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Channel crossing record holder Kevin Murphy on a life in the open water

Kevin Murphy is a true swimming great.

He is one of Britain’s inductees into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, has completed 34 crossings of the English channel, more than any other man, and has a multitude of other marathon swims to his name.

Here he reflects on his achievements. 

With 34 crossings of the English Channel, (28 singles and 3 doubles) and more than any other man, do you consider yourself King of the Channel?

There is a King of the Channel trophy but that name has been copyrighted by the Channel Swimming Association Ltd so it can’t be awarded to me as the holder of the male record for the most number of crossings because two of my crossings were authenticated by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF).

So Mike Read holds the King of the Channel Trophy, although he has done one less swim than I have. The CS&PF names me as ‘King of the English Channel’. The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association also names me as ‘King of the North Channel’ with three crossings. I do, therefore, feel justified in calling my swim training company ‘The King’s Swimmers’.

But Mike is the current ‘King’ as he holds the trophy?

I’m King of the English Channel. He’s King of the Channel. It’s all a bit silly really.

The history of the trophy is that it was actually a film prop – a prop on which Australian swimmer Des Renford based a film about his exploits.

He instituted the whole thing and the Australian filmmaker put the trophy up so that there was something tangible that he could compete for.

I prefer to think of it in terms of the record rather than King of the Channel. That is just a phrase for the ego.

By coincidence, the first time I know of the term King of the Channel being used was back in 1970 to describe me and my first two way Channel swim

Do you get on well with Mike?

It’s been a friendly rivalry for about 48 years.

Over the last few years, we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a political argument within Channel swimming. But I like to think we are still friendly rivals.

If we meet, we don’t immediately settle into a raging argument nor do we cut each other dead. In the past we have been friendlier but that’s only because of this political divide – there is still communication between us.

Kevin Murphy and Des Renford before a race around Sydney Harbour in 1977

Your background? How did you get into distance swimming?

As a child I was a very mediocre sprint swimmer – always second, third, fourth or fifth at Kingsbury swimming club in north-west London.

When I was 10, I would be beaten over one length but I could win over two lengths. Then at 11, when we were doing two length races, my contemporaries would beat me but I would win over three or four lengths.

I could swim further but not faster than the other kids.

There was a little clique of long distance swimmers in Harrow, near where I lived and I fell in with them. I took part in the half mile Bedford river race when I was 12 and I suppose got hooked from there. I found my niche.

The kid who’d never won anything was suddenly able to do well at something.

I had something to prove to myself. At 14, I took part in the BLDSA Bala junior three mile championship and came second. The following year I won it.

From then on, the human competitive instinct took over and having found that I could be good at swimming distances, I wanted to be the best at it. I’ve always been striving to be the best – and if I fail to be the best, I’ll certainly do the best I can.

So why the Channel? Is it the ultimate?

Marathon swimmers from all over the world judge themselves by the Channel which is a bit odd really because it is not a straight piece of water and there’s an awful lot of luck involved.

Very good swimmers will come and either fail or not be as fast as they thought they might be, simply because of the conditions. Others who are slower might suddenly do a fast time.

My times for a one way range between 11 and three-quarter hours and 22 hours.

The fact remains that because of Matthew Webb and almost by historical accident, the Channel is the Everest of endurance swims by which long distance swimmers measure themselves.

I have a theory that it is a supreme test – but not beyond the abilities of many swimmers. It is cold – but not too cold. The sea can be rough – but that can be managed. It is a long way – but not too far. There are jellyfish – but none with a fatal sting. Most important, there is nothing in the Channel that is going to bite or eat a swimmer.

Your first?

My first escapade in the Channel was in a relay in 1965 which set what was then a speed record – with The Phoenicians SC.

My first solo was in 1968 – one way. By then, I had swum Windermere when I was 15 and Loch Lomond in 1967. I always thought I did 15 hours 55 minutes for that first swim but the official record says 15 hours 15 minutes. There’s a certain irony because on my last swim in 2006, my 34th crossing, I did 15 hours 14 minutes.

Kevin Murphy in Dover in 2010

What kept you going back to the Channel?

It was that competitive instinct again.

Having done it one way, I thought I can do this two ways. At that stage, only two people had ever done a two way Channel swim and neither were Britons so I set about training for it.

As a practice, I tried to swim around the Isle of Wight. I didn’t quite manage it that time but I got a long way round.

In 1970, I became the first Briton to do a two-way Channel swim. The same year, I became only the second person to complete the infamous North Channel – and went back to set an inaugural record for the 58 miles around the Isle of Wight in 1971.

At that stage there was still an amateur/professional divide so I was the first amateur to do a two way Channel swim. Having done it, I still wasn’t satisfied.

I’m driven by always wanting to do better – so I then started wondering if anyone could ever do a three way non-stop Channel swim. It was said to be impossible. I set about training for it which included a 48 mile swim, the length of Lake Balaton in Hungary.

In 1975, I was the first person to try the three  way Channel and I actually did 52 hours non-stop – getting two and a half ways!

I had to abort because I’d been in so long the weather had changed for the worse and the boat crew told me if I didn’t come out they would never be able to get me out. I’ve always believed it was the boat that gave up, not me.

But you still went up to swim at Windermere the following Saturday?

That’s correct. I completed the BLDSA Windermere championship swim four days later but my system was so depleted that when I was stung by an insect, my arm became infected and I ended up with it in a sling and a drain in my arm.

I never did a three way simply because I just wasn’t fast enough. I tried for 15 years to do it but the weather kept changing. And it just didn’t happen.

It was Jon Eriksson who actually succeeded with the first three way. I like to think that I showed the way because when I first came along and talked about it, the reaction was to laugh. I like to think that I proved that it was possible.

Jon was the first in 1981, then Philip Rush, Alison Streeter and Chloe McCardel. They were faster than me – and they did it.

So what drove you on?

It’s funny because I had no intention of challenging for the most number of crossings but I found that after all my attempts on a three way, I’d built up so many crossings that I was within striking distance of the record.

Mike Read and Des Renford were great rivals and Des once said to me, when Mike took the title off him, “you take it off Mike”. That’s one of the things that drove me. I promised Des that I would take it.

Kevin Murphy during a swim camp in Menorca

What about swimming these days? How long can you go on? You have had quite a few serious injuries including a new shoulder joint? And a heart bypass operation?

I’ve had surgery to repair both shoulders. In 2009, I was helping another swimmer and went in with him for an hour. When it came to getting out, the ladder wasn’t down properly. Somebody tried to pull me out by me left arm and the repair on my shoulder tore apart.

As a result, I now have a metal replacement shoulder joint. I also had a heart-bypass operation in 2009 when a couple of arteries ruptured – if it hadn’t been for the shoulder injury that might well have happened in mid-Channel and I would not be here now.

A stent this year completes the bionic line-up – my problems with ruptured arteries being the result of 45 years of living on adrenaline as a journalist. I survived because my heart was strong as a result of swimming.

I haven’t given up. It’s a long road back but I have already started training. I’ll be back.

In the meantime, a great deal of my energy is going on training others. I find that very satisfying and I feel I am giving something back. I want to inspire others to sample the supreme challenge, the supreme sense of achievement and the supreme satisfaction as they look back and say: “I did that. I conquered my frailties”.

What are you up to these days? Will you manage another Channel swim?

As I’ve said, training others through The King’s Swimmers is my main focus but I haven’t given up on personal achievement. The oldest Channel crossing at the moment is by 73-year-old Otto Thaning and I intend to take that record. I am 69 now.

I’ve also got lots of other swims I want to do and maybe this is where I’ve been slightly different from Alison Streeter and Mike Read in that I’ve done a lot of other swims all over the world. You’ll see in my record of Channel swims that there are long gaps when I’ve been doing other things

You’ve spent some money on swimming over the years?

Yes, I certainly have. For a great deal of my working life, I had two jobs to pay for it. Working 70 hours a week and preparing for three way Channel attempts was not easy. My family life suffered.

Kevin Murphy being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Has it been worth it?

You don’t take money with you and swimming long distances has been my life. I have friends all over the world because of swimming – people I would never have met by any other means. I don’t drink to excess, I don’t smoke. The swimming has become part of what I am. It has given me self-confidence and a lifetime of adventure.

Your best Channel swim?

My fastest was, oddly enough, the first leg of my last two way – 11 and three-quarter hours. That two way of 32 hours was my fastest and the two ways are the peak of what I have done in the Channel but the Channel is not the hardest swim I have done.

Loch Ness was tough because of the temperature. Around the Isle of Wight was an awful lot longer but for me my hardest swim of all was the North Channel. Mile for mile it was the toughest of the lot both because of the cold seas and because of the jellyfish.

My first North Channel swim in 1970 is the one I’m proudest of. My time of 11 hours and 21 minutes was eventually beaten by Alison Streeter in the 1980s but it stood as a male record for 43 years.

Worst Channel crossing?

My worst…. it all went very wrong. It took 22 hours and I ended up walking up what was then Boulogne Hoverport which is about 30 miles from where I should have landed!

Ever pack any in?

Yes, there are some that I haven’t done – mainly due to force five or six winds. There have been times when I have been in the water looking down on the deck of the boat with one breath, and then for the next breath, I have been looking up at the bottom of it. That’s how rough it can get.

There have been times when I have cracked mentally. At least 50 per cent of the success or otherwise was due to willpower. Often I hated it. I kept asking myself: “Whose stupid idea was this. When can I get out?” Most of the time, I was able to beat those demons. Occasionally I couldn’t – but it wasn’t often.

Kevin Murphy during his swim in the River Thames in 1980

Will there ever be a four way?

I have wondered over the years and I think somebody will come along and do it. I have swum for 52 hours. It has been done three way in 29 hours. Combine the speed and the endurance and a four way is possible.

What about the factors that make it so hard?

It’s difficult because of the tides which are strong and sometimes unpredictable but a good pilot helps.

The temperature is bearable but due to the amount of time in the water, the body starts to suffer. It’s difficult because of the movement of the water. I found I got sick in the Channel more than any other swim in the world.

There’s oil in the water; there are diesel fumes; the weather is unpredictable. It is a supreme test, both mentally and physically

In terms of swimming, do you feel like a star?

Of course I would love the sport to be more well known and for me to have a higher profile but I recognise why it is not.

I don’t feel a star but I like to think that I have been near the top of the tree – in my particular niche.  I know it’s only as a big fish in a little sea but I have been a big fish in that little sea for nearly 50 years.

Kevin’s aquatic achievements

Kevin has 34 English Channel crossings to his name including three double crossings, and dozens of other significant marathon achievements. He has completed at least 70 swims of more than 16k during his 40-year career including:

  • 23 miles in Loch Ness
  • 42 miles in the River Thames
  • 21 miles the length of Lake Tahoe (USA)
  • 21 miles across the Catalina Channel
  • 30 miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago
  • 28 miles around Manhattan Island
  • 48 miles the length of Lake Balaton (Hungary)
  • 30K the length of Lake Como (Italy)
  • 23 miles from Capri to Naples
  • 42K in the Marathon du Saguenay
  • 25 miles from Majorca to Minorca.

Plus he has also had incredibly tough swims in the Irish (North) Channel, Bristol Channel, around the Isle of Wight and across Sydney Harbour.

Kevin completed his last (34th) Channel swim on 21 July 2006 in 15hrs 14mins to give him the record of most crossings by a male.

In 1970, he was inducted into the International Marathon swimming Hall of Fame and, in 2009, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

He is currently Hon Sec of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF) and a member of the selection panel for the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. He is also co-owner of The King’s Swimmers Ltd.

Mike Read MBE has 33 crossings, while the current ‘Queen of the Channel’ is Alison Streeter MBE with 43 crossings.