29th September 1959: Arati Saha swims across the English Channel - the first Asian woman to achieve this feat


 

Swimming across the the English Channel is also known as scaling the "Mount Everest of Swimming" because of length of the crossing, its choppy waters, cold temperatures and the dangers of the journey. Undeterred by all these Arati Saha, aged 19, became the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel on 29th September 1959.

 

Arati Saha (née) Gupta was born in 1940 in Kolkata, West Bengal. She took to swimming at a young age and was encouraged by her coach Sachin Nag to participate in competitive events. She won 22 state-level titles between 1945 and 1951 and also set a national record in 1949. In the 1952 Summer Olympic Games at Helsinki, Finland, Arati Saha and Dolly Nazir represented India in the 200-meters breaststroke event. Though she did not win any medals at the Olympics, Arati was keen to take on a larger challenge. Inspired by the example of Mihir Sen, the first Asian man to swim across the English Channel, she set out to accomplish this feat.

 

The English Channel, also simply called the Channel, separates England from Europe, specifically the coastal region of Northern France. Its width ranges from 33.1 km (20.6 miles) at the Strait of Dover, where most swimmers attempt the Channel crossing, to 240 km (150 miles) at its widest point. The English Channel connects the North Sea to the Atlantic and is one of the world's busiest shipping routes. Swimming across the English Channel is not free of danger, with sharks and stinging jellyfish being particular threats. Strong tides and sheer exhaustion caused during this endurance swim can also prove fatal. At least 8 swimmers have lost their lives while attempting a Channel crossing over the years.

 

Arati began the arduous process of training, as an endurance feat of this nature requires both physical and mental preparation. The physical aspect involves long hours of practice to build up stamina, as well as swimming in natural environments such as rivers and seas, instead of a pool, in order to get accustomed to tides, waves, and avoiding marine creatures like jellyfish. The mental aspect involves developing the mental toughness to stay motivated even when exhausted after swimming for many hours.

 

Accompanied by a pilot team who helped her navigate through the English Channel, Arati Saha swam across the English Channel on 29th September 1959, when she was just five days away from her 19th birthday. Arati Saha swam from Cape Gris Nez in France to Sandgate on the English coast near Dover. She swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes and covered a distance of 42 miles. After arriving at Sandgate she unfurled the Indian flag as a sign of victory. India recognized her inspiring feat by awarding her the Padma Shri in 1960. Arati Saha was also recognized by the Indian Postal Department in 1999, which included her in a series of stamps on pioneering Indian women by issuing a 3 Rupee stamp with her image on it. Inspired by Arati's example many other Indian and Asian swimmers have attempted endurance swimming events. She passed away as a result of complications related to jaundice on 23rd August 1994.

 

Mihir Sen, who inspired Arati Saha to swim across the English Channel was a record-breaking Indian swimmer. He became the first Asian man to swim across the English Channel when he swam from Dover to Calais in a time of 14 hours and 45 minutes on 27th September 1958. He was conferred the Padma Shri for his achievement by Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. Mihir Sen went on to cross many of the major straits in the world. He was the first swimmer to swim across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka on April 5th and 6th 1966. He swam from Sri Lanka to Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, in 25 hours and 36 minutes, battling swiftly pulling tides and dangerous sharks. He was accompanied by two ships from the Indian Navy, INS Sharada and INS Sukanya. On 24th August 1966 he swam the Straits of Gibraltar, crossing the body of water in 8 hours and 1 minute. He followed this up by crossing the Dardanelles in September 1966, in 13 hours and 55 minutes. Sen also swam across the Bosphorus shortly thereafter. He then swam he length of the Panama Canal from October 29th to 31st 1966, in a timespan of 34 hours and 15 mintues. Thus Mihir Sen swam across major straits or bodies of water in all continents and was an inspiration to many swimmers. He passed away on 11th June 1997.

 

Interesting information about English Channel crossings:

 

  • Since the English Channel is an important and busy shipping route, prior permission of the local authorities need to be taken before attempting a Channel crossing. Those who wish to swim across the English Channel need to seek the help of the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) who facilitate the crossing process. One has to be at least 16 years of age to attempt swimming across the English Channel.

     

  • The first person to swim across the English Channel was Captain Matthew Webb on 24th August 1875, who swam from Dover to Calais in 21 hours and 45 minutes.

     

  • The first woman to to swim across the English Channel was Gertrude Ederle on 23rd August 1926, who swam from Cap Gris Nez to Kingsdown, in 14 hours 39 minutes)

     

  • The person with the maximum number of English Channel crossings: Alison Streeter (UK) who has swum across the Channel 43 times. It's no surprise, she lives in Dover!

     

  • The man with the maximum number of English Channel crossings: Kevin Murphy who had swum across the Channel 34 times.

     

  • Total number of English Channel crossings till date: As of September 2013, a total of 1,341 swimmers have swum across the Channel. Since some of them have swum across multiple , a total of 1,801 solo crossings have taken place.

     

Also on this day:

1928: Brajesh Chandra Mishra, diplomat, politician, and National Security Advisor, was born.

 

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