The ultra-swimmers pushing the sport’s boundaries
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The boat’s motors shudder into silence. It’s the moment I’ve been anticipating and dreading in equal measure: jumping into the sea with Lewis Pugh, one of the world’s most celebrated open-water swimmers. I’m an experienced swimmer but I’ve been warned that some who have tried to accompany Pugh have been unable to keep up. I envisage myself drifting off the pace, a flailing and rapidly disappearing speck in the boat’s wake.
The English Channel should not hold many fears for a man who has swum across the geographic North Pole in nothing but his trunks and been dubbed “the Edmund Hillary of swimming”. In a career spanning three decades, Pugh, 48, has shared the water with leopard seals and faced air temperatures of -37C in Antarctica, and swum a desperate, oxygen-starved kilometre in a lake 5,300 metres up Everest. Yet he believes his latest challenge will be the toughest of his life. It’s swimming the Channel, the hard way. Instead of crossing from Dover to Calais as some 1,800 others have done, he is bidding to be the first to swim the length of the Channel, 560km from Land’s End to Dover. He plans to cover an average of 10-15km a day, for around 50 days, finishing at the end of this month.
Pugh exudes the measured, military grit of British explorers of old. “I’d been looking to do a swim back home for years,” he explains in a light South African accent as our catamaran motors out of Plymouth Marina on a hot July morning to the starting point, 10km offshore. The sun may be out but the water temperature will be one of Pugh’s main challenges. He started at 100kg but expects to be “very thin” by the end, his loss of insulating fat counteracting the warming of the sea over summer. “It will be a race against time,” he says.
Pugh was born here in Plymouth but moved at the age of 10 to South Africa, where he studied law at the University of Cape Town. A stint as a maritime lawyer in London followed before he found his calling as an environmental campaigner-cum-extreme swimmer: he swims to publicise the oceans’ plight. This “Speedo diplomacy” earned him the position of UN Patron of the Oceans in 2013, and in 2016 he was pivotal in creating the world’s biggest marine reserve in the Ross Sea, off Antarctica.
Now it’s my turn for a taste of Channel swimming. “You need to keep behind him and to the outside,” skipper Steven Pretorius reminds me as the boat chugs along at swim speed: Channel swimming regulations stipulate that a support swimmer must not act as a pacer by swimming ahead of the lead athlete. I take a breath and jump in. With fresh shoulders and surging adrenalin, I find myself streaking ahead of Pugh — on the inside, exactly as I’ve been instructed not to. After a growl from the skipper and some hasty repositioning, I’m back where I should be, tucked in his wake.
I try to follow Pugh’s rhythmic, seemingly effortless stroke, focusing on keeping my lead hand just behind his ankles. I start to enjoy coasting across the gentle swells, watching sunbeams strobing through the glassy water and spotting the luminous pin pricks of jellyfish suspended in the depths below us. Some are not so distant. “Watch out in front of you, boss” — Pugh stops me inches from the stinging tentacles of a compass jellyfish. We tread water while he calls for a drink of orange juice — tinned peaches are his other favourite; he never bothers with sports drinks or gels — then resume our swim. After what feels like a few minutes but is apparently over a kilometre later, the skipper pulls me out. I’ve swum with Pugh, and survived.
Completing this Channel swim in stages, coming ashore most evenings, allows Pugh and his team (which includes a cook, communications manager and “biokineticist”) to do campaign work along the way. The night before our meeting, he gave a talk at the Plymouth Aquarium and met the city’s mayor to discuss marine protection zones. “Only seven sq km of the UK’s 750,000 sq km territory is fully protected,” Pugh tells me. “We need to now focus on getting clean and healthy seas around the UK. That means getting 30 per cent of our oceans fully protected by 2030. That’s no human disturbance, no fishing, no oil, no gas extraction.”
Pugh carefully selects his swims for maximum media impact and doesn’t shy away from the sound bite: “It ain’t over till I touch the white cliffs of Dover,” he assures me. Others have swum much further in single efforts or stages — last summer American swimmer Sarah Thomas covered 167km nonstop without the help of currents in Lake Champlain, while in 2005, Croatian Veljko Rogošic swam 1,000km in 57 days in the Adriatic. Many such swims receive little attention but Pugh belongs to a tradition of swimmers who understand the power of swimming as spectacle.
It is a tradition that stretches from Captain Matthew Webb — the first person to swim from England to France, in 1875, and who chased fame through ever-more arduous swims all the way to his death in the rapids below Niagara Falls — to Lynne Cox, the American who swam the Bering Strait in the final years of the cold war and who completed an Antarctic swim of over a mile in 2002. It also includes “big river man” Martin Strel, the Slovenian who swam all the great rivers of the world and reportedly drank a bottle of wine a day while doing so. “I don’t mind all that,” says Pugh of Strel’s eccentricities, “there are too many vanilla sportsmen.”
Though Pugh’s attempt on the channel is groundbreaking and unique, he is not alone in pushing back the boundaries of ultra-long-distance swimming. Even as I’m dodging jellyfish with him in the English Channel, someone else is doing an even longer swim in British waters. Ross Edgley is a self-described “strongman-swimmer” from Cheshire, whose muscled torso and gleaming gelled hair have helped turn him into a fitness star. He has amassed 240,000 Instagram followers and Red Bull sponsorship through stunts including rope climbing the height of Everest and swimming 100km in the Caribbean, towing a tree behind him.
Yet Edgley’s latest challenge is, by any standards, a serious feat of swimming. He is attempting to circumnavigate the 3,200km coastline of mainland Britain, not touching shore until the end. He is currently over halfway, having made it into Scottish waters. A recent Instagram update shows him performing muscle-ups onboard his catamaran in between swims.
Does Pugh feel that Edgley could overshadow his achievement in the Channel? “It’s very difficult to compare [me with] someone who is swimming in a wetsuit,” he replies. The buoyancy and insulation provided by neoprene confer a significant advantage and place swimmers who wear it in a separate category. (Chafing neoprene presents its own dangers, though — as Edgley found a week into his swim: “It was like having an open wound on my neck, and someone rubbing sandpaper into it for 12 hours a day,” the swimmer told me last week.)
Wearing a wetsuit is frowned on by many in the swimming world, says Colin Hill, a race organiser and swimming consultant based in north-west England. So coming from outside those traditions has freed Edgley — and others such as Sean Conway, a red-bearded Zimbabwean who swam from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2013 — to think big. “Non-swimmers are more likely to go for these huge challenges,” Hill tells me.
In modern endurance sport, it seems that no matter what the challenge, there is always someone going further. On June 5 a slim 51-year-old Frenchman called Benoît Lecomte strode into the Pacific Ocean near Tokyo and started swimming. He will keep going until, in six months’ time, he reaches San Francisco. He is doing so wearing not only a wetsuit, but also flippers for extra propulsion and a mask and snorkel to allow him to breathe without making tens of thousands of neck-grinding rotations.
“I am passionate about open-water swimming, but without a greater purpose, swimming across a body of water is not fulfilling,” Lecomte told me via email from 1,000km east of Japan. He hopes to draw attention to ocean pollution via the unenviable task of swimming right through the 1.6m sq km Pacific garbage patch. A team of biologists and researchers have joined his expedition. “We offer a unique opportunity to collect data, because we travel slowly and are very close to the ocean,” he explains.
Lecomte is riding the North Pacific current to ease his 5,500km passage to the US, resting on board a support boat between eight-hour swims. Returning to the correct start point each day presents a logistical challenge, as holding the boat in the same position on the open ocean is impossible. It led some in the swimming community to question the validity of his 73-day Atlantic crossing in 1998. Yet if Lecomte does make it to America, he will have laid down a marker on possibly the world’s greatest unclaimed distance swim.
Back in south Devon, his 10km done for the day, Pugh clambers back on board the catamaran. After three hours in the water, he barely bothers to towel himself down before resuming campaign mode. The expedition Twitter feed is discussed, the choice of photos from the day debated. Tomorrow the crew will motor back to this exact point in the Channel, the engines will shut down, and the Speedo diplomat will peel on his silicone cap. Edgley and Lecomte will zip up their wetsuits and the three swimmers will do it all again. And again, and again, until it’s time to stop.
Destinations for taking the plunge
The Maldives A growing number of tour operators is catering for those keen to dip their toes in long-distance swimming without pushing the limits of endurance. Swimtrek organises trips across the world, from Cornwall to the Caribbean. Few are more alluring than a trip around the secluded atolls of the Maldives, which costs £1,990 per person for an eight-day voyage. swimtrek.com
Montenegro Martin Strel is the most prominent member in a tradition of Balkan eccentrics with a penchant for swimming absurdly long distances. After feats including swimming the length of the Amazon, he now runs Strel Swimming, offering holidays to destinations including the Slovenian lakes, the Turkish Lycian coast, the Greek islands, and the crystalline waters of Montenegro’s fiords. The latter costs €820 for a five-night trip. strel-swimming.com
Formentera Where better to improve your swimming technique that in the calm, warm waters off the Balearic island of Formentera? Swimquest offers a week’s coaching for all abilities, starting on September 29 (from £935). It also runs exotic trips from Fiji to the Philippines, and one-day group swims down the rivers Arun and Cuckmere in Sussex. swimquest.uk.com
Patagonia For experienced swimmers looking for adventure, Patagonia Swim’s trips include crossing the Magellan Straits, from mainland South America to Tierra del Fuego. The trip runs each November and is limited to four participants, at $3,900 per person. Among the services included: ambulance on standby. patagoniaswim.com
For updates, see lewispugh.com
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