August 24, 1875 - On this day an Englishman named Captain Matthew Webb smeared himself with porpoise oil and dove off the Admiralty Pier in Dover. Thus began his zig-zagging 39-mile swim across the English Channel. 21 hours and 45 minutes later he became the first man to successfully make the crossing without a boat.
Webb had always done amazing things in the water. When he was a boy he saved his brother from drowning in a river. Then as a young man he dove off a ship to rescue a comrade. He made yet another death-defying attempt to save a seaman when working on a ship in 1874. Sadly he was unable to save the man's life, but the daring act made Webb a national hero. He was awarded the first Stanhope Gold Medal by the Royal Humane Society.
In 1875 Webb devoted himself to becoming a professional swimmer. He put on exhibitions of his endurance in the water and broke distance records with some marathon swims. But the English Channel was like a great unconquered mountain waiting to be climbed. Webb's successful crossing in 1875 was actually his second attempt. When he trudged ashore in Calais, Webb was the greatest celebrity in all of England.
During a celebratory parade in his hometown of Dawley, a pig stood up on its hind legs and peered over a wall to see what all the fuss was about. The incident was commemorated with postcards, and added to the legend of Captain Matthew Webb.
Webb came to America to continue his amazing aquatic feats. He beat US champion Paul Boyton in a swimming challenge at Nantasket Beach, then dazzled his fans in Boston by floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
His final stunt was his most audacious. Many would call it insane. Webb attempted to swim across the treacherous whirpools at the base of Niagara Falls. With hundreds of spectators lining the shore, Captain Webb dove into the swirling water in the same swimsuit he had worn when crossing the English Channel. Tragically, things didn't go well. He was quickly sucked under the surface. It would take four days before his body was recovered.
A memorial to Captain Webb has an inscription that reads, "Nothing great is easy."