As the rain pelted down I tried to work out how to swim in the sea. I hadn’t attempted a single open water practice session in the six months I had been preparing to swim the length of Britain’s western coastline, mainly because – to save money – I was living with my mum in Cheltenham. I could not afford to do any sort of open water training so I had settled for the less expensive alternative of swimming in the slow lane of a local college’s pool. I had barely completed five of the 1,450 kilometres that lay between Land’s End and John o’Groats and I was already questioning everything.
Open water swimming is, for me, the sole remaining frontier of adventure. Mountains have been climbed, oceans have been rowed and deserts have been walked. Long distance swimming is, by comparison, relatively untouched. I found it surprising that the most iconic of British routes – and a journey that had been completed thousands of times using every other conceivable mode of transport – had not been swum. Hindsight would soon reveal that there was a very good explanation why.
When trying to become the first person to achieve something you have to tackle the monumental task of working out everything as there is no-one you can ask for advice. Which route should I take? What type of support will I need? Who makes the most suitable equipment? What food is ideal? I had many such questions, most of which I answered by flipping a coin.
One of the more serious problems I had to resolve revolved around whether to wear a wetsuit. The general consensus among elite open water swimmers is not to wear one. Many experienced swimmers say that your body acclimatises more quickly to a wet, cold and salty environment without a suit. Indeed, if the water temperature around Britain had been warmer, and I had been fatter, I would probably not have opted for neoprene. However, I did not consider myself a hard core swimmer and I suspected that my body fat would fall to less than ten per cent of my total weight during the swim, so a wetsuit seemed like a good idea.
It turned out to be a great decision. The neoprene shielded my body from jellyfish stings. And the material kept me adequately warm in Scotland in November. (Mind you, I still contracted frostnip in my toes.) Most usefully, I was able to pee while wearing the suit in order to add extra warmth to the layer of seawater trapped against my skin.
In my experience, the hardest part of any adventure revolves around getting through the first few weeks. During this period I was trying to work out where every item of kit lived, decipher the weather, decide when to eat, calculate how much sleep I required and become familiar with GPS waypoints to ensure that I re-entered the water at the precise point I had previously exited the sea. By sweating the details, my daily distance gradually increased during the first month to the point that by the time I swam to Wales I was averaging a healthy 24 kilometres per day. This distance was only a little short of my initial coin flip calculation.
Navigation turned out to be one of the more difficult aspects of my swim. At water level I could barely see anything other than ocean and sky. Staying on course was compounded by an injury I had sustained a few years earlier while partaking in the health and safety nightmare of a tradition in Gloucestershire called the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake.
Each spring bank holiday, a bunch of people throw themselves down a one-in-three slope chasing a four kilogram disc of Gloucester Double cheese, which can exceed 100 kilometres per hour as it bounds down the hill. The first person to reach the bottom wins the cheese. I came second by a solitary metre, a result that still rankles. Nevertheless, the experience remains the most exhilarating 23 seconds of my life.
However, during the race I dislocated my left shoulder. Since this accident, my left arm has been considerably weaker than my right. As a result, I found that I swam to my left very quickly, especially when I had no land in sight to direct me. This was the reason I needed a kayaker alongside me, able to paddle in the correct direction using a compass and digital maps.
By the time I made landfall in Ireland, I was behind schedule. I needed to undertake some night sessions to make up time. Swimming in the dark while wondering what was below me was way too much conjecture for my brain to deal with, so I decided to listen to music – a tactic that helped to allay my concerns. Until this point, the only product that had stopped water getting into my ears was Blu-Tack. It worked so well that I could never hear the crew shouting at me, a situation that often resulted in a recently caught fish being thrown at me to attract my attention. The waterproof earphones weren’t as effective at sealing out seawater, but nevertheless performed serviceably and helped the long night sessions pass reasonably quickly.
After two months of struggling to eat as a result of a cold jaw and a swollen tongue, I had lost so much body weight that even the smallest adult wet suit was too big.
I needed to consume between 6,000 and 8,000 kilocalories per day to stay warm and to replenish my muscles. Unfortunately I was taking 45 minutes to chew my way through a 350 kilocalorie bowl of pasta, which was reducing the amount of time I could spend in the water. I needed a new dietary plan.
At our next land stop I purchased a cheap blender. From that day on I blended all my meals while adding what I called ‘free-calories’: coconut oil, olive oil and butter. I would produce a bowl of cooked pasta, blend it, and then pour in 500 kilocalories of liquid and hard fats. Finally, I’d add sweet potato to give me almost 1,500 kilocalories in a single litre of warm liquid. I was able to drink this concoction in five minutes, which gave me an extra 40 minutes in the water.
The frequency of drinking this potion was dependent on the water temperature. At 15°C I would drink one litre of liquid food every 90 minutes. For every 1°C drop in water temperature, I would drink my meal ten minutes earlier. When the water dropped from 15ºC to 11°C I was forced to refuel every 50 minutes.
After four months of swimming I reached the north coast of Scotland and found myself wondering if I would be able to finish the route before winter arrived. Once the strong westerly winds kicked in I would be forced to abandon the swim and return to the water the following summer, a possibility that appalled me.
At this stage of the expedition, life was tough for everyone involved in my swim. We had lost our kayak in a capsizing incident. The inflatable rib we had been using to allow the support crew to transit between the shore and the support yacht was broken. And now we were stuck in a trio of sea lochs waiting for the weather to improve. What I had thought would be a five-day swim to the finish line had dragged into two weeks of frustrations. Force 5 gale conditions prevented me from making any progress beyond the odd hour of swimming here and there.
Eventually I was blessed with the acceptable weather that I needed. I cannot recall anything about the last few days of the swim. I gave it my all as I knew I would not get another opportunity before autumn gave way to winter. It was only in the final couple of kilometres before John o’Groats that I realised the achievement was in the bag. Up until then so many things could have gone wrong, especially as I swam along the Pentland Firth, a notorious stretch of water laced with vicious tides.
I knew that news crews were waiting for me at John o’Groats and I figured I should say something important. I thought about one of the lessons the swim had taught me: that we should not let other people’s opinions of our ability affect the decisions we make in life. It was the opinion of many people that swimming the length of Britain was not possible, and certainly not by me. If I had listened to these voices I would not have attempted the swim. In the end, my doubters were proved wrong because they didn’t know what I was willing to sacrifice and because they didn’t know how much I wanted to achieve it. That’s what I decided to tell the assembled media on the 135th day since beginning the swim as my feet touched the shoreline at John o’Groats. Instead I cried like a baby and talked about my beard.
TEN OF THE BEST
You may not think there’s a great deal of equipment needed on a long-distance swim – man, wetsuit, body of water – but in truth it takes a lot more planning than you’d think. For Sean Conway this included appropriate nutrition (and a way to ingest it quickly), morale-boosting music that worked while submerged, and the all-important Blu-Tack...
Speedo Men’s Tri Comp Full Sleeved Thinswim – £140/1kg
Swimming in a wetsuit helps your style and is essential when the water is frigid. The downside is that you pull on a cold suit every morning which isn’t much fun. This suit is made from buoyant Y39 cell rubber, and features four-way stretch areas to maximise your range of motion.
Speedo Aquapulse Max Mirror 2 IQfit – £27/100g
It is important to have tinted goggles on sunny days as you can become blinded by the reflection of the sun on the water. The anti-fog technology and wide lenses in the Max Mirror 2 maximise both clarity and your field of view.
Blue Seventy Thermal Skull – £35/75g
Keeping your head warm in cold water is very important and can make all the difference when trying to complete your daily mileage. This cap is made from a mix of three millimetre neoprene and warm merino wool. A flexible central panel enhances fit. Available in three sizes.
4. Ear plugs
Bostik Blu-Tack – £2/75g
Although it’s not recommended by doctors, I discovered that Blu-Tack was the only thing that prevented water from getting in my ears during a five-hour stretch in the sea.
5. Music player
Sony Waterproof Walkman – £65/29g
Listening to music encouraged the time to pass quickly when I was in the water. And wearing this player under my swim cap helped the earbuds to remain in place. The battery lasted for up to eight hours between charges.
6. Tracking device
Spot Satellite GPS Messenger– £100 + £90 subscription/147g
Carrying a pocket-sized tracking system allowed my friends and family to follow my progress. And the integral SOS function gave me piece of mind that if things went seriously wrong in the water, and the support vessel was unable to reach me, professional assistance would arrive on the scene.
7. Anti-chafe cream
Vaseline – £3/225g
Vaseline helped to minimise chafing under my arms and around my neck. Applied thickly over bare skin, this triple-purified petroleum jelly also helped to prevent jellyfish tentacles from repeatedly stinging me.
8. Food Blender
Kenwood Blend X Fresh BLP400BK – £42/1.87kg
During a long seawater swim, your tongue will swell as a result of repeated contact with salt water. You will also suffer from flavour and eating fatigue.
By contrast, blending your food is a fast way of getting a large number of calories into your body.
Centrum for Men – £8 (30 tablets)/62g
It’s quite common for swimmers to become deficient in iron. In addition, when all your meals are designed to give you the maximum amount of energy, it is easy to forget certain nutrients. As a result, it is worthwhile taking a multivitamin tablet to make up for the substances your body needs that may be missing from your restricted diet at sea.
10. Warm robe
Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve – £130/1.7kg
It is important to get dry and warm after each session. This long-sleeved robe, with its waterproof outer, is the ideal garment to pull on when you emerge from the water. Pull your arms in through the sleeves and get changed while being protected from the elements. Fitted with a reliable, chunky, YKK front zip.
…fabric softener. There are only so many times you can pee in your wet suit before it starts to honk. Soak your wet suit in a bucket of water containing one capful of fabric softener and the smell disappears.
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.