The Thing Is ... with Steve Canavan - August 27, 2015

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A thought has struck me. I’m quite a strong swimmer – indeed I once completed four full lengths at the local swimming baths, albeit with a brief break after each length – and I want to do something noteworthy while I’m still able, so I’m thinking of having a bash at swimming the English Channel.

I mean how hard it can be?

Loads of people have done it, including a kid still at primary school; Thomas Gregory was 11 when, in the late 80s, he swam across in a shade under 12 hours to become, not surprisingly, the youngest person to achieve the feat.

It seems astonishing Thomas was given the go-ahead to even attempt it. When I was 11 my parents wouldn’t let me stay at the local park past 9pm, so I’m not sure my mother would have been keen about the idea of waving me off at Dover shouting ‘good luck dear, we’ll pick you up from Calais in 12 hours – and remember, if you come across any strangers, don’t talk to them’.

But swimming the Channel hasn’t always been so do-able.

Captain Matthew Webb, famously, was the first to succeed in August 1875.

We’ll dwell on him for a moment for he was an interesting chap. He swam a lot as a child and hit the headlines when he jumped into the icy Atlantic, while on a ship travelling from Liverpool to New York, in an attempt to rescue a man who had fallen overboard.

He trained for his Channel crossing at the local swimming baths and then in the River Thames, where, as Webb approached in trunks and goggles, the locals presumably whispered, ‘here’s that mad nutter Webby again’.

He had the last laugh, though, for after wading into the water near Dover and adopting a steady breast-stroke, he arrived in Cap Gris Nez in Calais 21 hours and 45 minutes later. It took him a lot longer than it should have, mainly because he kept forgetting what direction he was going in and took a strange zig-zag route that extended what should have been a 21-mile swim by a further 19 miles. He emerged from the water in France exhausted and covered from head to toe in jellyfish stings, but an international hero.

Alas he got a bit carried away, wrote a book called The Art of Swimming, and announced he would prove how powerful and perfect his swimming was by breast-stroking his way through the Whirlpool Rapids below Canada’s Niagara Falls.

Most observers thought it impossible – and they were right. Webb failed to emerge at the other side and his lifeless body was later dragged from the water. Presumably sales of his book slumped a little afterwards.

But fair play to Webb and his crossing of the Channel for – and this shows how tough it was back then – it was another 36 years and 80 failed attempts before someone else managed it, a chap called Thomas Burgess.

I like Burgess for not only did he feast on ham and eggs prior to setting off (an athlete’s meal if ever there was one) but he didn’t really bother to do any practice beforehand.

Prior to attempting his Channel crossing his longest swim was six miles. Despite this woeful lack of preparation, Burgess somehow managed to get from England to France, though it took him almost 23 hours.

That seemed to break the mould for suddenly loads of people started to get in on the act.

In the summer of 1923, three more hardy swimmers completed the crossing, including Henry Sullivan who, because of choppy 
waters and bad tides, swam an estimated 56 miles. It took him almost 28 hours, which remained the longest crossing until very recently – 2007 to be exact, when unusually strong currents forced a poor woman by the name of Jackie Cobell to swim a total of 65 miles, which took a whopping 28 hours and 44 minutes. Apparently she was pleased to have completed it but annoyed she’d missed Coronation Street.

Like climbing Everest, it is quite a common feat these days. The quickest time was set three years ago by Trent Grimsey (less than seven hours –crikey, he must have hung on to the back of a ferry), and there are even records for completing it there and back (Philip Rush, 16 hours) and doing it there, back and there again (same bloke, 28 hours).

After reading about all these frankly exhausting-sounding efforts I have, reluctantly, decided to abort my plan to join them.

But it does remind me of an old joke my dad used to tell about the bloke with no arms or legs who tried to swim the Channel. He would have made it, the gag goes, but 100 yards from shore he got cramp in his ears.

Taking my life in my hands?

Remember those good old days when we could turn on the tap, fill a glass of water and drink it?

Ah, seems like a distant memory.

Well, actually, for me it’s not. I keep forgetting and have, on at least a dozen occasions over the last week or so – usually after coming home from a vigorous badminton or five-a-side session – absent-mindedly guzzled down pints of water straight from the tap.

Every single time without fail, Mrs Canavan wanders into the kitchen just as I’m slurping the down the last mouthful – almost as if she’s deliberately waited for me to finish – and remarks, ‘you know you’re not suppose to be drinking that 
water don’t you, it’s dangerous’.

One time I swear she waited outside the door 
until she was sure I’d emptied the whole glass.

If was the suspicious type I might conclude she was trying to finish me off and get her hands on my life savings (about £598).

I dread to think how much cryptosporidium there is swilling about inside me but the good news (at least for my family and close friends, though not for the readers of this column) is that I’m still – at the time of writing anyway – alive and kicking.