Lewis Pugh, polar swimmer

16 March 2007

It was in South Africa, where he moved from England as a boy, that Lewis Pugh began his love affair with ocean swimming. Today he is the only person to have completed long-distance swims in all five oceans, including the sub-zero waters of the Arctic and Antarctic – wearing nothing but a speedo.

Just 17 years old, Pugh completed the dangerous swim from Robben Island, the famous prison of South Africa’s apartheid past, to Cape Town. After high school he read law at the University of Cape Town before returning to England to continue his studies at Cambridge University.

Swimming for the environment

Pugh’s latest exploit, a 10-day, 160 kilometre swim from one side of the Maldives archipelago to the other, sought to raise awareness of global climate change.

The outing before that saw the 37-year-old swimming the entire 325 kilometre length of the River Thames. Seventeen days and 222km into his swim, passing Westminster, Pugh popped in at 10 Downing Street to urge Prime Minister Tony Blair to pass laws to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010.

But Pugh’s extreme swims are not only about spreading an environmental message – they’re also about testing the limits of human physiology.

Pugh swims according to the rules of the Channel Swimming Association, which allows only a swimming costume, a cap and a pair of goggles. Wetsuits are not allowed, whether one is swimming in the Antarctic or not.

‘Few who could do it’

According to University of Cape Town sports science professor Tim Noakes, there are few swimmers in the world who could complete a long-distance swim in the Arctic or Southern oceans in just a speedo. “Most swimmers would be disabled within seconds,” he says.

It was Noakes, who works at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, one of Pugh’s sponsors, who found one of the keys to the swimmer’s extraordinary resilience to sub-zero conditions.

Accompanying him on a trip to the Antarctic, Noakes discovered that Pugh has the unique ability to raise his body temperature to 39 degrees Celcius before attempting a swim.

Noakes calls this ability “anticipatory thermogenesis,” an ability which – according to an article in England’s Daily Mail – has only ever been recorded in the case of Pugh and “the nine-banded armadillo from Texas”.

According to Pugh, however, there’s something else that helps him swim in extreme conditions. “When I get in to the water, I get in with a purpose,” he says. “My mind is completely focused when I dive in”.

Swimming the Cape

Pugh has also completed a number of swims in the waters off his second home, Cape Town. In April 2004 he became the first person to swim around the entire Cape Peninsula, a distance of some 100 kilometres.

In the same month, he and three friends became the first to swim around the Cape of Good Hope. The 12 kilometre swim took them three hours and 15 minutes. Also known as the Cape of Storms, the swim “is not for the faint-hearted,” Pugh wrote on his website. “It was one of the roughest stretches of water I have ever encountered.”

A month later, he became the first person to swim around Africa’s southern-most point, Cape Agulhas, in a time of four hours and 15 minutes.

And, in South Africa again this January, he swam across Nelson Mandela Bay off Port Elizabeth in four hours 57 minutes – “to see in the New Year in style”.

‘The ultimate swim’

Visiting the country more recently to shoot a commercial with sponsor Investec, Pugh told Johannesburg newspaper Business Day that he would be attempting “the ultimate swim” in the Arctic in June. Details of the expedition will be announced on his website.

Pugh also told Business Day that, over 20 years of ocean swimming, he has come across what he calls the Big Six – polar bears, leopard seals, jellyfish, great white sharks, crocodiles and hippos – all capable of killing a swimmer.

“His shark encounter was off Cape Point in 2004,” Renee Bonorchis wrote in Business Day. “The boat that escorts him as he swims emits a signal with a diameter of 8 metres that repels sharks. Despite this, on that swim, a great white came and had a look at Pugh before diving under his body. Pugh kept swimming.”

Pugh’s list of achievements include the following:

August 2006: Swam the length of the River Thames (325km), a feat never before achieved.

May 2006: Broke the world record for the longest swim in ice water in Nigards Glacier Lake in Norway.

February 2006: Won the gold medal in the 500m freestyle at the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland, where the water temperature was 0°C.

December 2005: Swam one kilometre at Petermann Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, which lies at 65° south, to break the world record for the most southern swim ever.

December 2005: Swam one mile across Whalers Bay at Deception Island, which is part of the south Shetland Islands, when the water temperature was between 2°C and 3°C. It was the longest polar swim ever completed.

August 2005: Completed the first long-distance swim in the Arctic Ocean, covering one kilometre at the northern-most point of the island of Spitsbergen. At 80° north, it was the most northern long-distance swim ever undertaken. The Arctic Ocean swim, because of the extreme cold and the presence of polar bears, was also the last remaining ocean in which a long-distance swim had not taken place.

August 2004: Swam 204 kilometres down Sognefjord (the second- largest fjord in the world) in Norway to break the record for the longest cold water swim. Swimming in stages because of the extreme temperatures, Pugh took 21 days to complete the challenge.

August 1992: Swam across the English Channel, from Shakespeare Beach in England to Cap Blanc in France, in 14 hours and 50 minutes. His successful crossing made Pugh the 428th person to achieve the feat.