HOW TO PLAN A SWIMMING EXPEDITION - PART FOUR - "THE LEAP OF FAITH"
Welcome to the 4th post in our series focused on how to plan outdoor/wild swimming (whatever you want to call it) expeditions. I’m back into the swing of things now and have spotted the famous smooth coated otters of Singapore again, need to work out a way I can safely swim with them! Anyway, back to planning aquatic adventures, 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 part 4 of this series we’ll be looking at assessing risks, dangers and diving into the unknown with “The Leap of Faith”.
So, you’ve read Part 3 on why “We Haven’t Had Enough of Experts” and are fairly confident that from a logistical point of view your swimming expedition is possible, you’ve come up with “The Source” and have great motivation behind your “Why”. You’ve consulted all the relevant swimmers and gathered advice from ship captains (more on them in a later article) but for any world first swim or expedition there will always be an element of the unknown and you might ask yourself is this really safe? How dangerous is it? Our advice would be that you have to embrace this feeling because in planning a world first expedition this is exactly what you signed up for, you wanted to attempt something no one had done before and you wanted to dive into the unknown. We call this last 1% “The Leap of Faith” and for your expedition it is critical that you take one.
I’d like to immediately counter any flippant or cavalier approaches here and say that the only time you should take this “Leap of Faith” is when you have explored and navigated all possible dangers excluding the final portion of risk. This is what I would refer to as a continual process of mitigating risk and gradually reducing all unknown or uncontrollable variables for any swim. You’ve gradually worked backwards from what might seem like an insane idea and through the process of gradual risk elimination have arrived with only that final 1%, the last unknown which requires the “Leap of Faith”. This is how ice swimmers safely complete ice miles in sub 5 degree water, how open ocean swimmers navigate channels with large numbers of sharks and how long distance river swimmers tackle colossal tributaries with submerged trees and rapids, all seemingly insane ideas which are made possible through a continuous risk mitigation followed by a final leap into the unknown. It’s absolutely paramount to your safety that this “Leap of Faith” is only the final 1%, any expedition where the leap is more than 1% is a stupid idea. For example, we were approached by a production company when we were floating ideas for a TV series on outdoor swimming, one of them asked if we could “swim the Congo” in an epic Heart of Darkness esque adventure down Africa’s most iconic river. Whilst technically possible and with experts like Martin Strel having swum many larger rivers there were a number of reasons why the “Leap of Faith” would have been a Flight of Icarus. Aside from Bilharzia, Endemic Conflicts & Guerrilla Warfare there was the pressing matter of the abundance of extremely large and aggressive African Crocodiles. No matter how ‘epic’ the expedition the risk would have been far too great and ultimately suicidal (“Ooooo I wonder which brother will snuff it first, my money’s on the Middle One…”). Despite what our mum might think we’ve said no to a lot more expeditions than we’ve said yes (more on worrying mum later).
Now I would say the expeditions we’ve done compared with other swimming expeditions aren’t particularly dangerous, source to sea river swims in the UK lack dangerous wildlife or deadly diseases, our cross-continental swims have been in areas with few sharks and whilst maelstroms might seem dangerous (they are a bit dangerous to be fair) from the outset, once you work out the risks then swimming across them can be done reasonably safely. However, when you see them at full force they look practically biblical. Take the Saltstraumen maelstrom, at full bore it is absolutely terrifying and since it had never been swum before, there had to be a “Leap of Faith” taken in swimming across it. Have a look at it below in full force;
Pretty damn terrifying isn’t it! As we were working with Visit Norway and WWF Norge for the expedition across the maelstrom, we were trying to raise the profile of the swim across it and its big sister the Moskstraumen. One journalist from Dagavisen spent 30 minutes telling me I would drown and kill my brothers if we attempted the swim, in fact over 60 people have been killed in its waters and it is arguably one of the most dangerous bodies of water on the planet. As you can imagine this isn’t really what you want to hear but I knew that we had gone through the swim step by step to mitigate all risk and mitigating is the key word. It’s almost impossible to truly eliminate risk so you have to be prepared to mitigate it slowly over time. We knew that because no one had done the swim before that the final 1% was always going to be into the unknown and you have to accept that it can never be 100% safe, even with the greatest planning it can only ever be 99% safe. With this in mind you should be aiming to eliminate all unnecessary or avoidable risk and to have planned for any unavoidable risk. See below;
10% - Consult with Simon Murie previous first person to swim across the Corryvreckan Maelstrom (3rd largest after Saltstraumen at number 2)
20% - Contact the most experienced ship captain in the region, Knut Westvig, who runs wildlife and adventure tours to the Saltstraumen to discuss the swim (in depth experience of visiting the maelstrom twice a day for 19 years)
30% - Rope in my big brother Robbie and little brother Jack so I’m not swimming alone
40% - Travel to Norwegian Arctic Circle on recce mission to meet Knut, build trust and relationship and to see the Saltstraumen first hand
50% - Train relentlessly to improve swim speed, endurance and technique
60% - Research local Orca pods and confirm with Knut that the Norwegian Orca pods are herring hunters and despite being rather intimidating don’t pose a threat
70% - Build a trusted team of close friends to act in support boat alongside Knut
80% - Convince mum that I’m not about to kill myself, Robbie or Jack
90% - Knut to advise on precise window of opportunity for the crossing when Maelstrom is at its lowest ebb
99% - Calculate closely with Knut that the safest window for the crossing is exactly 6.28pm Monday 28th August with a rough window of 12 minutes to make it across the 300m channel
Final 1% - “Leap of Faith” time to swim
Now this “Leap of Faith” might seem daunting but the size of it will depend on the expedition you have planned. You don’t have to take a big leap of faith, for our “Swim the Eden” expedition the leap of faith was very small, for Lynne Cox’s world first crossing of the Bering Strait the leap of faith was colossal (If you think an ice mile is extreme wait till you read about it). Make sure the expeditions leap fits your ability and logistical skill but most importantly remember that that 1% is the most beautiful part of the swim, the one moment where you’re truly in territory that no one has ever been in before. You’ll learn more about yourself and the people with you in that 1% than in the rest of the 99% combined. Have a look at same of the most insane “Leaps of Faith”;
Martin Strel – World first source to sea of the Amazon River (Crocs, Piranhas, Vortexes) - here
Lynne Cox – World first crossing of the Bering Strait (2.7 miles at 3.3 degrees, that’s more than 2.5 ice miles…) - here
Kimberley Chambers – World first swim from the Farallon Islands to SF Bay (Great White Shark Alley) - here
Lewis Pugh – 1km swim at the North Pole (0 Degree temperatures) - here
The final part of the ‘Leap of Faith” for your expedition comes down to whether you are willing to accept responsibility if something goes wrong. Whether you’re swimming with others and potentially endangering them by creating the expedition or whether you’re alone and potentially leaving loved ones behind, you have to accept responsibility for the “Leap of Faith” and own it. For our maelstrom swims I asked myself “What if I kill my brothers?” and our mum argued strongly against us even attempting it and I had to ask myself “Will mum ever speak to me again if one of my brothers drown?”. Now Robbie and Jack long suspected that the swims might have been some elaborate rouse to get rid of them (maybe it was… cue evil laugh muahahaha) but joking aside you need to use this fear as motivation to truly prepare for the expedition whilst also deciding that you want to attempt the swim more than you are afraid or worried by the leap of faith. Taking that final leap and committing to your objective 100% will be the deciding factor in whether your expedition is successful.
So now you’ve decided to take “The Leap of Faith” and commit to your expedition 100%, the next step is assembling an awesome, trustworthy support team and “Building Your Pod”.
Next week – Stage 5 of Planning a Swimming Expedition “Building Your Pod”
For the story behind our journey from Cumbrian couch potatoes to everyday adventurers check out Little Brother Jacks book - “Swim Wild”