The Vindication Swim: Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge and become world-renowned
By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2003
International Wristwatch Magazine, December 2003
Miss Gleitze began her journey at 2:55 a.m., as she entered the murky waters at Gris Nez. The Channel was uninviting, cold and thick with fog. Visibility at times dropped to less than five yards, so a fishing boat from Folkestone led her way—frequently sounding its horn to help avoid the heavy shipping traffic. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, fed her grapes and honey from the boat to keep up her strength, and strong tea and cocoa to help fight the cold.
After overcoming hours of pain and exhaustion—and being nearly run down by a steamer—“her feet touched the chalk rocks between South Foreland and St. Margaret’s Bay”. And at 6:10 p.m., she became just the twelfth swimmer to accomplish the feat, the third woman, and the first Englishwoman. This historic swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, and was under bitterly cold conditions, with water temperatures never rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is worth mentioning that attempts at swimming the Channel were usually made earlier in the year (around August) when water temperatures are more accommodating. Why Mercedes elected to swim this late in the year is still uncertain.
Shortly after emerging from the water, Mercedes collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of her trainer, Allan, and her pilot, Harry Shart, Jr. She remained unconscious for nearly two hours, as the small fishing boat ferried her back to the Fish Market at Folkestone, where she was “cheered loudly by a big crowd”. Being in no condition to celebrate, she was quickly taken by taxi to her lodging for the night.
Unfortunately, Gleitze never really got to enjoy her success. Just a few days later, a series of events unfolded that put the legitimacy of her swim into question: On October 11, Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan (using her professional name, Mona McLennan), swam the Channel in thirteen hours and ten minutes. With this swim, Logan set a new record time for women, when she “walked a few steps up Folkestone beach”, at 8:50 a.m.
This was the second report of a woman swimming the Channel in less than a week, and suspicions quickly arose as to the legitimacy of her claim. Under heavy scrutiny, Logan soon recanted her story and confessed that her swim was a hoax. With Logan’s confession, Mercedes’ swim also came under suspicion. In a way, she was considered guilty by association and was said to be very upset by the accusations, and, unlike Logan, said, “All right, I’ll do it again”. Thus, the stage was set, and Gleitze was scheduled to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what was touted as the “Vindication Swim”.
Just a year prior (on July 29, 1926), Rolex patented the first waterproof wristwatch: the Rolex Oyster. When Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and Managing Director of Rolex) got word of the vindication swim, he saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new creation. Wilsdorf wasted no time, and on October 14, dispatched a letter to Miss Gleitze by way of the S. T. Garland advertising service. By this letter, he formally agreed to provide her with a gift wristlet watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim.
This “Vindication Swim” began at 4:21 a.m., when Mercedes again entered the waters at Cap Gris Nez. However, unlike her previous swim, the fog on this day was minimal and she had a full entourage accompanying her—numerous chase boats were filled with journalists, friends and well-wishers.
At this point, I would like to say that Mercedes Gleitze successfully completed the swim, and the rest, as they say, is history. I would like to say that, but unfortunately it is not the case, and “history” as retold by some over the years is incorrect.
According to the London Times, the conditions during this swim were brutal, with water temperatures ranging from 53 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit—a far cry from the near-60 degree temperatures she endured on her previous swim, just two weeks prior.
Shortly after entering the water, she experienced incredible pain and numbness from the icy water. To help keep her awake, the crowd sang songs, accompanied by musicians playing the banjo and guitar. Unfortunately, this was of little help, and, at 2:25 p.m., it became evident that she would not complete the swim. The bitterly cold conditions caused her to slip in and out of a coma-like state. At 2:45 p.m., she was reluctantly hoisted into the boat, some seven miles short of her goal, and her vindication swim would not be.
Mercedes was surely disappointed by her failure, but the overwhelming reaction from the crowd must have been of some consolation. The reporters, doctors and experts on hand were amazed at her endurance and ability to withstand the treacherous cold for some ten hours and twenty-four minutes. Thus, after witnessing her determination, few if any could doubt the legitimacy of her previous swim—it was, indeed, a victory in defeat.
As she sat in the boat, one such journalist made an incredible discovery and reported it in the London Times as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”
It may sound a bit more romantic to say that Mercedes wore a Rolex on her wrist as she swam across the English Channel, but this, unfortunately, was not the case. While she did “carry” a Rolex for more than ten hours during her vindication swim, it was not on her wrist, nor was it during the “successful” fifteen-hour swim she is remembered for. This is simply a story that has had some “specifics” misquoted over the years. With that being said, on October 25, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze forwarded a letter to Rolex, which summed it up very well, and read as follows: “You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenour of its movement. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it…”
Again, while Mercedes was unsuccessful on her vindication swim, the significance of this feat was not lost on Rolex, as it heavily promoted it in its now-famous London Daily Mail front-page advertisement on November 24, of that same year: “Rolex introduces for the first time the greatest triumph in Watch-making – ROLEX ‘OYSTER’ – The Wonder Watch That Defies The Elements. MOISTURE PROOF WATER PROOF HEAT PROOF VIBRATION PROOF COLD PROOF DUST PROOF”
This advertisement featured a picture of Mercedes and went on to read: “Miss Mercedes Gleitze carried an “Oyster” throughout her recent Channel Swim. More than ten hours of submersion under the most trying conditions failed to harm its perfect timekeeping. No moisture had penetrated and not the slightest corrosion or condensation was revealed in the subsequent examination of the Watch.”
Over the years, Rolex has attached itself to countless newsworthy events in order to promote the performance of its watches. However, the Mercedes Gleitze swim may have been the most successful, and it certainly helped establish Rolex (and the Oyster watch) as a name widely recognized around the world.