Conquered The English Channel  
Friday, October 27, 1961        MORNING NEWS       REVOLUTION ANNIVERSARY     SUPPLEMENT       XXXI
Conquered The English Channel
  By Brojen Das  

I COULD hear very faint voice as if coming from the other side of the world. The time was about 4 in the morning and the date Sept. 22. I raised my head from above the water and look towards my accompanying motor - boat, “Envictor”. I was feeling tired and exhausted. I was feeling tired and exhausted. I was encountering stiff opposition from the strong food tide, which I had been fighting hard since 11. 30 p.m. the previous night. I looked towards the boat, carrying my Manager, Quazi Mohammad Ali, Captain of launch, Skipper Len Hutchinson and the official observer, Mr. J. U. Wood, Honorary Secretary, Channel Association. They were all pointing towards the Kent shore. As I looked up, I could see flashes. I realized I was very close to the shore.

I asked what the time was and how far I had still to go. They told me that if I put a last ounce of energy into my swimming. I would set a new world record from France to England swim. The record, which stood for eleven years would be broken by me – the record set in 1950 by the Egyptian swimmer Hassan Abd el Karim.
This electrified me. The goal for which I had been striving for the past four years could be mine. The aim which goaded me to swim the Channel six times, each time risking my life and reputation, was so close. Yet it could be far.

These thoughts came crowding into my mind which till then was occupied with only one thing: asking and invoking the blessings of God to give me strength and courage to achieve my life’s ambition – to carry the France to England record to Pakistan.

Unmindful of the cold (sea temperature when I started the previous evening from Cap Grisnez was 64 degrees F, which had fallen by one degree by now), loneliness, even the fear of getting sea-sick or being attacked by cramps, even unmindful of the near full moon, which to a young man in love would have spelt romance and poetry. I was asking God only to give me success. With tears streaming out of my eyes, I had kept on invoking. His blessings…. Saying that this was my last chance…. This chance would either make me or kill me… there was no third alternative.

Each hour I had to postpone my “session with God,” for about five minutes, when my Manager, Mohammad Ali, fed me on chicken soup, coffee and glucose. This one factor, feeding me each hour on the dot, is mainly responsible for my victory. In previous five attempts I used to get so excited that I never bothered to be fed regularly, as it should have been done. With each hour the swimmer gets weaker and weaker and his energy should be replenished with food.

The Channel Crossing

Deserted By Friends 


MY fourth Channel swim in 1960 had dragged me down to the bottom of the ladder. I took 14 hours and 44 minutes for my France to England swim. Even in 1958 when I had competed in the Bultin Channel Swim Race in my maiden attempt, after being training in the warm waters of East Pakistan rivers and swimming pools, I had clocked for the same France to England swim, 14 hours, 25 minutes. In 1959 I had bettered my own timing by doing it in 13 hours, 53 minutes. And again the same (1959) year I had further bettered my own time for England to France swim (which is more difficult than the otherway round) by doing it in only 13 hours and 26 minutes.

My friends, fans, and even the Pakistan Press (with the exception of “Morning News”, to which I owe a great deal for making me known as a world-class swimmer) favourable to me in 1958 and 1959 – turned against me overnight. They did not know what it means to swim the Channel, very correctly described as the “cruelest stretch of water.” But they felt that I had let them down. They concluded that I was finised. They said that the “Brojen era” had ended and that I was wasting my country’s money in trying to break the record.

All these thoughts were with me when I jumped into the Channel into the Channel this year on September 8th for the fifth time to try to set up a world record. Like any other sportman, a swimmer needs total peace of mind to give his best, to put the last ounces of his energy. Disturbing thoughts like the ones I had do not help matters.


Treachery of Weather


The Channel, with its cold biting water, the winds, the waves and the tides does not make things any easier. The unpredictable weather, the course of all the past, present and future Channel swimmers, always, it seems to me, changes for the worse, after a swimmer jumps in. It has never, to my knowledge, changed for the better for anyone yet.

While Skipper Hutchinson was calculating the distance I had covered or I had yet to cover, Manager Mohammad

He did not fail his country

Ali busy mixing drinks and food to keep in readiness for me, and the official observer, Mr. Wood, holding urgent conferences with the skipper about whether to go over the Goodwin sands or go round it – for the risk of the motor-boat getting stuck in the sand was great – I was busy praying to God.

I was telling him over and over again that He had never given me a good weather to subdue the Channel. Each time since 1958 I had to face and battle through a very rough sea, so rough that many swimmers did not even dare to even jump in. In 1960 the weather was so bad that over a dozen swimmers from all over the world had either abandoned their swims half-way or had not even tried.


I was telling Him that even during my last swim on September 8/9 I did not get fair weather. I had during my fifth swim a good sea to begin with but after midnight I had to encounter very rough seas towards the end, which robbed me of the chances of setting up a new world record.

While begging Him to be kind to me this time, I had also thanked him that uptill now – during my sixth swim – He had been gracious and merciful enough to give me a near perfect sea and conditions. I had intended Him that if this time I failed to achieve what I had intended to, I would end my life. For there was no point of living then. I had not the heart to let my country and my people and well wishers down.

In 1958 before competing in the Butlin’s Race, I had told Mr. Mohammad Ikramullah, the then Pakistan High Commissioner in the UK, that if I did not come out successful, he will have to drag out a dead Brojen Das from the Channel; this resolve was also true during this sixth swim of mine.

  Queen’s Surprise  
That is the reason, perhaps, that I have never failed in my attempts. I have tried six times and succeeded six times in crossing the Channel, which is a record in itself. This surprised Her Majesty when, after being presented to her by Lord Mountbatten at Buckingham Palace in last July, she had expressed great surprise and then admiration.

Apart from stamina and practice of long distance swimming, one must have grit, determination and courage to subdue the Channel. Weather and ill luck have conspired and joined hands many a times to defeated Channel swimmers. They had defeated me no less than five times.

On the morning of the morning of the 9th September 1961, after finishing my swim, I had gone to bed. The BBC-TV cameramen filmed me in my bed. Although very tired after swimming for 11 hours and 48 minutes, I could not fall asleep. The thought that I had once again – I failed my country and friends and fans was disturbing me.

After only four hours sleep the following night, I decided to try again – for the sixth time. The moment this news reached the office of “Morning News” in Fleet Street, Mr. H. W. Andreae is reported to have exclaimed: “Oh Lord! Not again? Brojen must be too short of money to take a ferry across. Let’s pass the hat round in the office to raise his fare!”

I had decided to try at the next neap tide, which was due in about 10 to 12 days after September 9th. Tentative I fixed the date for September 20th. On that day I took the ferry to Calais accompanied by Mr. J. U. Wood who has acted on all my swims except the fifth, as the Channel Swimming Association observer, I had left Mohammad Ali behind to come in the motor-boat with my food arrangement etc. in the afternoon.

When they reached Cap Grisnez on September 20 in the evening, a slight wind had developed. The weather forecasters from London had hoped that the next day the weather would improve. I decided to spend the night on the French coast and try the following evening. This was blessing in disguise.


Sea Sick


I Get sea-sick in the ferry and also during swimming if there are breakers or waves.  The constant ripple at eye-level does to me the same as a finger moved quickly very near to your forehead between the eyes.This sea-sickness was the main cause of my failure to set a world record on September 8/9 or even in 1960. With getting sea-sick I get weak, lose my energy, waste time and get out of my rhythm. And if I am sick on the ferry, and start my swim the same afternoon, the sea-sickness comes over me with added force!

The night rest at the Cap Gris Nez hotel did me immense good. I felt on the top of the world. The weather on September 21 was near perfect. I jumped into the water, within 12 days of my 5th swim, a record in itself, after saying a little prayer, asking God to give me good weather all through and to crown me with success. Nearly the whole of Cap Gris Nez village had turned out to wish me luck and see me enter the water for the sixth time.

While my manager Mohammad Ali was greasing me with some white stuff, I saw two small girls, with their eyes popping out of their sockets, peering at me and saying something in French. Mr. Wood later confided to me that the two girls were saying that the stuff I was being rubbed with was ice-cream. On hearing this, the other girl commented: “No wonder he does not feel cold in the Channel water!”


Plunge And After


ONCE in water, you get oblivious of time, distance or direction. The only thought, which kept me worried, was that I must make it and that I must get good weather all the way. The second half of the swim is always very difficult. The swimmers get tired and fatigued. And if even little waves developed, it saps the ebbing energy of the swimmer all the more.

Taking a lesson from my previous swims I kept my speed at a steady pace for I knew I would need every ounce of my energy towards the close. The moon was bright and made the whole atmosphere very romantic. Moon and water – these have special significance in my religion. I went on praying to God…If I cannot go back home without the record….if I can’t please take me with you….then all of a sudden I felt that God himself was looking at me….I felt I would succeed this time…

Looking at the Channel from a boat The Dover Beach 1958   With Queen Elizabeth  

I have always been asked what do I think when swimming? As mind does not play any part or is not occupied in any way, many things pass through my mind while occupied me most of the time is that of my country’s prestige. That goads me to go on and on. Then faces of friends, smiling and bucking me up appears…. Faces of those I’m seen timentally attached    flashed before my eyes. Those faces and some situation I’ve been through, act like a tonic on my tired body….I go on and on and on….

I felt hungry and famished and looked for Mohammad Ali. He was on the launch with others. It was time for him to be near me on the dingy with my food. It was getting 4 in the morning. I shouted for him. In reply I was told that I could not afford to waste 10 minutes in having the feed! If I have to break the record, I must swim on with all my might as I was so close to the shore that I could hear of the people who had gathered to receive me. But I refused to go on unless…I am sorry now for it. For if I had gone on I might have finished the whole swim in less than 10 hours 15 minutes creating a new world record from both sides. The England to France record, held by Helge Jenson is 10 hours 23 minutes, which he created in 1960.

  Last Efforts  

After the feed I really put my teeth into the strokes. I was nearly exhausted. I was squeezing my body for the last drop of energy I could get out of it. It was a difficult and painful process. I edged on inch by inch. The people in the motor-boat were cheering me, their voice getting more difficult with each stroke. I saw the flash on the Kent shore very clearly. I realized I was very close. 

Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. It was sea-weed. I could only be a few yards from the coast, I taught. For weeds only stay very near the shore. I inched my way, slowly and painfully, putting everything I had left in me into the swim.  I could see the record, like the proverbial carrot, dangling before my swollen eyes. I felt I was just a few minutes away from the shore.

I clinched my teeth and kept pulling myself on ..a .. little more, just a little more… the momentum was building up… then I felt rocks, sharp and craggy.. I went on swimming over them. They  were so close to the surface that I slashed and scrapped my body, but managed to  negotiate them, slowly and painfully. Then a big rock appeared before me. And that was it….the shore it was…the time : 4.35 a.m. GMT: I had broken the world record by 15 minutes. I thanked God for fulfilling my life’s ambition. Then I remembered my parents. I had not failed my country.

  More News about Earlier Channel Swim