Teenager’s intrepid sea crossing to Scroby Sands - in a canoe!
- Credit: Archant
Endurance swimming, like crossing the English Channel, scarcely comes to the attention of the television viewing and newspaper reading public nowadays, unless a celebrity like David Walliams is slapping on the protective grease and plunging in.
Hereabouts the annual pier-to-pier swim between the Britannia and the Wellington (perhaps in the opposite direction, depending on wind and tide) used to be a feature of the summer sporting calendar, but it probably petered out decades ago, unnoticed by the public and mourned only by those hardy former participants.
Perhaps the blame lies with Health and Safety, or the borough’s two outdoor public pools closing in favour of indoor heated ones.
I was reminded of that era recently when I learned of the death at 81 of Daniel Liffen, a Great Yarmouth Grammar School contemporary of mine who achieved the unique feat of doing the double swim between the shore and Scroby Sands. A few others had swum from Scroby to Yarmouth, but in 1952 he set out in the opposite direction - from the North Beach near the Iron Duke public house, returning there two hours and eight minutes later, having met choppy water on his return swim.
He did this double between winning the Norfolk freestyle 440-yard race and competing in the English one-mile championship in Yarmouth’s outdoor pool. Since Daniel’s obituary was published, there have been other claims to previous double swims that apparently went unreported, possibly because nobody notified the Mercury at the time.
Reading of Daniel’s death and his Scroby achievement reminded another Old Grammarian of his own challenge with our sandbank – not swimming, but paddling a canoe, albeit nine years later. And while swimmer Daniel was accompanied by a support boat, young David Cooke was on his own.
“In 1960, I canoed to Scroby, unaware of Daniel’s feat,” David tells me. “GYGS boys could easily see Scroby from the school’s upstairs windows, and it was my ambition to paddle out and walk around at some stage.”
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During the school holidays in July 1960, he towed his canoe on its purpose-made trailer behind an old bicycle from his Gorleston home down to the slipway next to lifeboat station. Within minutes, sensibly wearing his orange life-jacket, he clambered into his canoe, paddled out between the twin piers, and happily headed for Scroby sands.
“I was the same age as Daniel - 17,” he says. “The North Sea was as calm as a millpond and, as I had the tide in my favour, I soon reached the sands. I wandered around, hoping to find some nautical treasures...but only discovered the seals!
“I began my return on what was still a lovely summer’s day - but I had not realised that I would be paddling against the current. I found that was making very little progress and the sea was beginning to become a bit choppy.
“I decided to aim for Barnard Bridge to be near the beach rather than the Harbour’s Mouth. At least I would not have to swim so far! Yes, of course, I sang the various sailors’ hymns like ‘For those in peril on the sea’!
“I eventually reached the shore in darkness and paddled my way slowly back along the beach and into the river to the lifeboat station slipway. I was glad to be alive!
“Goodness knows what my parents thought – they must have been worried out of their minds. I did have fun in my canoe but never ventured to Scroby again – once bitten etc.”
He presumes the duty coastguards in their lookout on Gorleston Pier noted his departure, but it is unlikely that they would have seen his safe return hours later because it was dark and he had no light with him in the canoe and no way of attracting attention. In hindsight, one wonders why the failure of a small canoe to return from sea was not spotted and inquiries made and even an alarm raised.
David Cooke, a retired stockbroker long resident in Norwich, is no stranger to this column. For example, he is an acknowledged authority on Dinky Toys and I have featured his extensive collection which was seen by television viewers in 2004 in the BBC’s The Antiques Roadshow, hosted by Michael Aspel.
Also, we have looked at his lifetime of cycling on the made-to-measure Claud Butler racing model he acquired as a youth, and his more recent role as founder president of the Norfolk Lymphoma Group. David, who suffers from this form of cancer involving cells of the immune system, is a tireless fund-raiser for the cause.
In 15 years or so, the Norfolk Lymphoma Group has raised £155,000 in various ways, and hopes that this total will be boosted considerably on Sunday, July 17, when the Bishop of Norwich will host its members in his private garden in the Cathedral grounds.
Details of the group’s activities are on its website at www.norfolklymphoma.org.uk
David Cooke also reflects on the sudden death last year of Peter Johnson, a former Grammar School chum who in later life was passionate about a range of maritime pursuits and had recently embarked on helping to restore the former Gorleston lifeboat Louise Stephens (1939-1967) in which he had served as a crewman.
The two pupils, near-neighbours on Middleton Road, were keenly competitive in art lessons, and “when it came to O-levels, we pulled out all the stops and I just managed to beat him and was awarded the Art Prize,” recalls David.
“Peter and I formed the Charter Canoe Club, and we diced with death at the Harbour’s Mouth where the waves were higher. Was the Coastguard spotting us?”
In 1940 the Louise Stephens briefly left her home station to join the great armada of little ships heading across the English Channel, defying the Germans to rescue thousands of beleaguered British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.
After retiring as the RNLI craft at Gorleston, she sailed to Devon to be a pleasure tripper, then embarked on another long voyage to the Scottish Isle of Islay where she was used for fishing. She needed plenty of TLC when she returned here.