HOW TO PLAN A SWIMMING EXPEDITION - PART THREE - "WE HAVEN'T HAD ENOUGH OF EXPERTS"
This is the 3rd post in our series focused on how to plan outdoor/wild swimming (whatever you want to call it) expeditions. Apologies for the slight delay in the series, I’ve just moved to Singapore and have been distracted by following the families of Smooth Coated Otters around the island and been getting rather soft in the outdoor pools! So, back to expedition planning, this series is focused on sharing with you exactly how we went about organising our adventures and how you can plan and build your very own expedition. We will focus on “world first” expeditions or swims that haven’t been accomplished, again if the swim you want to attempt has been done before then that person is the key to a successful expedition. In the 3rd part of this series we’ll be looking at why and how you should engage with the aquatic experts in the global swimming community and why “We Haven’t Had Enough of Experts”.
If one small sentence had perfectly encapsulated pretty much everything that is wrong with modern society it was Michael Gove’s infamous line during the Brexit campaign – “We’ve had enough of experts”. Anyone with even 1% of a brain knows that experts are absolutely crucial to any successful endeavour and an “expert” is just someone who has acquired in-depth knowledge through experience. No matter what you’re planning, consulting experts is critical, and a swimming expedition is no different.
Luckily the outdoor swimming community is one of the most welcoming, non-macho, supportive and caring groups out there and swimmers are always there to lend a helping hand. So, you’ve read Part 1 and 2 of this series on coming up with “The Why” and “The Source” and now you need to work out whether your expedition is possible or might have you sleeping with the fishes.
Your first port of call should be the large-scale open forums which are full of all types of swimmers, dippers, splashers, leapers, carvers, sploshers, you name it they’ll all likely be congregating in these warm and welcoming online assemblies of the land weary. We would recommend the “Outdoor Swimming Society” Facebook Group as at over 25,000+ members there is bound to be someone who can help with your expedition. Keep your response open and humble and always ask for ADVICE. I would use this group for smaller, safer expeditions as the open nature of the group can help quickly aggregate local advice for your expedition. It’s also a really good place to start to check if something has been swim before, usually firing off a “Does anyone in here know if X has been swum?” is a good place to start (whilst obviously not 100% official). You can also consult their excellent crowd sourced swim map the “Wild Swim Map” which is a collection of swim spots all over the world sourced and created by local experts, combining a vast network with intense localised knowledge. Some other great forums are;
Openwaterpedia – This is INCREDIBLE – a veritable hive of swimming knowledge
Marathon Swimmers Forum - Just you wait till you find out what swimmers can accomplish
International Ice Swimming Association - All things cold
WOWSA - Huge database of swims
Wild Swimming Guides - New locations and destination scouting
The Next Challenge - For Beginners
Next up I would advise going incredibly niche and really looking for swimmers who have completed an expedition similar to the style of swim you’re planning. For our “Swim the Eden” expedition, a source to sea 145km river swim, we reached out to Lake District local and all-round swimming sage Colin Hill, who provided invaluable and honest advice about the realities and challenges that lay ahead for us. Kate Rew, from the OSS, was also incredibly helpful in connecting us with swimmers who might be able to provide specific tips on overcoming multi-day river swims. For our world first crossings of the Norwegian maelstroms of the Arctic Circle I had to do some research into the only maelstrom that had been swum before, the Corryvreckan in Scotland, after finding out it had first been swum by Eric Blair in 1984, the one legged nephew of George Orwell, who had sadly since passed away. I managed, after some more digging, to find out it had been swum again almost 20 years later by SwimTrek founder Simon Murie, being the only person alive to have first-hand advice of swimming a maelstrom for the 1st time I’d have to have been a complete moron not to ask him for advice. Needless to say, his tips to go and recce the location before attempting the swim and building a deep trust and bond with the ship captain were critical to the success of the Into the Maelstrom expedition. I booked a 4-day recce in June 2016, proved to the ship captains that I was sincere, serious about the swims and honest in my convictions. Seeing the maelstroms up close gave me the confidence to plan the final part of the expedition and we completed the world first crossings later that August.
After a quick tally in the last four years I’ve sent over 200 emails asking people for advice for various swimming expeditions (countless more ideas have failed and remain uncompleted than those which have succeeded - The Dragons Breath Cave in Namibia being a spectacular fail - more on that in a future article);
This policy of seeking out the other mavericks who’ve attempted other similar world first expeditions will ultimately give you the confidence and assurance that your own swimming expedition has merit and is possible. From asking Marathon swimmers about how to overcome a deep seated fear of Great White Sharks (look at the data & focus on statistics, pretend you’re the most disgusting piece of food at a banquet, trust in your support team) to consulting Ocean Topography Experts on the behavior of maelstroms, we’ve asked many a weird and wonderful question of the outdoor swimming community and no question has ever been laughed at. Make sure you do your research, that you’re speaking to the right person for the right swim and that you are humble and are seeking advice.
Last October I decided that I wanted to attempt an Ice 1km, which is a kilometer swim in under 5 degrees water, I would try and use it as a building block towards completing an Ice Mile (moving to an equatorial climate has since rather scuppered that). I began my training in October and was frankly incredibly daunted about the prospect. Now if you were to look only at the surface, swimming in incredibly cold water isn’t advised, in fact many triathlons and events cancel events when the water drops below 10 degrees let alone 5 degrees. However, through a combination of chatting to locals at my lido, twitter, email and online research you find out very quickly that there is a welcoming and highly experienced world of Ice Swimmers who swim safely in temperatures below 5 degrees all over the world all year round. In what is still a fledgling, potentially lethal and understudied “sport” it was crucial to ask for advice from experts. I got incredible and invaluable tips from a myriad of swimmers from all over the world, Leon Fryers, Ram Barkai, Ice Mindset, Matthew Davenport and Julie from my local lido, Brockwell. Their expertise propelled me onwards, right down to the perfect combination of post swim tea being honey & lemon! They also advised that ice swimming alone wasn’t particularly wise and whilst I trained at a Lido with lifeguards and other swimmers, Little Brother Jack also joined me for our weekly “Sacred Sunday Swim” and having him in the water with me gave me immense confidence and my longest and strongest swims were always on Sunday’s when he was in the water with me.
The final reason why you should consult expert swimmers is that it’s really important to pay your dues, respect those who’ve come before you and learn from experience. If you’re setting out to claim a world first or attempt to do something no one has done then you need to be pretty certain that you’ve taken all possible precaution, advice and are properly prepared for the swim ahead. Paying homage at the altars of other swimmers is crucial to the success of your own expedition. A swimmer called Ben Hooper recently attempted a rather ill-fated expedition to swim across the Atlantic, it was rather calamitous and he, whether fairly or not, was widely lampooned by the international swimming community. Now, I’m not going to weigh in but the only thing I would say was that he failed to properly consult the very community with which all chances of succeeding rested, the marathon swimming community, specifically the open ocean marathon swimming community. He’d had enough of experts and just wanted to dive in regardless, ultimately any swimming expedition which ignores expert advice or doesn’t even ask for it is doomed from the start.
So now you’ve spoken to the experts the crucial next part is really understanding if the expedition is safe enough to attempt, whether you’re willing to take the risk and embark on “The Leap of Faith”…
Next week – Stage 4 of Planning a Swimming Expedition “The Leap of Faith”
For the story behind our journey from Cumbrian couch potatoes to everyday adventurers check out Little Brother Jacks book - “Swim Wild”