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Wild Men

The Ice Breaker

In the first of a series of profiles on those who exhibit style far from civilisation, Ms Sophy Roberts introduces us to British endurance swimmer Mr Lewis Pugh

On 15 July 2007, Mr Lewis William Gordon Pugh, a maritime lawyer by training and endurance swimmer by choice, stood in a polar landscape wearing nothing more than a pair of Speedos, a swim cap and goggles. His chiseled, 6’1” frame looked blush-pink as he prepared to dive off an ice floe’s edge into the inky black Arctic Ocean. A spectral grey mist hung low over the water. His iPod shuffled between Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me”. He uttered a small prayer, handed his iPod to a member of his five-man team, then, with a face of steel, he slipped into water that measures minus 1.7°C.

Spanning 1,000m, this was the longest, coldest swim ever attempted by a human being in this extreme climate – which is true only if one accepts that Mr Pugh is, in fact, a member of our species. The scientific fraternity considers him a curious aberration. Via a phenomenon called anticipatory thermogenesis, Mr Pugh can elevate his body’s core temperature to 38.5°C in below-freezing temperatures – the only known person to be able to do this. More fish than man, he powered between the ice floes, stroke after stroke, in a rhythm that acquired a haunting presence in the empty Arctic landscape.

The swim, which he completed in 18 minutes and 50 seconds, set a record as the only one of its kind, and earned him the sobriquet “the Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming”. But the point was to draw as much attention to the North Pole’s melting ice as to Mr Pugh’s daring achievement – and in the media attention that followed, he transformed his profile from endurance swimmer to serious environmental advocate, with the ear of influencers from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the United Nations.

It is a sharp autumn day in October 2014 when I meet Mr Pugh over breakfast in Mayfair. He wears jeans and a T-shirt. He speaks slowly, choosing his words carefully. When not talking, he relies on an intense stare from beneath expressive brows, along with a half-smile and an elegant aquiline jawline to hold his listener’s attention. He brings nothing with him – no coat, no bag – except his swimming cap and goggles, which he puts on the breakfast table. He eats nothing during the course of our conversation.

The previous evening, the 44-year-old had lectured at the Royal Geographical Society. A United Nations “patron for oceans”, Mr Pugh speaks at around 120 events a year. He has written two bestselling books; the motivational sound bites come easily. Mr Pugh’s TED Talks have accumulated nearly 600,000 views.

He talks knowledgeably about the plight of oceans, from whaling to the shark-fin industry. None of these issues do I mean to belittle by appearing distracted by the cap and goggles – a capsule wardrobe he says he keeps on his person at all times. Indeed, Mr Pugh is only half-joking when he suggests we do the interview over breaststroke in London’s Serpentine lake. I’m not keen, especially on hearing about one leg of his most recent expedition last August, for which he swam 60km from Southend in the North Sea up to the Thames Barrier. “I got so sick, I thought I had Ebola,” he says. “I vomited for two days.”

Mr Pugh may have launched his career with pioneering swims – in his teens and twenties, he swam the shark-infested Cape of Good Hope, and crossed the croc-rich Lake Malawi – but two decades on, this is a wild man comfortable in the campaigner’s skin, who undertakes these expeditions in order to relay a message. “Those people who have been truly successful are focused on single issues,” he says. “I love doing it. It’s my passion. It’s become my mission.”

He turns the conversation to his summer campaign: swimming the ancient Seven Seas in the space of a month. Incorporating the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Arabian, Black, Red and North seas, the swims presented no sharks, whales or dolphins, nor any fish longer than a 30cm ruler. Instead, Mr Pugh describes the trash-covered sea bed (the Adriatic and Red seas in particular), a reality that takes him back a decade, to perhaps the defining moment of his intrepid career. The swim took place at Deception Island in Antarctica and the horror of what he witnessed there shifted his world view permanently.

“You have the mist coming off the water, you’ve got snow, and then these spiky mountains,” recalls Mr Pugh. “Penguins are walking down the beach into the sea, and there are black volcanic beaches covered with desolate buildings from an old whaling factory. I wasn’t even 30m out from the shore when I saw whalebones everywhere – sometimes piled so high, I had to take half-strokes or I’d scrape my arms. We’d come this close to wiping out whales for ever.

“Let me just hammer this point in,” he says, leaning in towards me. “A recent WWF report said we’ve lost 52 per cent of the world’s wildlife in 40 years. And yet people aren’t listening.”

I am, I reassure him. He tells me his next swim is planned for early 2015, but remains tight-lipped on the geographical details. I suggest it may prove to be the swim that kills him, since this time he will be swimming with sharks of a more political variety. “I feel comfortable putting my life on the line, and speaking the truth, without any deference,” Mr Pugh says simply. Then he puts the cap and goggles in his pocket. He smiles that half-smile, and is gone, coatless, unable to feel the seasonal chill when the rest of us are reaching for the cashmere.

Mr Pugh’s next endurance swim is scheduled to take place in early 2015. Follow him here.

  • Mr Pugh stands on top of a glacier before diving in, Antarctica, December 2005 New York Times/ Eyevine