Mihir Sen

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Mihir Sen
Born(1930-11-16)16 November 1930
Died11 June 1997(1997-06-11) (aged 66)
OccupationSwimmer, businessman
Spouse(s)Bella Weingarten Sen
AwardsPadma Shri in 1959
Padma Bhushan in 1967
Blitz Nehru Trophy in 1967

Mihir Sen (16 November 1930 – 11 June 1997) was an Indian long distance swimmer and businessman. He was the first Indian to swim the English Channel from Dover to Calais in 1958, and did so in the fourth fastest time (14 hrs & 45 mins). He was the only man to swim the oceans of the five continents in one calendar year (1966). These included the Palk Strait, Dardanelles, Bosphorus, Gibraltar, and the entire length of the Panama Canal.[1] This unique achievement earned him a place in The Guinness Book of Records as the "world's greatest long distance swimmer".[2]

Early life[edit]

Mihir Sen was born on 16 November 1930 in Purulia, West Bengal, to physician Ramesh Sengupta and his wife, Lilabati. Largely due to the efforts of his mother Lilabati, the Sens moved to Cuttack when Mihir was eight, as Cuttack had better schools.[1]

Mihir graduated with a degree in law from the Utkal University in Bhubaneswar in Odisha. He wanted to travel to England to prepare himself for the bar but was constrained by lack of funds and due to the initial lack of support from the then chief minister of Orissa. Nonetheless, in 1950, he managed to board a ship heading for England with the chief minister Biju Patnaik's help. He was given a suitcase, £10 and a one-way third class ticket.[1]

Life in England[edit]

In England, Sen initially worked at a railway station as a night porter. Subsequently, he was hired at India House at the Indian High Commission. He enrolled at Lincoln's Inn to study Law on 21 November 1951. He worked all day at India House and studied at home at night. He couldn't afford to attend lectures at Lincoln's Inn and self-studied from the books he borrowed from their library. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn on 9 February 1954. During this time, he also met his future British wife, Bella Weingarten, at a dance at the International Youth Hostel in London.[1]

Swimming career[edit]

Sen being presented a certificate by Lord Freyberg on behalf of the Counsel Swimming Association at a function held at the India House, London

Sen read an article in a local newspaper about Florence Chadwick, the first American woman to swim the English Channel in 1950, and was inspired to repeat this feat for his country. At this time, he had hardly any experience in swimming, so sought lessons in at the local YMCA until he mastered the freestyle technique.[1]

After a few unsuccessful attempts, he became the first Indian to swim the English Channel from Dover to Calais on 27 September 1958[3] in the fourth fastest time (14 hours and 45 minutes). Upon his return to India in 1959, he was awarded the Padma Shri Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

He then set out to become the first man to swim the oceans of the five continents in one calendar year (1966). Initially, he needed to raise Rs 45,000 to pay the Indian navy to accompany him to record and navigate the Palk Strait swim. Sen managed to raise half the money through sponsors (notably the Kolkata daily, The Statesman) and convinced then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to sponsor the balance.

Sen became the first Indian on record to swim across the Palk Straits on 5–6 April 1966 between Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Dhanushkodi (India) in 25 hours and 36 minutes. Admiral Adhar Kumar Chatterji supported him by sending the INS Sukanya and INS Sharada with him. On 24 August, he was the first Asian to cross the Straits of Gibraltar (Europe to Africa) in 8 hours and 1 minute, and on 12 September became the world's first man to swim across the 40-mile long Dardanelles (Gallipoli, Europe to Sedulbahir, Asia minor) in 13 hours and 55 minutes. In the same year, Sen was also the first Indian to swim the Bosphorus (Turkey) in 4 hrs and the first non-American (and third man) to swim across the entire (50-mile length) of the Panama Canal in 34 hrs and 15 mins on 29–31 October.

This achievement earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for long distance swimming and he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1967 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the same year, he also won the Blitz Nehru Trophy for his achievements in the seven seas of the world.

Life in India[edit]

After returning to India in 1958 (shortly after his English Channel victory), he was denied entry into the clubs due to their "whites only" policy. This compelled him to lead a high-profile media campaign to abolish this rule, and, as a result, clubs throughout India were forced to open their doors to all Indians.

He initially practised Criminal Law at the Calcutta High Court, but subsequently became a successful businessman. His company was recognised by the Government of India as the country's second largest silk exporter.[1]

In 1977, the Communist leader Jyoti Basu requested him to join and campaign for the Communist Party of India in return for a high-profile government post. Sen refused and instead filed his papers as an independent candidate against Basu. With the CPI(M) victory, Basu attacked Sen's business and steadily undermined its functioning until it was forced to shut down permanently..[1]

Outside Sen's offices, factory and his retail shop, slogans and graffiti filled the walls. Strikes were staged on a regular basis in the garment factory, which brought work to a complete halt. In the silk screening and silk block print factory, truckloads of merchandise ready for export were set on fire. During all of this, the local police refused to help, and Sen's business was destroyed by the CPI(M) leadership and he was forced into bankruptcy. False cases were initiated against him and his house and office were raided repeatedly by the police and their assets seized. His bank accounts were frozen and all cash at home was confiscated by the police. He developed dementia at the age of 50.[1]


Sen died from a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease at the age of 66 in June 1997.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Begging recall". Statesman News Service. The Statesman, 6 January 2013. Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  2. ^ "Mihir Sen Hailed Greatest". The Indian Express. 1 January 1970. p. 16. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  3. ^ Bose, Anjali, Samsad Bangali Chariutabhidhan, Vol II, (in Bengali)p. 268, Sishu Sahitya Samsad Pvt. Ltd., ISBN 81-86806-99-7