Testing human limits – for a good cause

14 June 2013

Endurance adventurer Sean Conway seems to be a man who is always on a mission – and no ordinary missions at that. They include climbing Mount Kilimanjaro dressed as a penguin and cycling 16 000 miles (25 750 km) across six continents. He did three-quarters of that event, the first-ever World Cycle Race, with a fractured spine after being run over by a truck in the USA.

His next challenge, believe it or not, is probably even tougher, and it’s something that (not surprisingly) has never been attempted. He’s going to try to swim the entire length of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a distance of 1 000 miles (1 600 km).

The swim, which will be sponsored by Speedo, begins on 30 June.

Daunting logistics

Breaking it down, the figures are astonishing. Conway will be attempting to swim a distance equivalent to a crossing of the English Channel each day for a period of two months in some very inhospitable waters.

Organising such an ambitious swim requires plenty of planning. “Crew logistic are the hardest. I have to feed them, keep them warm, make sure they can follow me safely, etcetera,” Conway, who was in South Africa on one of his regular trips in April, told SouthAfrica.info earlier this month.

“There will be times when I can swim, but the boat might not be able to sail near me, or the wind is forcing the boat to tack in a different way.

“The other big problem logistically is the tides. The tide can be 10 knots at times and in the wrong direction. I have to plan the times when I swim. I am planning 32km per day, so I might have to swim at night to make the most of a good tide.”

South Africa where it all began

His love of endurance adventures began in South Africa, where, as a schoolboy at Clifton Prep School he competed in the Midmar Mile. “I did the Midmar Mile twice as a kid and loved it,” he reckoned.

Conway also loved canoeing and being the competitive type took on the Dusi Canoe Marathon, a very tough test of running and paddling, a few times. He also competed in the Fish and Drak Challenge canoe marathons. “I loved canoeing and wish I had carried on with it,” he admitted.

He moved to the United Kingdom in 2002, but remains a regular visitor to South Africa, which he says is a wonderful place for endurance training. His father, Tony, has been with KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife since 1983, and was with Zimbabwe National Parks before that. He has dedicated the last 35 years of his life to rhino conservation.

Charities working in Africa

As with every challenge the former Hilton College schoolboy takes on, charity is one of the primary reasons that drives him.

“Raising money for charities is a very important part of my adventure challenges,” Conway explained. “They give me a reason to carry on when times are tough or I feel like quitting.

“I like to help charities in Africa, which is why I support War Child, Solar Aid and Save the Rhino.

War Child, the charity he is swimming for on his 1 000 mile journey, provides life- changing support to children whose families, communities and schools have been torn apart by war; Solar Aid aims to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020 by creating a market for high-tech solar lamps.

“My father has dedicated the last 35 years of his life to rhino conservation, so that’s why I have a thing for rhinos,” Conway said.

Saving the rhino

Dad, Tony Conway, is proud of his son. “To have him personally involved in rhino is great as it is a species very close to my heart, having been the chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Rhino Management Group for 19 years, a member of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group for 22 years, and a member of the SADC Rhino Management Group for seven years.

“Any publicity on the plight of rhino, which is clearly a ‘species in crisis’, helps,” Tony Conway said, “and that is what Sean is trying to create – it’s all about awareness, and obviously through that people are more likely to donate generously to NGOs/donors that fund rhino security and management programmes.”

The challenges that the younger Conway faces when he takes on one of his missions are those most people would consider impossible, if not slightly crazy, but it is the scale of those challenges that drives him on. “It’s my oxygen. I seem to thrive at being cold, wet, hungry and sleep deprived. I can’t explain it,” he said. “I actually get panic attacks at the thought of being average and just existing on this planet.”

Another South African connection

The idea for “Swimming Britain”, the name adopted for his forthcoming challenge, is his own. He thought it must have been done before, but it hadn’t been.

“It was only when I e-mailed all my swimming mates and they were annoyed that they hadn’t thought about it that I got excited,” he revealed. “I’d be lying if I told you that being the first at something isn’t cool. It is. I get to make the rules and no one can question my decisions.”

One of Conway’s swimming mates is former Pietermaritzburg Seals swimmer Kent Kirkwood, who now lives in Johannesburg. A triathlete who has competed over the Ironman distance (3.8km swim, 180km cycle, 42km standard running marathon), Kirkwood, too, is serious about saving the rhino and supporting his mate, so he’s committed himself to being part of the Swimming Britain challenge by taking on a portion of the swim.

“What I’m planning to do is to join him when he crosses the Irish Sea, which is probably one of the more difficult sections, where you’re out of sight of land for a couple of days, just swimming,” Kirkwood told SAinfo.

Apart from the swimming, another difficulty, even before participating in the event, will be to co-ordinate his time away from work to hook up with Conway, who will have hopefully managed to stick closely to his timetable.

“He’s raising money for War Child and I’m going to try to raise money to prevent rhino poaching,” Kirkwood said. “I come from Zululand and grew up near the Umfolozi Game Reserve. I’m very close to that issue (saving the rhino), and it’s important. I don’t see a solution happening, and it’s horrific what’s going on in the game reserves.”

Kirkwood receives first-hand information from Tony Conway about the horrors of rhino poaching. “I’ve been involved in some of those efforts to fight rhino poaching. You can see how it affects communities and all the organised crime that is behind it. It’s really a big problem,” he said.

Midmar Mile and Save the Rhino

“The open water swimming community is so big,” Kirkwood said, “and we want to reach out to it to support these charities.”

With Sean Conway’s endurance adventures having begun with the Midmar Mile, it’s fitting that the world’s largest open water swimming event has committed itself to support the Save the Rhino campaign.

“After meeting with KZN Wildlife CEO Dr Bandile Mkhize, we were glad to discover that saving the rhino is one of his passions,” Midmar Mile organiser Wayne Riddin told SAinfo. “The Midmar Mile has become a very effective tool for charity fund-raising, so we’re thrilled to get behind this crucial drive to save the species.”

After learning about the Swimming Britain challenge from Kent Kirkwood, Riddin has also committed himself to getting the story about the epic swim out to the Midmar Mile community; with close to 20 000 swimmers taking it on annually, with family members in tow, the community is a big one.

Conway is hoping to be a part of the world’s largest open water swimming event again in 2014.

Follow his progress in the Swimming Britain challenge mile-by-mile on www.swimmingbritain.co.uk

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