Born in Coventry England in 1943, Bryan was taught to swim at age 10 by his uncle, Roy Sutton. Despite all of Roy's efforts, Bryan persisted in swimming breaststroke and 50 years later continues to favour that stroke.
At age 14, Bryan entered and won the 60 yard breaststroke championship (Photo, Row 1, left) at Coventry Swimming Club's annual gala. The win led within a few weeks to representing the Midlands at the English Schools Swimming championships in Bournemouth in 1957, where he placed sixth in the final in 1:19.4 for the 100 yards Breast. He persisted with sprinting and played water polo for Coventry; however, his love of open air swimming, and a perverse tolerance of cold water in a city that harboured a dozen long distance swimmers, almost doomed him to being absorbed into long-distance swimming. In 1960, swimming with subsequent Channel Swimmer, Peter Fergus, he set a breaststroke record (and joint freestyle record with Fergus) of 3 hours 0 minutes on the 5.25 mile (8.4 km) course of Lake Coniston. A week later he led the field of freestylers from the 2-mile mark to the 5-mile mark in 10-mile Windermere championship. The over-confident start to the race led to being pulled from the water unconscious from cold and hypo-glycemia around the 7-mile mark. That was sufficient for Bryan to become hooked on a sport that has fascinated him for the rest of his life.
The following year, 1961, Bryan completed the Windermere race on breaststroke in 6 hours 16 minutes - 4 minutes outside the breast record - seen in the photograph (Row 1, Middle) with Peter Fergus just 6 weeks before Peter's 16 hour 31 minute success in becoming the 19th person to cross the English Channel from England to France. Two years later in 1963, Bryan broke the Windermere breaststroke record with a time of 6:10 with Kendall Mellor as his crew (Photo, Row 2, Right). That same season, Kendall became the 79th person to cross the Channel with his time of 16:53. Bryan's exhausted condition, seen in the later photograph, was characteristic of many of his swims in the 1960's. The large Huricane, glass-lensed goggles that were so popular in those days are seen in the photograph (Row 1, Right).
A come-back solo swim at age 35 on Windermere in 1979 encountered some quite rough and cold conditions (water around 15°C), with the result of a semi-conscious finish in 6:59:08. The photograph (Row 2, Left) shows Bryan propped against the wall of the Lakeside Hotel by his colleagues Perce Bull (Left) and Arthur Ayres (Right). Finishing 10-mile swims in this state convinced Bryan that he did not have either the stamina or build to survive a marathon swim on the English Channel, so he concentrated on 5-mile swims on which he excelled during the early 1960's setting a number of breaststroke records.
On 12 September 1964, Bryan (21-years-old) travelled on his motor-bike from his home-town of Coventry to Lake Ullswater and met with his Yorkshire friend Colin Proctor and Colin's Dad, Dougie. They hired a boat at Glenridding and started the 7-mile swim to Pooley Bridge. It was a cool swim and a head-wind frustrated Bryan's progress on the last 3 miles when the cold water also started to slow his progress; however, he did establish an inaugural Breaststroke record of 4:31:16. He remembers finishing at a beach where there was an "old guy" with a parrot on his shoulder. This was not completely strange to Bryan, since his mother had an Amazon Green parrot that was older than Bryan and had survived with them through the bombings around their home in Coventry during World War 2.
At age 23, on 12 June 1966, Bryan was the third man to finish the 12-mile race in the sea from Fleetwood to Morecambe. Swimming breaststroke against the freestylers, he established a breaststroke record of 5:36:03. One lady (Elaine Gray 4:58:04) and seven men started the race; two men withdrew during the race. Barry Watson (5:14:06); Kendall Mellor (5:23:00); Bryan Finlay (5:36:03); Francis Allen (5:44:01); Graham McIntyre (5:55:00). Since races are now rarely held on this course, it is not surprising that this record has not been broken. Water temperature was 59-61°F, with a rainy start and a sunny finish.
With the drive and enthusiasm of Jim Robinson, the Whitby Seals organized these 3-mile sea-swims up to 1993 and they were always a cold challenge in the North Sea along the shoreline from Sandsend and finishing in Whitby harbour. 3-to-5-mile swims in Cold Water were always Bryan's forte and he was often competitive with freestylers under such adverse conditions of wind and cold. Bryan's set the breaststroke record of 1:04:06 in 1963 at age 20, when he placed fourth in the mens' event behind freestylers Peter Hatfield (55:15), Brian Winn (1:00:15), and Ronald Kellerman (1:01:19, in a field of 12 men. One of the seven lady entrants, June Hanby, beat him to set a ladies' freestyle record of 1:02:09. The water temperature was 55-58°F. So this record stood the test of 30 years of organized championships.
This is a tidal swim so the actual distance of this swim is debatable. The first race, organized by the BLDSA in 1964, was challenged by rough water and its start from rocks to the west of the southern point of Rathlin Island was a real challenge for the swimmers and their boatmen. A steady water-temperature of 53°F was a challenge to a number of the swimmers. Channel swimmer, Michael Jennings immediately took the lead but withdrew after 77 minutes due to the cold, leaving Bryan (swimming breaststroke in the lead); however, the cold eventually took effect on Bryan and, in the final mile, he was passed by Kendall Mellor. Bryan finished in 2:46:41, dazed but in second place just 4 minutes behind Kendall. John Earls retired due to the cold after 37 minutes, while Jimmy Gratton was only a few hundred yards from the finish when he succumbed to the cold. Cold-water marathoneer, Derek Turner, finished in third place showing no signs of adverse effects from the cold or the effort; all three finishers were within the previous record of 3:10 that had been set by Jack McClelland. Refreshments were provided by the Milk Marketing Board. While none of the competitors were smokers, the awards were presented by the cigarette manufacturers W.D. and H.O. Wills; however, many of the boatmen and crew-members were keen supporters. It was reported by the news media that there were as many as 6,000 spectators around the finish at Balycastle harbour.
Bryan and his wife, Helen, emigrated to Canada in 1972, where he met Bob Weir in the late 1980's and was introduced to Solo Swims of Ontario and marathon swimming on the Great
An abortive attempt on Lake Ontario in 1992, and several storm-related failures on Lake Simcoe led to a 15-hour, 19 mile failure on Lake Simcoe in 1995. After a year out-of-work in 1996
and two subsequent years of work away from home, Bryan eventually got a job back in his home-town of London, Ontario, got his training together, mastered feeding problems, and beat
notable head-winds (Photo, Row 1) to complete the 22 miles from Barrie to Orillia on Lake Simcoe in 21 hours 9 minutes. As in his past swims, a team of swimming experts provided the
confidence for the swim - with marathon swimmer Bob Weir (shown above), and SSO Swim Masters James Salter and Peter Stahlkopf. In contrast to his early days of distance swimming,
Bryan walked clear of the water (Photo, Row 2, Right) just suffering some beard-induced, skin abrasion on his left shoulder. A tough stage at the 17-hour mark involved low blood-sugar
and an empty stomach that were characterized by hyperventilation, hiccoughing, and shivering; this problem was only overcome with the intake of solid food (cantaloupe) and a change
from his ERG-Gookinaid electrolyte drink to tea with 8% glucose. Even at 56 years of age, there are things to be learnt about your body - especially when it's never been taken to those
levels of performance before.
At age 58 in 2001, with a low-key Breast swim on Lake Erie, Bryan's 10:44 also
broke the Free record for the Leamington to Pelee Island swim of 13.8 miles (22.1
The swim started from Leamington at 9:21 am on Saturday 23 June 2001.
At the 6-hour mark, Bryan was having to duck to miss numerous streams of dead Fishflies (Mayfly, Shadfly). On the return journey to Leamington, the crew were hit by masses of the live flies which, at the marina, also lay dead in piles at the foot of the overhead lights.
||Frustration with the challenges of organizing a crew and support boats for swims on the
Great Lakes, Bryan made an attempt on the English Channel on 4-5 August 2002, at age
59. A four-month experiment with a drink containing a protein-electrolyte mix was his
upset, and an inadequate amount of dextrose in his reserve food-supplies led to
regurgitation for the last 10 hours of his 20-hour swim. His pilot, Duncan Taylor, waited
for perfect wind conditions that provided essentially flat water and this was aided with
water temperatures from 63-66°F; however, in a severe state of hypo-glycaemia and
lapsing into sleep, the pilot eventually ordered Bryan from the water, after 20 hours and
just 800 metres from the French shore.
With his exclamation "But Duncan, we're so close!", Bryan viewed the kneeling pilot (with his gaff in hand) and obeyed the pilot by raising his arms to be pulled from the water. In the exertion of being pulled onto the deck of the support-boat, he passed-out . . . recovering with a below-deck snooze, and readily climbing to the dock in Folkestone harbour.
The complete story, involving the banning from the pilot-boat of his chosen mentor, long-term friend since 1960, and CSA-Observer, Joe Smith, is another story . . .
After a career of research in Medical Engineering, orthopaedics and respiratory work, Bryan indicates that, even in 2013 at the age of 70, he is still learning about his physiology !
Bryan has been associated with SSO since 1991, and was its Treasurer from 1992-2016. He also competes regularly in Masters Swimming, and held the Masters World Short-Course Breaststroke record (2:50.27 and 2:48.22) for the 40-44 age-group between 1986 and 1988.
And he still dreams of Marathon Swims, during his lap-swimming in "Chlorinated Pint-Pots" !
Note: The phrase "Chlorinated pint-pots" was a tongue-in-cheek derogatory term for "heated indoor swimming pools"
that was originated by Bryan's good friend John Slater (Founding Secretary of the BLDSA).
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Created: October 1998
Last Updated: 22nd April 2020