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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.
After a time, however, merely floating downstream began to pall on Boyton: true, it was wet, but where was the risk? He had had a surfeit of safety. Then Peru got embroiled with Chile in one of their periodic struggles, and Boyton’s spirits revived: here at last was an opportunity to get blown to smithereens. He entered the Peruvian naval service and, as he told it, paddled silently out, under cover of night, to a Chilean man-of-war, affixed to her 125 pounds of dynamite, and thereby broke the Chilean blockade—though Peru lost the war. When he returned to New York he held the rank of captain in the Peruvian Navy.
He returned to retire, since there seemed, regrettably, to be no other ways in which he could threaten his personal actuarial balance. To shake the water out ol his ears and capitalize on his fame, he opened a bar and grill at 38 West Twenty-ninth Street in New York; he called it The Ship, and it became a favorite haunt of Manhattan sports. To relieve his tedium, he was reduced to playing pranks on Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
In May, 1885, the British lion was irritable. His tail was being tweaked by the Irish; there had been some incidents involving dynamite; one of the chief Fenian leaders, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was trumpeting his defiance from a Manhattan sanctuary. Additionally, the lion’s tail was being yanked by Imperial Russia over a border dispute in northwest Afghanistan; contemporary statesmen fancied they could descry war clouds lowering. While this minuscule crisis was bubbling, a Russian corvette, the Strelok, and a British man-of-war, the Garnet, had coincidentally dropped anchor in New York Harbor, and Boyton therefore undertook to soothe the dolors of the moment by showing how simple it would be to blow the Garnet out of the water. If he was shot in the process, why, then the laugh would be on him; but he did not propose to get shot.
As privily as possible, considering that he was attended by two or three friends and a noisy gaggle of newspaper reporters, Boyton went to the docks with a dummy torpedo, found a boatman named Steve Connors, and told him he planned to attach it to the hull of the Garnet. “Oh, wurra!” said the boatman, according to the accounts, eyeing the cigar-shaped, four-foot dummy. “Oh, Rossa! a dirrty, desprit business!” His eyes glowed. “For five dollars I’m in for the night wid yez.”
The conspirators were first rowed across the Upper Bay to Staten Island. They proceeded to the barroom of the Bay View Hotel to fortify their spirits against the night’s sinister enterprise, and here they were nearly toiled before they had fairly begun. For the barroom was full of British bluejackets, and all hands eyed the group of newcomers curiously. What were they up to, in their dark slouch hats and with their coat collars turned up? To allay suspicion, one of the reporters remarked casually, in a clear, carrying baritone, “I’ll bet a fiver the white dog licks the brindle.” The others accepted his gambit, and for a few minutes there was lively talk ol an imaginary fight to be staged between two imaginary bull terriers. The bluejackets went back to their beers.
But the talk had aroused one righteous citizen, and he slipped out to notify the police. Before long the place was surrounded by Staten Island constabulary intent on halting the illegal dogfight. Plaintively the reporters now insisted that their talk had all been a joke. A hack driver who had been nursing his drink in a corner, and who had confidently expected to earn a pretty penny by transporting all the sports to their fighting pit, was so disturbed to find his wages vanishing that he lost his temper and slugged a reporter. That did it. Everybody was arrested.
It took Boyton and his party an hour to talk themselves out of captivity, but fortunately, when they made their chastened way back to the Bay View Hotel, they found that the bluejackets had all returned to the Garnet. The atmosphere was serene. Boylon led the way down to the shore.
The Garnet lay in the Narrows off Staten Island, two lights at her masthead. Boyton, having clad himself in his rubber suit and lighted a cigar, slipped silently into the water, towing the torpedo behind him. He meant to paddle beyond the British ship and thenfloat down upon her on the tide; but on his first cast he came, instead, alongside an American cutter. She seemed to be too small to be the Garnet, so he called out, “What vessel is this?” An astonished American marine answered that it was the Endeavor.
“Well, then, let me come alongside and take away a torpedo I’ve tied to her by mistake.”
“For God’s sake, take it away quick!”
Boyton paddled away for a second try. Across the water the voices of his party came to him; Connors was rowing them out near the Garnet; half the party had started to sing “God Save the Queen” whilst the other half had struck up “Is This Mr. Reilly?” Boyton heard Connors exclaim, “Byes, this is dirrty work,” and a moment later, “Oh, Rossa, you’re a daisy!”
By this time Boyton had lashed his torpedo to the Garnet, but his paddle made a chunking sound as he pulled to get away. At once came a voice, “Ahoy, there! What’s that?”
“Only a log,” answered Boyton, “floating in the water.”
“Stop there! Who are you?”
“It’s all right, gentlemen,” shouted Boyton, paddling fast. “I’m only fishing! Trolling, you know! You’ve got a torpedo, fast to your vessel!” By this time he was out of pistol range, so he blew a blast on a trumpet he had slung round his neck, as a signal to his party to come fetch him. But behind him, aboard the Garnet, a bugle sounded the call to quarters, and before Boyton could be hauled aboard Connors’ boat, here came a steam launch with a lieutenant, a midshipman, and a halt-dozen bluejackets with their rifles cocked.
“Oh, wurra,” moaned Connors. “Remember my poor suffering mother-in-law in the Twelfth Ward!”
Boyton’s reaction to this armed party was characteristic. He clambered aboard the launch, grabbed a rifle leveled at his breast, and wrenched it from the bluejacket’s hands, saying, “You can’t shoot with that thing—I don’t believe it’s loaded.” At once another sailor flourished a cutlass at him, but Boyton brushed that aside, too. An excited jabber, everyone talking at once, and then the English officers were convinced there had been no serious mischief, intended or done. Boyton joined his party, and Connors pulled for shore, his passengers severally singing “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Rule, Britannia.”
But still the Royal Navy was suspicious. The launch pursued the boat to the wharf, and the bluejackets essayed a landing. Once again they were frustrated. For now they were confronted by a red-shirted constable with a don’t-care mustache; this bravo’s name was Keiley; he produced a nickel-plated pistol that might have harmed a chicken and, in a fruity brogue, announced: “I don’t want any gang of Englishmen pointing guns at Staten Island.” A man named Keiley was all the bluejackets needed; they withdrew in confusion.
The publicity from this and similar exploits guaranteed Boyton all the promotion he needed when, a little later, he put together an aquatic circus and toured the country offering exhibitions. For by the time he was in his forties, his urge to risk his life had abated; he was content to display his juggling sea lions, his water races, his high divers, and sit back while the money rolled in. He invented a watery thrill for his customers, too: the Shoot-the-Chutes, a toboggan slide in flat-bottomed boats down a long incline, and splash! into a lagoon; his royalties from this contrivance insured him a comfortable old age.
With the twentieth century, the nineteenth’s darling slipped into obscurity, lingering until 1924, an affable man of leisure living in Sheepshead Bay on Long Island, near New York, and occasionally taking off on long Caribbean cruises. Had he accomplished anything by his daredevil exploits? His celebrated rubber suit was forgotten; it was never deemed practical as a safety device on ocean-going steamers. His name was forgotten; and a generation was arising whose feats in and under the water as well would make Boyton’s seem trifling by comparison. And yet, after all, Paul Boyton has his lasting consequence. For, more than any other man, he led a nation to water and made them swim. America was just beginning to want to play and sport outdoors when Boyton appeared, and he became a kind of Pied Piper whose influence in popularizing water sports was incalculable. If not in technique, at least spiritually he was the precursor of the frogmen and the skin-divers and water-skiers who slip so smoothly through the seas today. Paul Boyton was the first to dare the waters.