Swimming slowly, steadily and rapidly

Pop quiz. When did someone first swim the English Channel without floaties? OK, you guessed it was August 25. But what year? The answer is surprising, to me anyway. It was 1875. And very much in the “Because it is there” spirit. Except not entirely in a good way.

The man who did it was Matthew Webb. A strong swimmer who went to sea at age 12 in 1860, and saved his own brother from drowning three years later, first winner of the Stanhope Gold Medal for bravery for trying to save a man overboard in mid-Atlantic, Webb was already captain of a steamship at age 25 when he read of a failed attempt to swim the channel and became, well, some say “inspired” but you could also say obsessed with doing it himself.

He quit his job, trained rigorously, and after being foiled by wind and waves on August 12 made another try on the 24th smeared in porpoise oil. Well, why not? (Porpoises might have an opinion, I suppose.)

I’m not taking anything away from Webb as a swimmer. Indeed he made the journey despite jellyfish stings and currents off Cap Griz Nez that kept him from getting to shore for an additional five hours. Finally he landed near Calais on the 25th, after 21 hours and 45 minutes in the water swimming an erratic course that nearly doubled the distance from 33.1 to 64 kilometres.

Yay. What an accomplishment. And he did become a hero. In quite a modern way, as he embarked on an impressive marketing career that made quitting his job look less reckless than it might first have seemed. He became a professional swimmer, which I didn’t even know they had then or now. He also endorsed such swim-related things as pottery, and wrote a book The Art of Swimming and had some matches named after him.

Yes, he became a celebrity. Which rather that the “modern” world is not so new after all. Whatever its virtues, or failings, novelty has less novelty to it than we think.

At this point Webb married and had two kids. But he didn’t live happily ever after.

Instead, he came up with the idea of swimming the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls. Many people told him he would surely die. Others told him they had no interest in funding this stunt. So he did it anyway, on July 24 1883… and died.

In 1909 one of his brothers put up a memorial in his birthplace of Dawley, Shropshire that says “Nothing great is easy.” After being hit by a truck a century later it was repaired, and he has a road and a school named for him in Dawley. And I admire Webb for swimming the Channel. But it was just plain dumb to try to swim those rapids even if he did make it surprisingly far before perishing.

It has been claimed that the image of Webb on Bryant and May matches inspired Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau look. But Clouseau would somehow have emerged from the rapids alive through dumb luck because the movie is made up. Webb didn’t because life is real. Apparently that too was becoming obscure by Victorian times.