Today in History: Captain Matthew Webb First Person To Swim English Channel in 1875
Photo Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was a feat thought impossible.

Of course, that is the feeling about any daunting task until it is done for the first time.

When Captain Matthew Webb eased into the English Channel on Aug. 25, 1875, he was prepared to try the impossible and make it possible.

No one had made it across before, but that was all about to change. He started from the Admiralty Pier at Dover fighting waves and currents. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, for the main part of the swim, Webb did the breaststroke and his diet was “beer, brandy and beef tea.” He was stung by a jellyfish but continued all the way to Calais where a large crowd greeted him.

“For the main part of the passage, he swam breaststroke at 26 strokes a minute. At one period in mid-Channel, a jellyfish sting temporarily slackened his pace. And for the last two and a half hours he was so exhausted that his stroking became weak and irregular; indeed, much anxiety was felt about his ability to finish at all. His cross-Channel diet was beer, brandy and beef tea. Lack of modern knowledge was in some little way compensated by the lack of modern rules. For instance, he had an attendant lugger and two rowing boats throughout. And at the finish an outsize rowing-boat accompanied him on the weather side to keep the cresting waves from getting at him,” author Gerald Forsberg wrote in Long Distance Swimming.

Webb’s feat stood as the only Channel crossing for 36 years.

But Webb would try another impossible swim. “In an effort to bolster lagging attendance for his vaudeville act in 1883, just 8 years after his Channel swim, Captain Webb decided to try for immortality a second time by swimming across the rapids just above Niagara Falls. Once again considered opinions said, “impossible” and this time they were right. Webb is buried at Niagara Falls, Ontario.”

He was just 35.

But he is remembered as the first swimmer to ever successfully cross the English Channel, a swimming feat still legendary 143 years later.

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Steve Borowski
5 years ago

mostly breaststroke, I’ve been told!

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