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Back Then: It's where Florence met her Waterloo

Icy stretch conquered by Colleen Mallon proved unassailable to famous swimmer

By Eddie McIlwaine

If marathon swimmer Florence Chadwick were alive today she would be sending sincere congratulations to Colleen Mallon, who has just become the first Northern Ireland woman to swim the treacherous North Channel.

Florence, who died in 1995 at 77, was the first woman to conquer the English Channel in both directions and set a world record for the crossing.

But three times this champion swimmer failed in her attempts on the lesser known, in swimming terms, North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. She was beaten first in 1957 and twice again in the bleak autumn of 1960 by the extreme cold which has always been a feature of this 18-mile stretch of water.

I was there on board the fishing boat Sea Flower, which left Donaghadee to accompany Florence on each of her brave bids in 1960 to touch shore again at Portpatrick.

I'm reminded now by Colleen's achievement of how desperately sorry I felt for Florence, a Californian, as she was lifted from the sea, exhausted and numb with cold each time within sight of land. Her escort boat was The Adoration on which her navigator was Scot Captain David Orr-Ewing, an authority on the North Channel and its swiftly changing weather.

Florence, 42 that year of 1960, promised to return, but she never did.

Years later I received a surprise phone call from the lady to apologise for not being able to keep her word and to tell me she had retired from swimming.

"You were a young reporter who kept calling out words of encouragement to me in the waves from the deck of your boat," she said. "You were my mascot and I wanted to beat that Channel for you." By 1960, the North Channel had been swum only once, by the late Tom Blower in 1947, and he gave Florence a lot of advice when she first tried unsuccessfully to swim from the Dee to Portpatrick in 1957.

That time in 1960, when the late Bob Brady of the Daily Express and I were aboard the Sea Flower, slightly adrift of Florence in the sea, wasn't without its humour, never mind the cold and the rain and the wind. And later a little bit of danger, too, on the way home.

We had on board a sophisticated radio relay system on which to send messages back to our respective news desks about the lady's progress.

But a couple of miles outside Donaghadee harbour it packed up and refused to work. I could hear the voice of frustrated news editor Fred Gamble back in Belfast, but he couldn't hear me. It made the job of reporting the swim that little bit more difficult. No, it made it a heck of a lot more difficult for Brady and me.

We got our stories over in the end as we always did, but we still had a voyage back to Donaghadee in the little Sea Flower ahead of us as a storm blew up. It was a nightmare trip with us blown off course several times and we didn't reach the safety of the Dee until 4am next morning.

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