Channel swimmer goes missing one mile from success

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The Independent Online

A cross-channel swimmer was feared dead yesterday after going missing within a mile of reaching the French coast.

Ueli Staub, 37, a fitness instructor and experienced triathlete from Switzerland, went missing at about 8pm on Saturday when his support boat, the Lady Sarah, lost sight of him in poor light and 20-knot winds. Two lifeboats, an Anglo-French emergency vessel and two helicopters with infra-red equipment, immediately began searching an eight-square mile area but coastguards called off the search at midday yesterday, admitting the chances of finding him alive were remote.

A spokesman for Dover coastguard said: "This guy only had swimming trunks on. He is well outside the life expectancy."

The Lady Sarah, one of five boats recognised by the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF), was on its first crossing accompanying a swimmer. But Michael Oram, secretary of the federation, said the pilot and owner of the boat, Richard Mortimer, was a "very experienced" operator who had accompanied cross-Channel rowing attempts. Mr Oram said Mr Mortimer, a qualified yachtmaster and sailing instructor, was "very qualified and more than capable of doing the job".

Mr Oram, who had stopped on his way back from piloting a successful crossing earlier in the day to cheer on Mr Staub's attempt, said: "He was swimming quite strongly but the sea was quite rough [and] you only have to be 15 yards away to disappear in a sea trough."

Mr Staub, who contacted the federation through the internet to arrange the swim, was on course to complete the crossing within his target time of 18 hours when he disappeared, Mr Oram said.

Since 1875, when Captain Matthew Webb completed the first Dover to Calais swim in 21 hours 45 minutes, there have been 900 successful solo crossings. It is 20 miles as the crow flies but can be considerably longer for swimmers because of the effect of tides. About 70 attempts are made each year.

The loss of Mr Staub – the fifth person to die on a cross-Channel swim – has highlighted a squabble over safety that has split the Channel swimming community.

On Saturday there were four attempts, two piloted by the Channel Swimming Association and two by the breakaway Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, both of which supply their own lists of recognised pilots who charge between £1,300 and £1,500 a trip.

The federation was set up three years ago when Mr Oram was suspended from the list of registered pilots of the Channel Swimming Association after a complaint from a swimmer that crew were allowed to sleep below decks, leaving "insufficient crew on station to attend to the safety of passengers during bad weather and rough seas". Several other members of the association also left, including Alison Streeter, the world record holder with 39 crossings.

Mr Oram, who has piloted more than 270 swimmers across the Channel, says he was suspended on a technicality and accuses the association – which began as a private club in 1927 and became a limited company in 1999 – of charging excessive fees. Swimmers must pay a £270 associate membership fee to have their crossing validated by the association. "What they have done is turn it into a business," he said.

Duncan Taylor, secretary of the association, expressed his "great sadness" at the loss of Mr Staub but stressed that "this activity was not being carried out under the supervision of the Channel Swimming Association". He said that under association rules, all boats and pilots had to take a stringent induction course and first-time crossings were always made with an additional pilot boat in support. "We want to do everything we can to make our sport as safe as possible," he said.