From Donaghadee in Northern Ireland to Portpatrick in Scotland is a fraction under 21 miles. Between the two land masses the sea rages in swollen tides and hungry eddies. Out in the center a man could sink some 100 fathoms in places before touching the dark bottom. The water is so painfully cold that to swim in it is to feel as if one has a steel band around his forehead that gets tighter with each stroke. This is the deadly and cruel North Channel of the Irish Sea. To long-distance swimmers it makes the English Channel look like a wading pond. Only one swimmer has ever made it across—an Englishman named Tom Blower.
In fact, not many have even dared to try the crossing. Florence Chadwick made two unsuccessful attempts—in 1957, when her life was in danger for 24 hours afterwards, and in 1960, when she left the water with a body temperature of 90°. A Greek, Jason Zirganos, died after an unsuccessful try in 1959 despite the efforts of a doctor who cut him open with a borrowed penknife to massage his heart. Just last year the Danish-born Canadian swimmer Helge Jensen, who holds the record for the English Channel crossing, quit the attempt because he could not stand the cold.
Tom Blower was a citizen of Nottingham, on better terms with the authorities than Robin Hood but a match for the legendary outlaw in bold charm. He was a blond and jovial giant (6 feet 1, 252 pounds). Two people could hang from, each of his outstretched arms; he could break six-inch nails with ease and liked to sit on the bottom of Nottingham's River Trent for three minutes at a time watching boats pass overhead. Sometimes he swam in the river when it was snowing. During World War II, while serving in the Royal Navy, he dived into the Atlantic in January to try to save the survivor of a dive-bombing attack. To his native city's youngsters he was always Uncle Tom, who helped crippled kids to swim, was devoted to youth clubs and gave exhibitions for charity. But when people contributed money, in turn, to one of his long-distance attempts, he said it felt like swimming with ¬£500 in halfpennies around his neck and refused such help ever after.
The son of a miner, Blower decided early that he was not cut out to be a sprint swimmer. He had an extraordinary ability for standing or lying in the water without moving a muscle. Blower described himself as "a cart horse," although in 1937 he was fast enough to swim from France to England in 13 hours 29 minutes. For plowing through the sea he found the trudgen best, a combination of overarm strokes and a scissors kick with the legs. Despite his bulk, Blower moved in water with grace and efficiency.
After the war he made two tries at swimming the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The first, early in the summer of 1947, was called off when the water became so rough that exhausted crews could not manage the boats that accompanied him. On July 27, 1947 he made his second attempt. As he kissed his wife goodby he said, "I'm not getting out for anybody this time." And he did not.
When Blower slid into the water there was a forecast of 15 hours of perfect weather, but his wife was already beset by a feeling of disquiet. "The sea looked smooth," she recalled recently at her home in Nottingham, "but it was a sort of slimy smoothness. And the sky was too red." It was evening when Blower splashed away, accompanied by an armada of boats and an army of well-wishers who gradually drifted away into the night until he was left with only those directly concerned with the swim. He was at last almost as alone as a flyer in the sky. Around his waist he had tied an old, cherished and much-darned pair of swimming trunks with a piece of string.
The water temperature dropped as low as 49°. He wallowed across fields of floating seaweed. Shoals of herring at one time surrounded him so thickly that they nibbled his feet. The sea looked like a carpet of silver, and the pilot's boat propeller churned up fish. One observer from the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, who accompanied him in the water for an hour, came out so cold that he had to thaw out his feet by putting them, wrapped in a blanket, in a cooker oven. For eight hours Blower swam in comparative quiet.
But the morning after the start, one of the most spectacular thunderstorms Scotland has ever known swept through large areas of the country. Towns and villages were plunged into twilight as lightning struck and rain fell. Streets were flooded, bridges swept away, flowers and crops destroyed. Out at sea it took two men to hold the stove on which Clarice Blower cooked food for her husband. It was impossible to reach him with the food, however. Blower occasionally disappeared completely from sight, swamped amid the waves. Then hail fell in harsh lumps as big as eggs.
Some wanted to take Blower from the water, but his wife, obeying his instructions, would not allow them. For a brief time he changed from the trudgen to the breaststroke. Then he appeared to lose strength in one arm. Later, when his arm was moving again, his legs seemed to drag. At one time Blower swam for four hours without making a mile. The Irish Sea eventually grew quiet. Two fishing tugs, chugging by, sent out across the swell that eerie salute of sailors everywhere, the sound of a ship's horn. Blower was going to make it, come thunder, lightning, wind and hail, badly bruised and torn though his body was.
As he swam into a small Scottish cove the sky seemed to clear. He climbed agonizingly out of the water onto the rocks, and raised his clasped hands, shyly, above his head. "I can't tell anybody how I felt," said Clarice Blower. "I'd been every yard of the way with him in my mind. I just burst into tears with joy. But when I looked round everybody else was crying—21 men and me, one woman." It had taken Tom Blower 15 hours and 26 minutes to make the historic swim. In Nottingham a proud lord mayor interrupted a city council meeting to tell members of Blower's exploit.
As Blower came limping ashore at Portpatrick the first man to clasp his hand was a Scottish policeman. "You're the first one to do it, lad," he said, "and you'll be the last."
Blower became a national figure and need never have done any more. But as long as there was a difficult swim to be made he wanted to make it. No amount of bitter cold, exhaustion, cramps, seasickness, sore mouths, puffed faces, arm ache and stinging jellyfish ever seems to deter such men. "They get the bug and it kills them in the end," said Clarice Blower. Her husband joked about his strenuous addiction. "I am going to put my swimming trunks on a pole," he said once, "and start walking with them flying like a flag. When someone stops and asks, 'What are those?' I am going to settle there, because that will mean they have never seen swimming trunks there, and don't swim there—and that, brother, will be the place for me."
He swam the English Channel twice more—in 1948 and 1951—both times the particularly tricky way from England to France. Between swims he went quietly about his job as an advertising representative for a cigarette manufacturer in Nottingham. Then in 1955, at the age of 41, he died suddenly of a heart attack in his home.