Wherever there is a stretch of water, people seemingly have a primeval urge to swim across it. From the English Channel in the northern hemisphere to the Cook Strait in the southern hemisphere, it is hard to think of a place that has not been visited by the swimmer.

No crossing captures the imagination more than the famed English Channel swim: Captain Matthew Webb, one of 12 children born to a Shropshire doctor, set the pace of courage, endurance and mind-over-matter at 21 hours 45 minutes using a form of breaststroke on August 25, 1875.

Almost 132 years to the day, in 2007, Petar Stoychev, of Bulgaria, became the first to cross it in under seven hours. A memorial in Webb’s hometown of Dawley, England has a short inscription: “Nothing great is easy”. Webb evoked an ageless fascination with achievements that challenge the boundaries of human endeavour and epitomised the spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed, try again”: his successful crossing came just 12 days after a first failed attempt. Webb swam from Dover to Calais and while the time may seem slow compared to the likes of Stoychev, it is worth noting that the Englishman swam a zig-zag course estimated to have carried him 64km, nearly twice the distance of a straight line. Along the long way, he was also held up for five hours by strong currents off Cap Griz-Nez.

Webb was already well known to the British public through a previous exploit when, as a second mate on the Cunard ship Russia he attempted, without success, to rescue a man by leaping overboard in mid-Atlantic. Webb’s striving to go where no man had gone before came to an end almost eight years after his Channel crossing: he attempted to cross the Niagara River in the rapids below the Niagara Falls but was sucked under after 10 minutes. His body was found four days later and he was laid to rest in a nearby cemetery. His decade of fame and fortune as a professional swimmer, author and businessman, is celebrated to this day.

The Webb dream has been emulated many times since: if the English Channel has witnessed more than 1,000 successful crossings (and many a failed attempt too) - including one way, doubles and even three triple swims -  the quest to conquer the waves has spread to lake, river and ocean worldwide.

Setting out on the marathon-swimming journey takes guts, preparation, hard training and enthusiasm – and that’s just the approach to dipping a toe into open water. Once in the element, a world of obstacles awaits: sensory deprivation, chilly waters, wildlife, jellyfish stings, plummeting body temperature, hypothermia, exhaustion, inclement weather, unhygienic water, self-doubt and even despair. International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame inductee Sid Cassidy (FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee chairman in 2008) tells a tale of horror in recalling the time he had a bucket of excrement tossed over him while swimming the Nile in Egypt.

Ask a marathon swimmer why they do it and you are likely to hear an echo of explorer George Mallory’s famous response to the question 'Why climb Everest’: because it was there. Many also cite the huge personal rewards that stem from having conquered fear on the way to finishing a race or completing a crossing. An explanation, perhaps, for the vast numbers of people who flock to open water: thousands taking part in myriad organised open water swims around the every year. In Western Australia, a 20km stretch of water in the Indian Ocean from the mainland to Rottnest Island attracts nearly 2,500 swimmers, while hundreds are rejected in the ballot for this popular February challenge.

Apocryphal it may be, but even China’s Chairman Mao was said to have swum the Yangtze River — a marathon task if ever there was one.

Among the many magnificent races staged around the world, some have long traditions. The Around the Island swim off Atlantic City, USA, was first raced in 1954, and among most famous winners is Dutchman Herman Willemse, champion for five straight years from 1960. The event was discontinued in 1964 and resurrected in 1978. Paul Asmuth dominated the 1980s (with Claudio Plit his closest competitor) and Stephane Lecat the 1990s. Shelley Taylor-Smith beat everyone in record time in 1991 and returned to set another race record the following year, which stood until 1996. More recently, Germany’s Angela Maurer broke the women’s record.

One race that inspired Taylor-Smith was the Canadian plunge at Lake Memphremagog. She was leading lady in six of the seven races she swam and said turning up each year in the small community “was like being royalty”. First to cross the lake was Billy Connor in 1955. Argentina has a fine tradition in marathon swimming, staging a respectable number of swims on the FINA circuit over time, including an 88km event in Parana and one of 57km in Santa Fe. Finally, Italy, with the traditional Capri-Napoli of 36 km, the oldest one with the first edition dated 1954.

Alison Streeter, a city trader turned swimmers’ pilot, concentrated on the English Channel, her dedication rewarded with the title of Queen of the Channel. She summed up the passion thus: “I have swum the channel more times than anyone — 43, which includes 34 one ways, three doubles and one triple. People often ask me why?  I say you really have to be there to understand! Whenever I am in the Channel there is an adrenaline rush. Every day is different, sometimes with the weather and wind, sometimes with the traffic, sometimes with how I am swimming. But it’s a great challenge having a one-to-one battle with this living, breathing beast that will not let you get across easily. You have to dig deep as there is a unique harshness about the Channel that no other swim comes close to.”