A Look at English Channel Crossing Speed Progressions

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A Look at English Channel Crossing Speed Progressions

The English Channel is the standard test for traditional marathon swimmers. As of the end of 2020, 2,157 individuals had completed the swim, compared to 5,788 who had summited Mount Everest. Many of the elite marathon racers (for example, those in the 10k Olympic event) have also taken on the Channel – either to try and break a speed record or simply to add to their resume.

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) Honoree Stéphane Lecat has the best story. He won three majors – the 1997, 1999 and 2000 FINA Marathon Swimming World Series (essentially, he was world champion in those years). He got the impression that some people didn’t think he was a real marathon swimmer as he hadn’t swum the Channel, so he did, three years later and in the 16th-fastest time)

The Channel poses several challenges. The closest straight-line distance between England and France is about 33 km/20.5 miles. The water is cold, the weather and water conditions are unpredictable and there are strong tides. The first two elements are reasonably easy to understand. Keep in mind that no wetsuits are allowed and the average swim takes 12 hours. The shipping boats move in two major lanes, like a highway, with ferries navigating across the lanes.

To imagine the swimmer, think about walking – slowly – across a busy highway. Swim slots for a 10-day period are booked two years in advance and often there is no swim because of adverse weather/water conditions. Finally, the tide goes along the Channel, so the swimmer is essentially crossing a river. It is a river that starts, goes fast, goes slower, then stops every six hours and changes direction. The closest part of France is the Cap Gris-Nez peninsula. Think about pressing your thumb on part of the end of a garden hose. Remember the water speeding up? That is happening to the tidal flow at the Cap.

One IMSHOF Honoree famously gave the recipe for a record: Great physical condition; great mental state; great pilot and crew; good weather/water conditions and luck. These are the “five Aces” needed for a record.

Before getting to the fastest swims, the sport celebrates the grit and determination of the slowest swimmer, Jackie Cobell, at 28 hours and 44 minutes. She landed 16 km/10 miles to the Northeast of Cap Gris-Nez and was significantly affected by the tide changing direction.

There are many speed records for the English Channel: Male and female; starting from England or starting from France (which is generally easier); two-way swims; three-way swims. At present, only IMSHOF Honoree Sarah Thomas has completed a four-way crossing.

Here is a look at the fastest-across record progressions.

Matthew Webb (1875) – 21:45:00
Enrico Tiraboschi (1923) – 16:33:00
Gertrude Ederle (1926) – 14:39:00
Ernst Vierkoetter (1926) – 12:38:00
Georges Michel (1926) – 11:05:00
Hassan Abdel Rehim (1950) – 10:50:00
Helge Jensen (1960) – 10:23:00
Barry Watson (1964) – 9:35:00
Tina Bischoff (1976) – 9:03:00
Wendy Brook (1976) – 8:56:00
Nasser Elshazly (1977) – 8:45:00
Penny Lee Dean (1978) – 7:40:00
Chad Hundeby (1994) – 7:17:00
Christof Wandratsch (2005) – 7:03:52
Petar Stoychev (2007) – 6:57:50
Trent Grimsey (2012) – 6:55:00

There are at least two human dramas not obvious in the above list. A German swimmer set the record in 1926 only to lose it 10 days later to a French swimmer, eight years after World War I ended. Erdal Acet, from Turkey, landed in 1976 in 9:02:00, which would have been the record if Wendy Brook hadn’t landed six minutes before him in 8:56:00. Many other IMSHOF Honorees came close to breaking the record. A special mention to those under age 20 at the time of their crossing: Tamara Bruce; Susie Maroney, OAM; Marc Newman and Monique Wildschut.

Gertrude_Ederle

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In all but five cases, these were solo swims competing against the elements and hoping for a record. The exception was Captain Matthew Webb, who was racing many other swimmers to be the first across. It was 36 years before the second swimmer succeeded. When she crossed, Gertrude Ederle was racing to be the first woman. The next successful woman was 21 days later.

Hassan Abdel Rehim took part in the first big race sponsored by The Daily Mail. There were 27 entries and nine completed the swim. Meanwhile, Petar Stoychev left England 19 minutes before IMSHOF Honoree Yuri Kudinov. They were both going for the record. How good were these two? A rapid change in tidal flow caught Kudinov at the end and he was swept down the coast which resulted in a longer swim to land.

Luck is ever present in the channel. Just ask the three swimmers who swam one day and couldn’t land (safely) because of thick fog 200 meters off the coast of France.

As a final thought, careers and reputations were made based on breaking any Channel record.

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Doug Senz

    You did not do Penny Lee Dean justice here

    • avatar
      Marty McMahon

      In what way? Just curious.

      • avatar
        Doug Senz

        Penny broke the record by over an hour AND her record stood for 16 years.

  2. avatar
    Justin

    That time of Trent Grimsey is a cracking time!

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    And the oldest person Otto Tanning from South Africa at 75 or 76 I think !But we’ll over 70 . He has just completed the Robyn Island swim at 80 !

  4. avatar
    Joao

    This article does not mention Batista Pereira’s performance in 1954 with 12h 00m 25s