When Ross Edgley completed the Great British Swim in 2018, he invigorated the outdoor swimming community – with many OSS members accompanying him on the final stretch. Here, new OSS writer/editor Rebecca Armstrong chooses her favourite passages from Edgley’s account of the truly epic challenge, including his biggest hurdle to success – which, amazingly, wasn’t wearing a jellyfish as a face mask.
It’s 7.00 pm on 3 August 2018 and we’re 63 days (and more than 800 miles) into the Great British Swim. We’ve reached the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba oﬀ the west coast of mainland Scotland.
Matt (the captain of the Great British Swim) and Taz (Matt’s son and chief crew) shouted clear instructions from aboard the deck of Hecate, our support boat. ‘You’re going to have to sprint for the next three hours,’ Matt said with a hint of empathy, knowing he was asking a lot from my bruised and battered body. ‘If you do that, we’ll be clear of the whirlpool.’
I knew he was right; this was the only way to swim through this seething stretch of water known as the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Positioning my goggles around my swollen eyes, I set the three-hour countdown timer on my watch and promised myself I wouldn’t stop swimming until I heard the alarm.
Nothing was going to distract me. Stroke after stroke I battled between the extremes of bravery and common sense. My arms ached and my lungs complained, but I knew this was better than the alternative fate that lay at the bottom of the ocean bed, so for the first 40 minutes I pleaded with my body to keep the impossible pace. But after an hour or so, I experienced a ‘curve ball’ I never saw coming … a giant jellyfish swimming straight into my face. There was not just one, but an army.
Known as lion’s mane jellyfish, their tentacles can grow up to 6 ft long and they can weigh up to 25 kg. But while I had been hit in the face by jellyﬁsh tentacles many times before, this particular group was diﬀerent. That’s because, despite trying to swim through their initial stings, I could still feel a burning sensation across my nose and cheeks. After two hours, the pain was excruciating … it felt like someone was pressing a hot poker into my face that was searing into my ﬂesh with such intensity, I could feel the blisters forming with every mile that passed. After two hours and thirty minutes, the pain became paralysing … I began to feel that I no longer had any control over the left side of my face as the toxins from the jellyfish seeped into my skin in the most painful form of paralysis I’ve ever experienced. No longer the manager of my own mouth, I was dribbling, but not drowning.
“…after an hour or so, I experienced a ‘curve ball’ I never saw coming … a giant jellyfish swimming straight into my face. After two hours, the pain was excruciating … it felt like someone was pressing a hot poker into my face that was searing into my ﬂesh with such intensity, I could feel the blisters forming with every mile that passed.”
After two hours and 45 minutes, the pain became blinding … the paralysis had spread to my eyes and was now causing tears to ﬁll my goggles and impair my vision. Trying to adjust my goggles mid-stroke, I discovered this ﬁnal jellyﬁsh blow had stung my face so badly that my eye sockets had become inflamed and the seal of the goggles to my face was no longer watertight. ‘Keep swimming!’ Matt shouted from the boat. With 40 years’ experience of sailing, he knew better than anyone that we were still uncomfortably (and dangerously) close to one of the world’s largest and most deadly whirlpools.
As my vision became increasingly impaired by my own tears and the salt water, I was now semi-blind … in the sea … with no sense of direction … so in desperation I punched the goggles into my face. Somehow (painfully) securing a watertight seal around the rims again, I regained some vision and was able to sprint in whatever direction Matt told me to. After three hours, the alarm on my watch had never sounded so sweet as it signalled I had swum clear of the whirlpool. But with no time to celebrate, my focus immediately shifted to the pain of the jellyfish stings now plaguing my face, neck and arms.
‘I’ve been hit by a jellyfish!’ I shouted to the crew. As Matt focused on maintaining a strict course through the perilous waters, Taz looked down at my face and saw what was wrong. ‘Yes, I know,’ he said, wincing. ‘I can see the tentacle still wrapped around your face.’ Unbelievably, I had been WEARING A JELLYFISH TENTACLE all through the Corryvreckan. I unpeeled the fat, thick, toxic tentacle that had somehow threaded itself through the goggle strap and around my face, and felt a momentary sense of relief as the bitter Scottish breeze cooled my skin.
Now free to continue the swim, I covered three more miles before I was clear of the Corryvreckan’s clutches. Climbing into the boat I collapsed onto the deck, mentally and physically spent. I now understood that the rules of conventional sport didn’t apply out here, and swimming technique was not going to be the limiting factor. Instead, adventures such as this one would be won or lost based on a person’s ability to summon every ounce of physical and mental fortitude they have in their arsenal and overcome chronic, crippling fatigue. That night I came to realise this was much more than a swim … it was a form of extreme research into the art of resilience, the one key trait we possess over all other species – a unique human ability to ﬁnd strength when suﬀering.
I’m often asked, ‘What was the hardest part of the swim?’ Despite jellyfish attacks and avoiding giant cargo ships in the Channel, the worst part of the entire swim was at 3.00 p.m. on 23 August and took place within the four walls of my cabin aboard the boat
I got a phone call from my brother, Scott. He told me he was at the hospital with my mum, after dad had been rushed in for treatment. ‘Sorry I had to be the one to tell you this,’ he said. Immediately, I feared the worst. ‘It’s Dad. He’s been sick since you started the swim, but he didn’t want to tell you because he didn’t want you worrying about him. He’s got an aggressive form of cancer.’
In that moment, storms and dangerous currents no longer mattered. My ﬁrst thought was to cancel the swim and return to land so I could be with him and the family. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had forgotten everything I had learned about stoicism and being mentally tough and was now purely thinking through emotionally charged reﬂexive reactions rather than logic.
Dad knew how I’d react and so from his hospital bed he’d told Scott to remind me that I vowed not to step foot on land until I had circumnavigated Britain. He then also reminded Scott his immunotherapy treatment didn’t start for another few weeks, so even if I did arrive on land there wasn’t anything I could do to help.
That night, I calculated that Margate (and therefore the family) was now 770 miles away. Based on this maths, I was prepared to swim day and night as fast as my lungs, limbs and ligaments would propel me in order for me to be home in a month.
Unfortunately, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that. After 1,100 miles and 90 days at sea, I also knew I couldn’t control the ocean. The tides, waves and winds out at sea were entirely out of my hands, which meant so was my ﬁnish line. Which is why despite being in hurry, the north of Scotland decided to teach me an important lesson: Accept the uncontrollables and control the controllables.
Swimming around Great Britain takes the principles of swimming and moves it outside of the conventional realm. It’s essentially more closely related to sports like sailing, surfing and ocean rowing than it is to swimming. While you can use athletic principles (like pacing strategies) you must think like an adventurer. You cannot be tempted by records, trophies and accolades and you cannot perform based on rules, regulations and metrics. Instead you must remain respectful (and adaptable) to Mother Nature.
After 154 days at sea we were no longer just a crew or a family, we were a finely tuned nautical operation capable of swimming through haunted whirlpools, armies of jellyfish, storms, sharks and seals … day and night. How? Bananas, the unsung hero of the swim..
After 154 days at sea we were no longer just a crew or a family, we were a finely tuned nautical operation capable of swimming through haunted whirlpools, armies of jellyfish, storms, sharks and seals … day and night. How? Bananas, the unsung hero of the swim, the glue that kept us together. They became my preferred fuel source when in the water because they didn’t have that synthetic, artificial taste typical of most sports gels. And they are easy to throw, which meant precious time was no longer lost with me swimming to the boat to feed.
Then at 5.32 a.m on our last morning, it happened … The ultimate banana was launched and the ﬁnal tally was recorded. It was number 649. A little mouldy and bruised, badly discoloured, that little yellow object had cemented its place in history. ‘How does it taste?’ shouted Matt. ‘Like victory,’ I replied.