long training and in the fear and excitement before they step into the water, as it does at the point at which Kevin Murphy said to me: “You swim and you swim until you are tired or exhausted. And only then it gets hard”. No GPS tracker or Tweet conveys what a swimmer is going through in the second, third or later tide. Even those familiar with the various Channels; swimmers, crew, friends and family, can only vaguely imagine it, and it is that imagining, the attempt to extrapolate from a series of dots on a computer screen or chart and project ourselves to the brutal reality of the Channel, or any Channel, that is Channel Fever, when the Channel Dream becomes Channel Reality. Therefore Channel fever afflicts more than swimmers.

No one swims to France by accident.

In Channel swimming we know that everyone who gets to the other side deserves it. Every single one. And many who also deserve tom don’t get there. And that is also part of Channel Fever.

This one is for all the Irish Channel Dreamers this week, English, Tsugaru and North, and all those with Channel Fever whenever, whomever and wherever you are.

Review: The Crossing by Kathy Watson

The story of Capt. Matthew Webb is the starting point for modern Open Water swimming.

While there are other famous open water swims from before this time, Byron & Hellespont being the most famous, the dream of swimming the English channel was alive and well in the late 19th century, with other attempts before Webb’s first successful swim.

Watson’s book is a brief affair and an easy read, focusing on Webb’s biography as well as the successful Channel Swim itself, following an unsuccessful initial attempt.

Webb’s life was not a happy event. He was successful in his Merchant Navy career and a decorated hero for a mid-Atlantic life-saving attempt. After the Channel swim made him famous though he spent the remainder of his life chasing further fame, to lesser and greater degrees of success, but never to the same level as his Channel swim had achieved.
He drowned attempting to swim the rapids below Niagara Falls. It’s a depressing enough life but the book is enlivened by such items as the story of Paul Boyton , the “Fearless Frogman”, & Webb’s main rival, (and funnily enough to us), not a swimmer and wearing a an inflated rubber suit, who papers reported appeared before 100,000 people in Ireland.

This isn’t the definitive book on Channel swimming, which hasn’t yet been written, but it of interest to swimmers nonetheless. My main problem with it was the workman prose, which never matched the flow of its subject.