Willis Hanks Swam From Harlem To The English Channel

Willis Hanks Swam From Harlem To The English Channel

Willis Hanks Swam From Harlem To The English Channel

Courtesy of Sam Rockett, English Channel.

Willis Hanks taught swimming in Harlem and worked decades as a postal clerk in New York.

In the 1950’s, the African American swimmer was able to meet famous Americans who funded his English Channel attempts along with his family and friends. With their support, Hanks took vacation time from his jobs and was able to train in England in order to prepare. He desperately needed that training because the warm-water Harlem YMCA pool in New York City was an inadequate training venue.

The financial backing enabled Hanks to become the first black man to attempt crossings of the English Channel, a challenge that ultimately eluded him between 1953 and 1958. But his DNF’s were not due to his efforts or passion.

In 1953, high tides and rough seas prevented Hanks from even making an attempt from Cape Gris Nez, France. He waited for as long as he could, but he had to return home before a second attempt could be made.

In 1954 at the age of 40, he was able to start in Cape Gris Nez at 10:15 pm at the same time as the Billy Butlin Cross Channel International Swim competitors, but he retired at 5:15 am after 7 hours in the English Channel.

In August 1955, he retired on a third France-to-England attempt after 14 hours and 27.3 km because he was too far off course.

In 1958, he tried again to swim the English Channel, but there are no documented details of his last attempt.

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Steven Munatones