Sailing in rough seas is one thing. Swimming in them is another.
We were far out to sea in the English Channel, 32 days into the Long Swim, with a long way to go to Dover.
I was swimming past the Isle of Wight in a serious storm and the light was fading fast. Our yacht was surging away from me in the strong winds. The swells were so big that, even if I caught up with her, I didn’t know how I would get back onboard.
That’s when it hit me: getting your message heard can be hard work.
When I first floated the idea of swimming the 528 kilometre length of the English Channel people were incredulous. It’s absurd, they said. Nobody has ever made it. It will take too long. And how will you convey your message? Your head will be in the water the whole time.
Then we sat down with John Riley, the Head of Sky News. I unrolled a maritime chart and told him I planned to swim all the way from Land’s End to Dover. I estimated it would take me 50 days. ‘I’m in,’ he said.
Sometimes all it takes is one person to unlock a dream.
John promised us daily coverage. With that promise, I was able to secure sponsors. Which meant I could hire the yacht and select my crew. John’s commitment meant I was not only able start the expedition, but I also had the ear of the public. And when the public is listening, so are the decision makers.
‘I’m going to tell the story of what is happening in British waters through your swim.’ With those words, John unlocked our 30 x 30 Campaign.
Our message was that only 7km2 of the UK’s waters were fully protected – this despite the fact that they are home to some of the richest and most diverse sea life in the world. We wanted 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030.
That was my message to the British Government. I also wanted the British public to know the truth, rather than believe their seas were being protected, when effectively they were not.
On Day One of the Long Swim, a large jellyfish stung me between my legs. (I could go into more detail, but it gets very personal!) I should have known then that the Channel would throw everything at us.
The first few weeks of the swim were glorious – regular blooms of jellyfish notwithstanding. The sun shone down on the Cornish and Devon coastlines during the longest heat wave in British memory. Then came the second half of the swim, and it was brutal.
If you are going to swim across the Channel, you wait for the right conditions before getting into the water. Swimming the entire length of it, I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to cover at least 10 kilometres each day. If weather and sea conditions made this impossible, I’d have to do a double shift the following day to make up the distance.
And I wasn’t just swimming. There were live TV interviews, photo shoots, social media updates, meetings with local politicians, and public events. Just getting to and from our start point each day took up precious hours – and it wasn’t always plain sailing.
Behind the scenes
Despite daily coverage, not many people know what went on behind the scenes. My crew members were getting an average of 4 hours sleep a night and had competing agendas: the skipper had to keep me and his boat safe; the photographer needed great shots; my chief of staff wanted me to stop and meet people in every town along the way. Then when I developed a shoulder injury, the doctor wanted me to rest.
John Riley said his favourite photo of the whole swim was of me running into the sea at the start at Land’s End – because he knew at that moment I would finish. I might have been less optimistic, if I’d known some of the difficulties that lay ahead.
I have never been as worried as I was in that storm off the Isle of Wight, with the evening light fading fast and the yacht getting smaller and smaller. I had swum 50km in 36 hours. Somehow, Skipper managed to turn our yacht around into the gale force wind to fetch me. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d pull me back from the brink before we finally made it to Dover 17 days later.
Finishing that swim was an incredible moment for me. What happened in the UN General Assembly in New York one month later was even more so.
To find out what our campaign unlocked, look out for my next blog.
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans