Ted May, Channel Swimmer Died in Attempt

Ted May

A 1954 Newspaper cutting of Ted May’s Tragic attempt to swim the Channel 1954

On September 8 1954, lone Englishman Ted May set off from Cap Gris Nez to swim to England, but without a pilot boat and against official advice. His body was found weeks later washed up in Holland.

Ted May (1910 – 1954) – Edward James May was born in Dartford, Kent. He was the father of 9 children. His wife was Florence Beatrice Hyne of Dartford. May served with the Royal Navy during the War as a stoker and then petty officer.

He was employed as a Pipe-fitter and engineer with Brown and Tawse ironworks at Bromley-by-Bow in London but moved to Scunthorpe to find work as a boiler maker in about 1950. His wife and family remained behind in their council house in Dartford, May returning when he could.

May was a keen long distance swimmer, and a member of Barrow ASC. For his Channel attempts he was trained by Mr Louis Scott of Scunthorpe & Leeds, a jeweller.

May applied for the 1951 Daily mail Cross-Channel Race and was tested by Race Organiser Sam Rockett at Kentish Town Baths. Rockett thought May was a capable swimmer but, with just 20 places available, rejected him in favour of stronger swimmers. If he had been successful, the Daily Mail would have paid all his expenses and costs for the swim but, without a place, May would have to find the £250 to £300 minimum it then cost to swim the Channel. He tried to raise the money in sponsorship and in prize money from other swims such as Lake Windermere, Isle of Man to England, he won the Morecambe Cross Bay swim in 1950, even once attempting to win a prize of four fat cows, but never got very far.

He applied again for the 1953 and 1954 Channel races but again Rockett turned him down. Convinced Rockett had something against him, May was determined to make the swim off his own bat and, as he had no money, to dispense with a pilot boat or any other form of back-up.

He set off from France on the 23rd August 1954 but bad weather set in after 8 hours and he was in trouble. An air sea rescue was launched, involving 2 British destroyers, a helicopter, coastguards and lifeboats, before a Finnish steamer picked him up.

I constructed from a blown up motor car inner tube a pannier-made from a coffee tin-containing a compass, two bottles of rum, sliced chicken, sugar and biscuits. I struck out from Cap Gris Nez with the inner tube and pannier strung out behind me. After about 5 hours I wanted something to eat so I pulled in the tray and found that the chicken and biscuits had been washed away. The bottles of rum were still there and I took  a long drink. I swam for another hour and then saw ahead of me the white cliffs of Dover. My confidence was greater than ever. the sun was shining, the skies were clear. Then suddenly the weather changed. The skies went black, the surface was ruffled by the wind and the rain started. I decided to swim back to France. I swam for about 2 hours and then over the horizon I saw the masts of a ship. I shouted and waved and the Steamer came alongside. By this time the sea was so rough that they could not pull me aboard a lifeboat. Instead they tied a rope around me and pulled me on board.

May set off again at 4 45am, 8 September towing his rubber tyre inner tube raft holding bread, jam brandy and his clothes. The raft had a 2ft mast with battery operated lights on it. He had put on three layers of grease and was wearing a cap  and goggles with a wrist compass. Again unexpected bad weather set in and all those waiting in Dover knew May would be in trouble. He was last seen at 7 30pm., on Wednesday 8th September 1954 (15 hours after he started) when the crew of the British tanker ‘San Vito’ saw a man in the water shouting for help 4 miles south of the East Goodwin Lightship, about 8 miles off the English shore. At almost the same time a fisherman reported seeing the tyre tube adrift with 2 bottles in it. about 8 miles form Calais.

On board the San Vito a lifebelt was thrown to May, who was then only 20 or 30 feet from the boat. It fell short and the boat turned around but in the 8 minutes it took to stop and turn the boat, May had disappeared. A Man in Sea’ SOS was broadcast and other ships, including 2 warships with searchlights, joined the search as did American and RAF planes but nothing was found.

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