Out of Time: All About 'Torpedo' Tom Blower, the Nottingham Man Who Became the First Person to Swim the North Channel of the Irish Sea

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Ciaran Burrows
Thursday 27 October 2022
reading time: min, words

Until 1947, no one had ever successfully swam the North Channel of the Irish Sea - a 21-mile stretch of icy cold, choppy water between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Then came Tom Blower, the Notts-born gentle giant who could snap six inch nails and lift two people at a time…


As far as nicknames go, you don’t get much better than ‘Torpedo’ Tom Blower. It conjures the perfect image: a solid unit slicing through the water, unmoved by current or cold, cascading ceaselessly toward its objective. Such was the determination of Hyson Green-born Blower – one of Nottingham’s greatest, if less celebrated, sporting figures – that he became the first person to swim the ice-cold 21-mile-stretch of the North Channel in 1947. Despite numerous attempts, it would be 23 years before someone else achieved it again.

If you’d lived in Nottingham before the Second World War, chances are you might have seen Blower powering up and down the Trent, constantly training his huge body to be the best swimmer he could be. His six-foot one-inch frame weighed over eighteen stone, he could hold two people up from his giant outstretched biceps, snap six-inch nails like they were breadsticks and would spend minutes at a time sitting at the bottom of the Trent, looking upward to watch boats pass peacefully overheard. He might sound more Marvel than man, and with good reason – Tom Blower could do what most people couldn’t. His almost superhuman strength made him a swimming colossus, and his name was known around the country as a result. 

The stretch of water between Donaghaddee in Northern Ireland and Portpatrick in Scotland spans just shy of 21 miles. It’s an unforgiving expanse: powerful tides swell and at its deepest you could drop almost 200 metres before reaching the bottom. It’s claimed countless lives, and serves as a watery graveyard for dozens, if not hundreds, of ships. Not far from the shortest crossing lies the wreck of The Lusitania, the British cruise liner infamously sunk in 1915, costing over a thousand lives and bringing the United States into the First World War. To long-distance swimmers, it makes the English Channel seem like the swimming pool at your local leisure centre. The average person had no hope of swimming it. 

But Tom Blower was anything but your average person. The son of a miner, Blower served in the Royal Navy during World War Two, once diving into the cold waters of the Atlantic to save a survivor of a dive-bombing raid. In Nottingham, he was known as Uncle Tom – the gentle giant who helped teach disable children how to swim, devoted large chunks of his time to local youth clubs and gave exhibitions of strength and swimming prowess for charity.

His almost superhuman strength made him a swimming colossus, and his name was known around the country as a result

Despite his enormous mass, Blower cut through the water like a man half his size. He had the bizarre ability to stand or lay in the water without moving at all and, during his numerous lengthy sea swims, he developed a liking for the trudgen method – a combination of overarm strokes and scissor kicks with his legs. 

His first attempt to swim the North Channel of the Irish Sea came in 1947, but ended in failure due to exhaustion. Not Blower’s exhaustion, however, but the exhaustion of the men crewing the boats that accompanied him, who simply did not have the energy needed to handle the water when it became as rough as it did that summer. But the following month, on 27 July 1947, Blower tried again. Kissing his wife goodbye, he promised “I’m not getting out for anybody this time.” He meant it. 

Perfect weather had been forecast for the next fifteen hours, and the red sky shone down on the slimy glass texture of the Atlantic. It was late in the day when Blower took off, accompanied by a parade of vessels, some part of his team, some press and some just wanting to wish him well. As the boats slipped away, it was just Blower and the sea, reigniting the ceaseless struggle of man versus nature, as he beat on against the unforgiving waves. Around his waist he had tied a pair of battered old swimming trunks, tied with a piece of string, which held sentimental value to him. The sea temperature dropped below ten degrees as he battled swathes of clinging seaweed and shoals of fish so thick he had to fight through them as they nibbled at his thrashing feet. One observer who had accompanied the swim by boat was so cold that he had to thaw his feet out by wrapping them in a blanket and putting them in an oven. But for the next eight hours, Blower swam on without complaint. 

Kissing his wife goodbye, he promised “I’m not getting out for anybody this time.” He meant it.

The next morning saw one of the largest thunderstorms Scotland had ever suffered batter its way through the country. Hard rain fell, lightning struck and hail the size of golf balls pounded down as entire towns were left in darkness, villages were flooded and entire bridges were swept away. The predicted perfect weather had been dangerously incorrect, and Blower often disappeared entirely out of view of the one boat, containing his support team and wife, that still accompanied him, such was the size and ferocity of the waves.

His team made the decision to pull Blower out of the water for the sake of his own life, but his wife, heeding his earlier promise, forbade them. The cold and fatigue, coupled with the new challenge of towering waves, were taking their toll. First Blower lost the use of one of his arms, forcing him to switch to a type of lopsided breaststroke for a time. When his arm had righted itself enough, his legs gave way, meaning he now relied solely on his arms to drag his enormous frame through the chopping Atlantic Sea. At one point, Blower swam for four long hours without even making a mile of progress. But he hadn’t come this far to give up and, as the sea began to calm, he saw a sight that meant he must be closer to the shore: fishing boats. 

As he finally reached the shore of Portpatrick, Blower staggered out of the water, his legs betraying the physical thrashing his body had just taken. It had been 15 hours and 26 minutes since he’d last been on land, and it was taking every ounce of the strength he had left just to stand upright. A Scottish policeman shook his hand, and said of his achievement, “You’re the first one to ever do it, lad. And you’ll be the last.”

Back in Nottingham, the Lord Mayor interrupted a city council meeting to tell them of Blower’s success and over the coming days news of his achievement would spread everywhere. Tom Blower was a national hero, and could have comfortably dined out on the achievement for the rest of his days. But that wasn’t who he was, and he continued to make arduous swims, including conquering the English Channel twice, while working as an advertising representative for a cigarette company in Nottingham. 

But each of those colossal swimming adventures would eventually take their toll as, in 1955, aged just 41, Blower died from a massive heart attack. The huge heart that had powered his enormous frame through the ice-cold waters of the Atlantic, battling towering waves and currents alike, had simply had enough. But for as short as his life was, Tom Blower achieved more than most could do in three lifetimes. He conquered a part of nature that no one had ever conquered before, and wouldn’t do again for another two decades. 

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