Feature Christmas 2014: Going to Extremes

Captain Webb’s legacy: the perils of swimming the English Channel

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7372 (Published 16 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7372
  1. Frances Klemperer, consultant psychiatrist1,
  2. Emily Simon Thomas, graduate entry medicine student2
  1. 1Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, London SW1 1DX
  2. 2College of Medicine, Swansea University, Swansea SA2 8PP
  1. Correspondence to: F Klemperer frances.klemperer{at}nhs.net
  • Accepted 7 November 2014

“Nothing great is easy”

—Inscription on memorial to Captain Webb in Shropshire

On 24 August 1875, against all expectations, Captain Matthew Webb crossed the 18.1 nautical miles of the English Channel without artificial aids.1 His swim took almost 22 hours.

Only a passport is required to enter the sea at Dover and attempt the swim to France. Two organisations will ratify the swim: the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation and the Channel Swimming Association. Their pilots have years of experience of the channel tides and weather and of escorting swimmers and evaluating when to pull them out of the water.

Over the 140 years since Captain Webb’s first crossing, interest in repeating his feat has grown steadily (figs 1 and 2). Aspiring swimmers now book their slots with pilots two or more years in advance. As we write, there have been 1932 one-way, 41 two-way, and three three-way solo crossings of the channel. Many more swimmers have turned back, and eight have died.2

Fig 1 Number of solo English Channel crossings 1875-2014

Data used from www.cspf.co.uk with permission of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation

Fig 2 Captain Webb’s swim across the English Channel

Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (http://cspf.co.uk/matthew-webb)

Swimming the channel requires great stamina. Although the point to point distance is 18.1 nautical miles (21 miles or 34 km), tides take the swimmer sideways. Only fast swimmers can, by timing their swim at slack tide, swim straight across. The fastest swimmer took just under seven hours; the slowest took almost 29 hours and covered 65 miles. The average time taken by women is not significantly different from that by men, but the top three male swimmers in the English Channel were around 12% faster than the women (data from 1875 to 2011).3

The oldest channel swimmer so far, Otto Thaning, a cardiac surgeon in full time practice in Cape Town and an experienced endurance swimmer, swam the channel on 6 …

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