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.

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