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Glow sticks, grease and jellyfish. Allow Jonathan Cowie to introduce you to the mysteries of the world’s most iconic swim: the English Channel
Graham Kennedy’s Channel crossing.
Photo by Raphael Ruz

There may be longer swims, there may be tougher swims, but the English Channel still stands as the blue riband marathon swim. The storied 21-mile stretch of water between England and France has challenged swimmers for generations, ever since Captain Webb first crossed it in 1875. Now one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, more and more swimmers each year are attempting to dodge the ferries and complete their own personal Channel journey.

The history of Channel swimming pretty much begins with Captain Matthew Webb, whose 22+ hour breaststroke swim between Dover and Calais in 1875, lubricated with porpoise oil and fuelled by brandy and beef tea, was the first recorded unassisted crossing. Others had attempted the feat, and it had been crossed earlier by a seaman holding onto a bail of straw – but as an 19th century wetsuit equivalent, that didn’t really count. There were 80 failed attempts before the next successful crossing in 1911 by Thomas William Burgess. The third successful crossing was in 1923, by Henry Sullivan – and as the roaring twenties progressed, so Channel swimming picked up pace as cash prizes were offered for successful swims. The sixth person to cross the Channel was American Gertrude Ederle in 1926, who crossed in 14 hours and 39 minutes –becoming the first woman to swim the Channel, and setting a new speed record to boot. On her return to New York, Ederle was greeted by a ticker tape parade through Manhattan attended by more than a million people.

Successful Channel swimmers today shouldn’t expect quite such lavish celebrations, but the swim remains the swimming equivalent of summiting Everest (in fact, more people have summited Everest than have swum the Channel). If there is an ultimate outdoor swim, then the English Channel is probably it. Whether a one-way solo or a two-way, three-way – or yes, a possible four-way – to call yourself a Channel swimmer is a badge of honour rather more impressive than the 25m front crawl I once proudly sewed on my swimming trunks. Although the golden age of distance swimming, when swimming stars were feted like Hollywood royalty and newspapers and holiday camps stumped up life-changing cash prizes, is no more, we have entered a new age of marathon swimming, where distance records are being smashed and more and more people are undertaking the challenge of long-distance swims like the English Channel. For many, swimming the Channel is a calling, an almost spiritual goal; for others it is the challenge of doing the toughest swim they can imagine; for some a memorial swim or a means of raising money for charity. Whatever the reason, everyone’s Channel journey is different and every Channel story deeply personal. No matter how many people have crossed the Channel, no matter how fast or slow the swim, and even no matter if the swim was successful or not, crossing the English Channel is a true feat of endurance.

The strange world of Channel swimming! Applying Channel grease in Dover Marina car park
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About Outdoor Swimmer

Welcome to our February issue! The new issue of Outdoor Swimmer is packed full of awesome features to help you keep your New Year challenges on track and inspire your swimming adventures. An introduction to the world's most iconic swim, the English Channel; wild swimming adventures; swimming heroes; neoprene accessories on test; plus, nutrition, technique, events, destinations, interviews and more of your stunning photography and swim stories.