Stories from Guild Members – A Dramatic Channel Swim Relay Failure
From an early age I had wanted to be the first pre-teen to swim the English Channel. This was just a pipe-dream of course, but one kept alive through my teens largely by CLC’s willingness to allow me extra swimming time in winter at the Cheltenham Municipal Baths. This was a huge concession; I knew of no-one else who was permitted to leave their House every week to go into the Town - wow! And I swam perhaps a third of a mile a night - nothing at all these days.
After representing Scottish Universities in swimming and springboard diving, with a training schedule not dissimilar to the one at CLC, I joined Shell in London. This was 1960. Shell had a large pool in the basement of their building on London’s South Bank which, in 1964, became the training facility for me and my twin sisters, Lucinda and Amanda, to prepare for our Channel swimming relay.
The swim was organised by one Mr. Wesley who we later learned had himself made seven solo attempts on the Channel without success. He placed an ad in a London paper calling for 8 females interested to come to his house for a planning meeting. He was two hours late and we were beginning to wonder about him, when in he walked, without a word of apology, track-suit-clad, with the word ENGLAND stamped across his back. Our spirits rose; he must have achieved some great sporting feat for in those days you only wore your nation’s name if you had represented your country. But no: “It is to distinguish me from all the other nationalities”.
All 8 of us were working. Our number included Sheila Black, then the Women’s Editor of the Financial Times. At 45, she was the senior member of the team, by far. She happened to be married to the Editor of the Sunday Mirror, so we were guaranteed plenty of Press coverage. It was decided that we would go down by train to Folkestone on a Friday night and swim from there to Cap Gris Nez, rather than the easier swim from France to England. Mr. Wesley had found us overnight accommodation on the floor of a local paper, the Kent Messenger, my sister, Amanda, kept us laughing by reminding us not to wear stiletto heels aboard the boat, and to leave our teddy bears behind. Then as a group we jokingly talked of swimming the whole course nude, not realising we were being overheard. We slept fitfully until 4.30 am.
In a dark suit and carrying a briefcase, (1) Mr. Wesley escorted us to the beach where we were met by a representative of the English Channel Swimming Association, there to certify the success of the first-ever women’s relay to complete a channel swim.
Frankly, we were bemused by all the attention; after all, women and men had completed solo attempts ever since Matthew Webb’s initial feat in 1875, and that of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to do so, in 1926. Brenda Bourne, the Kent long-distance swimming champion, was to lead us off at 5.30 am (2) while the rest of us were taken by rowboat to a larger fishing vessel to await our turn to swim.
The weather was not favourable and Brenda had quite a battle against a heavy swell leaving the English coast. When she came back aboard, shaking like the proverbial leaf, it was determined that each swimmer should be limited to 25 minutes in 63-degree F water. We were unable to use wax because we would never have been able to get back into the rowboat. As it was, we slithered aboard and hit the deck like flounder on a marble slab! (3)
Our main boat, the fishing vessel, had to have been pre-WWII vintage. (4) The “Opportunity” (hah!) was registered in Folkestone because, we were told, no other port would have her!
She consisted of a deck where we congregated when not swimming and, below decks, where the fishing nets were kept and the engine resided. The combined stench of dead fish and used motor oil below was so pungent that no-one wanted to change down there. (5)
So we were as modest as we could be in front of the boat captain, his teenage son, Mr. Wesley and a male photographer from the Sunday Mirror. He was sick as a dog and kept mumbling, “And my wife thinks I am having a lovely day with eight beautiful women on the water”! (6)
The weather worsened. By this time, we had quite a little flotilla bobbing like corks behind us, including boats from the FT, the Sunday Mirror and, of course, the Kent Messenger. (7)
Amanda almost got swept onto an enormous Channel buoy with an ominous-sounding bell on top – “ask not for whom the bell tolls…” we thought as the sea churned around her. The wind whipped up to a Force 5. (8)
The sea produced white horses. Every swimmer, us sisters apart, was horribly seasick. (9) The only time the others felt slightly better was when they were in the water. Unfortunately, they were so weakened that, if there was any current or wind resistance at all, we found ourselves going backwards. We pressed on, not clear whether we were making any headway. When we had been in the water for 9 hours we found that we had swum 40 miles in a channel 21 miles wide, but were still six miles from the French coast.
One expects to swim 30-35 miles to get across the Channel. This is due to changing tides, currents and winds. The tide had turned. When the Captain tells you that the team has no chance of hitting Cap Gris Nez you know that insufficient headway has been made. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Captain then explained that now we had a good chance of being carried up to Germany or down to Spain. “But we can SEE France”, we said, plaintively. Alas, the expert had spoken and back we all came, clouds scowling overhead and in steady rain, to the shores we knew. We had at least proved that you do not merely bowl down from London on a Friday night and jump into the water just hours later. (10) You do what other channel swimmers do: sit and wait for weeks for exactly the right conditions. Nowadays too, you have to book your swim two years in advance.
Our failure and the accompanying photos probably made much more arresting news story than any success would have produced. To our astonishment, our remarks about swimming nude were picked up by the New York Sunday News and the Sydney Morning Herald, who took our joking as fact and made it the centrepiece of their articles. SIC TRANSIT GLORIA!
1952-1956, Farnley Lodge/Fauconberg
1. 5 am Sat Sept 16, 1964. A crammed rowing boat. Sheila Black, 3rd from R
2. 5.30 am Brenda Bourne starts the relay. It is dark - and cold
3. The Landing: not very comfortable nor at all ladylike!
4. The good ship “Opportunity”- not exactly ideal for the occasion!
5. Look at that vessel! What amenities! What comfort! What shelter! No goggles! Amanda in the water which was much calmer in the lee of the boat
6. The only way to change, avoiding reeking fishnets and the stench of diesel oil
7. Part of the flotilla With the author demonstrating the straight arm front crawl-all the rage at the time..
8. Lucinda in a choppy sea. Note the leafy bathing cap!
9. Some unhappy seasick team members
10. Amanda relieves her twin, Lucinda, with a pretty nice dive into the deep!