New Delhi: One of India’s greatest long-distance swimmers, Mihir Sen was the first Asian to swim the English Channel and the only man in the world so far to swim across oceans of five continents in one year.
This remarkable feat had earned Sen a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
On his death anniversary, 11 June, ThePrint recounts the life of Mihir Sen, his outstanding swimming career, his love for adventure and more.
Sen was born in 1930 in a small village of Purulia district in West Bengal. In 1938, his family moved to Cuttack, Odisha. His father, Ramesh Sen Gupta, was a doctor. Since his childhood, Sen had dreamed of completing his studies abroad and his dream came true with the help of then chief minister of Odisha, Biju Patnaik, who financed his ticket to England after he obtained his law degree from Utkal University.
In England, Sen joined Lincoln’s Inn, one of the world’s most prestigious society of barristers, in November 1951. In 1950, Sen, after reading the achievements of Gertrude Ederle — who was the first woman to cross the English Channel — became determined to do the same.
Sen also had a very strong nationalist streak in him — one that involved deep love for India and a mission to make his nation proud.
As his daughter Supriya Sen wrote in an article in The Telegraph, “His motive for swimming the seven seas was primarily political. Being a young nationalist of uncommonly strong views and unorthodox ambition, he wanted to show the world what Indians are made of, to set for young Indians an example of courage and to tell them that one of the best things to do with life is to risk it. In this way, he hoped to prepare them for what he saw as their destiny.”
Crossing English Channel
Sen’s journey was not an easy ride. For one, he had no swimming prowess as such, and had to spend hours at a YMCA pool to learn everything about swimming.
While the English Channel, which is a part of the Atlantic Ocean that divides the island of Great Britain from northern France, might look deceptively simple to the untrained eye, it requires immense training and stamina to swim in it.
Beneath the calm demeanour, the Channel is prone to frequent changes in both water and weather currents. Moreover, the ocean is also home to a number of poisonous jellyfish. Swimmers, therefore, not only have to deal with natural conditions, but also with human factors such as navigational error, which can also dramatically increase the distance to be swum, oil patches, flotsam and the occasional maritime traffic.
In 1955, Sen made his first attempt to cross the Channel, but he failed due to bad weather. Three years later in 1958, he crossed the Channel in 14 hours and 45 minutes and earned the distinction of being the first Asian to achieve the feat.
Achieving the impossible
In 1966, Sen achieved the impossible — he swam the oceans of five continents. He crossed the Palk Straits in 25 hours and 36 minutes, the Straits of Gibraltar in 8 hours and 1 minute, the Dardenelles in 13 hours and 55 minutes, The Bosphorous in 4 hours, and the entire length of the Panama Canal in 34 hours and 15 minutes.
Sen also earned the distinction of being the first non-American and third human in the world to cross the Panama Canal that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
After crossing the Palk Straits, Sen wrote: “I had undertaken this perilous swim not to gain fame or trophies but to prove once again to the world that Indians are no longer afraid. To the youth of India this triumph will have dramatically demonstrated that nothing is impossible for them — all they have to do is believe and persevere and the goal will be theirs!”
His daughter Supriya said, “There was a hunger in him to show the world, especially the Europeans, that Indians were capable of greatness and mostly to himself that it could be done.”
In 1967, India honoured Sen with Padma Bhushan. Earlier, in 1959, he was honoured with a Padma Shri.
His explorers’ club
In 1959, Sen had set up the Explorers Club of India to foster the spirit of adventure in India’s youth. Sen sponsored many expeditions through the club, “the most famous of them being a perilous six-day row boat adventure to the Andaman Islands by Lt. George Albert Duke and Pinaki Chatterjee in February 1969”.
In the later stages of his life, Sen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and he died in 1997 at the age of 67.
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