How To Plan A Swimming Expedition - Part Ten - "The Top 10 Greatest Swimming Expeditions"

Welcome to the 10th and final article in our series focused on how to plan outdoor/wild swimming (whatever you want to call it) expeditions. Apologies for the rather large delay, I turned 30 and had a few weeks off looking for Komodo Dragons in Indonesia. As this series draws to a close we wanted to showcase some of the most insane, incredible and inspiring swimming expeditions ever accomplished. We’ll be looking at the top 10 and counting down, for the purposes of the article we will be looking only at “World First” expeditions to attempt to simplify the criteria and looking at all aspects of organising the expedition, the danger of the swim itself, wildlife, distance, cold, currents etc, the logistics and difficulty of actually pulling it off as well the mental toll and phycological impact of the expedition. This is by no means a finite list and is just our opinion on the myriad of monstrous aquatic adventures out there and the mermen and merwomen who’ve completed them, so without further ado…

Number 10 - Sean Conway - Length of Britain

Sean Conway’s monstrous swim of the entire the length of Britain, starting on 30 June 2013 and finishing on 11 November 2013, after 4 1/2 months of swimming takes the 1st spot on the list. He swum over 900 miles (1,400 km), in 135 days, 90 of which were spent in the water and he was forced to grow a thick beard to help prevent jellyfish stinging his face. This swim was mind-boggling in scope, insanely difficult from a financial and logistical point of view and made all the madder by the fact he was an amateur swimmer and nearly drowned on the 1st day. This was the 1st time anyone completed the swim and arguably changed the landscape of long-distance multi-day swimming! Fully deserving of the first spot on the list.

Sean Conway

Number 9 - Ross Edgley - Great British Swim

Just when you were starting to think that the last swim was impressive up stepped Ross Edgley… all-round rhino man and muscle-bound machine, not a typical swimmer, he took the outdoor swimming world by storm in 2018 with the absolutely mind-shattering multi-day swim… a circumnavigation of the British Isles. He spent over 157 days at sea, not touching land once and swam over 3,200km in the process, INSANE! Definitely deserves its spot on this list for taking swimming expeditions by the scruff of the neck and supercharging them!

Number 8 - Sarah Thomas - Quadruple English Channel Crossing

Quadruple English Channel Crossing… just let those words sink in for a while… the English Channel, the Everest of swimming…. 4 TIMES. 2 weeks ago Sarah Thomas changed the concept of what is possible in open water swimming expeditions with a monstrous world-first 4-way crossing. It took more than 54 hours and was due to be about 80 miles but because of strong tides, she ended up swimming closer to 130 miles. 130 miles without stopping, a swimming expedition to end all swimming expeditions. Easily deserves a place on this list for being almost so insane no one else had ever thought of it.


Number 7 - Lord Byron - Hellespont Crossing

Now, this swim is by no means anywhere near as physically impressive as the previous 3 swims or any of the swims on the list for that matter but it takes the number 7 spot as it’s arguably the 1st ever “Swimming Expedition” and set an iconic precedent that is still followed to this day. On May 3, 1810, English romantic poet Lord Byron and a Royal Navy marine named William Ekenhead swam across the Hellespont, a narrow strait that separates Europe and Asia near Troy in Turkey. Although the point at which the two men crossed was only a mile or so wide, the powerful currents that surge through the narrows forced them to swim nearly four miles before they eventually waded ashore. Lord Byron is said to have done it to honour Leander, the mythological Greek who swam these treacherous waters each night to meet up with his lover, Hero, on the far shore. For being an ancient and iconic swim, Lord Byron takes the number 7 spot.


Number 6 - Stephen Redmond - Oceans Seven

Stephen has a lot to answer for when it comes to the modern phenomenon of swimming expeditions, after piggybacking on the concept of the 7 Summits in mountaineering, he created the “Oceans Seven” and became an inspiration for swimmers all over the world. He swam the English Channel between England and France in August 2009, followed by the North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland a year later. In May 2011 he swam the Gibraltar Strait between Spain and Morocco and then in October of that year he swam the Catalina Channel off California. He followed that up with a swim of the Molokai Channel in Hawaii and then the Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand the same month. Redmond completed the challenge with his 20km swim of the Tsugaru Strait in Japan. This has gone on to become one of the most iconic sets of swimming expeditions out there and is deserving of a spot on the list.


Number 5 - Matthew Webb - English Channel

Now, this has to arguably be the most iconic swimming expedition of all time, on August 25, 1875 (yes you read that correctly… 1875) 27-year-old Matthew Webb set off from Dover, England, and began swimming to France. Twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes later he waded ashore, having become the first person known to have swum the English Channel unaided. The swim is even all the more impressive because it was his second attempt at crossing the Channel. The first, two weeks earlier, had to be abandoned due to rough weather. Webb's time, achingly slow by the standards of today's Channel swimmers, is better than it sounds. Adverse tides off France's Cap Gris Nez delayed his arrival for nearly five hours. After his famous crossing, he became a celebrity and a professional endurance swimmer. Looking for other challenges—and $12,000 in prize money—he was killed attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls on July 24, 1883. No list of swimming expeditions could be complete without this legendary swim and true example of horizon expansion.

Matthew Webb

Number 4 - Gertrude Ederle - English Channel

Now you might argue that this swim isn’t a world first as she wasn’t the first person to do it, however, being the first women to swim the channel in a time of repression and institutionalized misogyny deserves to eclipse Matthew Webbs 1st crossing. On August 6, 1926 Gertrude Ederle, a 20-year-old American swimming sensation, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but also set the record for the fastest time by either sex, clocking in at 14 hours and 39 minutes when she swam from Cap Gris Nez in France to Kingsdown on the coast of Kent in England. On arrival, the exhausted "Queen of the Waves," as the press dubbed her, was pestered by an overzealous British immigration official who demanded to see her passport. Don’t you love the establishment! Ederle's record time, nearly two hours faster than the fastest of the five men known to have swum the Channel before her, stood for nearly a quarter of a century. She was a true swimming icon, pushed the boundaries and opened the doors for women to embark on swimming expeditions. This photo alone is one of the most enduring images of any swimming expedition and she looks almost light an astronaut stepping out into space.

Gertrude Ederle

Number 3 - Lewis Pugh - English Channel

The Human Polar Bear, The Speedo Diplomat, The UN Patron of the Oceans, The Sir Edmund Hilary of Swimming… Lewis Pugh is a huge force for change and has used swimming expeditions to fight and campaign against environmental degradation and the destruction of our oceans. In truth, it’s hard to pick just one Lewis Pugh expedition. He’s almost invented the modern concept, brought in huge brands and sponsors, worked with TV, done Ted Talks and overhauled the world of outdoor swimming expeditions. He was the first person to swim around Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point in Africa), the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula (a 100 km (62 mi) swim from Cape Town to Muizenberg) and also through some serious Great White Shark territory. He was also the first person to swim across an African Great Lake, namely Lake Malawi (serious Crocodile Territory). But as we have to pick one of them we’ll go with his world-first swim across the North Pole in 2007 to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice. The 1 km (0.62 mi) swim was across the geographic North Pole, in minus 1.7 °C (29 °F) water and took 18 minutes and 50 seconds to complete. That’s right minus 1.7 °C (29 °F) a temperature that defies belief. This was a logistical, financial, organisational monster as well as entailing one of the most physically challenging swims ever undertaken, but its true merit is in its message, a campaign highlighting the increased effect of global warming on the melting ice caps, a mighty swim and even mightier message, truly deserving of the 3rd spot on the list.

"Between Lynne Cox, Martin Strel and myself, we've hit all of the world's major landmarks. There's really nothing left."

Lewis Pugh

Number 2 - Martin Strel - Length of the Amazon

Some swimming expeditions are so incredible that they transcend the swimming world and penetrate popular culture and world news. Martin Strels world-first swim of the Amazon River is one such swim. The Big River Man was an icon in the world of swimming expeditions and had built a niche as the worlds most experienced river swimmer earning himself the nickname “Big River Man”. He’d already swum the Danube River (2,860 km) In July 2001, he achieved 504.5 kilometres (313.5 mi) of non-stop swimming in the Danube again within 84 hours and 10 minutes. In 2002, he swam the entire Mississippi River (3,885 km) in 68 days. In 2003, he swam the Argentine Paraná River (3,998 km). On 10 June 2004, Martin started swimming down the Yangtze River (4,003 kilometres (2,487 km) the third-longest in the world. But it was his swim down the Amazon that truly shattered the swimming world, commencing on 1 February 2007, finishing 66 days later on April 7, 2007. This was a record-breaking distance of 5,268 kilometres (3,273 mi), longer than the width of the Atlantic Ocean. He had escort boats that were prepared to pour blood into the river to distract meat-eating fish such as piranhas, overcame huge rapids and whirlpools, pirates, floating trees, crocodiles, snakes, bull sharks, electric eels and disease. Truly deserving of the second spot on the list for arguably being one of the most difficult swimming expeditions to pull off from a logistical point of view, the organisation required to support him, have a boat and crew, get permissions, raise money etc is colossal. We strongly recommend watching the documentary “Big River Man” and finding out all about the journey for yourself.

Martin Strel

Number 1 - Lynne Cox - The Bering Strait

Despite the strength and iconic status of all 9 of the other swims on the list we were never in doubt as to who would take the number spot, Lynne Cox is a true pioneer and undoubtedly the greatest swimmer of all time as well as holder of pulling off the most insane swimming expedition of all time, no questions asked, no room for disagreement, this is quite simply not only the greatest swimming expedition of all time but one of the greatest expeditions of all time right up there with Hilary’s ascent of Everest and Armstrong’s first step on the moon. It’s a crying shame and huge disservice that this swim isn’t more widely known! After twice setting records for crossing the English Channel (1972 and 1973), swimming the treacherous waters of the Cook Strait between New Zealand's north and south islands (1975), and crossing the Straits of Magellan in Chile in 1976, Boston-born swimmer Lynne Cox hatched a plan to become the first person to swim across the Bering Strait, the frigid passage of water between Alaska and what was then the Soviet Union. Braving waters that were only barely above freezing—roughly 4°C (39°F)—Cox swam the 2.3 miles between Little Diomede Island in Alaska and Big Diomede in the USSR in 2 hours and 6 minutes. In doing so, she became the first person to cross the US-USSR border in 48 years.

1st up let’s look at the swim itself. An ice mile (1 mile swim in speedos in sub 5 degrees of water) is considered to be one of the most extreme swims any swimmer can complete, this swim was 2.3 miles at 4 degrees, that’s a double ice mile with an extra 300m. Yes, you read that correctly, a double ice mile with an extra 300m. Even within the extreme communities of ice swimmers, this distance is colossal at that temperature and whilst many purists will argue against other swims on the list (wetsuits, multi-day etc) this swim is beyond argument. Not only was it a double ice mile and some, because of the strength of the currents the swim lasted over 2 hours, the average ice mile is also completed in around 30 minutes, so effectively she was in the water 4 times longer… To this day it’s a feat never surpassed.

2nd of all let’s look at the financial, logistical and operational difficulty, it’s a world-first attempt between two countries who were at war, no one had crossed the USA/USSR border in 48 years. She had to repeatedly petition both governments multiple times for access and even at the last minute was unsure.

Last up let’s look at the impact of the swim, she earned praise from both US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At the signing of the INF Missile Treaty at the White House, Gorbachev made a toast. He and President Reagan lifted their glasses and Gorbachev said: "Last summer it took one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other. We saw on television how sincere and friendly the meeting was between our people and the Americans when she stepped onto the Soviet shore. She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live". She singlehandedly helped thaw the Cold War tensions between the USA and USSR, swam a double ice mile and set a new bar for swimming expeditions. Truly the greatest swimming expedition of all time.

Lynne Cox crossing the Bering Strait.

Lynne Cox crossing the Bering Strait.

So now you’ve been inspired by the greatest swimming expeditions ever completed, from mind-boggling logistical nightmares to negotiating with warring world powers, from deep fears of highly concentrated dangerous wildlife to bonkers feats of physical endurance. We hope you’ve enjoyed this 10 part series and if there is anything we’ve missed, any areas we’ve forgotten to cover or if you’re still unsure how to plan a swimming expedition then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Next week – We Announce a new “Swimming Expedition Grant”….

For the story behind our journey from Cumbrian couch potatoes to everyday adventurers check out Little Brother Jacks book - “Swim Wild”

Calum HudsonComment