The Aquaman: in conversation with wild swimmer Ross Edgley
Edgley on his five-month record-breaking swim around Great Britain
Once a niche sport, outdoor swimming in icy lakes and chilly seas has gone mainstream. ‘Open’ (or ‘wild’) swimming is this year’s biggest sporting trend, and as a nation we are grabbing our goggles and heading to the nearest freshwater lake, mountain pool, bucolic river or even industrial canal.
More than 200 mass swims are planned across Britain this year and, typically, places are snapped up fast. Highlights on the calendar of the Outdoor Swimming Society include the Bantham Swoosh in Devon; the Scilly 360 Swim Race; and the Canary Wharf 1 Mile Swim at Millwall Outer Dock – the location of James Bond’s heart-stopping speedboat chase in The World Is Not Enough.
Bond enjoyed his fair share of thrills in the water, most often locked in combat with crocs, sharks and killer frogmen. Thankfully, none of these troubled real-life action hero Ross Edgley during his historic, record-breaking swim around the coast of Great Britain in 2018. The 2,883km challenge, which he completed in November, saw the 33-year-old adventurer and recently appointed Bremont watch ambassador brave freezing waters, rough seas and jellyfish stings for five gruelling months. He rotated his swim/sleep programme every six hours to match the daily tidal cycle. Faced with such extremes, Bond would have surely jet-packed himself up and out of the ocean.
“Because I spent so long in the water, I got to enjoy a unique experience,” says the Grantham-born sportsman. “When I was swimming in the Bristol Channel, I was joined by a minke whale, but because visibility was poor I could only see it when it was breaching. Later, when I got to the Scottish Inner Hebrides where the water is crystal clear, I was joined by dolphins, seals and more minkes. One of them swam with me for about 16km, about 4m beneath me, blowing bubbles in my face.”
Swimming this far is clearly best suited to those who are not only super fit but well versed in tidal changes and currents. “It’s true that a large part of my sport lives outside the realms of conventional swimming,” explains Edgley, whose other strongman challenges include swimming 40km between St Lucia and Martinique while dragging a 45kg tree trunk, and running 30 marathons in 30 days.
“Recently, I was 80km offshore in Scotland’s Moray Firth, and I wouldn’t recommend that,” he laughs, “but Derwentwater in the Lake District is one of my favourite spots to swim in the wild, and it’s accessible to everyone. It’s just outside Keswick and the area is truly stunning. I love to run through the Cat Bells [fells] and do my hill training in Castle Crag, which is like something out of The Lord Of The Rings.” He cites Windermere in the Lake District as the ideal place to (literally) test the water.
Aside from the obvious sense of freedom that comes from being so immersed in nature, open swimming can be a synaesthetic experience. According to Edgley: “The Irish Sea reflects an intense emerald colour that alerts you to a very specific texture; it’s this quality that I often find myself focusing on when I am swimming.”
Edgley, who played water polo professionally for Great Britain in his youth, fondly remembers his first big swim: “I was in the South of France with the under-18s squad. We were taken out on a catamaran, which we all thought was amazing. We jumped into the sea, but before we knew it, they’d pulled up the anchor and the boat was gone, as if to say, ‘Time’s up, lads, it’s training time!’ We were miles out, but all 20 of us swam back together like a pod of dolphins.”
Since then, the Brit has swum in dozens of cenotes along the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico(“the best swimming ‘pools’ I have ever been in – everyone should try them”), snorkelled between two tectonic plates in the glacial waters of Iceland’s Silfra fissure, skinny- dipped his way through The Needles off the Isle of Wight, and glided through innumerable frozen lakes this winter.
His achievements on dry land are no less impressive: as well as having successfully climbed a rope the height of Everest in less than 24 hours,last year Edgley published a Sunday Times bestseller – The World’s Fittest Book – and he has another title in the pipeline.
“This concept of outdoor and wild swimming is growing as a sport, and I certainly feel like a goldfish when I go to a swimming pool now,” says Edgley. “I know I have a reputation for doing crazy things, but I’m no daredevil. I always evaluate the risks. You should always familiarise yourself with local tides and currents before setting off on any open swim. It’s just that when some wacky project comes along, people often ask, ‘Where can we find someone weird enough to do this?’ That’s usually when I get the call.”
Ross Edgley is a Bremont watch ambassador; bremont.com