Tag Archives: Tom Blower

Mercedes Gleitze and the Vindication Swim

Well-known Californian swimmer Jamie Patrick earlier in the year mentioned in the blog comments that he liked reading articles about the history of open water swimming. Apart from what already appears in various books it’s hard to find such stories. But I shortly thereafter carried the story of Tom Blower and the first North Channel swim. (Anytime I think of doing a history post, I imagine Jamie asking me).

At the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference, some of the guests were connected through a historical chain: The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, Wayne Soutter, and Dolorando Pember.

Wayne Soutter was the first person to complete the Mull of Kintyre route from Scotland to Ireland in 2012, his account covered here. North Channel swims are ratified by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association. And Dolorando Pember is the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze, who first unsuccessfully attempted the Mull of Kintyre route (though she was successful on so many other marathon swims).

Before she attempted the North Channel, Mercedes was an English Channel swimmer, (still the qualifying requirement for a North Channel swim to this day). In light of the Diana Nyad Controversy, the story of Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim, apart from the actual swims,  is very interesting for some timely reasons less obvious than others:  

  • False swim claims have been around for a long time in our sport
  • Other honourable swimmers are negatively affected by false swim claims
  • The development of Official Observation (“ratification”) in swimming

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Mercedes Gleitze’s second “Vindication” English Channel swim was widely used for advertising by watch company Rolex, and the story of the Vindication Swim came to me from an website devoted to watches, of all places. With that link to the original in place, below is the story itself, leaving out the later advertising aspect of the article which describes how Mercedes swim was used to make Rolex the well-known watch company it is today.

As an addendum, British Pathe archive has a few great silent movie clips of Mercedes. Starting her second attempt (head-up granny stroke!). A News clip about failing one attempt. Getting married in Dover. Channel season. This one of out-takes has plenty of her swimming.

Note that the terms we still use of Channel Swimmer, Channel Season and Channel Aspirant were all in use in the 1920s despite that less than a dozen swimmers had completed the Channel by the end of that decade.

mercedes-TALIM-open-waterOne investigative source of this story says that the Channel Swimming Association “refused to recognize her swim as legitimate“. The CSA was only founded the same year with their handbook stating: “Since March 1927, English Channel Swims have been organised and regulated by the [CSA] and all Swims officially observed by its designated Officials/Observers  are faithfully recorded“.

The CSA database for 1927 shows three swims and Mercedes Gleitze is recognised as a Channel Swimmer.

Marilyn Morgan, the above blog’s author, comprehensively answers this question when I asked her:

“[T]he CSA asked Gleitze to sign an affidavit verifying she completed the swim unaided. Gleitze refused on principle and was quoted as saying, “the best thing to restore the prestige of British women Channel swimmers in the eyes of the world would be for me to make another Channel swim,” and thus she embarked upon what became known as the Vindication Swim.

Because that swim was undertaken past Channel swimming season and she swam so efficiently for so long in the bitterly cold water under such extreme conditions, the CSA consented that she must have successfully completed the Oct 7 swim and then included it in its records retrospectively. This can be verified through a plethora of British and American newspapers as well as at the archives“.

The Vindication Swim: Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge and become world-renowned…By John E. Brozek © InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2003     International Wristwatch Magazine, December 2003  

October 7, 1927. It was a cold October morning, and Miss Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist and part-time professional swimmer from Brighton, was about to make her eighth attempt at swimming the English Channel.

Miss Gleitze began her journey at 2:55 a.m., as she entered the murky waters at Gris Nez. The Channel was uninviting, cold and thick with fog. Visibility at times dropped to less than five yards, so a fishing boat from Folkestone led her way—frequently sounding its horn to help avoid the heavy shipping traffic. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, fed her grapes and honey from the boat to keep up her strength, and strong tea and cocoa to help fight the cold.

After overcoming hours of pain and exhaustion—and being nearly run down by a steamer—“her feet touched the chalk rocks between South Foreland and St. Margaret’s Bay”. And at 6:10 p.m., she became just the twelfth swimmer to accomplish the feat, the third woman, and the first Englishwoman. This historic swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, and was under bitterly cold conditions, with water temperatures never rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is worth mentioning that attempts at swimming the Channel were usually made earlier in the year (around August) when water temperatures are more accommodating. Why Mercedes elected to swim this late in the year is still uncertain.

Shortly after emerging from the water, Mercedes collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of her trainer, Allan, and her pilot, Harry Shart, Jr. She remained unconscious for nearly two hours, as the small fishing boat ferried her back to the Fish Market at Folkestone, where she was “cheered loudly by a big crowd”. Being in no condition to celebrate, she was quickly taken by taxi to her lodging for the night.

Unfortunately, Gleitze never really got to enjoy her success. Just a few days later, a series of events unfolded that put the legitimacy of her swim into question: On October 11, Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan (using her professional name, Mona McLennan), swam the Channel in thirteen hours and ten minutes. With this swim, Logan set a new record time for women, when she “walked a few steps up Folkestone beach”, at 8:50 a.m.

This was the second report of a woman swimming the Channel in less than a week, and suspicions quickly arose as to the legitimacy of her claim. Under heavy scrutiny, Logan soon recanted her story and confessed that her swim was a hoax. With Logan’s confession, Mercedes’ swim also came under suspicion. In a way, she was considered guilty by association and was said to be very upset by the accusations, and, unlike Logan, said, “All right, I’ll do it again”. Thus, the stage was set, and Gleitze was scheduled to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what was touted as the “Vindication Swim”.

Just a year prior (on July 29, 1926), Rolex patented the first waterproof wristwatch: the Rolex Oyster. When Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and Managing Director of Rolex) got word of the vindication swim, he saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new creation. Wilsdorf wasted no time, and on October 14, dispatched a letter to Miss Gleitze by way of the S. T. Garland advertising service. By this letter, he formally agreed to provide her with a gift wristlet watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim.

This “Vindication Swim” began at 4:21 a.m., when Mercedes again entered the waters at Cap Gris Nez. However, unlike her previous swim, the fog on this day was minimal and she had a full entourage accompanying her—numerous chase boats were filled with journalists, friends and well-wishers.

At this point, I would like to say that Mercedes Gleitze successfully completed the swim, and the rest, as they say, is history. I would like to say that, but unfortunately it is not the case, and “history” as retold by some over the years is incorrect.

According to the London Times, the conditions during this swim were brutal, with water temperatures ranging from 53 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit—a far cry from the near-60 degree temperatures she endured on her previous swim, just two weeks prior.

Shortly after entering the water, she experienced incredible pain and numbness from the icy water. To help keep her awake, the crowd sang songs, accompanied by musicians playing the banjo and guitar. Unfortunately, this was of little help, and, at 2:25 p.m., it became evident that she would not complete the swim. The bitterly cold conditions caused her to slip in and out of a coma-like state. At 2:45 p.m., she was reluctantly hoisted into the boat, some seven miles short of her goal, and her vindication swim would not be.

Mercedes was surely disappointed by her failure, but the overwhelming reaction from the crowd must have been of some consolation. The reporters, doctors and experts on hand were amazed at her endurance and ability to withstand the treacherous cold for some ten hours and twenty-four minutes. Thus, after witnessing her determination, few if any could doubt the legitimacy of her previous swim—it was, indeed, a victory in defeat.

As she sat in the boat, one such journalist made an incredible discovery and reported it in the London Times as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”

It may sound a bit more romantic to say that Mercedes wore a Rolex on her wrist as she swam across the English Channel, but this, unfortunately, was not the case. While she did “carry” a Rolex for more than ten hours during her vindication swim, it was not on her wrist, nor was it during the “successful” fifteen-hour swim she is remembered for. This is simply a story that has had some “specifics” misquoted over the years. With that being said, on October 25, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze forwarded a letter to Rolex, which summed it up very well, and read as follows: “You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenour of its movement. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it…”

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Tom Blower and the first successful North Channel swim

I came across this gem from 1963 in Sports Illustrated archives a couple of years ago. I’m just going to reprint it. Hey, an easy day, no writing!

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From Donaghadee in Northern Ireland to Portpatrick in Scotland is a fraction under 21 miles. Between the two land masses the sea rages in swollen tides and hungry eddies. Out in the center a man could sink some 100 fathoms in places before touching the dark bottom. The water is so painfully cold that to swim in it is to feel as if one has a steel band around his forehead that gets tighter with each stroke. This is the deadly and cruel North Channel of the Irish Sea. To long-distance swimmers it makes the English Channel look like a wading pond. Only one swimmer has ever made it across—an Englishman named Tom Blower.

In fact, not many have even dared to try the crossing. Florence Chadwick made two unsuccessful attempts—in 1957, when her life was in danger for 24 hours afterwards, and in 1960, when she left the water with a body temperature of 90º F. A Greek, Jason Zirganos, died after an unsuccessful try in 1959 despite the efforts of a doctor who cut him open with a borrowed penknife to massage his heart. Just last year (1962) the Danish-born Canadian swimmer Helge Jensen, who holds the record for the English Channel crossing, quit the attempt because he could not stand the cold.

Tom Blower was a citizen of Nottingham, on better terms with the authorities than Robin Hood but a match for the legendary outlaw in bold charm. He was a blond and jovial giant (6 feet 1, 252 pounds). Two people could hang from, each of his outstretched arms; he could break six-inch nails with ease and liked to sit on the bottom of Nottingham’s River Trent for three minutes at a time watching boats pass overhead. Sometimes he swam in the river when it was snowing. During World War II, while serving in the Royal Navy, he dived into the Atlantic in January to try to save the survivor of a dive-bombing attack. To his native city’s youngsters he was always Uncle Tom, who helped crippled kids to swim, was devoted to youth clubs and gave exhibitions for charity. But when people contributed money, in turn, to one of his long-distance attempts, he said it felt like swimming with £500 in halfpennies around his neck and refused such help ever after.

The son of a miner, Blower decided early that he was not cut out to be a sprint swimmer. He had an extraordinary ability for standing or lying in the water without moving a muscle. Blower described himself as “a cart horse,” although in 1937 he was fast enough to swim from France to England in 13 hours 29 minutes. For plowing through the sea he found the trudgen best, a combination of overarm strokes and a scissors kick with the legs. Despite his bulk, Blower moved in water with grace and efficiency.

After the war he made two tries at swimming the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The first, early in the summer of 1947, was called off when the water became so rough that exhausted crews could not manage the boats that accompanied him. On July 27, 1947 he made his second attempt. As he kissed his wife goodby he said, “I’m not getting out for anybody this time.” And he did not.

When Blower slid into the water there was a forecast of 15 hours of perfect weather, but his wife was already beset by a feeling of disquiet. “The sea looked smooth,” she recalled recently at her home in Nottingham, “but it was a sort of slimy smoothness. And the sky was too red.” It was evening when Blower splashed away, accompanied by an armada of boats and an army of well-wishers who gradually drifted away into the night until he was left with only those directly concerned with the swim. He was at last almost as alone as a flyer in the sky. Around his waist he had tied an old, cherished and much-darned pair of swimming trunks with a piece of string.

The water temperature dropped as low as 49º F. He wallowed across fields of floating seaweed. Shoals of herring at one time surrounded him so thickly that they nibbled his feet. The sea looked like a carpet of silver, and the pilot’s boat propeller churned up fish. One observer from the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, who accompanied him in the water for an hour, came out so cold that he had to thaw out his feet by putting them, wrapped in a blanket, in a cooker oven. For eight hours Blower swam in comparative quiet.

But the morning after the start, one of the most spectacular thunderstorms Scotland has ever known swept through large areas of the country. Towns and villages were plunged into twilight as lightning struck and rain fell. Streets were flooded, bridges swept away, flowers and crops destroyed. Out at sea it took two men to hold the stove on which Clarice Blower cooked food for her husband. It was impossible to reach him with the food, however. Blower occasionally disappeared completely from sight, swamped amid the waves. Then hail fell in harsh lumps as big as eggs.

Some wanted to take Blower from the water, but his wife, obeying his instructions, would not allow them. For a brief time he changed from the trudgen to the breaststroke. Then he appeared to lose strength in one arm. Later, when his arm was moving again, his legs seemed to drag. At one time Blower swam for four hours without making a mile. The Irish Sea eventually grew quiet. Two fishing tugs, chugging by, sent out across the swell that eerie salute of sailors everywhere, the sound of a ship’s horn. Blower was going to make it, come thunder, lightning, wind and hail, badly bruised and torn though his body was.

As he swam into a small Scottish cove the sky seemed to clear. He climbed agonizingly out of the water onto the rocks, and raised his clasped hands, shyly, above his head. “I can’t tell anybody how I felt,” said Clarice Blower. “I’d been every yard of the way with him in my mind. I just burst into tears with joy. But when I looked round everybody else was crying—21 men and me, one woman.” It had taken Tom Blower 15 hours and 26 minutes to make the historic swim. In Nottingham a proud lord mayor interrupted a city council meeting to tell members of Blower’s exploit.

As Blower came limping ashore at Portpatrick the first man to clasp his hand was a Scottish policeman. “You’re the first one to do it, lad,” he said, “and you’ll be the last.”

Blower became a national figure and need never have done any more. But as long as there was a difficult swim to be made he wanted to make it. No amount of bitter cold, exhaustion, cramps, seasickness, sore mouths, puffed faces, arm ache and stinging jellyfish ever seems to deter such men. “They get the bug and it kills them in the end,” said Clarice Blower. Her husband joked about his strenuous addiction. “I am going to put my swimming trunks on a pole,” he said once, “and start walking with them flying like a flag. When someone stops and asks, ‘What are those?’ I am going to settle there, because that will mean they have never seen swimming trunks there, and don’t swim there—and that, brother, will be the place for me.”

He swam the English Channel twice more—in 1948 and 1951—both times the particularly tricky way from England to France. Between swims he went quietly about his job as an advertising representative for a cigarette manufacturer in Nottingham. Then in 1955, at the age of 41, he died suddenly of a heart attack in his home.

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It should be noted that the next swimmer to conquer the English Channel was none other than the King of the Channel himself, Kevin Murphy, and not until 1970.

Related articles:

Torpedo Tom, BBC. (Which has an incorrect detail about him taking the English Channel record, repeated on Wikipedia)