All aboard as Channel swimmers meet to recall their world record 50 years ago

Pam Mills
DEEP BOND: (L-R) Steven Underdown, Richard Field, John Marsh, Peter Chapman, Kevin Tetmar, Tim Taylor, Peter Burns, Dennis Knight and John Wrapson, who is wearing the same tracksuit he wore on the record-breaking day

In 1968, six members of the Tunbridge Wells club swam the Channel as a relay team – with two others in reserve.

The children, who were all aged 12, were aiming to be the youngest team to achieve the feat – and they succeeded, recording a time of 12 hours and 45 minutes.

More than 50 members and friends attended the reunion at the Camden Arms in Pembury, and each former swimmer was presented with a memento to mark the occasion – though one of them was detained on business.

John Wrapson also received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding services as a coach at the Tunbridge Wells club.

It was John’s idea to make an attempt at the record – and he instigated a punishing regime of training.

He and fellow coach Dennis Knight made the boys camp on the beach at Dover, Greatstone and Bexhill so they could acclimatise to swimming at night.

“John subjected them to quite horrendous training,” recalled Dennis, who turns 86 this week and now lives in Goudhurst.

“One of the comments at the reunion was, ‘I’ve never forgotten the smell of egg and bacon cooking on the beach’ after swimming for two or three hours.”

CHANNEL YOUR ENERGY: The boys prepare to start their record relay in 1968

Each team member had to swim for an hour, before handing over to the next boy, so they had to practise overtaking – a manoeuvre during which was forbidden to touch your fellow swimmer.

In the event each of the six had to do two hour-long stints, with the first of the group chipping in for the final 45 minutes.

Dennis, who coached at Monson for 10 years from 1956, recalled that at one stage during the attempt a passenger ferry decided to take a closer look, sending waves crashing over the boys and the support vessel.

He said: “The boy doing the final leg said he could see jellyfish up ahead off the Cap Gris Nez. So I said ‘I’ll jump in and they can attack me’ and three or four of them did.

“We started at 10.42am on Sepember 4, 1968 and got back to Dover the next day at 6am, then went straight back to Tunbridge Wells. They all went to school the next day.” Four of them were at Huntleys School for Boys.

He added: “One team has beaten the record. A man from Bristol advertised in the national press for volunteers.

“They came from all over the place and beat our record by 12 minutes. But it’s not the same as having all boys from the same club.”

One of the quirks of the former swimmers is that every one of them now runs his own business.

“They say that the discipline and regime of the group, which was like being in a family, stood them in good stead for the rest of their lives,” said Dennis.

“One of them said to me, if I hadn’t done that, I might have gone wrong.”

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