Pioneering Ulster to Scotland swimmer who inspired women everywhere

Mercedes Gleitz swimming the English Channel
Mercedes Gleitz swimming the English Channel
Share this article

A fearless and pioneering young woman who famously took on the “impossible” swim between Northern Ireland and Scotland is the subject of a TV documentary being screened next week.

The daring exploits of Mercedes Gleitze – coupled with her Hollywood movie star looks – attracted plenty of media attention in the 1920s for her record breaking feats of endurance, including becoming the first European woman to swim the English Channel in 1927.

Mercedes Gleitz arriving in Donaghadee in 1928

Mercedes Gleitz arriving in Donaghadee in 1928

Her arrival in Donaghadee for an attempt on the North Channel the following year caused quite a stir.

Hundreds of people turned out to see the 28-year-old heroine, but conditions proved particularly unfavourable and Gleitze moved further north to Cushendun where she made several failed attempts.

Some reports suggest she eventually succeeded, but the first recognised crossing by a woman was not made until 1989.

The UTV documentary highlights the legacy of the typist from Brighton who became one of the era’s great endurance athletes.

Mercedes Gleitz

Mercedes Gleitz

Brian Meharg, a North Channel boatman based in Bangor, features in the programme.

He said: “There are different temperatures between the two Channels with the English Channel reaching 17C, while the North Channel is only 12C. That is a significant difference for cold water swimmers.”

Mr Meharg leads Mercedes’ daughter Doloranda Pember on a guided tour of Donaghadee. pin-pointing specific locations her mother would have visited while in Co Down.

The documentary also features Cushendun man Ronnie McBride who was only nine years old when the swimmer arrived in the village for a practice swim.

Mercedes: Spirit of a New Age is on UTV on Tuesday, December 15 at 10.40pm.