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
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.
One 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…”
- Tom Blower and the first successful North Channel swim (loneswimmer.com)
- The Diana Nyad Controversy, a personal reflection – Part 5 – Probity & Integrity. (loneswimmer.com)
- Her swim made Rolex famous (consumingcultures.net)