Some say Lewis Pugh, formerly of Cape Town, South Africa, has icicles in his veins and that at any time on one of his endurance swims he could be minutes away from death, but, as the world’s foremost cold-water endurance swimmer, Pugh certainly takes the gold as the world’s “most extreme swimmer”.
He is a member of a small community of adventurers known as extreme swimmers. Their sport is more about achieving a feat than winning a competition.
Other extreme swimmers in this league are Martin Strel of Slovenia who became the first person to swim the entire 5,268km of the Amazon River and Lynne Cox, an American, who was the first to swim 2km at 0C in Antartica as well as in the Bering Strait between America and Russia.
Pugh had already set the world record for the longest 0C swim in water with a distance of 1,225m in the Nigardsbreen – a Norwegian lake.
“Between Lynne, Martin and myself, we’ve hit all of the world’s major landmarks” Pugh said. “There’s really nothing left.”
Well, that’s what he said. Until he decided to swim in the North Pole.
Both Pugh and Cox had swum in 0-degree water in Antartica before, but no-one had ever swum in water below that temperature, and no-one knew what would happen. The fear, of course, is hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when more heat escapes from your body than your body can produce. Your normal core body temperature is about 37C; a temperature of 35C or lower signals hypothermia. Severe hypothermia eventually leads to cardiac and respiratory failure, then death. Your body loses heat more quickly in water than in air, and in water temperatures under 0C, exhaustion or unconsciousness will occur in less than 15 minutes – and you can die.
When Pugh set the world record for the longest 0C distance swim, he swam for 23 minutes, 50 seconds.
Pugh is the only person ever documented who can regulate his own body temperature. Before he commits himself to a cold-water swim he stands at the water edge and does his own system of mental exercises. He thinks about the objective and feels aggression rising up. By the time he plunges into the water his temperature has risen from 37C to 38.4C. “We found that his body temperature was elevated to 38.4C prior to a cold-water swim. This is crucial as it allows him to stay in the water longer,” says Jonathon Dugas, a Chicago based scientist who, with Tim Noakes, studied Pugh at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
“His real attribute is psychological. just getting past the inhibition of going into the water in the first place is unusual. Then, once he’s in, he can suppress the urge to get out, despite his body telling him he’s really cold. That he can then swim normal freestyle is remarkable. In zero degrees pugh swims like it’s a lap pool, despite terrible pain.”
His advice is – DON’T TEST THE WATER. “You put your toe in and you think, Ehhh, maybe, maybe not. Well, if I do that, I can’t get in the water. It’s like going into battle. I have to get myself really revved up, seriously aggressive. I dive in, and there’s only one place I’m getting out—and that’s at the end.”
However, Lewis Pugh does not take these challenges lightly. “This may sound funny,” he says, “but I’m not a risktaker. I consider myself a risk manager, and I take safety really, really seriously. I follow a philosophy that I call the “P factor”: Proper planning and preparation prevent a piss-poor performance.”
Pugh’s records to date are: December 2005 he completed a grueling swim in Antarctica, splashing out a 30-minute mile in the 35-degree (2-degree Celsius) Southern Ocean. Five months earlier he swam for 21 minutes off the northern tip of Spitsbergen Island in an equally frigid Arctic Ocean. Astoundingly, he accomplished these feats in accordance with the Channel Swimming Association’s dress code: a swimming cap, goggles, and a Speedo. “Most people would die very quickly,” says Tim Noakes, director of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa and a member of Pugh’s support team. “He has a unique ability.” Finally, in January, Pugh—who crossed the English Channel in 1992—swam 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) across Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa, and 9.3 miles (14.9 kilometers) through shark-infested waters off Sydney, Australia, to become the only person to swim long distances in all five oceans.
The north pole swim, however, was Pugh’s biggest challenge – the most northern point of the world at the lowest point of the thermomenter that any person has ever swum. His entourage included 3 guards to ward off polar bears, but, as an environmentalist, Pugh had given strict instructions that under no circumstances were the guards to harm a polar bear.
His course was a 250m-long field of open water at -1.8C. He would swim laps until he reached the 1km mark.
On July 15th, 2007, Pugh reached 1km in 18 minutes, 50 seconds, becoming the first person to complete a long-distance swim at the geographic North Pole and breaking the 0C record set by Lynne Cox.
“Compared with this, the Antartic was like a pool at a holiday camp,” he said. “It’s a surreal environment out on the ice – eerie. It was the most frightening thing I could imagine. You can’t see a thing. It’s like diving into a dark black nothingness. You get that sense of absolutely nothing underneath you.”
However, his successful feat has lifted his profile and jump-started his environmental campaign to ‘shock the world’ out of its complacency about global warming. He wants the world to realise that as temperatures climb, gaps in the North Pole ice that are large enough to swim in are becoming easier to find. “The paradox,” he said was that in order to show everyone that global warming is taking place at an unprecedented speed, I had to freeze!”
On 30 August Pugh began his attempt to kayak from the Island of Spitsbergen (in Northern Europe) across the Arctic Ocean into the Arctic ice pack. He is undertaking this expedition to highlight the dramatic melting of the sea ice.
This year the ice is the thinnest on record.
This is Lewis Pugh’s own youtube video.
We will keep you updated on his progress.