Captain Matthew Webb and his Water Mission

Author: Andrew Zebrun III, with the help of one of Captain Webb’s descendants. 

People think they know history, until they go and actually look. Or as Paul Harvey would say, get “The rest of the story.”

Swimming the English Channel at the time Captain Webb accomplished the feat, was considered suicide. But then on the other hand, one climbs the mountain because the mountain is there. When challenging nature in the extreme, an inner knowing of oneself can be found. How else does someone endure nearly 22 hours in freezing cold water, covered with grease? There were boats with him… he could’ve climbed aboard one, but he pressed on to greatness.

Capturing the love and adoration of humanity must have been very rewarding after such a strenuous ordeal. People who would never consider attempting this because there are perfectly good boats, could never understand the real goal of knowing oneself in such an extreme. Having monuments erected, and books written about you means that you’ve reached out and touched humanity’s heart.

Captain Webb trained for countless hours – you must sharpen your skills to see what you’re made of. Coming to Niagara Falls to challenge her world class rapids solidified him in the annals of swimming, as one of the bravest daredevils to wear the moniker. Incredibly, he was not even getting paid to do this – his message was, that he wanted people to have knowledge of water.

Unfortunately, the Captain’s final stunt in 1883 – a swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls – resulted in his untimely death. But triumph did ultimately come out of this tragedy, as his notoriety lived on long past his life.

Captain Webb inspired the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the film The Pink Panther, via his image on a box of Bryant and May’s matches. And he was loosely referenced in the “Rocky And Bullwinkle” cartoons as “Captain Clift” – the character in the episode bore a resemblance to the notorious risk taker. 

I can’t believe anyone even tried it again, but three years after Captain Webb in 1886, a Boston, Mass. policeman named William Kendall barely escaped the rapids. He had a $1000.00 dollar wager on his feat, but stated it was not worth your life, swearing off daredevil acts altogether.

Life shows you your limits; going beyond them can bring the most rewards. Since Captain Webb stated his goal was to give humanity knowledge of water, I believe he achieved that goal.

I only hope he knew how many people were inspired to know water as the good captain espoused – how many people got a bathing suit on and hit the waves?

Captain Webb inspired a love for ‘swimming right’ when the organized sport of swimming was taking off. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were revived, catapulting the art of swimming into celebrity status.

So what is the measure of a tragedy, if it ends in triumph? Captain Webb may have slipped below the Whirlpool Rapids and lost his battle with the Niagara River that fateful day in 1883. But he later turned up in popular culture where he’s recognized for greatness, as a cultural hero, not a zero.

To quote another great proponent of water, Bruce Lee, “Be like water” my friends. Do not pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one. Having knowledge of water is timeless advice that will never let you down.

Water is you, you are water – how much has flowed through you over the years? Think about it. Or, as Archie Bunker famously said about water, “You can’t buy beer, you can only rent it.”

Water is also at the heart of Einstein’s “Spooky action at a distance.” Hence, knowledge of the universe is encoded in Captain Webb’s encouragement to know water. If you study a simple thing like water long enough you start to see it as anything BUT simple. Life’s just a journey – a series of experiences resulting in memories. If you can use those to get that deeper knowledge, that’s all that really matters in life, or death. The fact that you lived to the fullest – like the good Captain did – is all that matters.

Captain Webb was interred in Oakwood CemeteryNiagara Falls, New York.[13]

Captain Matthew Webb’s death at Niagara Falls – Historical articles and illustrationsHistorical articles and illustrations | Look and Learn

Capt. Matthew Webb — Oakwood Cemetery | Niagara Falls, NY (

Paul Harvey Archives – The Rest of the Story

Two Brave Men Who Swam the Rapids in Niagara Falls | Niagara History (

140 Years Ago, Captain Matthew Webb Swam The English Channel And Made Swimming Cool – Atlas Obscura

The History of Swimming as a Sport (

Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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