21 Miles and In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze

OSS Book Editor: the determination of swimming the Channel

I was struck by a word while I made my way through 21 Miles and In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze: determination. Both books are about the determination to do the extraordinary – in the case of 21 Miles, this is swimming the English Channel, and in the case of In the wake, this is swimming the Channel and then becoming a pioneering swimmer. But more than determination, there is a willingness of both protagonists to try and fail, and accept that failure, before trying again.

There is something refreshing reading about failure. In the age of social media, I feel that we are becoming less and less accepting of trying and failing. The lives we portray online are so curated to feature only the good things, the successes and triumphs, that our ability to fail, or even more importantly to try and fail, and try again and fail again, and still beat on, is disappearing or becoming hidden. Both these stories are about trying and failing, and continuing to go on and try again. It makes for very refreshing reading.

21 Miles charts Jessica Hepburn’s decision to ‘do something big’. She has reached the age of 43 and, after eleven rounds of IVF, has not had a baby. As she explains, 43 is seen as a cut-off age for the ability to get pregnant. Yes, women do have babies at ages older than this, but the risk is increased and the likelihood of having a baby naturally after this age significantly diminishes. In the aftermath of all this heartache, the longing for a child that may never materialise, she decides she must do something significant with her life. She decides she is going to swim the English Channel.

The decision is not necessarily a logical one – as she points out, she is not a natural swimmer. She does not like cold water. And she is slow. Yet the idea grows in her mind. Because you have to have a certain amount of body fat to withstand the cold temperatures during the long swim, Jessica decides to interview 21 women on the question of motherhood, asking ‘does motherhood make you happy?’, while eating with them.

The book weaves a narrative around these interviews – with women from all walks of life, both those with children and those without children – juxtaposing the conversations over cake with Jessica’s brutal training schedule. The interviews are full of wise and sage advice on living, rather than necessarily on motherhood, and by talking to these women, Jessica starts to realise that she can live her life well, without being a mother. “[…] what she’s made me realise this morning is that grief is an opportunity too: to do something in your life that you might never have done without it and which, in the end, might be the only thing that gets you through (p.206).”

Like Lynne Ropers’ diaries, the thing I took away from my reading of 21 Miles was the community and people that share the water with you. To swim the Channel, you need a boat, and a support team, that goes without saying. Swimming the Channel is not something you can accomplish alone. Building up to that swim necessarily entails swimming in various spaces and the people who populate the pages of 21 Miles showcase the swimming communities both in the UK and elsewhere. Jessica realises the importance of these communities too, writing “you can even make extraordinary connections with strangers who you meet and (sometimes) eat with. Or with whole communities of strangers, like those who think that swimming in the open water is the bee’s knees… […] Connection is vital to human happiness” (p.354).

In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze also charts a Channel swim, albeit the first successful Channel swim made by a British woman in 1927. In the wake is written by Mercedes’ daughter, Doloranda Pember, and draws on archival material including Mercedes own diaries, newspaper reports, individual witness accounts, and interviews. Being the first British woman to swim the Channel was just the beginning for Mercedes Gleitze. She became a pioneering endurance swimmer, opening the water for other woman to follow.

The book charts Mercedes determination to become a professional open water swimmer, from her attempts and then success at the Channel, to her eventual tours of New Zealand, Australia and later South Africa. Mercedes’ pluck is evident from early on. Her mother returned with her children to Germany, after the outbreak of the First World War, and Mercedes, absolutely determined to return to England, set out on her own to return to England in 1918. In an extract written by Mercedes in 1928, recalling her journey she writes:

“I decided to swim out from Carolinensiel in the direction of the Heligoland lighthouse beam […]. It was in the early hours of the morning and although I could see the island, it was two or three miles distant. I had never attempted a task like this before but I was confident that I would reach my ultimate goal. I shut my eyes and plunged into the water, fully dressed with the exception of my shoes and stockings” (p.29).

Upon her eventual arrival on the shore, Mercedes was told that no one had ever swum across the Wattenmeer because the currents are much too dangerous. That early swim proved to be just the first of many where Mercedes would try and conquer uncharted swimming waters. After her success in the English Channel, Mercedes went on to swim the Strait of Gibraltar before trying to become the first person to swim the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.

She was ultimately unsuccessful in this endeavour, yet her focus and willingness to try and fail are inspiring. Dorolanda explains how the many endurance swims in public pools and baths (around the UK and elsewhere) that Mercedes participated in throughout the late 1920s, provided the opportunity for other women to witness her strength in the water. Such feats were thought to be the prerogative of men only, and Mercedes was instrumental in illustrating how this preconception was incorrect.

Mercedes lived in the time of female emancipation, and her sporting prowess allowed her to become a symbol of what could be achieved by women the world over.

Both 21 Miles and In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze offer stories of women doing the extraordinary, of pioneering ways to be in the world, and using swimming as a means to live their lives. Whether you are an aspirant long distance cold-water swimmer, or merely interested in sporting stories, both these books will provide inspiration.

Lexi Earl