Winnipegger was youngest to swim English Channel


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This article was published 27/07/2022 (313 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On July 23, 1963, a St. James high school student became the youngest person to successfully swim the English Channel. Claudia McPherson completed the swim from France to England in 17 hours and 17 minutes according to the official Channel records. The Woodhaven teenager was aged 17 and four months and a Grade 11 student at Silver Heights Collegiate.

The previous record was held by England’s Margaret White, who was four months older when she completed the crossing in 1961. Toronto swimmer Marilyn Bell, who swam the Channel in 1955, was 17 and 10 months when she made it. Bell also bested Lake Ontario in 1954 and swam across the Juan de Fuca Strait in 1956.

McPherson went into the water at Calais, France at 2:17 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time. She then spent the more than 17 hours battling the Channel before she crawled out of the water at Sandgate near Folkestone. The crossing was estimated as 21 miles “as the seagull flies.” Her coach, George Alliston from Winnipeg, figured that she actually swam about 40 miles due to the tides, making about 10,000 strokes.

McPherson was welcomed home by dignitaries including the Lieutenant-Governor and a parade through St. James celebrating her tremendous achievement.

During the swim, McPherson was fed cups of soup, chicken broth or beef, every hour by Alliston, who handed the sustenance to her on a long stick. With the white cliffs of Dover in sight and about three miles to go, she switched from swimming on the windward side of her pilot boat to the leeward side, which at that point proved to be more effective against the tides. A crew from the Folkestone Rowing Club came out to support her and spent the final 30 minutes of the ordeal shouting encouragement to the teenager.

McPherson ran into one small problem when she came out of the water. Her passport was on the pilot boat and customs officials required her to register as a vessel in order to be allowed into the country. When her father Claude back home in St. James learned about this, he suggested she should have identified herself as SS Claudia.

When she returned to Winnipeg on Aug. 23, a crowd of 7,000 applauded her as she was driven through the streets of St. James in a white convertible. Along the way, she had the convoy of 32 cars stop at the Deer Lodge Hospital so she could speak to a group of seniors sitting on the lawn. A welcoming ceremony was held at the RCAF recreation hall, where the dignitaries recognizing her accomplishment included Lt.-Gov. Errick F. Willis. The rec hall was a most appropriate location as nearby was the pool where McPherson had spent long hours training over a two-year period.

In January 1964, McPherson was awarded the Ches McCance Memorial Trophy as Manitoba’s outstanding athlete of the year at the Winnipeg Sportswriters and Sportscasters annual dinner. She was the first woman to earn this honour.

She had made her first attempt at swimming the English Channel on Aug. 17, 1962. After nine hours and 15 minutes, while still six miles from the English coast, she was pulled from the water. But she was determined that the Channel could be conquered — and she was right.

Claudia McPherson’s parents were pictured on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press on Aug. 1, 1963, waiting to hear news of her successful swim across the English Channel.

McPherson first made the front pages of the Winnipeg dailies when she swam Lake Winnipeg almost exactly two years before her successful Channel swim. At 10:45 a.m. on Sat., July 22, 1961, she entered the lake at Willow Point south of Gimli. Her start had been delayed for a few hours due to rough weather. The Grade 9 student was in the lake for 12 hours and 20 minutes before she reached Grand Beach. At age 15, she was the youngest person to defeat Lake Winnipeg.

Norwood’s Kathie McIntosh, 20, was the first person to swim Lake Winnipeg when she did it on Aug. 19, 1956. It took her 16 hours and 14 minutes to swim from Grand Marais on the east side to near Winnipeg Beach. Five men attempted the swim that morning, four from Grand Marais and one from the west side. The best any man did was stay in the water for 10 hours and make it about hallway across.

T. Kent Morgan

T. Kent Morgan
Memories of Sport

Memories of Sport appears every second week in the Canstar Community News weeklies. Kent Morgan can be contacted at 204-489-6641 or email:

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