Part 1: Antarctic Swim Acclimatisation Training
Updated: Jan 11
“Where does it get cold?”
We are swimming in the sea in nothing but regular swimming suits and trunks on an island beach off the north coast of mainland Scotland, in December. The water is hovering around 6°C, the wind is gusting at 47mph, and the rain is unrelenting. To almost anyone else this question would be redundant. However, local swim guide Colin MacCleod dutifully points us towards the river mouth feeding fresh water into the oncoming tide.
We are with Lewis Pugh, endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans. Last year Lewis became the first and only person to swim the length of the English Channel – not the width of it, like everyone else. In 2015, Lewis swam 1km in the freezing Ross Sea in Antarctica during a campaign to ensure the sea became a Marine Protected Area (MPA). In January 2020 he is to return south to call for the establishment of a network of Marine Protected Areas around East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea. If he is successful, this will ensure the protection of an area of ocean equivalent to the size of Australia.
MPA status will protect this ocean from exploitation, ensuring one of the planet’s final wildernesses remains pristine. Currently, 23 of the 25 countries plus the EU that make up CCAMLR (the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) have agreed to establish the new MPA network. Lewis is now working to persuade the remaining two countries, Russia and China, to agree.
To make his point and secure those final two signatures, Lewis will be heading to East Antarctica to risk his life swimming 1km in a supra-glacial lake – a lake formed on the surface of the ice sheet from its own meltwater. Not only will he be swimming in freezing water with considerably lower air temperatures, but these lakes can spontaneously drain, plummeting their contents hundreds of metres into the ice below. That is how serious Lewis is about protecting these oceans; this is how urgent it is for our leaders to act now.
To ready his mind and body for the extremes of the swim, Lewis has travelled to the Outer Hebrides to train in ever decreasing water temperatures. Seeking a training partner, he posted a job advert reminiscent of the supposed call for men by polar explorer Earnest Shackleton - ‘Young guns to train with polar swimmer. Must be willing to swim and run hard. No tea breaks. No Hogmanay. Outer Hebrides.’
I responded to say my husband, Dr Max Holloway, was his man. Max is a climate scientist and physical oceanographer with experience in both the Arctic and Antarctic. He has a history of high performance in sport and has coached Olympic sailing teams. He is also a strong cold-water swimmer and runner himself and happens to live on the West Coast of Scotland.
Since Max got the call that he would be Lewis’s training partner he has swum every day in the 7°C waters off our home town in Oban, even on Christmas Day. To my utter shock Max began to shed body fat faster than I could sneak cream into his morning coffee.
Two days before we sailed to the Isle of Lewis Max got a text: ‘Can you bring dumbbells?’ The next day: ‘Can you bring an axe?’ I had visions of some Rocky-Balboa-inspired montage of Lewis and Max felling trees and carrying the cabers as they ran over fells before diving into the sea ... followed by a weight-lifting session. We are going to need a lot more full fat cream!
After some plain sailing from the Isle of Skye we reached the Isle of Harris and drove north. Outside it was 11°C! We began to panic. Is it going to be cold enough?
Prior to Lewis’s last Arctic swim in 2017 he struggled to fully acclimatise, despite preparing in Svalbard in the High Arctic, as the sea was too warm there at 10°C. Any cold-water swimmer will tell you how crucial it is to gradually acclimatise your body to colder and colder water. It is generally advised to start outdoor swimming in the late summer or early autumn when the water is at its warmest to allow your body time to make the necessary adaptions for winter swimming. The week we arrived was uncharacteristically warm and extremely windy.
In the lead up to the trip, local outdoor swimmer Colin MacCleod put together an extensive inventory of safe swims spots for all possible wind directions, and to our great relief Colin joins us for many of the planned swims. His presence eases my sense of trepidation; as a rule, we do not swim in new locations without the counsel of a local swimmer. You never know what is lurking in the waters, from unseen rocks to riptides. Colin also happens to be one of the kindest characters, kitting us out with matching Hebridean Swimmer hoodies and joyfully swimming in his Harris Tweed trucks while reporting water temperatures to Lewis with his infamous ‘Duckman’ thermometer. The lower the number Duckman reports, the happier Lewis is.
Twice a day Max meets Lewis to swim over 1km in a mixture of fresh water lochs, rivers and the sea. The first session is at ‘sun-up’ as Lewis calls it. In reality, there isn’t really a sunrise, it just gets less dark. As daylight hours are short in supply the second swim of day is at 2.30pm. Between each swim there is beach and hill running, but so far, the axe has remained in the car.
Every day Lewis puts his plan, along with the weather forecast, on social media and invites local swimmers to join him. At one sea session the island doctor, Mhari Murdoch, rocks up on the beach. I ask if she will be swimming and she just grins back, the giddy anticipation for the cold water evident on her face. She joins the men on the run, follows them into the sea – and proceeds to thoroughly smash their pace. Colin later jokes that she is the swim group’s secret weapon; it turns out Mhari is also an endurance swimmer, and a fast one!
Later, Jon Aitken, a triathlete studying sustainability, is waiting by the loch shore for Lewis. As Jon wriggles into a wetsuit Lewis creeps over to Max and whispers, ‘Do you think he is going to thump us like Mhari did?’ Jon does just that! Post swim, around a fire with some hot tea and a dram of whisky, Mhari opens a map to share her favourite swims spots. However, we are hesitant to follow her advice after she casually describes a given spot as ‘stunning, but an easy place to die’.
The next day I walk to the beach talking to Lewis’s wife, Antoinette, about how she deals with Lewis’s campaigns, which constantly put him in the path of danger. Antoinette is beautiful, calm and exudes love for her family. I admire her strength, both the physical endurance to join the trips in the Arctic and Antarctic as well as her unwavering support for her husband's extreme endeavours, and her work in the background to ensure his success.
Lewis, on the other hand, bounces between a determined focus on the task ahead and playfulness that comes from doing what you love. He is also a brilliant storyteller. We sit captivated listening to his tales of fending off leopard seals and swimming in water that freezes as it splashes into minus 37°C air. His tone suddenly turns serious; once you have been that cold, he warns, you can never be truly warm again. He is forever haunted by these swims, and I can only wonder what mental trick he is using to be able to face this return journey, back into these waters, literally head first.
We have a week left to acclimatise Lewis. Our quest to find colder water is on.