Three Hour Swim

Saturday 01/30/10

Coach Val is perturbed with me. The thumbs-up and smiles have vanished. When I catch sight of his face at the edge of the pool, it is pinched into a lethal glare suitable for a close-up in a Clint Eastwood western. The occasion for this dissatisfaction is my first three hour pool swim.

I’ve never swum for three hours in a pool. My longest continuous swim was three and a half hours in the Bay when Pat M and I swam from Sausalito to San Francisco in 1996. The prospect of a turn-infested slog through the chlorine found me a little nervous.

Peter Perez was also swimming three hours that day. Coach was kind enough to close a lane and let us share it for the duration. Every fifteen minutes for the first half of the swim, Coach made a video recording of my stroke with commentary. “You come back to your old technique and it’s not making me happy what your right arm pulling straight. I need more and more bend your arms.” After an hour and fifteen minutes he says, “Stroke looks not bad. It’s getting better than you begin. My concern is your pulling underwater. You should more bend your elbow because arm is pulling straight. You’re becoming tired. But you should save your forms and you should more bend your elbows in the middle part of your pulling. I can’t complain about your legs. Legs on the top. It’s all right. I complain about the pulling form.” Halfway through the swim he says, “In my opinion, you start to lose the stroke and the main problem for me is to start to save the technique. You can see the arms pulling a little bit far from the center part of your body and arm is too straight underwater. But, we will work with this. We have a couple more months.”

Watching and listening to the recording later, I was crestfallen. I was convinced that I had conquered that wild, flailing stroke of my past. I was certain that I had licked the boogie-woogies. I even had the hubris to observe the stroke of swimmers in other lanes and imagine dispensing guidance. It brought crashing home, once again, the indispensable value of good coaching.

My history is relatively devoid of lessons. I mostly prefer to figure things out on my own with the help of a good book or two. This inclination certainly dates to the time that I began learning about computers. In 1970, universities were not well equipped to teach practical computing science and I learned by doing. I held several summer and part-time jobs and learned a number of computer languages through trial and error and the beneficence of employers who knew that a steep learning curve was the price of cheap labor. I came to disdain the university instruction. Entering the professional world, I again found formal instruction to be a bit tedious. Most of the programmers that I admired were self-taught.

When I was thirty-five, Lindsay bought a tenor saxophone for my Christmas present. Knowing my disdain of instruction, she also bought me a book by Larry Teal. Of course, I tried to assemble the instrument without Mr. Teal’s advice and managed to generate a screeching that reduced my mother-in-law to tears. Whether she cried from laughter or pain, she was definitely incapacitated until I stopped. This humiliation spurred me to study The Art of Saxophone Playing and I learned to assemble the instrument properly. I even managed to work out a recognizable version of “Summertime.”

A couple of years later, at a well-attended company function, a couple of friends and I produced and starred in a skit that featured familiar tunes with original lyrics. On one of the songs, I took a solo on saxophone. Viewing a video of this event later, I hoped the audience was laughing at the inside jokes embedded in the lyrics, but I feared the saxophone playing was unintentionally comical as well. That’s when Lindsay finally convinced me to seek professional coaching.

She performed her customary miracle of research which led to a decade of daily study and weekly lessons. She found Michael G, the perfect saxophone teacher. He was exactly the right combination of master and taskmaster to keep me striving for improvement. One of the most difficult aspects for me to learn was pitch. I could simply not hear that I was flat in the upper register. Mr. G would regularly have me produce long tones at the top of the horn and then squinch his face and lift his hand, palm up, to indicate that I should tighten my lower lip. Having this outside view was indispensible to my musical progress.

Having Coach Val’s outside view is just as indispensible to eradicating the boogie-woogies from my mind’s stroke as it was to eliminating the flat pitch in my mind’s ear. One of the problems was that after the three hour swim, I was not going to see Mr. Boreyko for more than a week. I was going to Atlanta for business.

Thanks to the internet, I found an LA Fitness near my hotel with four, twenty-five yard lanes. The schedule worked out so that I was able to swim about 14,000 yards that week. Concentrating on pulling straight down the centerline of my body, I worked on mentally seeing my hand pass in front of my eyes and pull directly toward my stomach. Almost half the yards were devoted to the catch-up drill. With no-one to provide guidance, it was impossible to know if these were anything more than garbage miles.

The next Tuesday, I was back at the pool. Coach seemed glad to see me and reiterated that we had plenty of time to clean up my boogie-woogie mess. He had me start with eight, five hundred yard segments—the first five hundred using catch-up drill, the next five hundred using free style. This was similar to the routine I used in Atlanta. Apparently, the concentration had paid off. We were back to smiles and nods. “Nice long stroke with the catch-up. Like it. Nice pulling. Is exactly what I want on the English Channel. Beautiful! Today, you do it. You good today.”

I was certainly nervous the day of the three-hour swim. This experience emphasized something I already knew: When people are nervous, they fall back on the most comfortable and ingrained habits. I haven’t talked to a single person who has swum the English Channel who said they weren’t nervous. I’ll need to remember this little lesson. I'll continue working to make that smooth, rhythmic style that I think of as the "Texas two-step" the stroke that I naturally employ when the nervous demons descend.

Death in the Bay

Saturday 01/23/10

To the best of my knowledge, Jim Small is the only person to die swimming in San Francisco Bay. Like many large bodies of water, the Bay has its share of drownings, murders, and suicides. Mr. Small was not one of these. He was an excellent swimmer. He was not eaten by a shark nor did he succumb to hypothermia. In October of 1963, he was run over by a fishing boat.

He was twenty-seven years old when he died, a strapping young man over six feet tall weighing 185 pounds. James Baird, the man who swam stroke for stroke with Jim Small the day of the tragedy, said, “We were water babies. We swam, played water polo, surfed, were lifeguards.” A month earlier, Mr. Baird had barely edged out a victory in the annual Dolphin Club Golden Gate swim. According to Art Rosenbaum’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Baird turned to his best friend after the race and gasped, “I was lucky—you’re the best swimmer.” Small replied, “Luck had nothing to do with it—you made the course. You deserved it.”

The setting for the disaster was a long open water race in San Francisco Bay sponsored by the Dolphin Club. The course ran from Richardson Bay, across the shipping lane to a buoy moored near the St. Francis Yacht Club, and then turned east to end at the club beach in Aquatic Park. Given the distance and potential boat traffic, the organizers required a pilot craft for each swimmer. Come race day, though, ten swimmers showed up with eight pilot boats. Because Mr. Small and Mr. Baird were so evenly matched in speed, it seemed reasonable to allocate one support boat for both swimmers. Inauspiciously, another contestant arrived at the last minute and begged to swim. The organizers knew Joe Flahaven as a strong, fast swimmer and made a scrimmage-line call to allow him to participate. That made the count eleven swimmers, eight pilot craft.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to have as many as three swimmers per pilot boat. One difference is that modern swims are covered with one or more motorized vessels. Typically these are fast, inflatable boats that zoom around the periphery of the swimmers, creating a safety zone. These zippy boats are easily capable of intercepting anything that poses a threat other than the large tanker and container ships. As they do in the English Channel, these behemoths have the right of way over swimmers. Prior to 1961, the Coast Guard provided patrol boats to support Bay swims. In July of that year, the newly appointed Rear Admiral Allen Winbeck rescinded that policy. For the fateful race, human-powered, hand-built wooden row boats provided the sole protection.

Another difference is that this swim pre-dated the formation of the San Francisco Vessel Traffic Service or VTS. Established in 1972, nine years after the death of Jim Small, the VTS is located on Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay. Its responsibility is to monitor and control shipping traffic much the same way that Air Traffic Control monitors and controls air traffic.

A third difference is that pilots of out-of-cove swims for both clubs now employ modern marine communication equipment. With these hi-tech “walkie-talkies,” they contact VTS at the beginning of a swim and provide swimmer count, origin, destination, and approximate finish time. VTS closely regulates container ship movement, so pilots have very early warning of the approach of large vessel traffic. Using separate marine channels, pilots can also directly communicate with other Bay traffic as well as with other pilots. This technology was prohibitively expensive and bulky at the time.

On race day, Dan Osborne and Dave Hinton were the oarsmen in the double-seated rowboat assigned to cover the two lead swimmers, Mr. Small and Mr. Baird. A champion swimmer himself, Mr. Osborne was an extremely experienced open water pilot. As Mr. Flahaven had no personal pilot and was fairly fast, the plan was for the one rowboat to provide support for all three swimmers. Unfortunately, by the time the group was halfway across the Bay, Mr. Flahaven had fallen a hundred yards behind the leaders. Mr. Osborne and Mr. Hinton split their attention fore and aft until the fateful moment that they spotted the conning tower of a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine steaming east in the deeper channel north of Alcatraz. Black and stealthy, numerous submarines plied San Francisco Bay in the days before the Mare Island submarine base closed in 1996. The nearly submerged ship appeared to be headed toward the trailing swimmer. The pilots assayed the scene and saw no threat for the two leaders, so they decided to drop back.

Just as the pilots found themselves the farthest from the two leaders, Glen Newmann, captain of the sport-fishing boat, Pacific Dawn, decided to try and improve his luck. The fishers pulled their lines and Captain Newmann steamed at top speed along the Alcatraz Shoal, cutting right across the lead swimmers’ path.

Brian Gilbert, a lifetime member of the Dolphin Club, has written the most well-penned and well-researched account of this calamity available. Published in the Spring 2002 issue of the Dolphin Log, Mr. Gilbert’s article draws on extensive interviews with the eye witnesses. With permission, I will quote liberally from Mr. Gilbert’s account:

‘Dan Osborne: “When we saw the threat, we turned around and went back to Baird and Small at our best speed. When we realized we couldn’t reach them in time, we stood up in the boat and shouted and waved our arms, trying to draw attention. The captain was lounging in the cabin and he just waved back, apparently thinking we were just being overly friendly. He never altered course or looked at where we were pointing.”

Glenn Newmann: “I heard a thump and I thought we’d hit a piece of driftwood. Then I saw that head with goggles bob up, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve hit a skin diver.’”

James Baird: “I looked up and saw the thing five feet away. I saw it coming because I breathe on the left side. I pushed myself away from the hull and just missed getting hit by the propeller.”

Dan Osborne: “It was terrible. When I first saw the area, there was a circle of blood in the water 30 feet across. Somehow I got hold of his arms and tried to lift him up and into the boat, but I found I just couldn’t do it. Dave couldn’t help me because he had all he could do to keep the boat from capsizing with me trying to lift an unconscious man, slippery with his own blood, up over the gunwale. I cracked two ribs in the attempt, but I just couldn’t do it. We retrieved his severed leg, but that’s about all we could do for him.”

Philip Christiana, captain of the Sea Raven: “We could see that boat cutting right across the swimmer’s path. We could all see it was going to happen, but it was too late for us to do anything. When we reached the rowboat, we all helped to get the swimmer on board and laid him on the hatch cover.”’

Rushed to Letterman Hospital in the Presidio, Jim Small survived for three days. Hospital doctors told Art Rosenbaum that only Mr. Small’s remarkable physique and stamina kept him alive through the many surgeries and the amputation of his other leg.

One of the hand-built boats belonging to the Dolphin Club is named in Jim Small’s honor. His picture occupies a prominent position in the Staib Room. His cautionary tale has led to numerous additional safety precautions and provides ample incentive to exercise vigilance swimming outside Aquatic Park.

Consummated Sunriser

Sunday 01/10/10

At six o’clock on Friday morning, the sky is still pitch black. Cloudy overcast obliterates any feeble starlight or moonlight. In the South End boat house, harsh electric lights illuminate only the main corridor. The corners remain in inky shadow. The conversation is muted as befits a group not yet quite awake. Most people exhibit hair bearing traumatic evidence of a messy divorce with the pillow. Half of the group grasp steaming mugs of coffee or tea. The bustle of organized chaos reflects in echoes off the dark walls. The Sunrisers are preparing for a Pier 7 swim.

The equipment layout bespeaks a practiced efficiency. Three or four people slide an inflatable boat out of its specially constructed rack and position it onto a small, wheeled trolley. The Zodiacs roll into their place in the assembly area just outside the boat house. The heavy outboard motors have their own specialized hand cart. These carts wheel out to the assembly area where two people wrestle an engine onto the stern of a boat while another person keeps the bow tilted down. With the outboard locked into place and pitched forward, the stern is allowed to settle. Someone retrieves a gas tank from its locker outside the boathouse, checks the fuel level, connects it to the motor, opens the vent, and primes the hose. The appropriate number of personal flotation devices and blankets begin to fill the boat bottoms. “Man Overboard” signal flags, bailers, and marine radios find their way into their constructed slots. In slightly more than fifteen minutes, the fully equipped Zodiacs stand like sentinels in a row. The entire activity has the feel of a Special Operations mission (minus the weapons, of course).

Leadership is ad hoc. Individuals who know the drill perform the necessary tasks and direct any bewildered bystanders.

“We need some help pulling this Zod’ out of the rack.”
“Would you hold that bow down while we mount this motor?”
“Get six life vests and toss them in the bottom of each Zod’.”
“Let’s do a radio check on channel 69.”
“How many swimmers do we have so far?”
“Has everyone signed the sign-out sheet?”
"OK. Let's do a final swimmer count."

The calculus of pilot coverage begins with the swimmer count. A brief negotiation ensues and one swimmer may give up a slot in order to pilot and provide the appropriate balance. By 6:30 am, we are trundling the Zodiacs down the boat ramp in a cacophony of wooden clatter. Once in the water, the pilots give sharp tugs on the starter ropes, assign seats to distribute the weight, and carefully pull away from the dock.

Several cove swimmers are plying their way around Aquatic Park and not all wear lights, requiring pilot and passengers to keep a sharp lookout. We edge cautiously to the Bad Becky where the passengers hunker down in an amiable pile amid swim coats and surprisingly warm and snuggly blankets. The pilot accelerates and we cruise past the breakwater.

A fresh breeze from the west is in combat with the east-flowing ebb current. The battle generates a steep high chop and we begin bouncing along at our top dry speed of 10 knots. As we approach the corner at Pier 39, a blue-gray glow begins to puncture portions of the cloud cover in the east. The dim celestial light provides an incandescent backdrop for Yerba Buena Island and the Bay Bridge. Fifteen minutes after leaving the dock, we are coasting to a stop at our rendezvous point off Pier 7. The city has not quite come awake and the urban symphony has yet to commence. The chugging of the engine ceases and we soak in the early morning stillness.

We wait a brief spell to give the ebb a chance to build. One of the pilots contacts Vessel Traffic Service. He gives them our location, destination, number of swimmers, and number of the marine channel we will be using for boat-to-boat communication. VTS responds with a laconic acknowledgement. Two minutes later, the swimmers roll backwards into the 51 degree water. The shock of the cold water erases the last traces of sleepiness. Breaking dawn shoots shafts of light sideways into the translucent green water. With the tangy taste of brine in our mouths, we strike for home.

The agitated sea demands concentration to maintain a smooth, even stroke. The pilot craft disappear behind the taller waves. Occasionally, a recovery stroke greets nothing but air until the body drops off a watery precipice. Other times, the Bay snatches an arm in mid-return and slams it back, forcing a one-arm stroke drill. Coach Val’s instruction is paying dividends though, and the steady glide of the Texas two-step builds confidence for the Channel.

This is not a race and swimmers bear partial responsibility for pilot coverage. The faster swimmers reverse course a couple of times to return to the group and tighten the spread. Sunrisers call this behavior “podding up.” It adds to the sense of camaraderie.

By the time we turn the corner again at Pier 39, the ebb has gained strength and we are streaking back to Aquatic Park. Within an hour of getting wet, we curl around the breakwater and stroke for the beach.

At the beach, the swimmers make their way back down the boat ramp to meet the pilots. Together, they retrieve and stow the Zodiacs. After-drop and hypothermic tremors take a toll among the swimmer helpers. One by one, they make their way to the warm sauna. By the time they are dressed, the equipment is re-stowed and ready for the next mission.

The Sunrisers conduct perhaps three hundred swims a year. It’s small wonder that they operate with such quiet competence. For me, it was a treat to be liberated from the strict confines of the Cove. The hour seemed to fly by. The rough water was just an added training bonus. This experience and the anticipation of the ones to follow make me glad to have established a dual membership with the South End and the Dolphin Clubs.

Why Are You Doing This?

Friday 01/08/10

People have expressed a curiosity about the decision process leading to a commitment to swim the English Channel. Acquaintances typically voice their wonder with the question, “Are you crazy?” Friends approach the topic more obliquely. “I’ve read your blog and I know you and Lindsay had some champagne at Foreign Cinema on the anniversary of your Channel relay and you discussed a solo attempt and she was supportive—but are you crazy?” So why am I doing this?

Massive amounts of ink have been spilt on the subject of human motivation. Modern game theory examines the nooks and crannies of human choice in a staggering array of circumstances. These studies provide detailed glimpses into myriad specific scenarios. Before this field became so scientific, two giants in the field of psychology wrote seminal works in the 1960’s that shaped my personal conception of why people do the things they do.

Frederick Herzberg proposed a dual structure theory. According to Mr. Herzberg, people shape their behavior in response to “motivator factors” and “hygiene factors.” Hygiene factors pretty much relate to comfort. Pay and benefits, co-worker relations, and job security are examples. When the hygiene factors are adequate, people probably won’t be desperate for another job. They may not do their job well, but they’re likely to continue not doing their job well where they are. Motivator factors, on the other hand, contribute to passion and missionary zeal. Achievement, recognition, and growth are examples of factors that cause people to do the best job they possibly can. To my high school student brain, the subtitle was: motivator factors motivate and hygiene factors placate.

Abraham Maslow took a different, but complimentary approach. In his book, Toward a Psychology of Being, he organized human desires into a pyramidal hierarchy of “needs.” At the bottom of the pyramid are the basic needs such as air, food, and security. At the top of the pyramid is the need for “self-actualization,” a term that Mr. Maslow borrowed from Kurt Goldstein. Mr. Maslow simplified the various needs on the pyramid into two basic types: “deficiency motivators” and “being motivators.” “Being motivation” refers to the un-striving, almost organic flow state that can emerge when the deficiency motivators are reliably satisfied.

A friend of mine has poured these basic concepts into his own unique cognitive blender. As reflects his Calvinist upbringing he says, “Other than basic survival, people do things for two reasons—duty or amusement.” He gives the example of choosing to have children and raise a family. “Some people have children because they feel a sense of duty to their parents or their religion. They MUST propagate the species or carry on the family name. They MUST produce grandchildren for their parents. Other people have children because they think it will be amusing: babies growing, learning, transforming; seeing the world through a child’s eyes; experiencing the unexpected marvels that children occasionally wrought. This is entertainment.”

Not having children, I’m in no position to comment. I can say that Lindsay and I decided to commit to this English Channel project because we thought we would find it amusing. We knew we’d learn new things. We knew we’d have new reasons to collaborate and plan. One of the unexpected marvels is how much satisfaction I’m getting from writing regularly. Another is how broadly my social circle has expanded.

It is true that Lindsay encouraged me over the years, courting the boundary of coaxing. But, the decision was ultimately mine. Her advocacy simply furnished the freedom necessary for the undertaking, providing me assurance that we were both willing to shoulder the inevitable burdens. Without that knowledge, this project would definitely not be fun.

Abraham Maslow wrote, “If we wish to help humans to become more fully human, we must realize not only that they try to realize themselves, but they are also reluctant or unable to do so. Only by fully appreciating this dialectic between sickness and health can we help to tip the balance in favor of health.” Were Mr. Maslow still alive, he might say that a little coaxing is not necessarily a bad thing.

For a closure-oriented person, this is remarkably process-oriented stuff. I will say, though, that it will be far more amusing if I successfully cross that ditch.

NYD Alcatraz

Saturday 01/02/10

The 2010 NYD Alcatraz swim was a humdinger. The huge tide made this a race that people will recall for several years. In a thirteen hour period, the water rose from 2.8 feet to 7.1 feet and then dropped off the chart to a -1.6 foot finish. Tides don’t come much bigger in San Francisco Bay, making it quite tricky for the organizers to pick a start time.

One hundred and twenty swimmers participated and their speeds varied from nearly world class to nearly dog paddle. The worst mistake possible would be to jump too late. This happened a few years ago and only five people finished at the club beach. All but one of the remainder were scooped up as they were being swept to the Golden Gate Bridge and points beyond. The exception wound up getting out at the beach at St. Francis Yacht Club and walking a mile back to the club barefoot in his Speedo.

In order to avoid a repetition of this scenario, the organizers scheduled a jump while there was still a strong flood. As a result, some of the slower swimmers were pushed as far east as Pier 39. Even the fastest swimmers didn't catch the ebb until they were well east of the breakwater. The stage was set for one of the most exciting aspects of open water swimming—a choice of routes. (Click here for a map)

Based on the swimmer’s local knowledge, level of craftiness, and sheer audacity, three basic choices offered themselves. The first and most natural option (marked “A” on the map) was to swim outside the breakwater and enter Aquatic Park Cove through “the opening.” This is the traditional finish for Alcatraz races and would appear to be the default option. It was also the slowest.

Swimmers with a better understanding of San Francisco aquatic geography chose the route marked “B” on the map. This option took the racer inside the breakwater and past the Bad Becky, shaving off a couple of hundred yards and providing protection from the end of the flood. Pretty smart.

The craftiest and bravest swimmers went one better than this. They took the most direct route, “C”, cutting under Hyde Street Pier. Packed with barnacle-encrusted pilings on a rip-roaring ebb tide, this path required a bit of pluck.

The water was reasonably smooth given the extraordinary tide race mid-channel. The air was moderately warm for mid-winter. The water temperature was a relatively benign 51 degrees. Visibility was good. Pilot coverage was plentiful. The best part was that everyone finished the swim and had a great time comparing notes. This was an outstanding NYD Alcatraz.

Matthew Webb

Friday 01/01/10

Perhaps the age of true human marvels is past. Two men rowed across the Pacific Ocean and received a scant few column inches in the San Francisco Chronicle. The papers of Midwest America made no mention at all. Since 1977, men and women have run nonstop each July from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. They cover 135 miles and 13,000 feet of vertical ascent with no national press coverage whatsoever. In fact, very few people have even heard of the Badwater Ultramarathon, much less the name of the first person to complete this satanic test.

Matthew Webb was not so slighted. When he successfully swam the English Channel in August, 1875, the world took notice. His biographer, Kathy Watson, reports the reaction in her book, The Crossing. The swim “made Webb more than merely famous, it recast him in heroic mold. In England, he was seen as a peerless example of manhood, a role model for the nation’s youth….here in the papers, over and over again, was his story in full. Hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, his long swim was recorded.” The New York Times reported that, “From the remotest village in the Highlands, down to the lowest slum in Wapping, there is probably not a soul to whom the name of Captain Webb is unknown.” His crossing was not the first amphibious success, but it was the first with no artificial aids. Captain Webb was dressed only in the standard swimming costume of the time and employed a steady breast stroke at a relatively sedate twenty strokes per minute. The man was resolute and epitomized the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.”

A year and a half earlier, he had dived from the side of the steamship sailing liner, Russia, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean attempting to save a seaman who had fallen from the rigging. His action was purely spontaneous and typical of his stubborn, physical courage. Fortunately, someone saw the plunge into the gale-tossed sea and the ship dispatched a rescue boat. Almost forty minutes later, he was hauled by his hair to safety only seconds from being left to his fate. The passengers on the liner took up a collection and gave him a purse of gold. The Royal Humane Society awarded him the “Stanhope Gold Medal.” Ceremonies and award dinners followed in profusion on his arrival in England which he apparently enjoyed, but he never capitalized on his fame with paid performances. In the classic manner of his acceptance speeches, he said, “I shall always look back upon being the recipient of the first gold medal given away as one of the most fortunate coincidences in what, I am bound now to admit, has been a somewhat fortunate career.”

Only eight months before this, in August of 1872, J.B. Johnson had made an attempt to swim the Channel. He employed a new, powerful, overhand style of swimming and was captain of the prestigious Serpentine Club in London. At twenty-three years old, he was a handsome physical specimen with a string of swimming medals. Known as the “Champion Swimmer of England,” Mr. Johnson hired a brass band to serenade his start in Dover. About two hours and two brandies later, he boarded the steamer that was acting as his pilot craft. He was too hypothermic to drink the proffered beef tea, but continued sailing for Calais. Just before they reached the harbor, he was revived sufficiently to re-enter the water and swim to shore. He allowed people to believe his attempt had been completely successful. When the truth emerged, he found refuge from the resulting disrepute in the distant and former Colonies.

Lacking J.B. Johnson’s speed, Captain Webb substituted exponential fortitude. Two weeks before his successful crossing, a fierce storm interrupted the first attempt midway across the Channel. According to Ms. Watson, his exit was “not a moment too soon. Fifteen minutes later, the sea was in such a rage that the [small pilot] boat would have been forced away from Webb and he would almost certainly have drowned.” Less than fourteen days later, he was back in the water for a second go. This time, he completed the journey and landed near Calais in twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes. He sustained himself with beef tea, beer, and coffee. A supplement of cod liver oil made him sick and he vowed not to take it again. When he swam into jellyfish, a dose of brandy helped to lessen the sting.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph Captain Webb said, “I went into the water determined either to reach the other side or sink. All I can say is that I kept pegging at it, and it was a terribly hard job towards the end, but I was determined not to give up as long as I had strength to move a limb.” The reporter later said, “The captain is a bad hand at spinning a yarn, and is inclined to be very brief about it.”

The hero’s reticence left plenty of room for others to fill in the blanks and they did. From Dover to London, people threw banquets and gave speeches in his honor. When he arrived in his home county of Shropshire, it took him an hour and a half to get out of the train station and into a carriage which the crowd insisted on pulling themselves. By the time they reached his birthplace in Dawley, the parade was so large that even the livestock wanted a peek. Almost 150 years later, a replica of Farmer Fletcher’s pig graces a brick fence with its trotters perched atop the barrier.

Captain Webb’s accomplishment remained unmatched for thirty-seven years. Finally in 1911, after fifteen failed attempts, Thomas Burgess crossed in 22 hours and 35 minutes. Even now, fewer people have successfully completed a solo swim of the English Channel than have climbed Mt. Everest. For some few, the crossing is a race to set a new record. For most of the rest of us, it is an opportunity to emulate the pioneer’s dogged determination.