First Man to Swim the English Channel Capt. Matthew Webb Part 3

About the first man to swim the English Channel Captain Matthew Webb, history and biography of the man who swam from England to France.


As the hour approached, some 500 spectators had gathered on the suspension bridge downriver, upon the cliffs on either side, and along the river's edge. There was but one comment from the crowd: "If he goes in he'll never come out alive." No one knew this better than John McCloy, a veteran ferryman who had rowed back and forth across the calmer parts of the river for years. As McCloy rowed Captain Webb slowly downstream to his starting point, he asked his passenger if he had a family and how much money he had left from the Channel swim. "Most of it is gone," Webb answered. "Well," said McCloy, "if I was you I'd go ashore and keep the rest." There was no reply and the 2 men went on in silence, as far down as the ferryman dared take the skiff.

Far below on the suspension bridge, where the 1st wild water began, the crowd saw the captain stand up in the boat and plunge into the middle of the river. He came to the surface and with slow sweeping strokes went straight ahead toward the bridge. For several minutes he swam through smooth green water, gathering speed as he went, then hurtled like a startled salmon under the bridge and, a moment later, came to the 1st huge wave of the rapids. Instantly he vanished, but in another second he was thrust to the surface. For 100 yards or more the crowd caught glimpses of him as he was tossed wildly from crest to crest. Again he was engulfed and for more than 200 yards no one saw him, until suddenly he shot upward and spun crazily about, nearly erect above the water. Dead or alive, none could say. Then a rushing mountain of water closed over him, and he was seen no more. Less than 4 minutes had elapsed from the time he hit the 1st wave until his final disappearance.

Kyle left for Nantasket to comfort the captain's wife. Four days later searchers found the body near Lewiston. It was face downward in the water, the arms and legs extended as though in the act of taking a breaststroke. Later an examination by 3 doctors revealed that there were no bones broken and no injuries sufficient to cause death; nor had Captain Webb been drowned. Their verdict was that life had been pressed out of him by the force of the water and that "no living body can, or ever will, pass through the rapids alive."

Today in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, "by brooks too broad for leaping" lies the grave of the Shropshire lad. "And the name died before the man." So run the lines of the poet A. E. Housman, another Shropshire lad.

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