Mr. Wood's basement flat was 100 yards from the sea and 10 feet below it. Spindrift hovered about its entrance. I worked the bell three shorts and a long, as Mr. Wood's note had instructed me to, and the door parted a creaking cautious inch to reveal an eyeglassed eye and half a pair of lips. "Is it Mr. Miles?" the lips whispered apprehensively. "Ah, yes. So it is. Just so. Come in, then, come in. I don't open for unexpected callers. Devil of a nuisance they are. Only the necessary tradesmen know that signal, Mr. Miles. Three shorts and a long. Beethoven's Fifth, you know."
The rest of Mr. J. Unicume Wood matched. He was beaming, elderly, chipper, English, and wore slippers, wide herringbone trousers and a frayed brown alpaca cardigan. His rust-hued countenance radiated health and intelligence—as though he had spent a joyous lifetime reading books in a wet wind. He was also the retired Hon. Secretary of England's Channel Swimming Association, and I was visiting him last spring to gather some facts on long-distance swimmers.
Mr. Wood lives in Dover, a snug, salt-bleached gulls' roost in England's southeast coast famous for its White Cliffs, its sole, the canonization of its beach by Matthew Arnold and as the world's springboard for English Channel swimmers. I had seen the cliffs, tasted the fish and read the poem, all in my teens, but as a lifelong land lover I never had had a clue to swimming. Indeed, as I approached my talk with Mr. Wood, my total swimming background was a singular scrap of farewell advice from a friend in London. "Be sure to ask about that chap Donald Dunlap," he had said, though Dunlap was not the man's real name. "He's simply fantastic! They call him the 'Back-in-Time-for-Tea' swimmer."
Mr. Wood led me to a living room of bric-a-brac, antimacassars and small pieces of ancient mahogany furniture, neatly arranged. On a shelf a schooner was dry-docked in a bottle. Seated, Mr. Wood silently appraised my 130-pound tonnage and, like a child who has un-wrapped a Christmas gift and found a book, a twinge of dejection dimmed the twinkle in his eyes. Politely but somewhat indulgently he inquired: "And how far have you swum, Mr. Miles?"
May 5, 1968
"Oh, no," I said quickly. "I drove down from London."
Mr. Wood firmed up his glasses a notch and examined me with new interest. Then, enunciating slowly and with care, he said, "No, Mr. Miles. I mean your longest swim. How far was it?"
"Oh, I see. Well, actually, I'm a non-swimmer."
"A non-swimmer?" he exclaimed. "A non-swimmer? Indeed, sir. Then you mean, Mr. Miles, that you're not here to try the English Channel? Dear, dear, what a pity. You really should, you know. Everyone should tackle the Channel. At least once. Well, tut, tut, never mind, the water's too cold now anyway. Can you stay until July or August, Mr. Miles? No? Very well, then. What can I do for you, sir?"
"Well, sir, I'm here to learn. For instance, what about a swimmer named Donald Dunlap?"
"A swimmer named Donald Dunlap! [The ends of my sentences seemed to form the beginnings of his.] Donald Dunlap? A swimmer? By George, who called him that? Ha! Jolly good. I shouldn't think anyone has ever called Dunlap that before." Mr. Wood braced himself as a spasm of cough-laughter seized him. "Lord, I must remember to tell my wife. Dunlap! A swimmer! Back-in-Time-for-Breakfast Dunlap."
The joke was huge, but apparently private, so I continued gravely, "I thought they called him 'Back-in-Time-for-Tea' Dunlap."
"Oh, they do, they do," Mr. Wood sputtered. "Why, they call him both. Don't you see that whether he's called 'Back-in-Time-for-Tea' or 'Back-in-Time-for-Breakfast' all depends on when Dunlap starts swimming. If he starts after lunch—well, then he gives up soon enough to be back in time for tea. But if he starts before dawn—well, then he gives up early enough to be back for breakfast. You see, the poor fellow can't last more than a few hours...."
"Do you mean Donald Dunlap can't swim?"
"Swim? Dunlap? Swim the English Channel? That dog-paddler! Why, someone's been giving you a leg-pull, sir. Do you know what Dunlap looks like when he swims? Now, how can I possibly describe him.... Have you ever seen a cormorant? Well, that's the way Dunlap looks. His neck three feet out of the sea and his head swiveling back and forth like a periscope. The Channel, indeed! And do you know why Dunlap swims that way, sir? Hasn't anyone told you? Because he claims he doesn't like to get his face wet. Dunlap swim the English Channel? Utter nonsense. Why, he's tried it a dozen times already, and he must be in his mid-50s by now. The man's obsessed, I fear. Secretly he believes that one day he really will beat the Channel. Oh, I've seen Dunlaps before. I've seen careers ruined, homes broken. All because a man gets it into his head that he must swim that Channel. It's a sickness, and your Dunlap has the worst case of it I've ever seen. Why, the man never learned to swim until he was 40.
"No, Mr. Miles, it's pointless to discuss a chap like Dunlap when you're talking about swimming the English Channel. The Channel takes willpower and endurance. It takes courage. The Channel's for swimmers willing to suffer, willing to take punishment. Swimmers who can fight the cold and the tides for 20 hours or more. Swimmers like Zirganos, the Greek; or Brojen Das, the Pakistani; or Abd-el Latif and Hassan Abd-el Rheim, the Egyptians; or your Gertrude Ederle and Florence Chadwick and Ted Erikson; or Couto, the Brazilian; or Abertondo, or Mick-man or...but why go on? To you they are just names. But I assure you, sir, they were swimmers."
Mr. Wood paused to allow his information to penetrate, and I paused to draw a mental line through the name of Dunlap. Then Mr. Wood resumed his recital: "I recall a swim by Brojen Das. I was serving as official observer for him. Plucky as that man was, sir, he was so exhausted after 15 hours in the water that he almost got beaten within 10 yards of the shore. Ten yards, mind you. The surf was breaking high, you see, and Brojen was swimming to shore dog-tired and feeble when an enormous wave lifted him up like a chip of wood and stranded him atop a huge flat rock that was sticking up perhaps 20 feet out of the sea. And there Brojen stayed, high and dry, marooned fiat on his stomach, totally exhausted, too weak to move a hand or foot. And, what's more, this was a Channel race with prize money at stake and Brojen was first in.
" 'Jump, Brojen!' I called. There's ¬£500 waiting for you 10 yards away. Jump!' But Brojen couldn't move. What to do. I couldn't touch him to pull him down from that rock, of course. It would mean instant disqualification. But just then, luckily, another wave came along, a twin sister to the one that had grounded him there, and it swept Brojen off like a splinter and hurled him headfirst into the face of the cliffs. Oh, there was no doubt about it. Brojen finished, all right. He cleared the water. There was no water beyond.
"And I remember Fahmy Attallah, too. Now there was a man of courage. An Egyptian philosophy student, cheerful and dignified. He came over in 1950 for the first international cross-Channel race. And a splendid race it was. One of Channel swimming's finest hours. We had not seen a pageant like that in the Channel since Dunkirk. Twenty-four great swimmers from all parts of the world. They started at 2:30 a.m. on the French coast just below Calais. Cap Gris Nez, the place is called. I accompanied that wild Scotsman, Ned Barnie, who must've drunk two bottles of Scotch while swimming across. Well, home I went and climbed into bed. But in the dead of night the telephone rang. 'Come up on the cliffs,' a friend was shouting on the line, 'and watch a great spectacle. Fahmy Attallah's still swimming. He's struggling 300 yards from the shore.'
"And Fahmy was, too. Still trying, mind you, after 26 hours in the Channel—though by this time he was almost unconscious, barely hovering. In the dark a searchlight had been focused on him, and with binoculars we watched from the cliffs while Fahmy fought against the current. Oh! Those last 300 yards can be terrible. Back and forth, back and forth Fahmy wavered. It went that way for more than an hour. Twice he turned over on his back, and only his legs were moving, feebly. Total exhaustion. You can see the signs. It affects their minds. Once, Fahmy suddenly brought up an astonishing burst of reserve strength and quite amazingly began to stroke stronger than ever, almost sprinting. But he was dazed. He had lost all sense of direction. He was racing back to France. The observer knew that Fahmy could drown, so he wisely ordered the boatman to reach over and touch Fahmy's body, and that disqualified him on the spot.
"I saw Fahmy when they carried him ashore to the ambulance. He had swum 27 hours and 30 minutes—only to fail. I could have made it,' he kept crying pathetically. 'I could have made it. Why did you take me out? Why?' "
Thus began my education in Channel swimming. The amiable Mr. Wood was irrepressible. Like the Ancient Mariner, he held me with his glittering eye, and went on.
The Channel passion was first kindled, he explained, in the bleak winter of 1862 when an inexplicably motivated English seaman named Hoskins blithely floated himself from Dover to Calais on a bundle of straw. Today, long-distance swimmers tend to look upon the Hoskins venture as more prank than feat—the way the AAU might regard a broad jumper on a pogo stick. Nonetheless, it stirred in more audacious souls the yearning to swim across.
The first unarmed hopeful entered the water 10 years later. The Channel rebuffed him in one hour and three minutes. But in 1875, on a clear August afternoon, Captain Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old Englishman, plunged from a Dover pier and, after an excruciating struggle of 21 hours and 45 minutes, he hoisted his bruised and bloated carcass onto French soil and became the Channel's first conqueror.
By modern standards, Captain Webb's time of nearly 22 hours is slow, but Channel swimmers—even those who have halved his time—still mumble about Webb in reverential tones, for they concede that if a foolhardy swimmer today tried to reenact the Captain's swim he would almost certainly fail. Webb was a pioneer, and he approached the Channel with only the crudest understanding of his task. For example, lacking a clear knowledge of the Channel's tides, Webb swam from England to France—a seemingly natural route. But, in fact, swum in that direction the Channel's currents are not favorable. Nowadays most aspirants take the "downhill" route from France to England, on which, if properly timed, the tides can assist. Furthermore, Webb used no goggles, and he took liquids only—ale, brandy, tea, coffee and, strangely, cod-liver oil, which made him seasick. Worst of all was Webb's stroke. In 1875 the crawl was unknown, and Webb was saddled with the laborious Victorian sidestroke and the breaststroke, a handicap that added miles to his swim. To cover the 21-mile Dover Strait, Webb swam 50 miles.
"In sports, record breakers quickly beget record breakers," Mr. Wood observed. "But how different with Matthew Webb. In fact, I've always felt that the most impressive gauge of his triumph, and the best insight into the nature of the Channel's challenge, is that before the next man successfully swam it again 36 years went by. And during that time more than 70 attempts ended in failure. Remarkable."
By now the evangelical light in Mr. Wood's eyes seemed to be dimming, so I thanked him, departed and sought out another expert.
Sam Rockett is a name well known in Channel-swimming circles. He beat the Channel on his first try in 1950, swimming the downhill course in 14 hours and 20 minutes. During his swim the waves drummed into his ears a little admonitory ditty called "Never Again, Sam," so he respectably retired, undefeated and unimpaired. But though he is now a weekend swimmer only, he still keeps close watch on the shenanigans in the strait. In the 1950s, Channel swimming's heyday, Sam acted as official organizer for the colorful international races; his book, It's Cold in the Channel, reveals the Channel's lure and lore; and he still serves occasionally, he says, as "technical adviser for a swimmer with good prospects."
Rockett is in his late 40s and, like most long-distance swimmers, he is a lounging, bulky, barrel-chested man with ruddy, deep-glowing skin. Over lagers in a dim, seasoned pub, which was pervaded by a blend of long-imprisoned aromas and low-keyed discourse, Rockett's bass voice seemed recklessly robust as it boomed from his built-in echo chamber. And boom it did, for I had asked my all-purpose question.
"Donald Dunlap?" Rockett proclaimed. "Well, now, you've chosen a character. He's certainly good for a giggle. What did Mr. Wood tell you about Dunlap? He's been a thorn in the side of the association, you know. In fact, they've expelled him."
Rockett drooped into a new posture of repose, inhaled half a dozen ounces of lager and said affably: "Yes, they've chucked Dunlap out. They claimed he had no permission to write to Buckingham Palace and invite Prince Philip to observe a Channel swim from a launch. But the real trouble started a few years back when Dunlap, quite on his own, began promoting the idea of relay teams in the Channel. The CSA didn't like that at all. But Dunlap placed notices in The Times, sent letters to schools, and the next thing you knew the Channel was cluttered up with teams of 12-year-old schoolgirls. It was poor publicity, you see, for it rather undermined the dangers of Channel swimming. Like the time you Americans sent over Pierre, a trained seal who swam across in five hours. So you can see why Mr. Wood would be upset with Dunlap's relays."
Indeed I could. The picture cleared instantly. The gentle Mr. Wood's derision of Dunlap had seemed gratuitous, out of character. But I understood it now. To him, Dunlap was a pariah, an iconoclast of the cult of bravery, a sub-verter of the English way of life. Even I could see it was heretical to stuff the splendid English Channel with tireless hordes of teeny-boppers, collectively conquering the Channel by snipping it off a yard each. The Channel belonged to Captain Webb and his staunch followers. By encouraging relays, Dunlap was committing an act of treachery as barbaric as if he had surreptitiously sown the center court at Wimbledon with dandelion seeds.
"Have you heard about Dunlap's theories on why he can't swim the Channel?" Rockett continued. "They're rich. For a while he claimed that boredom was his undoing. He said that just moving his arms and legs was too tedious. That he needed diversion. So on one attempt he hung a wireless in a plastic bag over the stern of the launch and listened to the BBC. Another time he constructed a huge checkerboard that had numbered squares with hooks while the pieces had loops behind them. The observer agreed to play and move the pieces—of course, they never finished a game. Dunlap stopped swimming too soon.
"But I guess Dunlap's latest theory is his best. He now claims it's not boredom but lack of willpower. So he is coming down this year with a man he calls his 'bully.' It seems Dunlap has made some arrangement with his old army sergeant major, the man he was most afraid of in all his life. He intends to pay him ¬£50 to bully him across the Channel. The plan calls for the sergeant major, if he sees Dunlap slowing down, to lean over the side of the launch, in full uniform and medals, and rage at Dunlap in his best professional-bully manner. 'Swim, Dunlap!' he'll say. 'Swim, you horrible little man, you! Dunlap! You haven't started swimming yet!'
"No, the Channel's not for Dunlap," Rockett continued. "Why, the Channel beats even great swimmers. The Channel can grind, grind, grind you down bit by bit, or it can destroy you with one crushing blow."
Rockett sipped some beer reflectively, as if recalling his old enemy in silent respect. Then he went on: "Now you would think, wouldn't you, that a good long-distance swimmer could easily manage 21 miles. After all, Abertondo, the Argentinian, twice made 30-hour swims across the River Plate. From Uruguay to Argentina. Over fifty miles. Nonstop. But the Plate is a warm, lovely river, steady and dependable. It is not the Channel. Those tides. So many things can go wrong. We had a German lad come over some years back. Strong swimmer. But he started on the wrong tide from Calais and 20 hours later he wound up in the North Sea.
"Do you know anything about tides? You should. They are the most crucial factor on a Channel swim. Tides and the weather. It is the neap tides that are best for Channel swimmers. On the spring tides the moon lifts up more water, so you get a faster flow. On the neaps, the tidal flow runs around 1½ knots; on the spring tides it's almost twice that. You see...?"
"...So, twice a month, when the neap tide occurs, you get about five swimming days if—and it's a big if—if the weather is fair, too. For you've got to have a reasonably calm sea along with your neap tide, and not even the Admiralty can predict how the wind will blow on any particular day. I've seen it go from a flat calm to force seven in 15 minutes—the kind of thing that can beat a swimmer a hundred yards from the beach.
"We had an English swimmer named Mickman. On two successive tries from England to France he had to give up within not more than a good two-wood shot of the coast. When the French journalists waiting at Calais saw him so close they rushed to file their stories, and a cheering crowd greeted Mickman's launch when he returned to Dover.
"Yes, that wind can be frustrating. Why, I've seen an entire Channel-swimming season slip by—from July to September—without one day fit for a start. And, mind, boats and pilots reserved, official observers from the association standing by and swimmers from every nation just waiting for a calm day on a neap tide. Sometimes, if a swimmer's money or time runs out, he'll make a try on a spring tide. But it's much harder, usually."
If the weather is right, Rockett explained, the next crucial step is the timing of the daily cycle of ebb tide and flood tide. Swimming from France, for instance, the pilot will chart a course approximately northwest, but because of the ebb and flood the swimmer actually makes a crude Z-shaped course, a three-legged zigzag, west-north-west. The swimmer will start from Cap Gris Nez on the last two hours of the ebb tide. That flows southwesterly. For these two hours, swimming northwest, he makes good a course almost due west.
Then the ebb tide slacks off and gives way to the flood tide. That flows northeasterly, and it runs for 5½ hours. It is this second leg, on the flood tide, that makes the France-England crossing "downhill," for it carries the swimmer north for 5½ hours and should leave him just southwest of the Goodwin Sands—a notorious graveyard studded with hulls and masts, including those of the Spanish Armada. From the Goodwin Sands, in the two-hour slack-water period between the flood tide and the next ebb tide, the swimmer makes good his final maneuver toward the coast—if he is on schedule. It is in this slack-water period that he must get in close enough to the coast so that with the next ebb tide, flowing southwesterly, he will make his landfall. Failing to get shoreward enough on the slack water can mean disaster, for the ebb tide may sweep him down the coast, and he will not land at all.
Apart from tides and winds, other problems confront Channel swimmers. The launch must be piloted by an expert whose brain should be a filing cabinet of information on the Dover Strait. The very best pilots outsmart the Channel intuitively. Nowadays the cost of hiring a pilot and his launch runs around $200 an attempt, successful or not.
Another blight is the Channel's cold. During the winter months, coatless, hat-less and blanketless, Channel aspirants build up their tolerance to the chilling 57° to 62° that they will undergo for a dozen hours or more. After a swim, men shake as though palsied, though women, with their extra layers of fat, are less affected.
Schools of jellyfish, too, meander in the strait. During the day an experienced pilot can avoid the purplish masses on the water, sometimes 100 yards square. But at night sudden stabs of pain raise welts on the swimmer's body.
Shipping is another menace. The Channel lanes are among the busiest in the world, and the swimmer goes directly across them. In the dark, a huge ship bearing down on the launch and the swimmer is a semiblind demon to be diverted with sirens, a powerful searchlight and flaming, gasoline-dipped rags waved wildly on sticks.
Cramps must be overcome by the swimmer himself, for once in the water he may not be touched, nor can he touch the boat. Should that happen, even accidentally, the official observer assigned by the CSA would disqualify him. Feeding arrangements, therefore, become complicated. A five-foot feeding pole with a net at one end in which the food is placed is a common method. The swimmer often drinks high-energy mixtures from disposable bottles, taking care not to swallow sea water lest it induce seasickness. "It isn't amusing to see a swimmer seasick," Rockett told me. "In fact, it's pathetic. Apart from the weather, it's the commonest cause of failure. Food is the swimmer's vital energy, and he must be able to keep it down."
The pub seemed to get warmer, snugger and dryer as I listened. Rockett smiled broadly and drained the last of his lager. Then, leveling his empty glass at me for emphasis, he veered abruptly to another tack. He bellowed gaily: "You see, we English have always been a seafaring people. Britannia Rule the Waves, and all that."
His words bounded around the pub. Hearing them, the florid publican, in a checked vest and shirt-sleeves, was, unbidden, bounteously moved to bring us more lager. At a dart board a wizened Barnacle Bill in a shiny dark suit wearily muttered "hear, hear," and with his lobster claw pitched a red-feathered dart. It sailed noiselessly and alighted on the target like a small bright bird.
"Yes," Rockett went on, "England has always been proud of her heroes of the sea—Captain Cook, Sir Francis Drake, and now Sir Francis Chichester. But we've had our Chichesters in the Channel, too. I don't suppose you've ever heard of Ted May, have you? He was a Chichester—but a Chichester without a boat. The only case of its kind. Ted May tried to swim the Channel unescorted, all alone. And there are still people who say that if it hadn't been for me Ted May would be alive today.
"May was a steel worker from Scunthorpe. Forty-four years old, 6'2" and close to 250 pounds. He came down to Dover hoping to enter the big international race in 1954. Actually, he was a good swimmer, but I was in charge of entries and, since we could not take everyone, I turned him down. But I had no idea what he was contemplating to do to prove himself. When we found out it was too late. We knew he was inviting death, but no one could dissuade him, neither we in England nor the French. But here is how May himself told his story."
Rockett reached into a briefcase at his feet and drew out a copy of his book, It's Cold in the Channel. He found the place, passed it to me, and I read Ted May's testimony.
Nobody organizing long-distance swimming competitions in England would give me the opportunity of swimming the Channel. I wanted to show them I could do it without their assistance. I constructed from a blown up motorcar inner tube a pannier [a basket raft]. Before I went into the sea today I put into the pannier—made from a coffee tin—a compass, two bottles of rum, sliced chicken, sugar and biscuits. I struck out from Cap Gris Nez with the inner tube and pannier strung out behind me. After about five hours I wanted something to eat. So I pulled in the tray and found that the chicken and biscuits had been washed away. The bottles of rum were still there and I took a long drink. I swam for another hour and then saw ahead of me the white cliffs of Dover. My confidence was greater than ever. The sun was shining, the skies were clear. Then suddenly the weather changed. The skies went black, the surface was ruffled by wind and rain started. I decided to swim back to France. I swam for about two hours, and then over the horizon I saw the masts of a ship. I shouted and waved and the steamer came alongside. By this time the sea was so rough that they could not pull me aboard a lifeboat. Instead, they tied a rope around me and pulled me on board.
"But that was merely May's first attempt," Rockett said. "Two weeks later he was determined to try again, and no one managed to restrain him. The Calais police seized his passport, but May didn't care. On the morning of September 7, 1954, May was again on the beach at Cap Gris Nez. A strong wind was beginning to blow, and for 10 minutes May indecisively studied the sea, wondering whether to start. Impulsively deciding yes, he stripped, applied three layers of grease, put on cap and goggles, which he had not used the first time, and strapped a compass to his wrist.
"Fifteen hours later a wide air-sea rescue hunt was under way that included RAF and U.S. airplanes, helicopters and warships. But it was a tanker that spotted Ted May, though just momentarily. He was in a churning sea, waving his arms wildly and apparently shouting like a drowning man, which, in fact, he was. The chief officer threw a life belt, which fell short by 20 feet. It took the tanker eight minutes to turn around. But that was too long. Ted May had used his last strength to flail his arms and shout. At the end of the month a sea corpse with a compass strapped to its wrist washed ashore in Holland."
Rockett paused, allowing the effect of his story, which clung to our table like a grim vapor, to dispel itself, but soon he continued: "Two years earlier we had another heroic pioneer, though he was French, not English. Still, he was a swimmer. He had spent so much time training in the Channel that the fish knew his name as well as they know your friend Dunlap's. His name was Alain Louis Bombard.
"Bombard was an oceanologist, in his 20s, and passionately intent on proving that shipwrecked seamen need not die of hunger or thirst. So he took a 15-foot raft, painted it gray so that ships would not pick him up, and set out from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic without food or water. Mind you, no food, no water. Sixty-four days later he put into the West Indies. He had crossed the Atlantic alone, without food or water. 'How?' you ask. Ah! That was Bombard's theory.
" 'Half an hour each morning,' he said, 'sufficed to catch the fish I needed.' So food was no problem. But water...that was more difficult. Sometimes it took him as long as 10 hours to slash the fish open, watch for the fresh water to seep out of the tissues and lick it up drop by drop before it evaporated.
"So, you see," Rockett said, "the kind of men the Channel attracts. And while I am at it, I suppose I should tell you what in my mind ranks as the greatest single exploit in Channel-swimming history. It belongs to Antonio Abertondo. I do not think I am prejudiced, even though I planned his famous swim for him and went along on it, too.
"Tony was quite a lad. No one had ever done what Tony did. Others had dreamed of it—your Florence Chadwick was one—but, great as she was, she tried and failed. The experts claimed that no man could do it. But Tony did: a nonstop, round-trip Channel swim—England to France and back again.
"I suppose it is difficult for an outsider, someone who has not endured the pain of a Channel swim, to appreciate what a two-way crossing means. The first thing a novice asks about a Channel swimmer is, 'How fast was his time?' That's well and good, but there is more in a Channel swim than time. For instance, our Barry Watson holds the record for the fastest crossing. Nine hours and 35 minutes, France to England. But is Barry all that fast a swimmer? Certainly not, and he would be the first to admit it. At the other extreme, take the American Henry Sullivan's time back in 1923 He still holds the record for the longest successful crossing—26 hours and 50 minutes, and a struggle all the way. So, in a sense, which is the more magnificent swim? Do you see what I mean?
"I first met Tony Abertondo in the early '50s. Those were big-money days for swimmers. I suppose you find it hard to believe that a top swimmer could earn $100,000 a year, but we had a vast international circuit then.
"Tony did not see much of that prize money, however. He was just too slow for competitions. In fact, he was a shocking swimmer. You would laugh to see him, he was so unorthodox. He was so terribly disjointed; no form, no rhythm, lots of wasted energy. So when I told people that I had encouraged Tony to come over and try for a first-ever two-way nonstop swim, they said I was completely round the bend. You see, they considered Tony the world's worst swimmer.
"But I knew Tony. Swim or not, that man could stay. He could just keep swimming. He had already made a number of swims of over 60 hours, including the Paranà River for four days nonstop. Tony was simply a grotesque swimming machine. Give him warm water and Tony might swim around the world. But this was the cold, cold Channel in which no man had lived more than 27½ hours, and we knew Tony would have to stay in longer than that.
"Tony came over in the spring of '61, along with a cook and a trainer. But we had bad luck with weather and could not make our first try until early September. On the first leg of that attempt, from England to France, the wind suddenly came up about force five. We were two miles off Calais when I had to pull Tony out of the water. It was a complete flop.
"We made our next try two weeks later. It was a cloudy, cold September morning, I recall, not good swimming weather at all, and I was cross with Tony because his stroke was even more dreadful than usual. In order to catch the right tide on the French side, our schedule called for at least a 16-hour first leg; but, in fact, Tony took well over 18 hours. So, early in the morning Tony landed on a remote spot of the French coast. It was bleak, deserted, with only one French photographer and a journalist there; nothing really to encourage Tony, who looked quite exhausted. Purely as a formality, because the tides were all wrong now, I said to him, 'Tony, do you want to go back in the water?' He answered yes—he was not very enthusiastic, and I thought, well, this is mere face-saving bravado, he'll swim for an hour and then come out. We stood together on the beach for two or three minutes while Tony had a hot drink—remember, the air's colder than the water at that time of year, so you have to keep your swimmer in the water—and Tony waded back in.
"Well, I was dog-tired myself by this time, and I said to the captain, 'Look, I'm going to put my head down for a spell, wake me when you take him out.' But, to my surprise, three hours later I awoke to find the sun warm, the weather perfect and Tony, that phenomenon, swimming strongly and approaching mid-Channel. Now the excitement rose. Dover looked so near. The cliffs seemed so close you'd swear you could throw your hat on them. But I knew, in fact, that Tony had a long, long way to go.
"It was around 6 p.m. that the high drama really began. Tony had weakened rapidly. He could see those cliffs, constantly, just over his head, but they were not getting any closer. And now he began to ask me, over and over, 'How far, Rocco? How far?' All I could tell him was, 'Keep swimming, Tony. Keep swimming.'
"By this time Tony was a pathetic sight. He ached all over. His tongue was swollen, his mouth was all cracked and his voice was a croak. He was like a dying man, you see. There we were, comfortable on board, watching a man in the midst of a dreadful combat. Meanwhile, the lights of Dover were coming on and it looked so gay. All the while Tony kept looking at Dover and the cliffs and then to me out of those enormously swollen and bloodshot eyes and rasping, 'How far, Rocco? How far?'
"Then his hallucinations began. We on board knew the symptoms, we had seen them often before, all those 'anti' feelings that come from total exhaustion. The swimmer begins to feel that everyone connected with his swim is sabotaging him, that the pilot is deliberately taking him round and round in circles, that his drinking water has been salted. And now Tony looked up to his trainer and angrily shouted in Spanish: 'Those posts! Why must I swim through those posts!' And his trainer shouted back, 'Un momento, Tony. Un momento, we will get you over a bit to the left.' So Tony swam on. But soon he was shouting again. 'What are these cursed dogs doing in the water? Who put them there? I refuse to swim another stroke until these dogs are removed from the water!' And his trainer shouted back, "Un momento, Tony. 'Un momento,' and he took an oar and began thrashing the water until the dogs were frightened away and Tony was swimming again.
"I swam the last mile with Tony myself," Rockett said with a somewhat easier quality in his tone. "Our landing point was directly under those 300-foot cliffs with no access to it except by sea. So, in that Stygian gloom, with not a soul to greet us, I shouted to Tony, who was barely conscious. 'Clear the water, Tony!' I said. 'Clear the water!'
"And Tony did. He walked his three paces up the shore and then he slumped on a rock. Tony was an old, old man now. Unrecognizable. And he just sat there and cried."
I thanked Rockett for his tales and time and soon afterward took the overland route back to London, where I hoped to have one final talk on swimming. My goal was to track down that strange sinking duck, Donald Dunlap, the Back-in-Time-for-Tea chap. But Dunlap was away, training by the sea perhaps, and a little while later, back in New York, I too was in training, enrolled at a Y but making no headway with the dead man's float. (My own specific gravity seems to be seven, which makes me just a tick more buoyant than tin.)
Yet Channel swimmers were still on my mind, and all summer long I screened the sports pages to see who had got across. Dunlap didn't. He had cancelled his try, Rockett wrote me, because his sergeant major had been reassigned to bully some sluggish troops in Singapore. I discovered, however, that Canada's Linda McGill broke the downhill record for women with a 10-hour swim, and I read that a New York City policeman, Tom Hetzel, made a magnificent 18-hour swim on a spring tide and set a new record for the longest successful France-England crossing, 41 miles.
Finally, I learned that in his enthusiasm for Tony Abertondo, Rockett had failed to mention the only other swimmer who had successfully managed a Channel round-tripper, Ted Erikson, a research scientist from Chicago, who set a record of 30 hours and three minutes. I had to talk to him, of course, so I phoned Chicago. But it was Mrs. Erikson who answered, and she told me:
"Oh, you've missed Ted, I'm afraid. He's out swimming at the moment."
"And when will he be home?"
"Let's see now"—there was a pause as Mrs. Erikson presumably checked her watch—"if Ted's on schedule he should be...just about now...approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. He's doing that Farallon Islands to San Francisco Bay swim. You know, the one that beat him last year when the sharks attacked him."
"Thanks," I said. "I'll call back."
But I didn't. A few days later a narrow escape in three feet of water tended to dampen my interest in swimming—almost permanently.