Folkestone’s most famous Channel swimmer is undoubtedly the delightfully-named Sam Rockett who, following his success in 1950, trained Channel swimmers, managed the open-air pool and owned The Frogmore Tearooms in Sandgate Road.
In 1987, Peter Jurzynski became the 329th person to swim the English Channel. Over the next twenty years he made the crossing from Shakespeare Beach to Cap Gris-Nez fourteen times. His record time was 12 hours and 7 minutes. Today more than 4000 people, from orchestral conductors to garage managers, have successfully swum the Channel, a crossing that is still recognised as the Blue Riband of open-water swimming, the Everest of the seas.
Every summer, for more than a decade, Jurzynski, a city councillor from Massachusetts, came to the School of English Studies in Folkestone to talk to our students about his experiences. One of SES’s Japanese students successfully followed his lead and swam the Channel in the late 1990s. Peter, now 69, retired from Channel swimming in 2010, but still returns to his ‘adopted hometown’ twice a year. From his home in Naugatuck, Connecticut, Peter spoke to me about his passion for the Channel and his affection for Folkestone.
One of the greatest challenges of crossing the Straits of Dover is the tidal drift, so although it’s only 21 miles to France, the shifting tides can result in swimmers covering twice that distance. Peter recalls that one year he was just 200 yards shy of the French coast when tides and a strong wind pushed him back out to sea. Eventually he surrendered to exhaustion. As part of his daily training, therefore, Peter would swim against the tide from the Leas Lift to Sandgate.
The waters of the English Channel are notoriously cold and infested with jellyfish, although Peter says he was more concerned with rough seas, wind chop and the fact that the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world: there can be up to 600 vessels in the Straits on any one day. Fog, swimming at night and high seas all contribute to the possibility that escort boats can lose sight of their charges. Much has changed since Peter first swam the Channel thirty-four years ago. Boats have GPS, and whilst he ate biscuits and drank orange juice on his ‘feeds’, today’s swimmers are sustained by electrolytes and energy drinks.
The first person to swim the Channel was Matthew Webb in 1875. A 27 year-old Englishman, wearing porpoise fat and red silk swimming trunks, he completed the crossing in 21 hours and 45 minutes. He was to die eight years later attempting to cross the rapids at Niagara Falls. A bronze bust of Captain Webb stands on Marine Parade in Dover.
Channel swimming is an expensive hobby and Peter, like many swimmers, was on a tight budget. In 1985 the cost of hiring an escort boat and pilot was £600. Today that figure is closer to £3,000. Waiting for the right conditions requires patience and, following his daily acclimatization training, Peter would spend time at Folkestone Library where he read the newspapers and developed a lifelong interest in British politics.
In 2008, Jurzynski underwent by-pass surgery and although he made two further attempts at swimming the Channel, he was not successful. I don’t view them as failures, he said. I’m not competing with others, but with myself. Some of the best swimmers in the world fail the English Channel. I made it 14 times.
Covid restrictions permitting, Peter will return next month for his forty-fourth visit to Folkestone.