CLOSE
Original image
Getty

Florence Chadwick, the Woman Who Conquered the English Channel

Original image
Getty

As she approached the shore of Sangatte, France, Florence Chadwick was exhausted. She had been swimming in the English Channel for over 16 hours, battling strong winds and thick fog that made every stroke a challenge. The previous leg of her journey, from France to England—which she had completed a year earlier—had been easy compared to this. But her effort would be worth it: When she finally arrived on French soil that day, September 11, 1951, she became the first woman to successfully swim round-trip across the English Channel.

Born in San Diego, California in 1918, Chadwick discovered her love of ocean swimming at an early age. Her hometown offered her easy access to the beach, and she started competing in swimming races at 6 years old. She liked pushing herself to swim in difficult conditions: at night, in fog, and in strong winds. At the age of 10, she swam a two-mile race in the rough waters of Hermosa Beach, wowing the crowds. At 13, she earned second place at the U.S. national championships.

After graduating from San Diego State College, she produced aquatic shows for the U.S. military, and in 1944, she swam with MGM’s water ballet star Esther Williams in the musical film Bathing Beauty. But Chadwick had her sights set far beyond Hollywood.

 
As a child, Chadwick had been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Before her, women were considered incapable of such a long-distance swim. Ederle not only proved them wrong, but beat the men’s record by two hours.

Chadwick became determined to be the first woman to swim the Channel round-trip—not just from France to England, as Ederle had, but from England to France. Swimmers and other experts considered the latter to be a more difficult crossing, in part because of the strong current pushing away from the shore. No woman had ever swum the England-to-France route successfully. Chadwick set a goal of swimming both Ederle's route and then back again, even if she had to rest in a bit between trips.

After World War II, Chadwick took a job as a comptometer (a type of adding machine) operator with an American oil company in Saudi Arabia. She swam in the Persian Gulf before and after work and for up to 10 hours on her days off. After two years of rigorous training, she decided she was ready to make the first part of her Channel attempt—the trip from France to England, which Ederle had swum in 1926.

Chadwick training at a British hotel in 1955. She swum while tied with a rope to simulate pushing against the current. Image credit: Getty Images

 
On a chilly August morning in 1950, Chadwick dove into the water outside Wissant, France. She swam across the 21 miles of the Channel to Dover, England, accompanied by her father, friends, and authorities in a fishing boat. They kept an eye on her route and watched out for hazards, while she occasionally nibbled sugar cubes to keep up her energy. The trip took her a little over 13 hours—a world record for fastest swim across the Channel by a woman.

"I feel fine,” she told reporters after crawling ashore in England. “I am quite prepared to swim back." But Chadwick ended up delaying the trip back across the Channel to France for over a year, waiting for more favorable weather and tides, and fattening herself up on a calorie-rich diet in preparation for the weight loss that comes with a long swim in cold waters.

On September 11, 1951, despite dense fog and headwinds, Chadwick finally entered the water in Dover. The route to France was punishing, made worse by the fumes from an accompanying motorboat. But she completed the trip in 16 hours, 22 minutes—a world record. When she arrived, the mayor of Sangatte was there to shake her hand.

 
Chadwick’s accomplishment made her famous. Back in San Diego, townspeople threw her a ticker tape parade. She appeared on TV shows such as What's My Line?, endorsed Catalina Swimwear, and was given a car by the city of San Diego. Although she had achieved her goal of conquering the Channel, it wasn't enough.

On July 4, 1952, Chadwick attempted to swim across the Catalina Channel, which stretches from Catalina Island to the Palos Verde peninsula on the Southern California coast. After almost 16 hours of swimming through a thick fog, frigid water, and nearby sharks (which her support crew, following in boats, shot at with rifles), she gave up when she was just half a mile away from land. She later told a reporter: “Look, I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I might have made it.”

Two months later, she finally succeeded, making the journey to Catalina in 13 hours, 47 minutes—two hours faster than the previous official record, set by a man.

Chadwick followed up her Catalina swim with another trip across the English Channel from England to France in 1953, shaving several hours off her previous time. Later the same year, she swam across the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, as well as the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits in Turkey, breaking records made by both men and women along the way.

Although she achieved incredible success, Chadwick was also notable for her perseverance: She failed to complete swims, let alone break records, more times than she succeeded, not only in the Catalina Channel but in Lake Ontario and the Irish Sea. But she never let failure stop her. A pioneer, she demolished the notion that women were incapable of long-distance endurance swimming, and paved the way for other women to continue to break records in the sport.

Even after retiring in 1960, she wasn’t content to rest. She opened swimming schools in New York and New Jersey, frequently coached young swimmers, lectured on the value of fitness, and worked as a credit counselor and stockbroker.

In 1995, 25 years after she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Chadwick died of leukemia in San Diego. Fittingly, her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Original image
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
Lists
5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
Original image
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

Original image
arrow
Space
Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
Original image

Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios