Paul Boyton

Sunday 2/28/10



“The great waters roll from beyond the Isles of the Dead to thunder and shatter against the rocks at the west of Britain. The sea heaves there, as if the ocean gods flexed their muscles, and the white birds cry endlessly, and the wind rattles the spray against the cliffs.” This is how Bernard Cornwell describes the wild ocean on the western side of England. This is the sea into which Paul Boyton leapt in 1874 to demonstrate the original “life-saving dress.”

As a teenager, Mr. Boyton possessed a reckless and peripatetic streak. At fifteen, he spent less than a year in the Union Navy fighting the Confederates. He served briefly on a collecting voyage to the West Indies before the boat sank. He joined Benito Juarez’s Mexican Navy to fight the French. Then he joined the French Army to fight the Kingdom of Prussia. He served six months as a diver for a submarine company in New York until he took passage to South Africa to hunt for diamonds. On his return to America, an unscrupulous captain attempted to shanghai him. He escaped by swimming in the middle of the night over a mile to shore in the port of Malaga and hiding in the hills.

When he finally returned to Philadelphia at twenty-four years old, the president of the Camden & Atlantic railroad Company hired Mr. Boyton to take charge of the lifesaving service in Atlantic City. His duties included supervising the lifeguards at the seaside resort. In light of these aquatic management responsibilities, he received the honorific of “Captain.” A strong swimmer, he harbored a passion for lifesaving dating to his youth when he saved a child pinned beneath a log by the strong Alleghany River currents. During Captain Boyton’s tenure, the incidence of drowning deaths dropped from twenty per year to none. When he left the service, he had saved seventy-one lives.

His responsibilities included maintaining the various lifesaving apparatus which he spent hours perfecting. In this process he discovered the newly invented survival suit of C. S. Merriman, a discovery that was to alter the course of his life. The survival suit consisted of pants and tunic made from highly vulcanized rubber. With rubber gaskets at the waist and head, it was waterproof in much the way dry suits are today. The suit contained five inflatable air chambers to assist in flotation. The wearer of the suit propelled himself feet first with a double-bladed paddle such as kayakers now use. A small sail attached to the foot could harness a convenient wind for additional propulsion.

Mr. Merriman was the quintessential Victorian inventor who was horrified by the number of deaths resulting from pleasure boat shipwrecks. He and Captain Boyton collaborated to promote the adoption of the survival suit and save lives. Of course, their efforts far pre-dated the emergence of radio and television advertisements. The most effective route to a mass audience in those days was the newspapers. In this pursuit, Captain Boyton conducted a series of demonstrations around New York. Paddling around, shooting off flares and smoking the occasional cigar, he found the public reception rather tepid. The remedy was some heroic and sensational stunt that the news-hungry papers could not ignore.

He announced his intention to sail two hundred miles to sea in the Atlantic Ocean and paddle back in the survival suit. People jeered in disbelief. Another obstacle was that even before the age of rampant lawsuits, no sailing captain would agree to knowingly transport him to his liquid launch site. Undaunted, he snuck aboard the steamer ship Queen and stowed away until he guessed it was 250 miles off shore. In the middle of the night, he donned his suit in the shelter of a life boat. He was equipped with a rubber bag containing food and water. He strapped a double-bladed axe to his leg in order to defend against sharks and sword fish. Before he could leap overboard, a deckhand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and growled, “Where are you going?” Mr. Boyton reportedly replied, “I’m going ashore.”

The captain of the Queen confiscated the survival suit. He was not impressed with Mr. Boyton’s argument that, having no ticket, he must be ejected from the vessel. Instead, the captain offered comfortable quarters and settled in for a long chat. Mr. Boyton charmed the captain with stories of his many adventures. The captain also embraced the clearly sincere desire to promote a device intended to save the lives of sea-faring men. For the duration of the crossing, they spent time in the chart room poring over possible locations for Captain Boyton to enter the sea and paddle to shore.

The other ship’s officers protested in vain. The passengers, on the other hand, were enthusiastically curious. They lined the rail as the survival suit-clad figure lowered into the water about two and a half miles off the Irish coast. The Queen sailed on and left Captain Boyton to deal with a growing gale and bucking seas. He narrowly survived being smashed against the massive cliffs in the vicinity of Cape Clear. Swept into a narrow ravine, he climbed to the top of the plateau and eventually stumbled to the seaside village of Baltimore in the midst of the crashing gale.

His appearance first prompted fear due to his outlandish costume. The next reaction was shock and concern for what must have happened to the other passengers. Finally, as the tale unfolded, the villagers embraced the heroism of his feat. They sent him off to Skibbereen in a horse-drawn jaunting car with a loud huzza.

Captain Boyton made the most of the public relations opportunity. As soon as possible, he sent telegrams to the Queen and the New York Herald announcing his accomplishment. By the time he reached Cork, he was famous. He spent the rest of the year capitalizing on this fame. He held exhibitions where he would paddle around for an hour, smoking cigars, lighting signal flares, and knocking the tops off bottles with a Bowie knife. He was making money and popularizing what was becoming known as the “Boyton Suit.” But his sights were now set on gaining the attention of Europe. For this, he planned to cross the English Channel.

In the second week of April, 1875, Paul Boyton and his entourage (including C. S. Merriman) checked into a Dover hotel. At three o’clock on the morning of April 10, he set out on his journey to the cheers of the Dover crowd. After a promising start, the weather turned nasty. Reporting from the pilot tug boat, Mr. McGarahan of the New York Herald wrote, “It was a strangely fascinating spectacle to watch him in his hand-to-hand struggle with the ocean. The waves seemed to become living things animated by a terrible hatred for the strange being battling with them. Sometimes they seemed to withdraw for a moment, as if by concert, and then rush down on him from all sides, roaring like wild beasts.” Fifteen hours after he had started, Captain Boyton acceded to the pleas of his brother and the tug boat pilot and gave up the attempt.

Despite the failure, the publicity was favorable and Mr. Boyton earned additional riches performing exhibitions in France. By the end of May, he was ready to try again going the other way. Once again, he started at three o’clock in the morning near Cap Gris Nez in France. This time, he had a much more peaceful crossing and landed on a rocky strip of beach at Fan Bay in England. The Queen of England and the Prince of Wales sent telegrams of congratulations. He traveled throughout England and his appearance fee soared to fifty guineas a day.

Six months later, Matthew Webb dramatically eclipsed Mr. Boyd’s accomplishment. Captain Webb swam across the English Channel in a simple swim suit and without swim aids. In The Crossing, Kathy Watson writes, “Boyton’s exploits were history, the previous hero of the Channel cut down to size, written off as a pushy little New World adventurer with a funny rubber suit and too high an opinion of himself.”

A fierce debate continues today regarding the use of rubber suits for swimming in cold water. Channel_Swimmers@googlegroups.com has some very entertaining threads on this topic. Few people question, however, that the pinnacle of swimming achievement remains the English Channel. And few people dispute that the acme of accomplishment is to make the crossing with one standard swim costume, one standard swim cap, and a pair of goggles.

Is It Hard to Write this Stuff?

Sunday 02/21/10

In the beginning, I had no difficulty at all capturing my thoughts about this project. In fact, at first, I had a hard time keeping pace with the unfolding events related to making a commitment to try and conquer one of the world’s most challenging pinnacles of athletic achievement. With all due respect to Moses, Mohammed, and Joseph Smith, it flowed from the keyboard like I was taking dictation from God. Actually, I am paraphrasing a line from Anne Lamott’s book, “Bird by Bird.” In it, she refers to a writer for whom this effortless creativity abounds. Ms. Lamott warns, however, “This is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.”

Among the options for publishing this blog, I promised Google that these entries would be devoid of adult content. When writing about the South Enders, it’s almost impossible to avoid adult themes, but I don’t think that counts. Words generally accepted as profane probably do cross the line, though, so I’ll refer to one of my favorite chapters in “Bird by Bird” with the adulterated title: “[Really Crummy] First Drafts.”

In this chapter she plumbs a subject to which she will repeatedly return. Ms. Lamott says that it is a misconception to believe that successful writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” Being successful in the trade herself, she naturally knows “some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.” Then she admits one exception, “but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.” When she mentioned this to a friend of hers who happened to be a priest, he replied, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

I have the memory (perhaps recovered) that Isaac Asimov once commented that great prose was generated, “not in the writing, but in the rewriting.” This thought is echoed in Ms. Lamott’s book and most other treatises on the writing process and profession. When it comes to rewriting, I’m forced to admit that “I resemble that remark.” This is not to say that the prose is great, but that what finally reaches the blogosphere is a substantially improved product due to incessant rewriting. Getting those initial words down on the screen has become a somewhat steady struggle and I must go over and over the original raw material as if carding exceptionally coarse wool by hand.

A wonderful aspect of the blog form of publishing is that rewriting is genuinely organic. A host of (sometimes anonymous) readers provide free copy editing and fact checking. How many steps is it actually from the Dolphin Club deck to the men’s locker room? How long was Mike R. actually in the water for that New Year’s Day Alcatraz swim in 49 degree water? Isn’t your grammar a bit unparallel in this passage? Are you truly determined to use that unwieldy word? Probably just as valuable is the ability to reread old entries during a lunch break from work and easily administer a little word chiropractics: tweak a phrase, add alliteration, or axe superfluous text.

Charles Dickens must have had a pre-internet experience of this sort. By publishing his stories in serial format, he could benefit from public reaction to each episode. He could shape subsequent installments with the derived insight. It’s quite possible that when he assembled these entries into a complete book, he took the opportunity to give everything another once-over.

Generating the raw wool—brittle, dry, and wiry as it might be—is definitely the hard part. On this, Anne Lamott should have the final words. “You turn on your computer and bring up the right file…. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the [screen] again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard … you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria…. Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes and you begin to compose sentences…. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

Hmmmm. Sounds just like training for swimming the English Channel.

Four Hour Swim

Thursday 02/11/10

Coach Val closed a lane at Koret pool for Peter Perez and me today. It was the occasion of our four-hour swim. Peter’s window starts a month before mine, but for now our training schedules coincide. We piled our various nutrition concoctions at poolside and hit the water at 6:10a.

Having a training companion was a real treat. Peter and I are pretty well matched in speed. We were able to settle into a steady pattern and gauge our speed against one another. Coach Val recorded split times on the half hour and validated that the pace was consistent.

Just as importantly, Coach was very happy with my stroke. He pronounced it, “very stable.” Compared to my original boogie-woogie stroke, it was also a much slower rotation rate. Lindsay laughed when she saw the video and said, “It looks like you’re going sooooo slow!” But in fact, the new stroke has shaved about 12 seconds off each hundred yards—about a 10% improvement in actual speed. Three and a half hours into the swim, a young man dropped into the lane next to me. His rotation rate was about twice mine and his speed was about half my speed. He would wait at the end of the lane for me to arrive and then race me back across, experimenting with increasing head starts. I could see the wonder and frustration in his countenance. Peter noticed the young man’s fascination with us as well. I was reminded of what a pitiable swimmer I was when I joined the Dolphin Club. I owe a big debt of gratitude to Coach Val.

This swim was also a chance to work on nutrition. Research has convinced me to make maltodextrin powder the foundation of my feeding. Different people have different preferences and the raw science of endurance nutrition seems to be subject to distortion in the service of a particular sport or a paid product endorsement. However, picking through the various information available, I’ve drawn a few preliminary conclusions.

The main conclusion is find what works for you and stick with it. Everyone seems to agree on this. Captain Webb made the crossing on bread, barley soup, and beer. Some swimmers have made the crossing on Gatorade. One reportedly succeeded on chocolate. The six inches between the ears are arguably the most important distance relative to a successful 21 mile crossing. Having confidence in your feeding choice is a key to working on the six inches.

My choice for primary feeding source is a maltodextrin powder. For one thing, it is almost flavorless and can be mixed with water or some other flavored liquid. For another thing, it is a straight carbohydrate feed and the literature indicates that carbohydrates provide fuel more quickly than fat and over a longer period of time than sugar. For another thing, during the course of a twelve or fifteen hour swim, the additives in some feeds can far exceed the maximum daily allowance. I’d prefer to add these separately as needed.

This swim boosted my confidence quite a bit. Next week, I’ll swim from AT&T Park back to the clubs’ beach with the Southend Sunrisers. That swim will give me two hours in the open water. The six inches between my ears should benefit from that as well.

Another Slice of Heaven

Sunday 02/07/10

Starting just east of Aquatic Park, the piers of San Francisco radiate out of the city front like irregular sprockets. The point of reference for all pier numbers is the Ferry Building. First opened in 1898, the Ferry Building and Plaza mark the picturesque terminus of Market Street. In the early 1900’s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. It continues to offer ferry docking and still serves as the starting point for numbering other San Francisco piers. Going north from the Ferry Plaza the piers bear odd numbers. Going south, the piers carry even numbers.

Odd-numbered Pier 7 juts into the Bay three blocks north of the Ferry Building. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the pier was condemned. Multiple city, state, and national authorities pooled together almost $7,000,000 in funding to create a truly beautiful public access pier with wrought iron railings, timber decking, and ornamental lighting. It is a favorite starting point for Sunriser swims. The ground track from Pier 7 to Aquatic Park is roughly two and a half miles, making it a longish swim in 53 degree water and suitable for winter training for the English Channel. The Sunrisers had planned a Pier 7 for Friday the 5th, and I was eager to go along.

Determined to arrive early enough to help prepare and launch the pilot craft, I crossed the dark beach between the Dolphin and South End clubs at six a.m. The tide was just beginning to ebb from a height of 6.1 feet and the beach was awash. Reaching the South End dock with sea-slick flip-flops, I gingerly climbed up the inky, slippery steps to confront a lightless, barren tableau. The last time I was here, light poured out of the big, open bay door to illuminate a pre-dawn scene of bustle and purpose. Now, it was just a cold, damp expanse of gloomy concrete with one or two cove swimmers milling about. I wandered around the warren-like building searching for a familiar face. Befitting the club-within-a club nature of the Sunrisers, I met nobody knowledgeable of the Sunriser schedule or the potential for a Pier 7 swim. I was disappointed. The thought of once again crisscrossing the cove several times was not very appealing.

On my last circuit through the various club nooks and crannies, I came across Joe Butler in the men’s locker room. He said, “Yep. Today’s Pier 7, another trip to heaven. Go sign up and I’ll meet you downstairs.” Hot dang! We were in business! An attack of olds-timers had caused me to forget the Sunriser’s weekday schedule. 6:30 a.m. is check-in. 7 a.m. is jump time. I’d just been a half hour early.

When I got downstairs, the bustle had still failed to materialize. Only one other swimmer had checked in. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit while we waited. I saw that a Zodiac was stowed in the inflatable boat rack in a quick-launch fashion with the outboard already attached. When Mr. Butler came, I asked if he wanted me to retrieve a fuel tank from the outside storage locker. He gave me the combination and we two swimmers went to fumble with the lightless lock. Next time, I’ll have to remember to bring reading glasses.

By the time we secured the fuel tank, Mr. Butler had wheeled the Zodiac out of the boat barn. He then sent us for the radios. Without glasses, we again fumbled with the lock on the radio shack, but did return with two working radios—one for boat-to-boat communication and one to speak with the Vessel Traffic Service. By the time we got back, Mr. Butler had wheeled the Zod down the ramp and had it in the water with the engine idling. He secured the radios, asked me to untie the leader and we were off. The sun was still below the horizon and we kept a sharp lookout for swimmers in the black water.

Just as we turned the corner at Pier 45, the eastern sky was starting to glow, splashing the lengths of stratocumulus clouds with blue and orange tinges. The water was almost glassy calm and heaved slowly in a ponderous swell that made it feel like the Bay was breathing deeply in a heavy slumber.

As we passed the odd-numbered piers, Mr. B pointed out the normally active ones, teaching us the potential piloting hazards of various tugs, cruise ships, and work ferries as they might leave or enter their homes. He never once expressed the slightest disappointment at the prospect of piloting only two swimmers. We were all three enjoying the wilderness experience in an urban setting and the beauty of the breaking dawn.

We glided to a stop south of Pier 7 just before 7 a.m. and paused to check the strength of the ebb tide. It was clearly strong and building. This was going to be a good ride. Mr. Butler contacted VTS and gave our location and intention. VTS responded with an admonition about shipping traffic. Mr. B assured them that the two swimmers would stay together and pilot coverage would be close. They responded positively and we two swimmers rolled backward off the pontoons and splashed into the water. Once again, the icy shock of the dark water provided an adrenaline bump that lasted well after we began stroking for mid-channel to catch more current.

About the time that we reached Pier 27, the supply ship for Alcatraz, the Solitary, was heading out on its daily 7a run. This ferry has the exclusive contract for bringing water, food, and equipment to the island. It also carries back waste and discards. By radio, the pilot told Mr. B that it intended to stick to its normal course and the swimmers would have to let it pass. As a result, we were well north of the city front by the time we were able to turn west. At this point, though, the more prudent course was to head due south back to land. As it was, we wound up sprinting perpendicularly to the massive ebb current to regain the city front before being swept past the Aquatic Park opening. We safely joined the fisherman's wharf breakwater partway down its length and zoomed into the opening accompanied by other South Enders who had been swimming laps outside the cement wall.

We helped pull the zodiac onto its trolley and trundle it into the preparation area where Mr. Butler shooed the swimmers into the saunas. All of us wore huge grins in commemoration of the spectacular and rare occurrence of flat water and blue skies. Another Pier 7. Another slice of heaven.