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The Fearless Frogman
It was thirty miles offshore, and stormy, but the daredevil swimmer plunged into the Atlantic with a crisp “Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!” Our author recalls bold Captain Boyton, a mixture of Jules Verne, Tom Swift, and a bit of Walter Mitty.
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Well out to sea from New York and bound for Liverpool, Captain Bragg, master of the steamer Queen, was consternated one October evening in 1874 to see a figure clad in rubber from head to foot appear suddenly from under a lifeboat and waddle purposefully toward the rail. He raced from his bridge to lay hands on the apparition, which, as he could now see, was bristling with all the equipment of an Eagle Scout in parade uniform: canteen, food canister, axe, signal lights, rockets, compass, knife, and small double-bladed paddle.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.
“Ashore,” said the figure, and added remorsefully that this was his only course, for he was a wicked stowaway.
Since the nearest shore was 250 miles away, Bragg sensibly concluded he had collared a madman. He insisted on peeling off the rubber garment, to discover within a lean, merry, Dublin-born adventurer named Paul Boyton, apparently quite sane except for his determination to jump overboard in mid-ocean.
But Captain Bragg would have none of this. Instead he gave Boyton a place at the officers’ mess and for the next week listened round-eyed to his guest’s casual reminiscences. At fifteen, it seemed, Boyton had joined the Union Navy; in the decade since the Civil War he had been a revolutionary in Mexico, a franc-tireur in the Franco-Prussian War, a participant in the short-lived Paris Commune, a conspirator in a plot to free Cuba from the Spanish yoke, a South African diamond miner, and the captain of the first lifesaving service at Atlantic City, in which capacity he had personally plucked seventy-one bathers from the claw of the sea puss. Gradually it dawned on Bragg that here was no ordinary harum-scarum daredevil, but a man with a positive genius for recklessness, who staked his life the more zestfully as the odds against him rose. He asked his guest about the rubber suit.
This was the invention of a Pittsburgh manufacturer, C. S. Merriman, designed as a lifesaving device for transatlantic steamship passengers. Supple and absolutely watertight, the suit had compartments for air behind the head, at the back, at the chest, and along each thigh; in it, with only his face exposed, a man could float vertically or go skimming along on his back, propelled feet first by a paddle at the rate of one hundred strokes a minute; the suit was, in effect, a kayak. Already Boyton had paddled for miles out to sea off the Jersey coast, but he was seeking a sterner test. For this he had stowed away, and as the Queen neared the Irish coast, Captain Bragg decided he should have his chance.
On the evening of October 21, some thirty miles offshore, the glass was ominously low and the Queen rolled in a sullen sea, but Boyton was unperturbed. Overside he went. They heard his cheerful call: “Goodnight, captain! Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!” Then he was alone, in the turbulent night.
That was at nine o’clock. By eleven the sea was raging under a westerly gale, and before dawn fifty-six vessels would be smashed on the shores of the British Isles, but Paul Boyton paddled on. Thirty miles he paddled, past the Cape Clear light at the southernmost tip of County Cork, and then up Roaringwater Bay to Skibbereen. The barefoot fisherfolk refused to believe him, but by the time he got to Cork, the cables had carried his story, and two continents were acclaiming him as a hero. A hero, moreover, with a new and incredible dimension added, for here was a man apparently as much at home in the water as on land. Such a circumstance was the more extraordinary since, at the time, ocean swimming was still an exotic pastime; folk feared the salt water might “leach away the essential salts of the body”; where timidity was the rule, Boyton seemed the more audacious. One hundred thousand curious flocked to watch him paddle down the Liffey and across Dublin Bay from Howth Head to Dalkey; more scores of thousands came to see him float down the Thames; Queen Victoria received him at the Isle of Wight and presented him with a gold chronometer.
He was more than a hero: he was a prodigy; was there anything he coidd not do? The more venturesome began to propose for him unheard-of hazards: dared he attempt the English Channel? But of course. Boyton gobbled challenges as lesser mortals nibble bread. To the accompaniment of intense excitement, he essayed the Channel in May, 1875; he paddled tranquilly from Cape Gris-Nez to Fan Bay, enjoying his lunch and puffing on a cigar as he went; on arrival he was welcomed by an eleven-gun salute and a cablegram from President Grant.
The Rhine, the Rhone, the Seine, the Po, the Loire, the Tiber, the Tagus; the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bay of Naples, the Strait of Messina—and later the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Ohio, the Hudson. He negotiated them all, sometimes trailing a tiny boat he called the Baby Mine, in which he stowed food and cooking equipment for his meals en route. Cigars were named alter him; hundreds of columns in newspapers lauded his watery exploits; his income from exhibitions soared to $2,000 a week; editorials gravely insisted his suit should be standard equipment on seagoing vessels.