At 8 a.m., Lewis Pugh finally pulls up in his Ford Bantam, a miniature pickup that looks like the love child of an actual pickup and a Matchbox toy. Pugh, who is 6’1″ and built like, well, a truck (albeit an older model at this stage), looks like he’s had to stuff himself in, and it’s possibly too much trouble to get out. I’ve been waiting for him for about an hour at a beach in Simon’s Town, South Africa, a white-washed village near Cape Town. Pugh is the world’s preeminent cold-water and long-distance swimmer and an endurance athlete who has set or broken dozens of records, and he’s been training in these waters for his next big expedition, the details of which is the secret he has lured me here to reveal. The sky is hazy, the bay heavy with languor. It’s a morning when one might decide to sleep in—which, apparently, Pugh decided to do.
“I thought we were meeting at 7,” I say.
“Didn’t you get my message?” Pugh asks.
He summons me to the passenger seat, clears it of some debris, and scratches his graying hair. Across the bay is a decommissioned ship on which he served as a young sailor in the South African navy before going on to the elite British special forces. Pugh, 48, lives in Cape Town with his wife and stepson, but he’s a dual national with bonds to both nations. Next week he’s scheduled to speak to the British Parliament about the urgent need to address the health of the planet’s oceans, a speech that is giving him a dose of writer’s block.
This morning, though, he’s supposed to be training, because when you’re about to do the most ambitious open-water swim anyone has ever done…
“So what is it?” I ask.
“I am going to swim the English Channel,” Pugh declares, pausing to let the announcement sink in. “Why are you smiling? What’s funny about that?”
“I’m waiting for the punch line,” I say.
“No one has ever done it before,” he says.
“No one has ever swum the English Channel?”
Pugh looks at me wearily. “Listen, 1,832 people have swum the English Channel crossing. My 86-year-old mother could do that. But no one has ever swum the Channel. It’s 560 kilometers in the roughest tides in the world.”
For the past 31 years, Pugh has been diving into bodies of water you wouldn’t want to dip your big toe in. His nearly 40 record-setting swims include a harrowing plunge into the 29-degree waters at the North Pole; the 87-mile width of the Maldives in 10 days; the 217-mile length of the river Thames in 21 days; the 127-mile length of Norway’s Sognefjord; Lake Pumori, a glacial body of water on the slope of Mount Everest, 17,000 feet above sea level; and the southernmost swim ever done in Antarctica. And no, not with a wetsuit.
According to the Channel Swimming Association, a swimmer must travel at least a kilometer wearing only a Speedo, a cap, and goggles. (The only way Pugh stays warm is by doing mental exercises that raise his core temperature to 101.4 degrees, a feat that’s been verified by scientists in a lab.)
On one of those swims, in the shallow waters around Deception Island in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands in 2005, Pugh spotted hundreds of whale bones—jaws, ribs, long white spines—the detritus of decades of indiscriminate whaling. It came as a stark revelation: A terrible tragedy had occurred, no one knew, and more such tragedies were on the way. Pugh realized that his strange talent could be a vessel through which he could carry that message; henceforth, he would use his swims to get people’s attention.
Since then, he has been a tireless voice on the perilous condition of the planet’s oceans. When he’s not in the water, he’s in the air, en route to deliver TED talks or speeches at Davos and other conferences around the globe. The United Nations named him its “Patron of the Oceans.” “We work with politicians, scientists, and other specialists, but Lewis brings something else to the table,” says Simon Reddy, project director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy, a U.K.-based campaign to establish marine preserves. “He distills a message into arguments everyone can understand—and then he actually goes and swims in these places.”
Sitting in his car, Pugh says, “Our oceans are in an absolutely dreadful state. We’ve come to a stage where we need to set aside huge sections as proper marine reserves, if there’s any chance of the oceans and life in them surviving. But it isn’t happening. Governments are ignoring the problem.”
He pauses a moment, then asks me a question: “Do you know how many square kilometers of water are fully protected around the United Kingdom? Guess.”
“I’m going with zero.”
“You’re closer than anyone ever guessed before,” he says. “The answer is seven.”
Which brings us to why, for his next challenge, Pugh will attempt the English Channel. “A really brilliant idea isn’t an ‘aha’ but an ‘oh, duh,’ ” Pugh tells me. “It’s the thing that has been right before your eyes the whole time.” He calls the Channel “the Everest” of the world’s high seas—as a bonus, it’s not a remote sea but a high-traffic zone in view of London, a major node of global media.
The plan is to start on July 12 from Plymouth, on the southwestern tip of England, and average six miles a day (about five to six hours in the water) until he reaches Dover, nearly 350 miles. He’s expecting rough tides and 60-degree water—hardly extreme by Pugh’s standards but cold enough to leech body heat and potentially cause hypothermia in two hours. Mainly, though, what sets this swim apart is its monumental 50-day duration. He has never tested his body in such a way before. His previous longest swim was the Sognefjord, which was 21 days. “And that,” he says, “shattered me.”
“What do you see as the biggest risk?” I ask.
He looks out in the direction of the naval vessel. “Not to be heard,” he says. “You’re doing a swim for 50 days, you’re trying to get the attention of people and governments, and you’re ignored. We’re not talking about threats to the ocean that will happen sometime in the future. We’re talking about what’s happening right now. Governments have to act quickly, yet they’re ignoring it. A disaster is upon us.”
Pugh has skirted the edge of personal disaster. In 2015 he attempted a swim in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. He lasted just five minutes. The water temperature was just above the 28.4-degree freezing mark of salt water, but the minus-35 air temperature frosted his arms with each stroke, and water got in his mouth and froze his tongue, rendering him temporarily mute. “I thought I was going to lose my life,” he says.
“Our oceans are in a dreadful state. We need to set aside huge marine reserves, but governments are ignoring the problem.”
But the near-death experience made for dramatic images, creating a notoriety that Pugh leveraged to lobby support for a treaty to make the Ross Sea a marine reserve. Those images, and Pugh’s message, struck an unexpected chord in Russia, where cold-water endurance swimming is a big deal. Pugh immediately recognized that what he’d taken for an awful failure was in fact just the opening he’d been looking for. He booked a ticket to Moscow. “Before Lewis came to Moscow, this issue was nowhere near the radar of this critical country,” says Nick Bobrov, the managing director of the Delahunt Group, a public affairs and government-relations consulting firm, who helped arrange meetings for Pugh in Russia. But Pugh’s bravery in Antarctica, Bobrov says, had “the boldness, the unheard-of daring that earns anyone’s respect.” With the support of Russian officials, Lewis was able to make things happen, and in 2016, the Ross Sea agreement was signed, forbidding fishing in more than 400,000 square miles of the body of water.
Of course, a single treaty isn’t enough. Shut off the Ross Sea and drillers and fisherman can just move to the nearby Amundsen Sea. That’s why he is on a mission to get six more marine areas protected by the end of 2020. It will require mobilizing the public to put pressure on their governments. Success, if it comes, will be the end of a long process, and he’s hoping the Channel swim will jump-start the journey. At this immediate and much less dramatic moment near Cape Town, however, a lethargy has descended upon us.
“Did you bring a bathing costume?” he asks.
“Forgot,” I say, which isn’t true. But I’ve known Pugh for many years, and every invitation to join him in a body of water has ended well but, let’s be honest, has also been painful—like not being able to feel my feet for two hours after a dip in a glacial lake in Norway.
“I brought one for you,” he says.
“That was thoughtful.”
But a few minutes pass, and he’s still sitting behind the wheel of his pickup.
“I’m just feeling so damn ‘nafai,’” he says.
It’s a military acronym for “negative attitude, fuck all interest.” But he also knows that when you’re going for the swim of your life, there is no taking off a whole day of training.
And with that, he starts his wannabe pickup truck, rolls up the window, and takes a long, last look at the water. “Ah,” he says, “I can come back later.”