Lewis Pugh’s 123km swim between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in October last year was the first ever swim across the Red Sea. Timed in the run up to climate change negotiations in Sharm el Sheik, it carried the message that coral reefs are at risk and states need to act. Here, he discusses the difficult logistics of his latest swim – and challenges the growing outdoor swimming community to harness its size to do more to fight climate change and protect the oceans.
The northern end of the long, slug-like shape of the Red Sea diverges into two antennae: the Gulf of Aqaba to the east and the Gulf of Suez to the west, united by the Sinai Peninsula. When storms from the Mediterranean send winds down towards the Red Sea, these are funnelled by the mountains on either side of the gulfs. The result? Stormy seas.
“You’re swimming at right angles to the wind for a ten-day period,” explains Lewis Pugh, perhaps aware that common perceptions of his recent Coral Swim – even among seasoned outdoor swimmers – was a calm, warm meander over tropical fish and coral reefs for 123km between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Swimming is the only sport in the whole world which operates on three axes: your head moves left to right, your arms move around, your legs move up and down. If any one of these is even slightly out of sync, you’re going to be fighting the sea.
Were it undertaken by any other endurance swimmer, this assumption would not have been made, but this is Lewis Pugh: UN Patron for the Oceans, cold water specialist, veteran of path-breaking swims in the Arctic, the “Edmund Hilary of swimming”. He has completed so many record swims (42) that viewing them via his website involves a pop-out PDF list.
“It was twisting my body like this [he gesticulates as if he is doing a Rubix Cube]. Swimming is the only sport in the whole world which operates on three axes: your head moves left to right, your arms move around, your legs move up and down. If any one of these is even slightly out of sync, you’re going to be fighting the sea. Add on top of that waves hitting you from the side.”
I begin to wonder what metaphor I can use to describe this vicious twisting, but before I get very far, Pugh has provided one.
“You know that beautiful, braided bread you get in the Middle East? I think that’s what it’s doing to your body.” Challah bread is a good, regionally appropriate metaphor: it can be made in various shapes, but the long version with the ropes of dough plaited over and under each other could be imagined to be muscle tissue knitted together, contracting and reflexing in turn.
Pugh and his team had expected windy mornings and calmer afternoons, but the winds did not let up. “It was very hard, and the warm water just saps all your energy,” says the 53 year old. “You feel very… soft, you just don’t have the horsepower.” While he is accustomed to training to prevent hypothermia during cold water swims, which typically involves swimming in progressively colder water for progressively longer periods, the Coral Swim required training for hyperthermia.
The water in the Red Sea does not drop below 20 degrees centigrade in Winter; in Summer it reaches above 27 degrees centigrade. Pugh’s swim took place over two weeks in October 2022, during which records show the surface water temperature in the Red Sea varied from a low of 26.1 to a high of 31.3 degrees centigrade. “The science is really fascinating – the best way to acclimatise is not by swimming in a horizontal position in warm water, but by running and being in a vertical position,” he says. “And so, I did most of my training in Majorca in the summer when it was really, really hot, and in the middle of the day. The sweat is just pouring off you.” He adds: “I do not love running”.
It was very hard, and the warm water just saps all your energy. You feel very… soft, you just don’t have the horsepower.
Indeed, if there were a theme to this swim it seems to be uncertainty: the day before it began, he did not have permission from the relevant military and shipping authorities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He began without knowing if he could finish it. As a maritime lawyer and Patron to the UN, Pugh has a richer understanding of the vagaries of international relations and geopolitics than most but also has such a capacity for detail and specificity (observe the bread metaphor) that, one imagines, dealing with the unknown may not come naturally to him.
“The people who are giving permission are the security services in both countries – these are generally low—risk takers,” he explains. “Two women had tragically been killed by sharks where I finished the swim a few months beforehand, and they had closed that beach. And [the military are] saying ‘do I really need this?’ This person who’s going to be swimming across shipping lanes… sharks. Too many things can go wrong.
“You’ve got to be prepared to have a mindset of uncertainty, real uncertainty, because nothing happens until the eleventh hour. And for most swimmers, that’s not the type of place you want to be in. You’re spending a lot of money there, the planning and all the preparation. It’s a level of uncomfortableness that most people don’t like.”
“You’ve got to be prepared to have a mindset of uncertainty, real uncertainty, because nothing happens until the eleventh hour. You’re spending a lot of money there, the planning and all the preparation. It’s a level of uncomfortableness that most people don’t like.”
Pugh began his long list of record swims in 1990, but it was his 2007 crossing of the North Pole that made him resolve to dedicate future swims to the cause of marine conservation and climate change. Since then, several of Pugh’s swims have been undertaken to coincide with UN Climate Change Conferences (known as COP for Conference of the Parties) to highlight the deleterious effect of climate change on the world’s oceans.
This combination of record-breaking endurance swims and political symbolism has been termed “Speedo diplomacy”. Pugh’s is a staggering personal set of achievements in its own right, but his method also speaks to the difficulty in campaigning for any issue given competition for people’s attention from the 24-hour news cycle, light entertainment, mobile phone scrolling and social media. During our conversation, it becomes clear there are three phases to these epic swims: the vision phase; the logistics and actually doing it phase; and the “back end” phase.
“I love the vision phase, and that is: I’m just trying to do a swim to carry a simple message,” he says. This stage involves staring at an atlas and lateral thinking. “I’m swimming across the North Pole across an open patch of sea to talk about the melting of the Arctic Sea ice. You shouldn’t be able to swim there, so a six-year-old should be able to understand that message. It’s working out those swims where you know you can help shift the dial and educate political leaders, business leaders, and the public on what the issue is. Afterwards it’s a back end of stuff which is the meeting with political leaders and business leaders to get these areas protected. That’s many months, sometimes years.”
These days, that back end is endless Zooms and interviews. The banality of a Zoom call does not suit Lewis Pugh. He is dressed for the outdoors in Patagonia, but is waiting for someone to come and fix a light fitting at his newly rented home in Holland Park, London, having recently relocated from Cape Town (a more recent Instagram post suggests he is already re-locating to outside Plymouth). “Is this the boring bit?” I ask.
“No, this is the fun bit!” he replies. If this is true, it might be because his swims have become so complex, as well as physically and mentally difficult. The logistics of the Coral Swim were unlike anything he has encountered before. The Arctic swims were very far from the fervour of the current cold water dipping scene.
“When people tell me ‘I love swimming in cold water’, they haven’t swum in cold water,” he says. “The more experience you’ve got, the harder it becomes and that is because when you are swimming in really, really, really cold water, you never forget it. It’s deep in your bones and is in every single subsequent swim. You must have enormous determination to get back in that water.
“So when I’m swimming in really, really, really cold water, there can be no past. Somehow I have to forget about what happened in the North Pole. I have to forget about what my fingers felt like on Everest. I have to forget that terrifying feeling swimming in South Georgia, or when I was swimming down the tunnel in East Antarctic. My team is switched on, I have to be switched on. I’m listening to them, I’m counting the strokes and after each minute they are counting how many strokes I’ve done in that minute, just to make sure I’m 100% switched on.”
“When people tell me ‘I love swimming in cold water’, they haven’t swum in cold water. When you are swimming in really, really, really cold water, you never forget it. It’s deep in your bones and is in every single subsequent swim. You must have an enormous determination to get back in that water.”
While Pugh’s achievements are extraordinary, the trajectory of his life makes sense to him. He was born in Plymouth and watched ships disappear into the great unknown. He spent his childhood pouring over his family’s big atlas, imagining what faraway places might look like in real life. His parents were medics in the Navy so the family moved around different British hospitals, eventually they relocating to South Africa but he learned to swim at prep school in Devon. He has early memories of swimming in Malta and at a beach outside Plymouth; his mother would say that she couldn’t take her eye off him for one second as he’d be swimming off towards the horizon. At 17, he swam to Robben Island.
Of course, many outdoor swimmers have stories of early swimming experiences and travel, but few have gone on to achieve what he has. Pugh is often discussed in the same breath as Lynne Cox, the first person to swim between the USA and the then-Soviet Union, and Martin Strel, who specialises in swimming the length of the world’s longest rivers (Pugh has joked elsewhere that they left him all the “damn cold stuff”). Do they talk to each other?
“I love swimmers,” he begins. “I love the type of people who do swimming. I go down to Plymouth and I meet the Devon and Cornwall wild swimmers, and there’s something about that community I absolutely love. They’re very inclusive – whoever you are, you are welcome to come and swim. Now, at the top, at the level where you’re pioneering swims, et cetera, there isn’t much of a community. We go off and do our swims. But we have different reasons, you know.”
In my fifteen years of these swims, I don’t think one swimmer has asked me how to do it: how to write the letters, how to get to meetings with world leaders, how to work with the media, how to use swimming to drive change… We need to catch up with other water sports campaigners. More of us need to take action and dedicate our time to protecting the oceans
On the other hand, he thinks that the community of recreational and amateur outdoor swimmers, which has grown significantly in the UK alone in recent years, presents a considerable opportunity.
“In my fifteen years of these swims, I don’t think one swimmer has asked me how to do it: how to write the letters, how to get to meetings with world leaders, how to work with the media, how to use swimming to drive change… ” he says, with the has the tone of someone playing devil’s advocate.
He is surely well aware that many swimmers are directly taking action, but he’s asking why there is no coherent movement for action across outdoor swimmers. He has his eye on organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, who have had considerable success in both building awareness and advocating for concrete change in water pollution. It’s a topic we discuss at The OSS from time to time – outdoor swimming is far less institutionalised and developed as sports like surfing, and is generally much better for it, but it can mean that action is more diffuse, decentralised, and perhaps more focussed on local action than overarching issues.
“We need to catch up with other water sports campaigners,” he continues. “More of us need to take action and dedicate our time to protecting the oceans. This also includes the back end of stuff: holding companies and political leaders to account. We, as a community, enjoy the sea and so I believe we have a corresponding duty to protect it. We need to learn to drive change.”