History, it goes without saying, is my first love and - just as I noted yesterday - nothing quite scratches that itch like the weird and wonderful "stuff" that most of us have no clue went on. When I stumbled upon the gentlemen above, I could not write this post fast enough (curse you for clumsy, fingers!).
Paul Boyton was probably born in Ireland some time around 1848. He was obviously an intrepid sort with a particular interest in the sea. He was said to be a very strong swimmer from an early age. By his 15th year he had joined the U.S. Navy and served with them during the Civil War. Some sources also indicate he served in the Mexican and French armies. His adventures really began, believe it or not, in 1867 when he joined the fledgling Atlantic Life-Saving Service, again in the U.S.
The Service was a precursor of both the Coast Guard and the life guards now employed by beaches in many countries. Boyton excelled at the work, but he thought things could be made even safer on the waves. That's when he began toying with and eventually modifying a prototype rubber suit invented by C.S. Merriman. The suit (as seen above on Boyton) was surprisingly similar to modern dry suits with the added bonus of bladders built in that could be inflated by the wearer using tubes. A man could literally float on his back, dry and relatively warm, with little or no effort at all.
By 1874, Boyton was so sure of his rubber suit that he jumped from a ship, in a storm no less, and swam 40 miles to the coast of Ireland. The publicity he received for this stunt spurred him on and Boyton became something of a nautical P.T. Barnum. He modified the suit again to include a small double paddle that he could propel himself along with. On breezy days he hooked himself up with a sail. Thus outfitted he sailed up or down most major rivers in the U.S. and Europe, over the canals of Venice, through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the English Channel. He published an account of these exploits entitled Roughing It In Rubber in 1886. By 1894, Paul Boyton was an international celebrity.
He opened one of the first admission required "water parks" in the U.S., Paul Boyton's Water Chutes, in Chicago in 1894. He also staked out what would eventually be Coney Island, opening his Sea Lion Park there in 1895. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As he aged he shut down or sold (in the case of the sea lion exhibit) his parks and turned to writing his autobiography, The Story of Paul Boyton by Paul Boyton.
The man who roughed it in rubber over so many of the world's waterways died in 1924. He left a legacy that extends far beyond water parks and sea lions. Certainly the guys fishing crab on the Bering Sea, and on other harrowing waters, owe a tip of their hats to Paul Boyton and his modified rubber suit.