Some people laughed when I talked of the two-way swim." said the amiably seallike Argentine last week, "but now they are silent." Like the fabled fellow in the old learn-to-play-the-piano ads, 42-year-old Antonio Abertondo had just achieved with assurance and dedication what had hitherto seemed an impossibility. He had swum across the Channel from England to France and back again.
In the 86 years since Captain Matthew Webb first turned the trick, swimming the English Channel has become even more commonplace than running the four-minute mile. More than 100 swimmers have made the crossing. But only four of them have even thought of trying the round trip. At best, the Channel is a treacherous strait through which the sea flows up and down in a series of bewildering tides. A swimmer heading from England to France must aim with pinpoint accuracy for the narrow point of Cap Gris Nez or risk being swept out to sea. A swimmer heading from France to England has a wider target to shoot for but faces currents off the Kentish coast strong enough to wreck ships.
Since he first taught himself to swim at the age of 11, Tony Abertondo has been opposing tides and currents of all kinds with stubborn single-mindedness. The son of a Buenos Aires postman whose home was only a few blocks from the shore where South America's La Plata River opens a mouth 30 to 60 miles wide, Abertondo spent most of his boyhood in the water and, as a man, made his first attempts at distance swimming in the wide harbor. His earliest ambition was to swim the 55 miles of river lying between Rosario, Uruguay and his native Buenos Aires. He first tried it in 1947 and gave up after more than 60 hours in the water. Every year after that he tried again until he finally made it 10 years later in an 80-hour swim. At the end of that ordeal his fevered brain conjured up visions of hundreds of animals, mainly dogs, swimming along with him.
By that time Abertondo was an old hand at the comparatively mild one-way English Channel swim, having swum in three races from France to England at a pace that won him no medals for speed but a high reputation for endurance. One of the swimmers who beat him across was Sam Rockett, an enthusiastic Englishman who has since made a career of organizing transchannel events. Together over the years Sam and Tony made their plans. When at last the Argentine felt psychologically and physically ready to face the two-way trip, the Englishman turned to his charts and tables.
If wind and weather are not right, no Channel swimmer can possibly hope to make it. Treacherous tides make it unwise to attempt the swim on any but five days in a fortnight, and there are not likely to be more than five fortnights in a year when the swim is possible at all. Even when all the calculations are made, the swimmer and his coach must still decide largely by intuition when the moment is ripe.
Last week, convinced that the time was indeed ripe at last, a chunky, confident Tony Abertondo, his five-foot-four-inch, 210-pound bulk thoroughly greased, waded into the Channel in a chilly dawn near Dover and headed for France. Nearly 19 hours later—two hours later than planned—he waded ashore near Calais for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. "The delay was almost fatal," said Sam Rockett, who followed along by boat. "We had to juggle to get him in on a sandy spot and off again to catch the flood tide off Gris Nez."
By the time the man in the water and the man in the boat were nearing the English coast once again, Abertondo was getting very weak and was suffering from hallucinations. "His eyes were sore and his lips swollen," said Rockett, "and his tongue was lolling out of his mouth." But there was still one fierce challenge lying ahead of him: the vicious currents that flow over the Goodwin Sands.
"We were dangerously close to the Sands, and it could have meant disaster for all of us," said Rockett, who jumped in and swam along with his friend to buoy up his spirits. "Antonio had almost lost his faculties," he said. "Only subconscious resolution kept him going."
Exactly 43 hours and 5 minutes after the start of his swim, Tony Abertondo crawled ashore and collapsed on an English beach, conscious only of having achieved a unique first. "Like Gagarin," he said later with a smile.