Paul Boyton

Sunday 2/28/10



“The great waters roll from beyond the Isles of the Dead to thunder and shatter against the rocks at the west of Britain. The sea heaves there, as if the ocean gods flexed their muscles, and the white birds cry endlessly, and the wind rattles the spray against the cliffs.” This is how Bernard Cornwell describes the wild ocean on the western side of England. This is the sea into which Paul Boyton leapt in 1874 to demonstrate the original “life-saving dress.”

As a teenager, Mr. Boyton possessed a reckless and peripatetic streak. At fifteen, he spent less than a year in the Union Navy fighting the Confederates. He served briefly on a collecting voyage to the West Indies before the boat sank. He joined Benito Juarez’s Mexican Navy to fight the French. Then he joined the French Army to fight the Kingdom of Prussia. He served six months as a diver for a submarine company in New York until he took passage to South Africa to hunt for diamonds. On his return to America, an unscrupulous captain attempted to shanghai him. He escaped by swimming in the middle of the night over a mile to shore in the port of Malaga and hiding in the hills.

When he finally returned to Philadelphia at twenty-four years old, the president of the Camden & Atlantic railroad Company hired Mr. Boyton to take charge of the lifesaving service in Atlantic City. His duties included supervising the lifeguards at the seaside resort. In light of these aquatic management responsibilities, he received the honorific of “Captain.” A strong swimmer, he harbored a passion for lifesaving dating to his youth when he saved a child pinned beneath a log by the strong Alleghany River currents. During Captain Boyton’s tenure, the incidence of drowning deaths dropped from twenty per year to none. When he left the service, he had saved seventy-one lives.

His responsibilities included maintaining the various lifesaving apparatus which he spent hours perfecting. In this process he discovered the newly invented survival suit of C. S. Merriman, a discovery that was to alter the course of his life. The survival suit consisted of pants and tunic made from highly vulcanized rubber. With rubber gaskets at the waist and head, it was waterproof in much the way dry suits are today. The suit contained five inflatable air chambers to assist in flotation. The wearer of the suit propelled himself feet first with a double-bladed paddle such as kayakers now use. A small sail attached to the foot could harness a convenient wind for additional propulsion.

Mr. Merriman was the quintessential Victorian inventor who was horrified by the number of deaths resulting from pleasure boat shipwrecks. He and Captain Boyton collaborated to promote the adoption of the survival suit and save lives. Of course, their efforts far pre-dated the emergence of radio and television advertisements. The most effective route to a mass audience in those days was the newspapers. In this pursuit, Captain Boyton conducted a series of demonstrations around New York. Paddling around, shooting off flares and smoking the occasional cigar, he found the public reception rather tepid. The remedy was some heroic and sensational stunt that the news-hungry papers could not ignore.

He announced his intention to sail two hundred miles to sea in the Atlantic Ocean and paddle back in the survival suit. People jeered in disbelief. Another obstacle was that even before the age of rampant lawsuits, no sailing captain would agree to knowingly transport him to his liquid launch site. Undaunted, he snuck aboard the steamer ship Queen and stowed away until he guessed it was 250 miles off shore. In the middle of the night, he donned his suit in the shelter of a life boat. He was equipped with a rubber bag containing food and water. He strapped a double-bladed axe to his leg in order to defend against sharks and sword fish. Before he could leap overboard, a deckhand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and growled, “Where are you going?” Mr. Boyton reportedly replied, “I’m going ashore.”

The captain of the Queen confiscated the survival suit. He was not impressed with Mr. Boyton’s argument that, having no ticket, he must be ejected from the vessel. Instead, the captain offered comfortable quarters and settled in for a long chat. Mr. Boyton charmed the captain with stories of his many adventures. The captain also embraced the clearly sincere desire to promote a device intended to save the lives of sea-faring men. For the duration of the crossing, they spent time in the chart room poring over possible locations for Captain Boyton to enter the sea and paddle to shore.

The other ship’s officers protested in vain. The passengers, on the other hand, were enthusiastically curious. They lined the rail as the survival suit-clad figure lowered into the water about two and a half miles off the Irish coast. The Queen sailed on and left Captain Boyton to deal with a growing gale and bucking seas. He narrowly survived being smashed against the massive cliffs in the vicinity of Cape Clear. Swept into a narrow ravine, he climbed to the top of the plateau and eventually stumbled to the seaside village of Baltimore in the midst of the crashing gale.

His appearance first prompted fear due to his outlandish costume. The next reaction was shock and concern for what must have happened to the other passengers. Finally, as the tale unfolded, the villagers embraced the heroism of his feat. They sent him off to Skibbereen in a horse-drawn jaunting car with a loud huzza.

Captain Boyton made the most of the public relations opportunity. As soon as possible, he sent telegrams to the Queen and the New York Herald announcing his accomplishment. By the time he reached Cork, he was famous. He spent the rest of the year capitalizing on this fame. He held exhibitions where he would paddle around for an hour, smoking cigars, lighting signal flares, and knocking the tops off bottles with a Bowie knife. He was making money and popularizing what was becoming known as the “Boyton Suit.” But his sights were now set on gaining the attention of Europe. For this, he planned to cross the English Channel.

In the second week of April, 1875, Paul Boyton and his entourage (including C. S. Merriman) checked into a Dover hotel. At three o’clock on the morning of April 10, he set out on his journey to the cheers of the Dover crowd. After a promising start, the weather turned nasty. Reporting from the pilot tug boat, Mr. McGarahan of the New York Herald wrote, “It was a strangely fascinating spectacle to watch him in his hand-to-hand struggle with the ocean. The waves seemed to become living things animated by a terrible hatred for the strange being battling with them. Sometimes they seemed to withdraw for a moment, as if by concert, and then rush down on him from all sides, roaring like wild beasts.” Fifteen hours after he had started, Captain Boyton acceded to the pleas of his brother and the tug boat pilot and gave up the attempt.

Despite the failure, the publicity was favorable and Mr. Boyton earned additional riches performing exhibitions in France. By the end of May, he was ready to try again going the other way. Once again, he started at three o’clock in the morning near Cap Gris Nez in France. This time, he had a much more peaceful crossing and landed on a rocky strip of beach at Fan Bay in England. The Queen of England and the Prince of Wales sent telegrams of congratulations. He traveled throughout England and his appearance fee soared to fifty guineas a day.

Six months later, Matthew Webb dramatically eclipsed Mr. Boyd’s accomplishment. Captain Webb swam across the English Channel in a simple swim suit and without swim aids. In The Crossing, Kathy Watson writes, “Boyton’s exploits were history, the previous hero of the Channel cut down to size, written off as a pushy little New World adventurer with a funny rubber suit and too high an opinion of himself.”

A fierce debate continues today regarding the use of rubber suits for swimming in cold water. Channel_Swimmers@googlegroups.com has some very entertaining threads on this topic. Few people question, however, that the pinnacle of swimming achievement remains the English Channel. And few people dispute that the acme of accomplishment is to make the crossing with one standard swim costume, one standard swim cap, and a pair of goggles.

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