© Cindy-Lou Dale

Firsts across the English Channel

© Explore Kent

Firsts across the English Channel

© Getty Images

Firsts across the English Channel

Cross Channel Swimmers

The English Channel is approximately 19 nautical miles (38000 yards) or 35 kilometres (35000 metres) wide at its narrowest point (Shakespeare Beach, Dover to Cap Gris Nez, France) and is a unique and demanding swim, considered by many to be the ultimate long distance challenge.

Swimmers can encounter variable conditions ranging from Force 6 wind, wave heights in excess of 2 metres and strong tides.

The English Channel is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with 600 tankers passing through and 200 ferries/seacats and other vessels crossing daily. The success rate each season is usually less than 50% for solo swims.

How long can it take?

This is very much depends upon weather and sea conditions. The fastest swim was done in just over 7 hours and the slowest took nearly 27 hours.

Ever since Captain Matthew Webb's first successful Channel swim in 1875, thousands of swimmers have attempted to emulate his feat. Most are content to complete the swim, others are determined to set new records.

On 12 August 1875, he made his first attempt, but was defeated by strong winds and poor sea conditions. Less than two weeks later, on 24 August 1875, covered in porpoise oil, he dived into the Channel from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Although he was stung by jellyfish, and strong currents kept him off the French coast for five hours, he finally landed at Calais, recording a time of 21 hours 45 minutes.

American swimmer Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the channel not only breaking ground for being female, but by also beating the time of the five men who preceded her by at least two hours! On August 6th, 1926 she swam from Cap Gris-Nez, France to Kingsdown, in 14 hours and 30 minutes.

Gertrude's speed record stood until 1950 when Alison Streeter MBE became known as The Queen of the Channel. She had swum it more times than anyone else – 43 successful solo crossings, including a three-way swim. For more information on the history of the Channel Swimmers take a look at the Dover Museum website.

Pioneer Pilots

The English Channel's 22 mile stretch of water has inspired many pioneers to become 'firsts' over the last 200 hundred years.

In 1785 Jean Pierre Blanchard made the first ever balloon flight, setting off from Dover Castle to Guines in France.

Louise Bleriot was the first pilot to cross the channel in 1909, winning a £1,000 prize from the Daily Mail.

Spanish aviator Juan de la Cierva flew across in an autogyro he invented in 1929.

Austrian born ‘Fearless’ Felix Baumgartner glided across on a carbon fibre wing. ‘Fearless’ jumped out of the plane at 10km in the sky above Dover and flew free-fall to Calais.

French adventurer Stephen Rousson attempted to be the first person to cross in a muscle-powered airship. Unfortunately strong winds prevented him from completing his attempt earlier this year.

Monday 26 July 1999, flying an 89-year-old original Bleriot XI plane, Mikael Carlson touched down in a field by the cliffs of Dover, near where the French pilot crash landed. A Calais airfield spokesman confirmed the flight had taken 33 minutes.

In 2008 on September 26th Swiss born Yves Rossy was the 1st man to fly the channel using a home made jet-powered wing.

Taking off from Calais, Rossy, who calls himself Fusion Man made the crossing in 13 minutes, propelled by four kerosene-burning jet turbines, flying at speeds of 120 mph and safely landing close to the South Foreland lighthouse.