Tag Archives: Gertrude Ederle

The history of swimming goggles

This post came about as a touch of serendipity. After I posted about Swedish goggles Irish distance swimmer and former national four hundred mete champion and Channel Aspirant Colm Breathnach tweeted me about Godfrey Goggles, a type of goggle in use in Ireland and the UK primarily in the 1960s and ’70s.

When as a kid I started playing and swimming in the new indoor-how-fantastic-pool  we did’t use goggles initially and I clearly recall becoming more and more affected by the chlorine burn until we finally started using goggles. All I can recall of them is the squishy foam and that a pair of goggles was expected to last years and that visibility wasn’t as significant a requirement as chlorine protection.

It was easy to find some sources online for the history, notably the International Swimming Hall of Fame. So all I’m doing is collating some of that information for your entertainment.

14th century: The first recorded version of goggles may have been polished or layers of polished tortoise shells in Persia.

14th century Venetian Goggles

16th century: The Persian goggles were imported to Venice where they were illustrated in the image above.

18th Century: Polynesian skin divers used deep wooden frames. By keeping the face facing downward, air was trapped and protected the eyes from the salt water. Once glass became available (in Polynesia from European explorers) they were the first to incorporate glass lenses, though they were not fully waterproof and were easily dislodged.

Thomas Burgess in the English Channel
Thomas Burgess in the English Channel

1911: Thomas Burgess became the first swimmer to use goggles to cross the English Channel. It’s worth noting that both Captain Webb and Burgess were using breaststroke, front crawl still not having been fully developed.

1916: Swim goggles are patented by C.P. Troppman for use in underwater swimming but there’s no evidence of manufacture or use.

Gertrude Ederle face mask goggles
Gertrude Ederle wearing face mask goggles

1928: Gertrude Ederle becomes the sixth person, first woman and fastest swimmer to date to swim the English Channel, and the first using front crawl (aka freestyle), using a full face mask of motorcycle goggles sealed by parafin wax.

Gertrude Ederle's goggles now in the Smithsonian museum
Gertrude Ederle’s goggles now in the Smithsonian museum

1940: Popular Science magazine prints instructions on how to make wooden goggles.

1940s & 1950s: Florence Chadwick and other open water swimmers use their own versions with large rubber seals and double-lens glass.

1960: Individual swimmers started creating very basic goggles with plastic cups held to the face with elastic.1st goggles ad

1968: Advertisements appear for plastic goggles in Swimming World Magazine. Apparently they are not an instant hit.

1969: Godfrey Goggles are manufactured in the UK by Thomas Godfrey. He tried a couple of types of plastic before settling on one that hadn’t previously been used for sports but we now know well; polycarbonate. Thin, light and highly durable and shatter resistant. Scotland’s David Wilkie becomes the first every competitive swimmer to wear both a cap and goggle combination at the 1972 Commonwealth Games, taking silver in the 200m breaststroke. Wilkie later went on to become the only person ever to hold only person to have held British, American, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic at the same time. Subsequently Godfrey Goggles are allegedly copied and pirated by many goggle companies.

Since 1972: Goggles become standard swimmer equipment. It’s strange to realise that so recently they were not used by swimmers. Anti-fog, UV protection and streamlining are all incremental developments. Malmsten Swedish Goggles are released in the mid-seventies, allegedly a rip-off of the Godfrey Goggles. Swim training sessions get longer, flip-turns faster. Goggles allow elite swimmers to swim more than 4000 metres. The Men’s 1500 time drops by two minutes (13%) over three consecutive Olympics.

2000′s: Hipsters everywhere, even in swimsuits! You can purchase these wooden googles. They might make for an unusual or fun English Channel photo. But still…hipsters.

2008-2011: A brief attempt by Tony Godfrey’s grand-daughter Ashleigh to resurrect her grandfather’s business does not seem to haven been to been successful.

The Future?: Instabeat’s goggles look to be the first in a possible new wave of high-tech goggles, providing heart rate information and timing to the wearer through the lens, with future versions planned to integrate GPS. Beyond that at some point goggles similar to Google Glass seem likely.

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.

Paul Boynton applying dolphin grease to Gertrude Ederle

Regular questions about swimming the English Channel

All Channel Swimmers get some or all the same questions, all the time. This is to help with reducing the mystery somewhat.

Is it cold? This is the biggest myth. Actually it’s a little understood fact that since the mid Twentieth Century, London’s growing population has increased the heat of the Thames outflow, adding approximately 1.07 x 10^15 Joules (1.07 petajoules) of heat to the Channel Strait per 24 hour period. Combine the (completely safe) cooling outflow from the operative Dungeness Nuclear Power Station south of Folkestone with the measured 1.15° Celsius increase in ambient temperature caused by global warming leads to warm currents flowing in both directions on every tide, warming the English Channel until it is now only a degree less on average than Cannes (in the Mediterranean), though you have to swim out a mile (two kilometres before you encounter the thermocline (warm layer).

Lisa Cummins of Sandycove and Ireland is the only swimmer to ever finish at Dungeness after her record breaking four-way Solo, and the only treatment she needed to have afterwards was a brief course of Iodine to reduce any eventual possibility of thyroid cancer.

Nicholas Adams applying baby dolphin grease to Gertrude Ederle

So you get covered in goose grease for the cold right? This myth is widely held due to the famous picture of Gertrude Ederle prior to her solo swim, the first Solo by a woman. However what is generally not realised by the public, is that the grease wasn’t goose grease, nor was it for cold. In fact, Ederle was actually allergic to brine (sea water) and since wetsuits hadn’t been made into a useful protection, and were disallowed anyway under Channel rules, her trainer, Nicholas Adams, decided that they would protect her from direct water contact as totally as possible, so they had the blubber from baby dolphins extracted and smeared it on to depth of 4 centimetres (2 inches). Since this didn’t help her throat though, on every feed she had to drink quarter of a litre (half a pint) of turkey fat instead of the usual 250 ml of bacon grease used as the normal swimmer’s feed. Later in life Ederle became concerned with the number of baby dolphins who had been squeezed for her swim so she went on to found both Greenpeace and the Sea Shepard Society to protect the marine environment. Dolphin grease is no longer used by brine-intolerant swimmers (who are rare anyway) and a modern industrial substitute (Channel Grease) is available in Boots Pharmacy in Dover, (which is processed from the sap of an Amazonian rain forest tree).

Can you touch the boat? Yes, but only with your feet. So you are allowed to go the toilet on the boat, but you have to do it without your hands touching anything whether the boat, ladder, ropes or another person or you will be disqualified (DQ’ed). Since this is so difficult in Force Five winds and since the Official Observer’s other function is to watch you on your toilet break to make sure the rules are followed, most people don’t risk the attempt.

How do you go to the toilet? Please. Like astronauts, we have no idea why this is such a popular question. One hundred and thirty five years of  Channel swimming history have taught swimmers a lot about dietary restrictions. For seven days prior to almost any swim over eight hours, a distance swimmer will gradually reduce all carbs, and reducing the carb-to-protein ratio by 2/10ths each day while at the same time increasing the overall protein volume and substituting carbohydrates with cellulose. By 24 hours prior to the swim, the swimmer’s intestine should stop processing the remaining carbs (there’s generally a one-day fudge-factor in there, pun intended). As a by-product the resultant bloating leads to a widely held belief that Channel Swimmer are fat, when in fact it is just a short-term distortion of the torso, except in those very rare case where the body can’t subsequently expel all the cellulose post-swim. Because this timing is so critical, starting a swim is quite a tricky business to co-ordinate with weather, as this situation can only be maintained for a maximum of 72 hours, and with the large volumes of semi-liquid fat that swimmers must consume during a swim, means that swims are often abandoned due to Digestive Transititis Mobilitis, or “Channel Tunnel Syndrome” as Channel swimmers often call the traumatic and sudden explosive end to some Channel swim attempts. I’d prefer not to discuss the nauseating details.

How much does it cost? The cost of Channel Swimming is quite complex and different, and depends on your country of origin, based as it on a 137 year old tradition. If you come from a EU country that’s a member of  the Eurozone, you are automatically eligable  for 105% refund on completion of swim, and return of certificate to your local Social Welfare office (or equivalent), excluding France. If you come from an EU country that is not a member of the Eurozone and excluding the UK, the cost of an attempt, excluding accommodation fees, is pegged through modern Sterling back the pre-decimal Sterling system of pounds, shillings and pence. It’s a complex fee structure related to weight for men, and age and weight for women. Generally, like an ounce of gold is often related to the cost of a gentleman’s good suit regardless of year, the average cost is loosely related to the local currency equivalent of four healthy fallow sows. English swimmers (not Scottish or Welsh) are 95% subsidized by other swimmer’s fees, however in order to make the books balance each season, 20% of those allowed to make the attempt must be assumed to have no real chance of lasting longer than 20% of the standard crossing time of 30 hours, as decided by the committee of the validating organisation. Scottish and Welsh people must pay a 10% premium over the previous season’s average cost to Australians. Kiwis are treated as Welsh. And Australians pay at Americans rates less 20% of the overall but must pay an extra levy of 1.7%, known colloquially as the “beer tax” which is paid separately to the Dover Free-Traders Association.  Due to the French Government’s refusal in the mid 1990s to further support Channel swimming, French people may only swim on production a passport from any other nation, on top of a final cost of 15% over Scottish and Welsh people, but excluding American passports, (as designated under the revised EU Shengen Agreement). Americans must pay twice the next most expensive fee, projected forward to the next season. Given the possibility of underpayment in these circumstances, successful American swimmer’s swims are therefore not ratified until the AGM of the year following full and final settlement of accounts. These however are only general guidelines as each swimmer may be subject to further loading or subsidy.