Captain Matthew Webb would have recognized the smell, a rich compound of deck tar, salty rope and the lingering odor of whiting and cod long since consumed in the fish-and-chip shops of Dover. With the smell came the slapping of the Channel tide against the wooden sides of the Helen Annmarie, transformed for a few hours from trawler to the dignity of an accompanying pilot vessel.
But everything else would have been strange to the gallant captain who stepped into the cold swirl of the Channel and swam to France 99 years ago this month, creating the yardstick of courage and athleticism that still stands as the most romantic test of a marathon swimmer. The radar scanner turning endlessly over the wheelhouse would have baffled him and so would the electronic course-plotter. Even the throb of the diesel motor, constantly throttled back, would have been unfamiliar, for Captain Webb had been accompanied by burly oarsmen. But above all, he could never have foreseen such a logjam of swimmers anxious to emulate his feat: last Wednesday 20 of them were actually in the water between England and France while 11 more waited ashore at Dover for an official cross-Channel pilot to become available. Indeed there were so many swimmers that the Dover coast guard was expressing serious concern about the extra hazard in what is the busiest shipping lane in the world.
Two of the swims were preeminently important. First was the assault on the one-way record by 19-year-old Sandra Keshka, who swims on the men's team at San Diego State, and it was Sandra, in the cold predawn of the starry August night, who was thrashing along at a steady 84 strokes to the minute under the deck-lights of the Helen Annmarie. Behind her, Cap Gris Nez on the French coast loomed huge and mat-black against the starlight. At the last minute, in view of the tides and weather, she had elected to go from France to England, slipping out from a Normandy beach at 3:22 a.m. on the last of the ebb tide, swimming a little west with it so that she would be well placed to take advantage of the flood to carry her up toward St. Margaret's Bay on the English side.
Sandra didn't know it, but those aboard the Helen Annmarie were aware via radio that another swimmer was battling that same ebb not too far away as he tried to make the French shore. This was Des Renford, a 47-year-old veteran marathon swimmer from Sydney, Australia. He had swum the Channel four times in the past, and on three of those occasions had tried for a double crossing, reentering the water after the statutory 10-minute rest period to try to break the two-way record of 30 hours and 3 minutes set in 1965 by Ted Erikson of Chicago. Each time, however, Renford had been beaten on the second leg by tide and wind once, in 1970, only 4� miles off the English coast.
It is an act of faith in the weather to attempt a single crossing. In the fickle pattern of the Straits of Dover, a double crossing needs supreme luck as well as superhuman endurance. In his 1972 attempt, Renford had got within six miles of the English coast on the second leg when a 25-mph southwesterly and a 4.7-knot ebb tide carried him 35 miles up-Channel. When he was forced to retire he was actually off the Belgian coast.
There were long, empty days for all the Channel swimmers and their entourages while waiting for the right tide and the right weather forecast. Florence Chadwick, the great American Channel swimmer of the 1950s who crossed four times, once tarried four months in Dover before she got away in October, a month generally held impossible for the feat. Now a stockbroker in San Diego, Chadwick was Sandra's coach, mentor and foster-mother on this trip. Evening after evening for two weeks, after the weather forecast from the R.A.F., she called to cancel the ordered taxis, the packed food and the pilot boat. Chadwick is an entirely equable, happy-tempered woman who takes all the delays in her stride, believing that Sandra Keshka is the greatest Channel-swim prospect in years. "She is much faster than I was and she's faster than Cox," Chadwick says convincingly. (It was Lynne Cox of California who last year set a world record for the England- France crossing—9 hours 36 minutes only one minute outside the France-England record time established by England's Barry Watson.)
The one thing that upsets Miss Chadwick is relay teams. "I just hate to see these characters clowning up the Channel," she says, as severely as she can. But ever generous-minded, she was also quick to make exceptions. "Those New York cops are funny. They seem to take it so lightheartedly."
The cops were living in high style in Dover six enormous, jovial police officers from Long Island's Nassau County, who comprised the Eastern Marathon Swimming Association of Glen Cove. They had speedily established a good relationship with the Kent County constabulary and could be discovered most nights downing pints of ale and watching television in the police club bar over the station house.
"This is in confidence," growled their squad leader, Ed Uher, putting his face just one inch closer than, well, normal people do. "We're gonna go three ways. France-England. England- France. And France-England." Why not: the club had already swum some intimidating distances, notably the 150-mile stretch between Montauk Point at the end of Long Island and Sheepshead Bay off Brooklyn, in 108 hours 25 minutes, an unofficial world record.
The reason for the confidentiality of the threeway attempt was that other relay teams were on hand in Dover and itching to go, including a crew called Texas Volunteers, led by Tom Hetzel, six times a conqueror of the Channel, and six Egyptians, who were at the tail end of the waiting list for a qualified pilot.