Monday, March 23, 2009

English Channel Races of the 1970's

The Great Channel Swim, one of the World's Top 100 Open Water Swims, will debut on August 19th this year, but there was another series of English races held 30 years ago that were organized by the Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation with the Channel Swimming Association. The races were sponsored by His Royal Highness Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz who was a member of the International Olympic Committee.

According to International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame honoree Michael Read, the races took place August 14th 1975, August 18th 1976, August 21st 1977, August 28nd 1978 and August 24th 1979.*

During the first three years, the races were only open to Arabic swimmers, but the 1978 and 1979 races were opened up to include other swimmers. In 1979, there was a major international race with 18 swimmers representing 18 different countries with £1,000 in prize money for the winner. Some of world’s best marathon swimmers participated including John Kinsella of the USA (see photo above), Claudio Plit of Argentina (see photo on left), Michael Read of England and Des Renford of Australia.

One of the problems with the races was that there were money prizes, but the races had amateur swimmers competing with professionals which, at that time, was very much against all amateur rules.

For the first three years, the event was called Arab Nations English Channel Race. In 1977, the results were as follows:

1. Nasser El Shazly (Egypt) 8 hours 45 minutes
2. Elsayed Elsadah (Saudi Arabia) 8 hours 52 minutes
3. Alawi Mekki (Saudi Arabia) 8 hours 54 minutes
4. Ossama Rashad (Egypt) 10 hours 20 minutes

In 1978, Alawi, an honoree of the 1979 honoree of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, turned the tables on his Arab rivals with a victory:

1. Alawi Mekki (Saudi Arabia) 9 hours 54 minutes
2. Ibrahim Faidalla (Egypt) 10 hours 4 minutes
3. Marawan Saleh (Syria) 11 hours 15 minutes
4. Nazla Faidalla (Egypt) 12 hours 16 minutes

In 1979 and 1981, the English Channel races were organized by the Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation and and the Channel Swimming Association and sponsored by Prince Faisal. The 1979 results were as follows:

1. John Kinsella (USA) 9 hours 10 minutes
2. Claudio Plit (Argentina) 9 hours 45 minutes
3. Alawi Mekki (Saudi Arabia) 9 hours 56 minutes
4. Cynthia Nicholas (Canada) 10 hours 10 minutes
5. Joke Van Staveren (Holland) 10 hours 26 minutes

In 1981 results were as follows:
1. Claudio Plit (Argentina) 8 hours 58 minutes
2. Masry El Basam (Syria) 9 hours 10 minutes
3. Ian Muir (England) 9 hours 58 minutes
4. Cynthia Nicholas (Canada) 10 hours 11 minutes
5. Alawi Mekki (Saudi Arabia) 10 hours 33 minutes

According to Sue Guesdon, Prince Faisal funded the Channel races as he was also supporting the International Long Distance Swimming Federation and the Capri-Napoli Marathon Swim at the time (which doubled as the world championships. Egypt’s General Zorkani of the International Long Distance Swimming Federation was in charge of the logistics and operations of the English Channel races together with Ray and Audrey Scott with the assistance of official Channel Swimming Association observers.

Although most of swimmers in the front apparently swam in close proximity to each other, the finishing locations were spread apart along the French coastline.

Although many of the details of the previous English Channel races remain with the individual pilots and competitors, the 2009 Great Channel Swim will be comprehensively covered by the world’s media via real-time communications relayed immediately to the global open water swimming community.

The Great Channel Swim will have six elite men start one hour ahead of six elite woman and four relay teams. The planned start date, if the weather cooperates, will be August 19th.

* There are only about 15 days a year on which swimmers stand a reasonable chance of getting across due to the weaker neap tide; these occur fortnightly in July, August and September, according to an interview in the Independent with Michael Read. However, this race is planned to take place during the stronger spring tides.

First-hand accounts provided by Claudio Plit, Sue Guesdon and Michael Read.

Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association


Anonymous said...

what is the "finish line" for this summer's Great Channel Swim? First person to touch land in France? Or do they have to try and land at a particular spot?

Steven Munatones said...

Yes, it will be the first person to clear the water in France per the decision of the observers. All the boats will be in contact via GPS and radio, so they will know exactly where they are at all times during the race. Unlike FINA races, however, there will be no drafting. So, in our opinion, the race will be won by the athlete who is fastest and who is guided by the most clever (pilot).

Anonymous said...

I was on the press boat for the 1979 swim. Much of the day was pure comedy.

The Saudi press guys turned up on the press boat - a 48 foot converted fishing boat - with several "local girls" in high heels and evening dress. The senior British hack staggered on board asking "where's the bar" before disappearing down below to sleep for the whole event.

A couple of hours out at sea and several of the Saudis were violently ill, demanding helicopter rescue. We dropped them back at Folkestone where they disembarked into waiting ambulances with the local lasses.

We raced across the channel to catch Alawi Mekki landing ashore, putting the press on the beach in a dingy. They refused to get out of the thing and demanded to be taken up on to the beach, to save their crocodile skin shoes gettting wet. I heard a that several 10 or 20 pound notes were produced so the dinghy driver gave in and the lot of them were tipped into the sea by the surf, ruining their very expensive pathe news style VCRs.

The young hack from the Mirror, got most of the shots and I'm sure the saudis rewarded him admirably for his efforts. His boss, neanwhile, remained in his alcohol induced coma on the boat.

The champagne reception was cancelled in Boulogne (the race had been delayed several days due to poor weather).

Karl Beniston was a nice lad, about 14 years old from a family up north who struggled to keep up with the costs of his training.

Just a few fond memories I thought I'd share