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Swimming from Land’s End to John O’Groats

Crushed body parts are no obstacle to world firsts for Sean Conway
February 19, 2014
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It’s cold and raining and I have no desire to go outside which is very uncharacteristic of me. Since getting run over in America, which ended my attempt to become the fastest person to cycle around the world I have become a bit of hermit. I gave up everything for that ride and in one Fell Swoop my dream was crushed, along with my spine and various other body parts, by a careless driver. It’s been hard to get the motivation to do anything for months. Instead I sit and think, if only I had taken a different road or woken up 5 minutes later. I was depressed.

The overwhelming response was "it’s not possible, you’re going to drown, get eaten by a killer whale, or sucked to Australia in a whirlpool"

Today I feel a bit different though. I’m looking through my friend Dave Cornthwaite’s recent swim adventure on Facebook and it looks like he had a good time. Could I do a big swim challenge I ask myself and then burst out laughing because other than wading in at Brighton beach to fetch a wayward Frisbee I haven’t swum since school, a good 12 years ago. I close Facebook and open up Word again to finish off the last bits of my Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle book. It wasn’t more than a few minutes when ‘swimming’ and ‘Land’s End to John O’Groats’ clicked in my mind. Maybe I could do that? It must have been done in the past so I could get advice and have a great British adventure. I jumped on Google to find out more.

Lands End to John O Groats Swim Route

Lands End to John O Groats Swim Route

Whatever I searched I found nothing. The closest thing I found was a guy who put a swimming pool in the back of a van and did lengths as he drove it. Brilliant! Surely someone has swum it though. It’s such an iconic route. I carried on researching and soon found out that not only had it never been done, it had never even been attempted. My stubborn inquisitiveness fired a spark in my belly. Maybe this was the challenge to help me get over the accident. I was excited for the first time in a long while.

Over the next few months I was bombarded with negativity. I submitted posts on swimming forums, yachting forums, anywhere sea or swim related for advice but the overwhelming response was: it’s not possible, you’re going to drown, get eaten by a killer whale, or sucked to Australia in a whirlpool. Getting useful advice was near impossible. Even Guinness World Records said they wouldn’t acknowledge it as a valid world record attempt, but were happy to adjudicate my record for the fastest time to peel and eat three lemons. What a joke!

I was determined, partly naively, to prove people wrong. Nothing suggested it couldn’t be done. It was just finding a way to do it. I was going to have to make that way up as I went along.

Sean Conway arrives at Land's End

Sean Conway arrives at Land's End

So on the 30th June 2013 with all credit cards, overdrafts and lifesavings spent I stood at Land’s End in a wetsuit to begin my great British adventure.

The challenges started right from day one. Myself and 2 of the crew members were seasick right at the start. All three of us simultaneously throwing up everywhere. It wasn’t pretty. We called the day short after 1 mile and decided to rest and eat. Over the next few days we slowly started to find our feet, and sea legs. I was getting stronger, the crew were figuring out systems and after a week of bad weather the wind died down and we had weeks of glorious weather and calm seas. We crept up Cornwall exploring hidden coves and shipwrecks only accessible from the sea, swam with seals and dolphins, and even managed to catch the occasional mackerel from the boat. The adventure was turning out exactly how I wanted it to be. A healthy balance between endurance and exploration.

Seal swimming encounter

Seal swimming encounter

The downside was coming face to face, literally, with my sea nemesis: the lion’s mane jellyfish. I kept getting stung in the face, which was like being burned with a lighter.

Where Cornwall meets Devon we cut north to Lundy island and the over to Wales. It was the first big crossing but having Lundy as a stopover meant only one night at sea. 

On reaching Wales the original plan was to head up the coast, cross to the Isle of Man, then Scotland and a third crossing to Mull of Kintyre. Then in the pub we saw a bit of land off to the west. Was that Ireland? It looked awfully close. We zoomed out and realized it was Ireland and the crossing was about the same as the first crossing to the Isle of Man. The weather was good and if we did this crossing to Ireland it would mean we didn’t have to do the other three later when the weather might be bad. So that was it. I was going to swim to Ireland.

The four-day crossing was tough. Floating around at sea for four days was difficult for me and the crew. We didn’t sleep well at all but we eventually got there and seeing land for the first time was incredible. We had a few pints of Guinness that night in celebration.

The rest of Ireland brought some highs and lows. We had some good tides and I did a few big days of around 20 miles. The downside was coming face to face, literally, with my sea nemesis: the lion’s mane jellyfish. I kept getting stung in the face, which was like being burned with a lighter. I tried everything to shield my face, from bandanas to loads of Vaseline, nothing worked. That was until my facial hair got a bit longer. I realized that if I grew my beard it would shield most of my face. So I did just that.

Sean Conway swimming

Sean Conway swimming

Was I underprepared? Possibly. 
Was I the best swimmer in the world? Far from it. 
Had I underestimated the difficulty of the challenge? Yes.

By the time we reached Scotland I was a month behind schedule and my skipper had to go back to work. After 12 days of searching I found another skipper and started to head through the Hebrides. The going was slow. I was tired, the water was cold and the days getting shorter. At least Scotland was beautiful though. We thought Scotland would take a month but it ended up taking two and a half. It was coming to the end of October and the winter weather meant many non-swimming days. We felt so close yet so far. Cape wrath nearly sank us. We lost the support kayak, the rib, two anchors, oars and paddles as the huge 20ft waves gave us a beating. Even 30 miles from the end there was a real risk we might not make it and have to complete the swim the following summer, which would have been pointless. I had to finish.

Eventually we got a four-day weather window and I used my last remaining bits of energy left to get to the end.

At midday on 11th November 2013, after 135 days, I arose from the sea into John O’Groats harbor looking like a hairy Viking. I had a million things I wanted to say to the world.

Sean Conway completes the Land's End to John O' Groats Swim

Sean Conway completes the Land's End to John O' Groats Swim

Was I underprepared? Possibly. 
Was I the best swimmer in the world? Far from it. 
Had I underestimated the difficulty of the challenge? Yes. 
Did I have one of the best adventures? Most definitely.

I wanted to tell the world NOT to let other people tell them what their true potential was, not to let people sitting on their sofas at home tell them what they can and can’t do, because if they really want something anything is possible…

I had rehearsed this a million times but instead the crew sprayed Champagne in my eyes and I started crying and talked about my beard a lot.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Conway

Activities
Swimming, running, cycling
Favorite Gear
All Out Fuse
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