LONDON – Armed with little more than a bathing suit, nose plugs and a liberal application of Vaseline, hundreds of cross-Channel swimmers have sought out one of sport’s toughest challenges since Captain Matthew Webb first performed the feat in 1875.
More than 1200 hardy souls have journeyed from all over the world to make the 33km crossing between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, near Calais, braving exhaustion, chafing and 100,000-tonne container ships to achieve their dream. Many more have failed.
Now growing concern over safety and fears of mounting numbers attempting the challenge has led some to call for stricter rules on cross-Channel swimming.
A coalition of ferry operators and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency urged greater regulation of swimming in the world’s busiest shipping lane, which they said was “like trying to cross the M25 on foot”.
The call came after the deputy director of the French Coastguard, Jean-Christophe Burvingt, said he was in favour of a complete ban. France outlawed swimmers setting off from its shores to Dover 17 years ago. In an interview with the BBC, Burvingt said it was only a matter of time before someone was hurt badly in the busy stretch of water used by 500 vessels each day.
“This continuous increase of swimming in the Channel creates a danger which is getting more and more important every year. I think … there will be an accident,” he said.
But representatives of the sport say numbers have not grown and that the swim is already regulated highly. Michael Oram, the honorary secretary of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, said safety measures were already highly effective.
“We are one of the safest extreme endurance sports going. There have been four deaths with the official swims since 1875 and these were heart attacks and problems like that … You can get four deaths in the London Marathon or 11-15 a year on Everest.”
He said the number of people crossing was controlled by a voluntary agreement limiting the number of escort boats operated by the two cross-Channel swimming associations.
All swimmers must charter to comply with rules. Oram said the number of crossings had remained static for the past four years at about 250, many of them completed for charity, and that the boats, which cost £2250 ($4700) to hire, were fully booked until 2014.