image by Lisa Wyman
The Lone Swimmer
The Lone Swimmer
It was 1951 and Channel fever was sweeping Britain as mass crossings and races were organised. The swimmer was a 37-year old Tom Blower, one of the greatest long distance competitors the country had ever seen.
It was in the baths of Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth that he prepared for his onslaught on an ‘impossible’ – a there-and-back crossing of the English Channel, with just a short rest between the two trips.
Since the first conquering of the Channel by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875, a constant stream of men and women have attempted to emulate him; some for money, others to attain a self-imposed objective in a masochistic battle to prove a physical point.
Burly, yet never obese, Tom Blower first set his sights on the Channel in 1937 when he time-telescoped the temperamental sliver of water from France to England into a 13 hour 29 minute trip - a record, and more than eight hours faster than the first effort of Webb.
Blower, who came from Nottingham, had been nurtured on the Morecambe distance swims at which he was unbeatable from 1935 to 1937. Seldom did he have a backer and close to £500 which was needed for the Channel mission came out of his own pocket.
During the Second World War Tom, who was a tobacco advertising representative for Players, served in the Royal Navy as a petty officer. Immediately after demobilisation he went back into training for some of the marathon swims he had dreamed up. In 1947 he set his eyes on the Irish Sea which no-one had ever beaten. Despite marrow-chilling water and swift eddying currents he swam from Donaghadee in Northern Ireland to Portpatrick in Scotland, a distance of 21.7 miles – further than the recognised Channel route from Cap Griz Nez to Dover – in 15 hours 26 minutes. Few have attempted it and one who did, Hungarian Jason Zirganos, died in mid-swim after being 17 hours in the water in September 1957.
In 1948 Tom became the first man to swim the Channel in both directions when he crossed from England to France in 15 hours 31 minutes. After this Tom, who would lose as much as a stone in weight on a swim, was content to relax for a couple of seasons. It took a woman to trigger off an action which many people believe cost his life.
In the height of the Channel season during 1956, the slim American girl Florence Chadwick astounded experts by not only beating the strip of water that had frustrated many men, but also cut six minutes off Tom record time. It was then that Blower announced his stupendous plan to make a two-way trip without stopping.
He chose Dartmouth as his training ground because of his naval background and, with his wife and 13-year-old son Terry, went to live in Townstal, close to the college. The naval authorities granted him the use of their baths and throughout the winter of 1950-51 he began his preparations which normally took from six to eight months.
The peak of his training was to be a 14-hour swim; after this he planned to relax before the big day, which he anticipated would be around the third week in August. Swim by swim he proceeded towards his zenith. Often he was aided by members of Dartmouth Swimming Club, but mainly he plodded on by himself, keeping strictly to a time schedule.
At the end of May he was ready to test himself. At 6.50 one Saturday morning he dived into the college pool and soon slid into an unspectacular, but effective, trudgeon stroke, which aided good breathing and kept his body flat in the water. For the next six hours up and down the 30 yards stretch of water he went again and again. Some men would have lost count of the lengths, but not Tom. He kept a methodical check.
No-one interrupted his watery solitude until just before midnight when two friends fed him broken biscuits and small sandwiches, washed down with sickly sweet milk drinks. To break the monotony of the night two junior members of the swimming club tried to pace him. They kept with him for two lengths and then were forced to retire as the plodding Tom outlasted them. They returned again just after dawn to accompany him in the last soul-destroying hours. Finally at nine on Sunday morning, having completed 25 miles he climbed out of the baths, limbs controlled, senses still with him and in good physical shape.
Thoroughly satisfied with his spin he turned his attention to shorter swims from Dartmouth to Torbay for the rest of the summer.
Behind a Channel swim there had to be organisation and Tom found eager helpers in a band of Dartmouth men who included the rugby playing Woodgate twins, Eddie and Bill, fisherman Bob Leech, Bill Lord, landlord of the Commercial Hotel, Henry Wheatley, a town councillor, MacMillan Gray, a bank manager, Bob Parker, a shipyard man and Sam Sims, a business colleague.
The plan was for Blower and Sims to go to Dover when weather conditions were favourable and as soon as they were ready a phone call should be made to Bill Lord. He was to assemble the rest of the squad who were to row the boat escorting Tom. Mrs Blower was the kitchen worker who prepared a highly concentrated broth made of fiver chickens and a four-pound leg of beef. This was to be her husband’s Channel diet, together with heavily jammed slices of bread and butter to take the taste of salt from his mouth.
Throughout August Tom anxiously watched the changeable weather. On August 10 there was a break and after promising forecasts he and Sims went to Dover, yet no phone call came from them. When a gale blew up the attempt was postponed.
A fortnight later the tide was favourable, the weather was not; again Blower returned to Dartmouth. Nineteen days went by and it looked as if the two-way attempt would never begin, but on Sunday, September 9, the Dartmouth team got their orders and were off to Dover.
On the Tuesday morning at precisely 6.11 Blower stepped into the sea at St. Margaret’s Bay with nearly 14 pounds of grease on his limbs and body. Before the swim began many experts were surprised that he should elect to tackle the England to France leg first. This was regarded as the toughest way and was borne out by his previous success. When he had gone in the England-France direction in 1948 it had taken him more than two hours longer than in the reverse direction.
The pessimists were right, yet for the first half of the trip Tom made exceptional progress and at one stage seemed likely to shatter the record. But then came an unpredicted storm. Six foot waves corkscrewed him about. They struck his left side and were of such force that his left shoulder became strained.
Nevertheless, at close to 5 p.m. the party was in sight of the welcoming Cap Griz Nez. All were congratulating themselves when a mist clamped down on them. With 25-yard visibility hampering them Tom trudgeoned on in a desperate bid to land before the tide turned, but turn it did and for another six hours he was battling with the current as he was swept towards Calais. Finally he struggled ashore just before 1 a.m.. - eighteen hours and twelve minutes after leaving England.
For an hour he rested and strove to keep down his food which had lain horizontal in his stomach and was suddenly turned to the vertical. Several of his followers advised him to give up, but he waded into the water again. The cold was seeping into his newly greased limbs, yet for the first three miles back he pressed on. Then he began to realise that it was a hopeless task. Most Channel losers have to be hauled into their escorting craft, but not Tom. He insisted on clambering in by himself, although close to unconsciousness. As he lay blanketed in the bottom of the boat his spasmodic shivering shook the dinghy.
Close to twenty hours in the sea had taken tremendous toll of his iron-like frame. It was obvious that his Channel challenging days were over, although few people realised the strain his heart had taken.
Tom Blower died four years later on February 17, 1955. His big heart failed him after a short illness. He was only 41. His epitaph should have been the quotation of Florence Chadwick, who shattered his record. After his failure he met her at Calais where she told him: ‘You are the greatest swimmer alive in the world today.’ Blower was great and the town of Dartmouth marked his gallant failure with a civic reception when he was presented with an illuminated address. His body was taken to his native Nottingham to be buried.
Unfortunately, today there is little to remind Dartmouth of an incredible sportsman who made the town his home and training base.
The "Lone Swimmer" is an extract from "Sports People of Dartmouth" by Alan Coles, the late editor and proprietor of the Dartmouth Chronicle (1962-68). It is reprinted with the kind permission of the Dartmouth History Research Group. Copies of the book can be bought from the Harbour Bookshop, the TIC and Dartmouth museum (see www.dartmouth-history.org.uk).
First published May 2011 By the Dart