Part 2: Antarctic Swim Acclimatisation Training
Updated: Jan 12
The coldest place on earth
There is nowhere on Earth colder than East Antarctica. The strong katabatic winds are so cold that their density creates gusts exceeding 125mph. The supra-glacial lake water Lewis intends to swim in will be just above freezing. This is what Lewis needs to prepare for, in just Speedo swimming trunks, a swim cap and goggles.
We began 2020 in the same way we left 2019, with two cold-water swims and an early night. Lewis was not lying about the ‘No Hogmanay’ part. The next morning we met some of the local Hebridean Swimmers at Bosta Beach for a Loony Dook, in keeping with at least one New Year tradition!
In our company was no other than Calum Maclean from Dhan Uisge. For those without BBC Alba, Calum is a wild Scottish swimmer who documents some truly wild swims, and in his native Scottish Gaelic. Jon the triathlete is also along again, but this time he ditches the wetsuit after realising that, in these temperatures, not even a wetsuit can keep you warm. The Loony Dookers line up on the beach and on Lewis’s call they charge into the sea. As Lewis, Max, Calum, Colin and Jon plunge straight into a fierce 1km of front crawl, the rest of the swimmers laugh and shriek at the cold water and enjoy a brief window of sunshine.
As the week progresses Lewis and Max fall into a steady routine. Lewis says that it takes him five swims to acclimatise and this is evidently true – he is no longer being thumped by local swimmers, anyway. There is no bothering with towels anymore and he heads straight to a sheltered bay in the rain in swim trunks and flip-flops for the first swim of the day.
The bay is about chest deep at high tide and is fed by both the oncoming tide and fresh water from the river. High levels of rain mean that the water temperatures here are colder than in the sea at 5.5°C. Lewis and Max churn out the work, whatever the Scottish weather throws at them. With the wind howling so hard it blows walkers off their feet, the guys just keep on swimming. Once reheated, rested and fed, it is time for round two of the day at Reef Beach.
Reef beach is a stunning 1km open beach of golden sands looking out onto a series of small islands. On a summer day it must be beautiful, but today it is just brutal. The wind throws sand, rain and sea into our faces and stings our bare legs. It is a fantastic swim, a battle of wills between the swimmers and the elements, and to top it off, the 1km beach run back to their coats is straight into the headwind. Check out Calum's video of the swim below!
UN Patrons unite
The next morning, we follow the routine, but just before we leave Ben Fogle knocks on the door. We are all standing around in swimwear ready to swim, but abandon the training plan and instead head to a beach with some epic waves for Lewis and Ben to get some photos. Ben and Lewis are UN Patrons of the Wilderness and Oceans respectively. By the time Lewis is back at the sheltered bay he is extremely cold, but he still gets into the 5.5°C river to squeeze in a 15 minute swim.
Max is concerned about the missing training session; Lewis has not yet swam in water below 5°C. However, they stick to the plan and head back to Reef Beach for the second session. This time the wind has changed, bringing in huge breakers. Around eight swimmers, including our guide Colin, are gathered, most in trunks not wetsuits. We mentally prepare ourselves for a fight against the sea as a lone BBC cameraman hauls his kit along the sand. Lewis briefs us on the plan so that the cameraman stands a chance of getting his footage: We are to swim 500m along the beach, avoiding the breaking waves if possible, then run back along the sand, then repeat.
Rinse and repeat
We enter the water and it is carnage! The waves are crashing well over our heads and it’s a fight to dip and dive under each one as it rolls in and swim free of the onslaught. I seek out Max and Lewis between waves and notice that Max, uncharacteristically, is swimming to Lewis’s left. The men have been swimming side by side so that when they breathe they face each other – that way, with every other stroke, they can see that the other is ok. Later I ask Max why he moved. Turns out Lewis was swimming right on the edge of the breaking waves, and Max wanted neither to swim in the break nor risk having a wave dump Lewis on top of him mid stroke.
Photo by Calum Maclean
By the time Lewis calls for us to exit the sea and run the beach we are all at our lactic thresholds, however, it is too cold to do anything other than run your absolute hardest. Down the beach past the cameraman and back into the sea to fight the waves again – although now they are even bigger! After the swim we all race to dive into our coats – except Lewis, who is giving an interview on the beach, impervious to the wind and cold. Calum calls out that he loves the suffering of it, but for me it was utterly liberating. When we reach the cars we are all grinning massively, albeit shivering violently.
Day 7 of the camp sees us relocating from the remote west side of the Island to Stornoway on the east, but with a trip to Harris en route. Ben Fogle is performing his Tales from the Wilderness talk on Luskentyre beach as a gift to the island locals. The island behind him is Tanarsay, where his TV and adventure career began and a heart home for him. In honour of Lewis, Ben has also arranged for a post-performance dook –it was fantastic to see around 40 people rush into the sea, including several children, in Scotland and in December! Around a fire afterwards, Ben pours everyone a whisky and he and Lewis fulfil their media duties. It is clear from the training camp, and the local support from swimmers, just how much community exists around open water swimming in Scotland. The water means a lot to the people here.
Cold to the core
The camp is starting to take its toll. In one week Lewis and Max have swam 12 times, plunging their core body temperatures to the lower limit. Even without the swimming and running, just rewarming is hugely stressful for the body. Both swimmers are also suffering from ear problems and it is clear both are losing weight faster than they can get the calories in. It doesn’t help that there is only one shop in about 20 square miles, and it's been shut for three days.
There is only one more media obligation left for tomorrow, after which Max resolves to up Lewis’s training, increasing time in the water and decreasing water temperature once the media distraction has passed. We are aware there are only five swims left and Max wants to take Lewis out of what has become a comfort zone (although 7°C degree water in 50mph winds is not many peoples comfort zone!). It is a balancing act between training for the swim and ensuring enough media coverage to support the Antarctica 2020 Swim campaign. The ultimate success of this adventure will not be Lewis’s swim, but a new network of Marine Protected Areas around Antarctica. As we watch climate disasters bought on by a lack of human responsibility, it is ever so clear just how pressing and timely Lewis’s drive to protect the oceans is.
Tune in to BBC ALBA 8pm Monday 8th to see the coverage of the swim and hear from Lewis. Check out the Lewis Pugh Foundation for more information.