HOW TO PLAN A SWIMMING EXPEDITION - PART SIX - "Call me Ishmael"

Welcome to the 6th post in our series focused on how to plan outdoor/wild swimming (whatever you want to call it) expeditions. Again apologies for the delay in posts, what was meant to be weekly has now moved to “sporadically”… C- for me! As you now hopefully know these articles are focused on sharing with you exactly how we went about organising our adventures and how you can plan and build your very own swimming expedition. We are looking at “world first” expeditions or swims that haven’t been accomplished, again if the swim you want to attempt has been done then take that person for a drink. In part 6 of this series we take an in depth look at navigating the world of tea stained maps and ship captains and help you build trust and a relationship with your ship captain in “Call Me Ishmael”.

We open this weeks article with the famous words of the narrator and surviving member of the Peuqod from Herman Meville’s “Moby Dick”, the reason we do so is because to me it perfectly conveys the mystical and old world aura of ship captains. Wizened seafarers with tales of the ferocious power of nature and looks that could pierce steel, whilst this is somewhat a romantic view of the world of ocean-goers it’s safe to say that most swimming expeditions worth their salt would never have been accomplished without an experienced, expert and knowledgable ship captain. Like Sherpa’s to Climbers, Ship Captains are the unsung heroes of the swimming world and are often seen in the background of celebratory photos, a calm and steady gaze avoiding the limelight. Their meticulous knowledge of the tides, currents, navigation and underwater topography are the unseen weapon in your swimming expeditions arsenal. If you’re planning your swimming expedition in unfamiliar territory then you will no doubt be putting your life in their hands. In truth the swimmer often has the easier job, their obstacles are likely psychological (dangerous wildlife, jellyfish, fear) whereas the dangers for the ship captain manifest themselves more readily (current, waves, tides). They also assume a huge burden of responsibility and building a solid relationship with them can be the key to your success.

When we first started our adventures as the Wild Swimming Brothers our first expedition in 2015 was “Swim the Eden” a 9 day 145km river swim, for this we didn’t need a ship captain as the majority of the river was unnavigable by boat and we had support kayakers instead. However, in preparation for this we decided to swim the Corryvreckan Maelstrom off the coast of Scotland, this had been swum around 100 times before and was a relatively popular swim amongst the albeit rather niche group of maelstrom swimmers. After a short bit of research and tip off from Graham at Swimtrek we were introduced to local ship captain Duncan, the revered legendary sailor who’d been escorting swimmers across the maelstrom for the past decade. This was our first taste of working with a ship captain and it was an incredible experience. His knowledge, confidence and self assured nature helped give us complete and utter belief that we were in safe hands and it’s these attributes I would advise you look out for;

  • Experience - How long has the ship captain been navigating the waters where you intend to swim?

  • Tours - Look for ship captains who run wildlife watching tours/geological sites. It’s unlikely that for a world first swim there will be a ship captain who specifically runs swimming trips so a ship captain whose runs boat tours is your best best.

  • Passion - Look at reviews on trip advisor/websites etc of their tours/excursions.

  • Other Swimmers - Look for recommendations from other swimmers who may have used a captain for a different swim in the past.

Crossing the Corryvreckan together in 2015.

Crossing the Corryvreckan together in 2015.

Now you’ve identified an experienced ship captain who has been running wildlife watching/tours in the area you’re intending to swim, you can see from their website/social media that they have been doing so for a significant amount of time and that they are well reviewed. How do you go about approaching them with your mad swimming plan? I think the best approach is to dive in headfirst with an open and honest email, see below for the 1st email I ever sent to Knut Westvig of Stella Polaris in late 2015, the most experienced ship captain in the Saltstraumen region in Norway’s Arctic Circle;

Wishing for a dose of madness in return.

Wishing for a dose of madness in return.

I think for the 1st intro it’s best to talk in theoretical terms and to pique interest as well as show integrity without being too presumptuous. You don’t want to approach it with a “we will do it” macho complex because it really won’t help and ultimately if they don’t think it’s possible it would likely be folly to attempt it. Simply and clearly state your intentions and ask for their advice and help. This is the first step in a long road and don’t be too forthcoming or direct. Once you’ve passed that stage and they’ve agreed/confirmed that the swim is theoretically possible my biggest piece of advice would be to do a swim recce/scouting trip and go out and meet them. We did this for our Norwegian swims and I took a short 4 day break and visited both Knut of Stella Polaris and Lars & Therese, this really helped to build trust and showcase that we were genuine about attempting the swims. It’s one thing to sit behind a computer and to send an email or tweet but to get face to face to discuss the swim in detail and highlight your sincerity and pedigree as a swimmer is invaluable. At this stage it’s likely that they think you’re rather mad or at least eccentric but meeting them in person and building trust is crucial.

So you’ve researched the most experienced captain, approached them about the swim, won their buy in and visited them and the location of the swim. How do you actually work with them on the swim itself? We’re going to be exploring this in much greater detail in the next article around your swim strategy but the first and most important thing I would say is that you absolutely have to 100% listen and respect their judgement. They have the final word and say about whether the swim goes ahead and they are in control. Whether this is due to conditions, tides, weather, currents, wildlife you have to listen to them. There is no point working with an expert if you’re not going to listen to them.

The final thing I would say is that it really is an absolute pleasure to work alongside them, they like you likely have a love and wonder of the natural world and devout their lifetime to outdoor pursuits with even greater relish than your own. Both Knut and Therese whom we worked with on the Norwegian maelstroms were an absolute pleasure to work with and without their commitment and knowledge we’d never have accomplished the swims. When it comes to a world first expedition you’ve both achieved something extremely special, you the first to complete the swim and them the first to pioneer and lead a swimmer across. Despite not having known each other previously and perhaps even only for a fleeting moment you’ll have built a long lasting bond in a shared moment of personal triumph.

Therese mentioned to us that she’d been approached by many people previously who wanted to dive or sail in the Moskstraumen, the biggest maelstrom in the world, but that we were the first and only people who’d followed up on our initial approach and actually come out to the Arctic and done it.

The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

So now you’ve earned the trust of your ship captain and built the relationship and foundation that the expedition rests upon. Next up we want to take an in depth look at how you build your strategy for the swim, work out your extraction and make sure “I Have a Cunning Plan”.

Next week – Stage 7 of Planning a Swimming Expedition “I Have a Cunning Plan”

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

Knut Westvig of Stella Polaris leading the way.

Knut Westvig of Stella Polaris leading the way.