Have fewer people swum the Channel than been in space?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 27th, 2009

A reader, Jack Shafer, wrote to ask the source for this statement from an earlier post: “More people have gone into outer space in 40 years than have swum the Channel in 140 years.”

I got that quote – which powerfully signifies the significance and rarity of swimming the Channel — from the back cover of Marcia Cleveland’s book, Dover Solo. It’s also on her web site here.  While in Dover, I asked people who keep the records on Channel swimmers whether it was accurate. None questioned it, but none could confirm it either.

In 1994 Marcia was the 445th person to swim the Channel. A quick investigation this week suggests it may have been true in 1994, but is probably no longer so. Here’s what I learned.

The first Channel swimmer was Matthew Webb in 1875, the first space visitor Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 – at which point the tally probably read Channel Swimmers: “about” 100; Space Visitors 1. The pace of space travel picked up significantly over the next 30+ years, while Channel-swimming remained relatively rare. Not many attempts were made and as many as 90 percent failed.

Webb’s crossing in 1875 wasn’t followed by another for over 30 years. He inspired many to try, but all failed. There was a brief flurry of successful crossings inspired by Gertrude Ederle’s becoming the 1st woman in 1928 (only 6th overall in the 53 years after Webb) but only 18 more by the end of WW II, for 24 total in 70 years.

A week ago, while swimming at the historic Serpentine Swim Club in London’s Hyde Park (a spring-fed lake in the midst of one of the world’s great urban green spaces; the club was formed in 1864 and Webb trained there prior to his Channel swim!) Dave Barra and I met club member Rosemarie George, a vivacious woman in her late 70s who swims at “Serps” year round.  We told her we’d just done a Channel relay two days earlier and she revealed she’d swum the Channel herself in 1961 and 1967, becoming the first European to swim it in both directions. I asked her overall “Channel swimming number” and she said “about 100.” Thus my estimate, above, of the tally at the dawn of the space age.

Space travel increased considerably during the US-Russia “space race” and even more when we began to cooperate with the international space station and multi-national shuttle flights to service it and conduct space research. Channel swimming picked up only modestly.

When I googled the question “how many people have gone into space” I was led to the following info on Wikipedia.

List of all Space Travelers As of August 29, 2009, a total of 505 humans from 38 countries have gone into space according to the FAI guideline, (511 people have qualified when including the Department of Defense classification). Of those totals, 3 people completed only a sub-orbital flight, 502 people reached Earth orbit, 24 traveled beyond low Earth orbit and 12 walked on the Moon. Space travelers have spent over 29,000 person-days (or a cumulative total of over 77 years) in space including over 100 person-days of spacewalks.[2]

Curiously, a separate Wikipedia article listing “professional astronauts” counted 514. How could there be more professional astronauts, than overall space travelers — counting researchers and space tourists?

The most current info on Wikipedia for successful Channel swims dates to 2005, saying: The total number of swims conducted under and ratified by the Channel Swimming Association to 2005: 982 successful crossings by 665 people. This includes twenty-four 2-way crossings and three 3-way crossings.

While in Dover, I was told that the number of attempts has exploded since 2006 when the British TV comedian David Walliams (Little Britain) swam the Channel in a hugely-publicized charity fundraiser. As well, the percentage of successful attempts has increased markedly, because Channel pilots have raised what they do to something combining high art and exacting science. While talking with Mike Oram, I was struck by the degree to which an expert pilot can improve your chances of success, by choosing the right time, tide, and course across the Channel — even the place from which to begin.

For instance, in 2007 Mike guided Petar Stoychev on what is still the world record for the fastest Channel crossing – a breathtaking 6 hrs 57 min. Only 4 to 5 days each season feature wind, general weather and tide conducive to record attempts and Yuri Kudinov of Russia also made a record try that day, leaving 25 minutes behind Stoychev. Mike followed Kudinov’s progress on his boat’s tracking system and noted that Kudinov’s pilot was following their course exactly. Kudinov finished about 8 min slower, a still-impressive 7:05. Mike said he thought one reason was that the course he’d set for Stoychev was no longer the optimal course 25 min later, because the tide had shifted just enough in that time!

So it’s likely Channel swimming has outpaced space visiting the last 5 to 10 years. Even so, fewer than 30 made it last year. Still, the two numbers remain virtually the same, pointing up what a strikingly rare and significant accomplishment it remains to swim the Channel. It also seems to me that people find it more impressive, in some ways, than world records swum in pools – even before world records were massively devalued in the last two years by the high-tech suits (about 200 since Feb 2008, a period during which fewer than 60 swimmers crossed the Channel.) Channel crossings while rare, are still accessible to the “average” swimmer willing to prepare exhaustively. In Chapter 26 in my latest book, Outside the Box (Download a free excerpt here) I write “While our adaptive abilities will never help the vast majority of us dunk a basketball or swim 100 meters in under a minute, a surprising number of us can learn to swim the English Channel.  But first you need to conceive of it as possible. The greatest barrier isn’t the 21 miles of open sea; it’s how rarely people believe themselves capable of swimming that far. “

2 Responses to “Have fewer people swum the Channel than been in space?”

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