Cross-Channel swimming race is back, but this one-arm wonder is a tough act to follow

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It was 2am and all was dark apart from the glow of a lantern on the rowing boat that was to be Eileen Fenton’s constant companion for the next 15 hours. As she set off on her journey from Cap Gris Nez, near Calais, the water was cold, the air crisp and the challenge substantial.

On that morning in August 1950, Fenton, a 21-year-old religious studies teacher from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, was one of 24 swimmers, a third of them women, taking part in the first cross-Channel swimming race.

Only 19 people had swum the 22 miles across the English Channel since Captain Matthew Webb’s first successful crossing in 1875. However, in 1950 an international field gathered to race for a prize of £1,000 and trophies for the first man and woman to finish.

Fenton and Hassan Abdel Rehim, a lieutenant in the Egyptian Army, were the first winners of a race that was to be held each year until 1959. This week it will be announced that the Great Channel Swim is to be revived on August 19, with the backing of Nova International, the organiser of the Bupa Great North Run.
Times Archive, 1950: Channel crossed by nine swimmers

It continues a renewal of interest in long-distance open-water swimming, which was included in the Olympic Games for the first time last summer. Great Britain won two silver medals and a bronze in the marathon swims in Beijing. Cassie Patten, who took the bronze, has agreed to take part in the Great Channel Swim, although it will be 3½ times the distance of the 10km Olympic race.

Swimming the Channel is exhausting and hazardous — only nine of the competitors in 1950 completed the course – but Fenton was a determined young woman. She was able to swim a length of Dewsbury Baths by the age of 2 and could swim three miles by the age of 9. Speaking to The Times last week, she said: “All I did during the war was swim.” In 1948 she came second in a race across Morecambe Bay. “We rubbed chilli paste on our feet, which rather burnt,” she said. Lanolin, the grease from sheep’s wool, was used to keep out the cold.

Fenton was better prepared when she entered for the Great Channel Swim two years later although, at only 5ft tall and of slender build, she had to prove her ability to endure the cold water by swimming across Scarborough Harbour in water of 44F (about 7C). “That was stupid, I really thought I’d stop breathing,” she said, adding that the Channel was “almost warm compared with the North Sea”.

Eventually, she was allowed to take her place on the start line in France. “I really enjoyed the first seven hours of the race, while it was still dark,” she said. “Then it started to rain quite heavily.” After nine hours she could see Dover. More than that, though, she could see that her accompanying rowing boat was level with Rehim’s.

Fenton had befriended the Egyptian soldier during one of her final training sessions off the coast at Folkestone. “I was swimming up and down in fairly bad conditions and suddenly became aware that there was this man swimming near me, following my every move,” she said. “He was staying in a hotel near by and had seen me in the water and decided to join me.”

Rehim was so impressed by her prowess that he persuaded his fellow Egyptian swimmers to lay £10 each on her to win the women’s race, which reduced her odds from 20-1 to 3-1. After nine hours of swimming, Fenton was well ahead of the other women entrants and neck-and-neck with Rehim.

Fenton stopped swimming to take a drink but as she threw the bottle of water towards her boat she jarred her right shoulder. “I had to swim on with one arm but that meant I couldn’t make any headway. I became aware of Dover sailing away to my right as the tide carried me away.” It took her 6½ more hours to reach Dover while Rehim took less than two but she still won the women’s race comfortably.

As she approached the shore at Shakespeare Beach, Fenton tried to stand up in the shallows but was told to swim all the way ashore to prevent the blood rushing to her head. Under the rules, she had to crawl 3ft ashore. The crowds were held back to prevent anyone touching her and thus disqualifying her. A dog licked her face but that was not viewed as an outside aid.

Fenton became a hero. At a ball that night she was presented with a cheque for £1,000, worth about £25,000 today. She made an aborted attempt to defend her title in 1951 before going on to coach several record-breaking cross-Channel swimmers. “I loved swimming,” she said. “The only time I’d ever stop was if I was unconscious.”

Coast to coast

  • The Channel is approximately 19 nautical miles (35km) wide at its narrowest point between Shakespeare Beach, Dover, and Cap Gris Nez in France
  • The traditional Channel swimming season runs from July to September. Just under 50 per cent of attempts made in this period are successful
  • The fastest crossing was made by Petar Stoychev, of Bulgaria, in 2007. He took just under six hours and 58 minutes
  • The living man and woman who have made the most crossings are given the titles King and Queen of the English Channel. The current Queen is Alison Streeter who has made 43 crossings. The King is Kevin Murphy who has made 34
  • The oldest person to have swum the Channel is George Brunstad, an American, who made the crossing aged 70, in 2004.
  • The youngest was Thomas Gregory, of Britain, who was 11 years and 11 months old when he swum the Channel in 1988
  • 600 commercial ships travel through the Channel every day and 100 ferries cross it. Most swimmers are accompanied by a pilot in a small boat who plans and adjusts their route to avoid collisions. The cost of a boat and pilot is more than £2,000

Source: Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation.