This Adventurer Has Battled Currents, Waves, Jellyfish Swarms And Horrific Chaffing In His Bid To Swim The UK’s Entire 3,200km Coastline

Ross Edgley is part of the way through his around-Britain epic swim, clocking 30-50km per day and without stepping foot on dry land – RSNG caught up with him just as he passed Lands End, the most southern point of the island, to hear about the realities of taking on such a massive goal…

RSNG What kind of impact has the swim had on your body so far? ROSS EDGLEY, ADVENTURER** ‘Before I embarked on this challenge I had already made peace with the fact my body would break down at sea. However, that’s not to say what’s happened since has been pretty. Essentially the body just isn’t cut out to be at water this long, so I’ve had to battle pretty much everything imaginable; from sleep deprivation and jelly fish stings to salt mouth and losing parts of my tongue… I’ve seen the lot! But as rough as it’s got, I’ve just continued to fight through it and tried to push the limits of what’s humanly possible. Hopefully it will all be worth it in the end.’

After 20 jellyfish stings in one hour’s swimming the toxins can make you feel dizzy

RSNG You mentioned Jellyfish stings – how painful were they? RE ‘Well, I had been warned about the jellyfish off the south coast, but they almost came out of nowhere. If you’ve seen the footage then you’ll be able to tell it wasn’t very pleasant. At the minute the pain is bearable, but after 20 stings in a six-hour tide the toxins can cause you to feel dizzy.’

RSNG Anyone who’s been following your journey so far will have probably noticed the wetsuit chafing – how bad has it got? RE ‘We got off to a good start, and I inevitably got all excited. I’d say that excitement lasted all of an hour. By the end of it my neck was bleeding but I was so stubborn that I just ploughed on, ignorant to how bad it had got. Since that point we’ve tried everything from duct tape, Vaseline and altering my technique. However, I am now the proud owner of a thick layer of scar tissue all around my neck, which has earned me the nickname ‘rhino neck’ across social media. In some sort of odd way, I almost do feel like a superhero because of it!’

RSNG During the tough moments what is it that keeps you going? RE The big thing for me has been to get creative – 100+ days is too far too long to just ‘grit your teeth’ and ‘knuckle down’. I’ve thought about everything and anything, from the deep and meaningful (I’m reading a lot of stoic philosophy), to just thinking about what my first meal on land will be. The key thing is making this swim sustainable, both mentally and physically, so anything positive that will get you out of bed at 3am, put on a cold wetsuit and swim in the dark, is a must.’

RSNG You actually got the chance to swim with Dolphins last week – how was that? RE ‘Incredible! I think after being stung by an army of jellyfish I was due some sort of relief. It’s massively important that we look after our oceans and sea life, so for all the chaffing, salt mouth and jelly fish stings, it was a moment that I’ll never forget.

RSNG How far into the swim are you and are you on course for 100 days? RE ‘We just got round Land's End… 350 miles I think, but I don't think the hundred days is on. It's weird actually because a lot of people on social media are like, ‘ah never mind’ and it’s like ‘no no no, we’re still on track to halve previous records of people who have done British swims. The hundred days was just very important to have something to aim for and I don’t think we would have come out the blocks as quick as we could, but the most important thing is just swimming around Great Britain. I don’t think Edmund Hillary and many great adventurers in the past would have said: “Ah I didn’t make it to Everest because I didn’t do it in however many days.” We’re going for it and we’ve not missed a single day’s swimming so far.’

RSNG How many records are you set to break? RE ‘This is so weird because it’s almost infinite in that there are so many things that people just haven’t done. We were doing around six knots through the Isle of Wight – we got the tides and currents perfect. We’ve just done the whole of the south coast; no one’s ever done that before. We’re about to do Land’s End to John O’Groats and I know a friend of mine, Sean Conway had previously done that in around 140 days. Based on the speeds we’re getting, we should halve that. A lot of people from Great Britain have got behind this but also people are just like, “Wow, that’s a big island’, that it’s going to be the world’s longest swim around an island. It doesn’t matter if it’s Great Britain or whatever, it’s that this is a big swim around a big rock and what’s quite nice, is that a lot of people around the world are saying that it has a certain significance.’

I woke up with chunks of my tongue on my pillow

RSNG How certain were you that you’d be able to last the distance before you set off? RE ‘That’s a good point. Of course I was certain but I also am very honest and say that I am naively fearless. So when I left Margate I was just thought: “I’m an eternal optimist, this will be fine, let’s crack on!” Then there were parts when I woke up with chunks of my tongue on my pillow, and I was like, “well I’ll finish because I’m too stubborn to give up.” I’ve never, ever thought about giving up, however there are points where I’m like, “oh no, I’m going to finish without a tongue,” or “I’m going to finish without a neck.”

‘But now I am confident that I will finish with my tongue, which is something I never thought I would say! So yeah, I was confident I would finish before. Somewhere, halfway round the south coast, I wasn’t confident that I’d finish with my tongue. Now that the team and all of us have got that in order and we’re making this completely sustainable.’

RSNG What did you train to change your body weight or shape beforehand? RE ‘No. So when I went and did a body scan, they said: “You have no physical attributes to be a swimmer. You’re short, you carry more muscle mass, you’re not very buoyant.” But I just love swimming. Also, this isn’t about just swimming. Once you know how to put one arm in front of the other, semi-efficiently, it becomes about something completely different. It’s like survival sport: it’s not swimming, it’s like survival swimming, because you’re trying to control the inevitable catabolic breakdown of the body as you go around a massive island.’

‘I would argue that my muscle mass is actually a benefit because I can store more muscle glycogen and my body is arguably more robust so it’s not breaking down as much: you have almost that buffer to breakdown, if that makes sense.’

RSNG What’s been the toughest moment so far? RE ‘Portland Bill, getting pushed in to Lyme Regis Bay and then being forced to hug the coast, so we swam a massive dog leg, where we were hugging the coast, adding extra mileage to the swim and it took me a week to swim out of that bay. There was no help from the slack tides and we were swimming into south-westerly winds, which basically just means that I was getting pushed back by waves. So for seven days I was stuck in a bay getting pushed back by waves and there was no way to get out other than to swim your way out.’

RSNG What piece of advice would you have for people looking to improve their swimming technique? RE ‘I would say, listen to conventional wisdom but then don’t be afraid to discard it as well, because so much of conventional swimming coaching is done for swimmers who are built a certain way and one thing I quickly realised is, like running, there’s no single best way to move through the water – so if you don’t have that body type, don’t be afraid of self-experimentation to find something that works for you.’

RSNG What about waves? Are they presenting a problem? RE Yes. But I’m learning. Some of the best advice I’ve been getting is from kite surfers, surfers and sailors, about how to tackle the waves. Once you know how to swim, I’m not really going to change my swimming technique all that much, but I’m starting to just read the waves, read the ocean and that’s something that surfers are really teaching me. I was chatting to Andrew Cotty about this – his technique was very different to mine because he’s a surfer so he’s used to ploughing through the waves. When the big wave came, I was swimming over the top of it but he was ducking underneath it and popping out the other side. I was like “what are you doing?” and he was like “I find it easier” so I tried it and I was like “oh yeah, I see what you mean!”’

It’s a game of chess against the sea and you have to swim smarter, not harder

RSNG How many hours a day are you actually swimming? RE ‘In theory, it’s six hours on, six hours off but sometimes that can completely change. Like yesterday we went round Land’s End and we got nine hours in – just in one tide – and then this morning we were up at 3am and we did six hours. So that’s 15 hours but that’s not usually what you’ll get: you won’t get 15 hours, you’ll get 12 and then other times, because of a headland, you’ll get eight in a given day, so it completely changes.’

RSNG Are you having to use a mindful approach to get through each swim? RE ‘Yes, absolutely. Just in terms of being very mindful if something tweaks, if a shoulder feels a little bit sore, if I’ve not eaten enough then you stop, you remedy it. You don’t keep going. It’s like running an ultramarathon with a pebble in your shoe; you take the pebble out as quick as you can because otherwise that pebble becomes a problem, so with this it’s all about managing efficiency.’

RSNG How are you sustaining the effort? RE ‘With food, and lots of it! And it’s about managing effort – I’m never out of breath, I’m never tapping into that lactic threshold. You should get out after six hours fresh, be able to eat, sleep and just completely repeat that all the time. And as soon as you get out of breath, you’re going to impact recovery. I’ve got over a hundred days of this – it’s a game of chess against the sea and you have to swim smarter, not harder.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch Edgley’s vlog on his progress so far…

*Follow Ross’s Great British Swim journey via live tracker or tune in to weekly vlogs.

Follow the writer @the_adventure_fella