When Ross Edgley stepped onto Margate Beach on 4th November 2018 he became the first swimmer to circumnavigate Great Britain. Did anybody expect him to be so cheery?
Words, pictures and quotes from the day.
After five months at sea, 33-year-old Ross Edgley swam into Margate Beach on 4th November 2018, completing his circumnavigation of the British Isles. He had averaged over 12 hours swimming a day, for 157 days, without (as far as we know) grumbling once.
His tongue had fallen apart, the muscles in his feet atrophied, jellyfish had slapped him in the face repeatedly, and to finish the feat he’d needed to eat up to 15,000 calories a day. He hadn’t had 8 hours’ straight sleep for 5 months.
But the thing that made it such a joy to watch wasn’t just the doing of it, but the way he did it. In weekly Vlogs from the boat he’d appear again and again, smiling, challenged in various degrees by storms and difficulties, but always enjoying the freedom, joy and adventure of swimming.
On the morning 300 swimmers from the Outdoor Swimming Society were there to join Ross on the final mile of his swim, including around 30 skin swimmers and 57 Channel Swimmers, for the RedBull Great British Swim Finish Party. It was 6.30am when we started gathering on the cold sand, 8.45am when we met Ross in the water. The water was 10-11 degrees, the air temperature lower. All we had to do was swim out a mile to meet him, and then swim back in behind him, leaving him to take those final few steps onto land by himself.
It was cold and sunny, many of us were in boots and gloves as well as wetsuits, and as we bobbed about offshore spirits were high – of all the feats we will witness in our lifetime, this may be the most remarkable.
There was a stand off in the water: him looking at us, beaming, and us facing him, roaring. The noise was on a knife-edge between tremendous and terrifying.
Then someone saw him in the distance and a huge guttural roar erupted among us. People were slapping the water, hollering like Vikings and punching their fists into the air. Waves of noise rose up and receded. We were, apparently, beside ourselves: that this swim had happened, and that the man who had accomplished it was in our water. ‘I could hear you before I saw you,’ he said later. ‘It was echoing across the water. I had been sighting off the boat but I started going off the sound. And then I looked up! I didn’t know what 300 swimmers would look like…’
Then he looked up and stopped, and there was a stand off: him looking at us, beaming, and us facing him, roaring. The noise was on a knife-edge between tremendous and terrifying. Then he gestured for us to come in and everyone gathered around, slithering over each other like a mosh pit of seals to high-five him and hug hum. His tow float got tied up with swimmers and in the surge of people crowding round there seemed a chance we might be ‘too much’ for someone who had spent all that time alone at sea, or that we would sink him.
Good times – the end of an epic sporting achievement, the start of a brilliant day.
Ross spent hours on the beach that morning, in his wetsuit and DryRobe. Long after each and every swimmer had gone to change, get a coffee, have something to eat and come back again, Ross was still on the beach: everyone who had come to see him, he spoke to, with warmth, generosity, appreciation and enthusiasm. The classic mountaineer builds up ego before a big trip, in order to sustain the belief that they are able to accomplish what no one else can. When they return home they have to dismantle that ego to become a likeable human being. The Great British Swim was unique in many ways, one of them being that through the RedBull Vlogs we got to see Ross mid adventure, doing the impossible with humility, grace and gratitude.
‘Everyone in that flotilla has a swimming superpower – some people were out there in skins; you’re amazing, I’m freezing. There are other people who are elegant and look like dolphins in the water, that’s amazing. My swimming superpower is that I like to eat, I don’t get sick and I can float a long way.’
‘People think I’m self deprecating when I say I just eat and float,’ he observed to me later. ‘What I’d love to say is that everyone in that flotilla has a swimming superpower – some people out there in skins and you’re amazing, I’m freezing. There are other people who are elegant and look like a dolphin in the water, that’s amazing. People ask what my swimming superpower is and I say I like to eat, I don’t really get sick and I can float a long way. I encourage everyone to find their swimming superpower.’
Amongst the 300 swimmers were Oliver Pitt, Kari Furre, Calum Maclean and I from the core OSS team, carrying presents for Matt the skipper and Ross on behalf of the community (including cheese from Switzerland courtesy of OSS Special Envoy @Swimstaman). One basic tenant of leadership is that you take one for the team: when the party is over and everyone else has gone home, when Facebook becomes Fightbook or there are no stories for the newsletter, when there are 12 soggy shelters to dry or 250m of bunting to launder, that’s when you know where you stand. On 4th November, taking one for the team was significantly better than that. Ross had promised on social media that ‘there would be hugging’ and for me and 100s of others on the beach that day, he did not disappoint.
Are you Katie? Thank you so much! You guys have been amazing!
After a lot of hanging about trying to weave past a girl with a huge zip up RedBull can on her back, I finally got in there. Of all the reactions I could have dreamt of, the one I got was not what I was expecting. ‘Are you Katie? Thank you so much! You guys have been amazing!.’ And then came the hugging. One thing Ross emphasised throughout his swim was that he might be the only one in the water, but that the Great British Swim was a collective effort.
The OSS is the society for people who don’t follow. We’re made out of people who find themselves in a community despite themselves, because they find themselves in friendships that lie outside land-locked like-for-like relationships. We’re made out of people who love freedom and adventure, people who are in touch with their inherent renegade spirit. Ross may present as an extreme human being, but he is an embodiment of why many of us love swimming. Would Ross join us, be a beacon, and help us draw more people into swimming?
‘I would love to! I love the way you say renegade. Me and Matt are such mavericks: when people said this can’t be done, there’s firing squads, there are Port Authorities… ‘. The limitations Ross overturned included many from sports science norms, which might have deemed the swim impossible.
A Corex board spoke to our shared ambitions. ‘Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ (Rob Siltanen).
(Where are we hoping to push the world forward to? To a future where no one uses ‘wild’ or ‘open water’ or ‘outdoor’ as a prefix as it’s all just swimming, to a world where people put their togs into their work bags just as readily as their trainers, and to a climate where privately owned open spaces are as open to swimmers as they are to walkers and climbers. And to a world where much more of our open water has been swum).
Swimming is not how people consider the sport of it, up and down in a pool. No, no no! Swimming can be so much more than that. Merge this idea of aquatic adventure with pioneering. A lot of people say the English Channel is amazing. Yes it’s amazing: but what other channels could you do, what lakes could you do in a weekend, take some friends, what could you do as a relay?
After 5 months of solitude, what message did he have for swimmers? ‘It’s this idea of taking swimming and merging it with adventure. Swimming is not how people consider the sport of it, up and down in a pool. No, no no! Merge this idea of aquatic adventure with pioneering: swimming can be so much more than that and that’s what has been so amazing. A lot of people say the English Channel is amazing. Yes it’s amazing: but what other channels could you do, what lakes could you do in a weekend, take some friends, what could you do as a relay?’
The OSS AGM was the day before the finish party, and as we wrapped things up to head to Margate, we tried to find a polite way to ask Ross: what made you this way? Why do you think you’ve done this, and nobody else can?
Matt (the skipper) and Ross speak equally warmly of each other, and how they could not have done it were it not for the qualities of the other. ‘Ross is an amazing character,’ said Matt. ‘It’s the person he is that made it all possible. I spent a lot of time at sea with a lot of crews and the thing that always undermines a crew on an expedition like this is to do with people. You can overcome any problem as long as the team is working together and people are prepared to put difficulties aside. If Ross wasn’t such a positive, wonderful character we wouldn’t have finished it. The team aren’t just doing a professional job – although they are doing that – they are also putting their complete hearts and souls into it to make sure it’s possible. If the swimmer wasn’t in the same frame of mind and appreciative of all of that then it wouldn’t be possible.’
Hester, Ross’s girlfriend of six years, said Ross enjoys his projects so much he’d do it even if no one was watching. ‘It’s because he’s so passionate. Adventure and exercise and doing whatever he wants to do is what gives Ross the enjoyment out of life. That’s just him. He would have done this without media, without anyone around, he would have done it on his own, no publicity, no nothing. Once he gets an idea, a project he wants to do, then that’s it, he’ll just do it, he’ll finish it. It’s something about Ross and his mindset: when he switches it on and he wants to do something then he will complete it.’
Adventure and exercise and doing whatever he wants to do is what gives Ross the enjoyment out of life. He would have done this on his own, no publicity, no nothing. That’s his mindset: when he switches it on and he wants to do something then he will complete it.
Part of the doing it was about creating a mental space in the water to go to. ‘A number of people have come out and swum with Ross,’ said Matt, ‘and within a few minutes of trying to swim alongside Ross they’ve said, “Woh! This is hard. Partly it’s a technical thing, but 90% of it is mental. It’s not smooth water so it’s really challenging; your brain has to be in a totally different space. Any of the normal things you think about go out of the window, you have to go into a meditative state where you’re completely comfortable in this unnatural environment and being part of it. Ross has been able to do that: pushing aside all of those “Why am I here, I shouldn’t be here, this is going to be hard” thoughts, and taking on a completely different space where he is comfortable.’
The night before he came onshore his penultimate Vlog spoke about being swimfit, and ready for a new adventure. Had he really not had enough swimming?
No. ‘I’d do it tomorrow! It’d be nice to do it without putting on a cold wetsuit and having to scrape the ice off, or to swim without being stung by jellyfish. I’m in London tonight but if there’s a hotel with a swimming pool, I might go for a swim… I am grateful to be on land with my family again, but it won’t be long before I’m putting on a pair of goggles.’
It won’t be long before I’m putting on a pair of goggles.
‘Let’s book somewhere warm,’ I overheard him say to someone on the phone as I wandered away. ‘I’ll get the bananas ready.’
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