Channel Swimmers

Peter J.B. Fergus

The Gentle Giant & Mentor

Swimmer Peter J.B. Fergus
Age 24
Home Coventry
Country England
Date of Swim 13th September 1960
Start Time 5:00 am
Swim Time 16 hours 31 minutes
Starting Point Shakespeare Cliff (West of Dover), England
Finish Cap Gris Nez, France
` `
Monitoring Body Channel Swimming Association, EF-19
Official Observer C. Dent
Pilot (Boat) Captain L. Hutchinson (Victor)
Club Coventry Swimming Club
Trainer Harry Moffat
Crew Michael Jennings

On my entry into long-distance swimming in 1960, I was lucky to meet Peter Fergus during our training sessions which coincided at Gosford open-air swimming pool in Coventry. Peter was studying Electrical Engineering and working with the General Electric Company in Coventry, England. He blended swimming with his studies for his Higher National Certificate, and provided us all with a unique exposure to Liverpudlian humour.

Peter giving directions to his greyhound !

Coventry Swimmers
Back Row: Finlay, Fergus
Front Row: Stockmans, Ayres, Endersby, Hunt

Finlay, Ayres, Williams

Peter was just one of a group of Coventry swimmers who were devoted to long-distance swimming. For most of the group, the primary focus was on the English Lakes (Windermere, Ullswater, and Consiton), Morecambe Bay, and Torbay; however, Peter had his eyes set on the English Channel. He was also quite clear on which direction he was going to swim. At the end of 1959, there had been 17 ratified E-F swims and 63 F-E swims. So for Peter, it was obvious that he would be swimming from England to France, with the goal of becoming one of the first 20 swimmers with recorded crossings in that direction. Peter placed marathon swimmers into one of two categories - his own group of Carthorses, who thrive on hard work - and Greyhounds with a focus on speed and a requirement for cautious training loads. In rough water and cold conditions, the carthorses often out-swam the greyhounds who would be way ahead of the field when they were removed unconscious from the water !

Whether winter or summer, Peter could be seen in early morning striding up the hill on Binley Road from his home at the Guildhouse to his work at the GEC. Apart from his 6' 4", 260 lb stature, he was further distinguished by his appearance in shirt sleeves, carrying his coat, and sweating !

A teetotaller, Peter had no need for alcohol to stimulate his social behaviour. Peter made friends with almost everyone and was always ready to help other swimmers with words of advice from his extensive readings or contacts with others. He was a wonderful mentor. In the early 1960s, squeeze-bottles were not available, but Channel swimmers still sought a small, narrow-necked bottle that would not let-in salt water during feeding - a common problem when drinking from an open cup in rough water. Swimmers found that the British 200 mL Babycham bottle was ideal for Channel drinks in rough water - and there was never a shortage of volunteers to help you empty a few bottles in preparation for your swim.

In the year of his Channel attempt, Peter had already swam Torbay (4:29), Lake Winderemere (6:08), Morecambe Bay, and set a 3 hour 0 minute record for Lake Coniston. In Peter's focused approach to all his tasks, his entry into marathon swimming was planned and intense.

Peter's swim was scheduled for September and the weather wasn't great. In fact, there were other swimmers still lined-up to go before him. An opportunity arose on Tuesday, 13th September. Montserratt Tresserras had already swum the Channel in 1958 and was seeking to add an EF crossing to her 14:14 FE swim of 1958. Due to the 13th date, Peter thought she was being superstitious; however, the weather forecast was not good - but that did not cause Peter to shrink from what he saw as the last opportunity of the season. Montserratt went on to the following 1961 season and made her FE crossing in 16:25.

The following article was headed `Swam Like The Clappers' to beat Channel and appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on September 14th 1960:

Peter Fergus, the first Coventry man to swim the English Channel - he had to battle against 6 ft. high waves for the first five hours - told "the Coventry Evening Telegraph" today, "I just put my head down and swam like the clappers".
At his Dover hotel, recovering after his 16 hours 31 minutes in the water yesterday, the burly 24 years old member of Coventry Swimming Club, 6 ft. 7 in. tall and weighing nearly 19 stone - expressed surprise when told today that he would be accorded a civic reception by the Lord Mayor of Coventry on his return to the city.
"But I've got to get to the Tech.", he protested. [Webmaster: A reference to his engineering studies at Coventry Technical College.]
Holiday Swim
Fergus, who made his greatest swim during a short holiday in Dover, is returning on Sunday in time to be at technical college the following day. On Tuesday he will be back at his job in the transmission laboratory of the General Electric Company telephone works at Stoke.
He left Coventry unaccompanied and would have no-one to assist him had not Michael Jennings, of Greenhithe, Kent, who swam the Channel on August Monday, offered to help.
"I don't think I could have done it without his advice," said Fergus.
Jennings cooked meals for Fergus, helped him apply about 4 lb. of lanoline to protect his body, and was one of those who were in the accompanying boat.
The swim was made after a 5:00 a.m. start from Shakespeare Beach, Dover.
Fergus, who trained throughout the winter in the icy waters of a gravel pit at Kingsbury, near Tamworth, said he did not feel the cold as he forged ahead ding the crawl stroke.
"I felt a bit panicky towards the end," he admitted. This was because the tide turned and it took him an hour to swim the last quarter-mile. "When I was 200 yds. off Cap Gris Nez the tide suddenly washed me back out to sea again."
He was very fatigued as he was helped up the French beach, but he soon recovered. Then, on his way back to Dover by motor boat, the diesel fumes made him ill.
Fergus, who is single and a native of Liverpool, lives at Stoke Hill Guildhouse, Coventry.
When he was an apprentice in a Liverpool shipyard he broke his back and had o give up swimming for about two years.
Clubmate to Try
Arthur Ayres, of the same swimming club, said of Fergus: "He`s got guts that boy - he would fight to the last inch." But he was astonished that Fergus had succeeded in such difficult weather conditions, which forced several other men to give up.
And Ayres, who has been on many long-distance swims with Fergus and came second only last Saturday in a 20 miles event at Morecambe, had one more comment to make.
"I definitely mean to have a go at the Channel myself next year. " declared.

Harry Moffat, 1961

Harry Moffat was a previous rowing champion from Scotland and was a swimming instructor in Coventry; he was also a member of the Stoke Guildhouse with Peter. Harry rowed boats for a number of the Coventry swimmers, and also provided Peter with some formal guidance on Stroke Technique prior to his Channel swim. In the rowboat, Harry would have all of the crew listening for the gentle sound of the bubbles running along the gunnel (gunwale). Harry required a similar strict attention to the mechanics of swimming, with a streamlined entry of the hands into the water at the front of the head. After his Channel swim, Peter wistfully recalled that Harry would have been dismayed at the wide spacing of his arm strokes as he tried to keep himself stable in the rough water of the Channel!

For months after his swim, Peter recalled the memory of the final stages of his swim in the dark and the rough water as they approached Cap Gris Nez. He regularly relived the consistent blinking of the lighthouse that flashed through his water-filled goggles as he struggled for the shore - only to awake in a sweat in his bed. This was a far stretch from the humorous training swims that he recalled in warm water where he would occasionally drift into a dream of drinking warm soup - only to be brought back to the realism of the cloudy water he was swallowing from "The Pit" at Bodymoor Heath where he trained regularly.

Peter completed Torbay (5:50) again in 1961, and befriended almost every Channel swimmer and British long-distance swimmer of the early 1960s.

Back Row: Williams, Fergus, Finlay
Front Row: Madge McCarthy

Peter`& Mary`s wedding group.

Windermere 1961
Back Row: Finlay, Fergus, Smith, Owen
Front Row: Ayres, Oldman, Littledale

He completed his engineering qualifications, met his wife-to-be, Mary, and was married in 1962, and they moved to the USA where he had a new job. The Coventry swimmers were well represented at his wedding and provided a touch of the insanity for which the group had become famous.

A few years later Peter and Mary returned from the USA and he took-up a position with the Atomic Energy Authority where he worked until his retirement. After his return to the UK with a wild beard and a new-found appetite for large steak-sandwiches, Peter completed a few swims and crewed for a number of friends at various British swims, before gracefully fading away to provide the same dedicated focus to his work as he had applied to his swimming.

Created: 14th March 2010
Last Updated: 25th March 2010