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Death of a Champion

The Crossing: The Glorious Tragedy of the First Man to Swim the English Channel

by Kathy Watson
Tarcher/Putnam, 242 pp., $22.95

Throughout the nineteenth century the English were generally considered the best swimmers in the world. Ever since Waterloo was supposedly won on the playing fields of Eton, their enthusiasm for sport and games became almost their distinguishing feature, a source of fascination to the rest of Europe. “They even taught us Swiss to climb our own mountains,” commented Jung, “and make a sport out of it.”’

Swimming contests were held in rivers throughout England and in most coastal towns, where the shape of the harbor provided a natural amphitheater, accommodating thousands of spectators. Most of the stars came from the north. The last, John Jarvis, the champion of the 1900 Paris Olympics, where the swimmers raced in the Seine, was described as “fat all over, which literally hangs in some parts. His breasts fall like a woman’s, but he has powerful shoulders and tremendous thighs.”

The English had every confidence in their superiority. A Victorian treatise on swimming begins: “There is no instance of any foreigner civilised or uncivilised, whose achievements in the water surpass those of the British.” The champions of England sailed to America and returned unbeaten. The great Frederick Beckwith gave Dearfoot, the Seneca Indian, a quarter-minute start and still beat him.

For years the English swimmers had adopted as the model for style the movements of the frog. Frogs were kept in tubs by the side of pools as a means of instruction. The swimmers admired the screwlike actions of their legs below the knees and the way they kicked and leaned their chests on the water. Learners were advised to place basins half full of water on the floor, insert a frog, then lie face downward over a stool and imitate its movements. The preeminence of the breast stroke was evident when two Indians, Flying Gull and Tobacco, were sent over by the Americans to challenge the English supremacy and lost easily to the local champion, although in the words of the Times they “lashed the water violently with their arms like the sails of a windmill.” The English tended to deplore the new overarm strokes that were becoming fashionable elsewhere. They objected to their ugly gestures. They called it “trick” swimming. Their attitude was principally aesthetic. They preferred the graceful movements of their own swimmers such as Sam Pamplin, the “Scudding Seal,” who always kept both arms underwater and whose style was, in the words of a spectator, like “dancing, the poetry of motion.”

When on August 24, 1875, ten years after Edward Whymper’s conquest of the Matterhorn had established the English as the leading mountaineers, Captain Matthew Webb set out to become the first man to swim across the English Channel, he naturally used the breast stroke. In her excellent book, Kathy Watson describes how Webb, after battling through rough seas for twenty-two hours, developed such deep raw creases in the back of his neck from having to keep his head upright for so long that he couldn’t button his shirt for a week afterward.

Webb plunged from the Admiralty pier off Dover at four minutes to 1:00 and kept up a steady stroke throughout the day. When darkness fell, the moment, as Watson notes, many long-distance swimmers dread as they loathe looking down into black water, the phosphorescent glow that illuminated his head and arms seemed to a spectator in the accompanying boat to surround him in a halo of glory, like that depicted in the paintings of the early Christian martyrs. At about midnight the mail boat, the Maid of Kent, passed by and directed its lights onto the water to enable the passengers to witness the drama of the scene. “Never shall I forget” Webb recalled later,

when the men in the mail boat struck up the tune of “Rule Britannia” which they sang, or rather shouted in a hoarse roar. I felt a sudden gulping sensation in my throat as the old tune, which I had heard in all parts of the world, once more struck my ears in circumstances so extraordinary. I felt now I should do it and I did it.

By this time his tongue was swollen, and his skin turning gray as the blood drained from the surface of his body. A few miles from the French coast, the tide changed and he was driven back out to sea. He missed the point he was aiming for, but found the strength to land at Calais soon after 9:30 AM. He quickly recovered and merely felt a peculiar sensation in his limbs, similar to that “after the first day of the cricket season.” In spite of seventy further attempts, no one swam the Channel again for another thirty-six years.

Matthew Webb, the son of a doctor, was born on January 19, 1848, in Dawley, Shropshire, in the west of England. He learned to swim in the river Severn near his home, and not long after rescued his brother from drowning. At twelve, he entered the training ship Conway, which prepared boys for the merchant navy. He developed there the long, steady, slow strokes which were the hallmark of his style. A fellow cadet remarked: “We thought very little of him as a swimmer but admired his staying powers. He could swim about for an hour without putting his foot to the floor, although in a race he was nowhere.”

An early opponent was a Newfoundland dog, whose master boasted of its remarkable stamina in the water. Webb backed himself in battling against it. Within an hour and a half the dog was whimpering in the choppy sea and making efforts to climb back into the boat, while Webb continued to float on happily.

Two years later he enrolled in the merchant navy. His employer was the grandfather of the poet W.B. Yeats, who recalled in his autobiography his own lack of courage as a youth, when he always wanted to be like his grandfather, “who thought so little of danger that he had jumped overboard in the Bay of Biscay after an old hat.” Of a similar temperament, Webb and his employer became firm friends. It was off the coast of India that Webb first began to swim frequently in the sea. He was exhilarated by its buoyancy and immediately felt that this was his true element. It was not long before Webb showed his courage and made his mark with some lone dangerous swims in various parts of the world. Off South Africa he swam through savage breakers to attach a rope to a sinking ship. In the Suez Canal he spent hours underwater unraveling a hawser that had wrapped itself around the propeller. On a voyage from America, a seaman fell overboard. Webb immediately plunged into tremendous waves in a vain effort to find him, and was fortunate to be rescued. By this time he had grown into a man of Herculean build, at five feet eight and one-half inches not particularly tall, but with a wrestler’s body that was particularly strong in the loins and legs.

After reading an article on J.B. Johnson’s failure to swim the Channel, Webb decided to leave the Navy and attempt it himself. He consulted Robert Watson, a noted journalist who edited a swimming magazine. Watson particularly admired Johnson as a swimmer, “his long, beautiful, and machine-like movement.” At first he felt dubious. Johnson was, after all, the champion of England and had barely lasted an hour in the Channel. What chance, he thought, had Webb, a comparative unknown, though he admired his spirit, his “rollicking, dare-devil, don’t care a damn demeanor.” Webb trained in the Thames and off the south coast, while Watson accompanied him in a boat and grew tired of watching his “slow, methodical, but perfect breast stroke and the magnificent sweep of his ponderous legs.” He was amazed, though, by his stamina, and gradually came to realize that he could be on to a winner.

They were not deflected by the antics of an American entrepreneur, Paul Boyton, who paddled across the Channel encased in a rubber suit, with a sail attached to his feet, occasionally smoking a cigar. But they resented the publicity he received, and the acclaim. On August 12, 1875, Webb made his first attempt. He was well over half-way in rough seas when he gave up out of consideration for those in the boat, since water was pouring over the sides. He had not wanted to embark on the swim, but public expectation forced him. Twelve days later he tried again and succeeded.

His swim electrified England. On his return home to Shropshire, colored lights illuminated the valleys. His presence in the City while on a casual stroll closed down the Stock Exchange for the day. Richard Jefferies, the naturalist, could conceive of nothing in mythology to equal what he had done, not even the feats of Ajax and Achilles. Pursuing this classical theme, Algernon Swinburne, the poet who loved to bathe in rough seas, proclaimed that if Webb had lived in ancient Greece, he would have been “deified on the spot.” He wanted to celebrate Webb’s triumph with a Pindaric ode, claiming that he was “the only man in England that I would go out of my way to shake hands with, if permitted that honour, or if not, even to see.” A knighthood was proposed in Parliament, although never conferred.

Unlike the American Boyton, who was out to publicize his life-saving apparatus, Webb was far too modest and inarticulate to exploit his sudden celebrity. He lacked Boyton’s fluency and genius for self-promotion. Within a year, he was a forgotten man. He took to giving lectures across the country, but few people turned up. He never made much money, and had the reputation of being generous to a fault. Poverty forced him back into the water. He swam down the Thames and floated in an aquarium previously occupied by whales. He took part in endurance races, a popular feature of the time, in semideserted indoor pools, swimming for six days, fourteen hours a day. Two humiliating trips to America, where he unsuccessfully challenged some of the leading swimmers to races off the East Coast, hardly helped his cause. He was reduced to the level of a stunt man, forced to impersonate a seal or a porpoise in a transparent tank, and dive into pools through flames off fifty-foot platforms.

A race in a freezing Lancashire lake marked the turning point in his career. He beat off the challenge of a Dr. Jennings, but was so exhausted at the end that he could hardly be dragged from the water. According to Robert Watson, this swim “had a very serious effect on Webb’s constitution, and he never again seemed like the Webb of old. His career from now on had a downward tendency. He had almost played his last card.” He retired from his last race coughing up blood.

Webb by now was impoverished and at his wit’s end. He had moreover a young family to provide for. In a desperate bid to regain his reputation and fortune, he decided to stake his life on one final extraordinary adventure. The high-wire performer Blondin had recently caught the world’s imagination by crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Watson recalled his last conversation with Webb as they rated his chances of swimming down the notorious stretch of river below them:

We discussed Niagara. “Don’t go,” I said, “from what I hear you will never come out alive.” “I don’t care” was the reply, “I want money and I must have it.” As we stood face to face, I compared the fine handsome sailor, who first spoke to me about swimming, with the broken-spirited man who courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not sui-cide, but money and imperishable fame.

Webb was warned by his doctors that his body had deteriorated, but it was evidently a topic he chose to avoid. Above all he dreaded a quiet life.

Three miles below Niagara Falls, the river bends toward the Canadian side, contracts to a width of two hundred feet, and rushes violently into a deep depression in the cliffside. On emerging at a right angle from the depression, it forms a whirlpool. Its entrance is guarded by some ferocious rapids, their most terrible features the jagged rocks and tremendous waves thrown up by the river as it plunges down the narrow gorge at a considerable slope.

It was from his memories of this whirlpool that Edgar Allan Poe conceived “The Maelstrom.” Lord Byron’s friend Edward Trelawny had swum across the river and back, above the whirlpool, an exhausting exercise that made him aware his youth was over. This stretch of water seems to have been almost a preserve of the English, as when Lord Desborough swam across some years later, no American believed him, so he was forced to swim it again. Only Webb has ever set out to swim downriver into the mouth of the whirlpool. In his eyes it was merely “a rum bit of water.”

In 1883 Webb sailed to America with his wife, son, and daughter of seven months. He trained in the sea off Nantasket Beach; then, leaving his family on the coast, he traveled to the falls. At a press conference he explained that it would take him two or three hours to extricate himself from the whirlpool, then once beyond its circumference he would swim to shore. His particular fears were concentrated on the ledges of pointed rock that jut out over the whirlpool. He proposed to start with the breast stroke, then swim overarm for acceleration. Trainloads of spectators were expected and he reckoned $10,000 was at stake, but in his heart he feared he would receive nothing.

At 4 PM on July 24, Webb was rowed out to the middle of the river, as far as the boatman dared. He dived in, to be instantly gripped by the force of the current. He was glimpsed by the spectators holding his course in mid-channel, buoyed up on the ridge of boiling water, heading for the whirlpool, which he was seen entering. At first he kept on his way swimming, then abruptly he threw up his arms and was drawn under. His last words to the boatman had been: “If I die, they will do something for my wife.”

A few days later his body was found by fishermen four miles below the rapids. The red silk costume he had worn for the Channel was in shreds, and his skull exposed. The autopsy concluded that the cranium wound was produced after death, which had been caused by the shock of the conflicting currents that had shaken the life from his body. In their opinion no man could possibly survive the effect of the whirlpool. He was given a pauper’s burial in the Oakwood cemetery at the edge of the falls, in a heart-shaped plot of ground known as the Stranger’s Rest.

Matthew Webb was in many ways a typical Englishman of his time—proud, modest, inquisitive, adventurous, determined to test himself to the limits. There have been a number of short books about him, but after Kathy Watson’s account I doubt if there will be another. It is comprehensive, engagingly written, and provides a dramatic account of his turbulent career. The author is a swimmer herself and has talked to modern Channel swimmers, so is able to convey the psychology and complexities of long-distance swimming. Above all, the book is full of fascinating detail, such as the long-forgotten novels Webb read as a child that fired his heroic imagination, his final breakfast before his Channel swim (eggs, bacon, and claret), and the fact that on the night before, in his anxiety, he—in the words of a private note written by one of his friends—“committed an indiscretion, unusual for him,” the exact nature of which has remained a mystery ever since.

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