South African swims the length of Britain


22 November 2013

“I was told I was going to die & it couldn’t be done. But after 135 days, I’ve only gone and done it,” South African Sean Conway wrote on Twitter on 11 November after becoming the first person to swim the length of Great Britain.

Conway left Land’s End in Cornwall on 30 June and reached John O’Groats in Scotland on 11 November.

“It’s now been 10 days since I’ve become the first person to swim the length of Great Britain (via Ireland). My supposedly two-month swim took me four-and-a-half months as I battled 12 degree water, jellyfish stings in the face and 20-foot waves,” he said in an e-mail to SAinfo this week.

‘The hardest thing I have ever done’

“It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done,” Conway said. “It was great to have fellow South Africa swimmer Kenton Kirkwood come over and swim with me as I made my way up Ireland. While he was with us we did your biggest day of 32km. That was a huge boost to the team morale.”

For a man who has cycled around the world, covering 25 750 kilometres, three- quarters of those with a fractured spine, that’s quite a statement. However, there is a reason no one had swum the length of Britain previously, and for a man whose previous longest swim had been three miles (4.8 kilometres), it was a massive challenge.

‘It’s my oxygen’

Conway, though, is driven by big challenges. Before his departure he told SAinfo: “It’s my oxygen. I seem to thrive at being cold, wet, hungry and sleep deprived. I can’t explain it. I actually get panic attacks at the thought of being average and just existing on this planet.”

During the swim, Conway grew a huge, red beard that has become a media sensation in its own right, but which served to protect him against jellyfish stings.

“I’ve inadvertently now become ‘The Swimmer’ and it still hasn’t sunk in at all. Being cold and wet for four-and-a-half months has taken its toll and I’m keen to take some time out and relax for a bit.”

The Midmar Mile

Recalling where his love for endurance challenge began, he added: “Thanks to everyone at the Midmar Mile. I started my swimming career there at the age of 11 and it’s been great knowing I’ve had their support.”

When Conway takes on his challenges – which have also included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in a penguin suit – he always does his bit for charity. On this occasion, he chose War Child to be the beneficiary of his efforts.

War Child protects children from the brutal effects of war and helps to rebuild their lives. It works in some of the world’s most dangerous countries, providing life- changing support for the most vulnerable children whose homes, families and communities have been torn apart by conflict.

Save the Rhino

Another charity which is close to Conway’s heart is Save the Rhino. His father, Tony, having been chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Rhino Management Group for 19 years, a member of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group for 22 years, and a member of the SADC Rhino Management Group for seven years, is at the forefront of the efforts to save the rhino.

Johannesburg-based Kent Kirkwood, a friend from Conway’s school days in KwaZulu- Natal and a top swimmer with international experience, is also a strong campaigner for Save the Rhino. Kirkwood flew over to the UK to swim with Conway for a week, to provide support and to swim for Save the Rhino. In the end, the raised just short of R30 000 for the charity.

“It was surreal. It was an amazing thing and was up there with the best things I have ever done because it was unique,” Kirkwood told SAinfo this week.

‘A real fighter’

Kirkwood recalled an incident before the Swimming Britain challenge when Conway asked him for some expert advice. “When Sean was out here at the end of last year, he said to me ‘Kent, I need some pointers with my stroke’. He jumped into the pool at a family friend of ours and he started swimming up and down. I thought ‘Oh no, this guy’s going to swim a thousand miles with that stroke!’ But he’s a real fighter. Sean’s determination and the grit is just something else.”

Later, Kirkwood said: “When we were swimming together, the whole time I was having to sit up and turn onto my back, do a bit of breaststroke, to let him catch up. He’s not efficient in the water. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. That’s why I have so much respect for him.”

Kirkwood had joined up with his friend in Ireland after Conway had been swept across to Ireland just after he crossed the Bristol Channel. They met in the south of Ireland.

‘Like a bath tub’

“Sean said to me he had a very, very small boat, so I should just bring a plastic bag,” Kirkwood said. “I rocked up there with my tiny little bag and got onto this boat, which was like a bath tub, parked in a little port down in the south of Ireland, and that was the beginning of our week.

“It was surreal. There was no one else around. There were fishing boats, but no one else was sailing or enjoying the ocean. It’s a cold place.”

The cold was a massive challenge, with water temperatures ranging between 12 and 16 degrees. “The pace that you’re going at is effectively a three out of 10 pace, with 10 being a full out sprint,” Kirkwood explained. “You don’t really generate enough body heat to keep yourself warm for a long time. If you go any and faster than that, you’re not going to manage to swim for six hours a day. You’ve got to eat a huge amount of calories, just to keep warm and to fuel yourself. Energy bars and gels just don’t do it.”

Hot cooked meals

“We were eating hot cooked meals, given to us in the water, like stews and pastas, and we used to add in big blobs of butter just to get the calories up, every hour to hour-and-a-half, a full-on meal,” Kirkwood said.

Despite the huge intake of food, the cold always won out in the end, and despite the protection of two wetsuits the two men would be shaking and shivering after an hour-and-a-half to two hours in the water.

The timing of matters was also important, Kirkwood said. “You’ve got to nail it because your tide is three hours. You’ve got to get as far as you can on the tide and then get out. If you miss your windows, you potentially lose a day of swimming. You’ve just got to try and hammer it while you can.”


Laughing, Kirkwood added: “One evening with Sean, we swam from the mouth of the Dublin harbour up north to the Eye of Ireland, opposite the port city of Howth and that evening it was blowing. The waves were quite big, it was dark, and Sean was so happy, saying to me, ‘Now you can see what it is like’.

“It was pretty insane. Swimming there we couldn’t see the yacht because we would be in the bottom of a swell and the yacht that was following us would be on the other side.”

The cold, though, was not the worst thing. “The biggest problem was jellyfish. We smeared thick vaseline on our faces and wore gloves and booties, but the jellyfish still get you in the face because at night time when you’re swimming you can’t see them very well. You see a shadow coming and then there’s another one. During the night, the jellyfish would come off the bottom. In the day time some areas were bad, but not as bad as the evenings.”

‘Such an adventure’

Kirkwood, though, has been left with a memory that will last a lifetime. “It was such an adventure. It was so exhilarating to be part of this thing. It wasn’t scary. It was more fun. It was great.”