Dawn Kennedy

Breaking the Ice – Lewis Pugh

From Camps Bay, via the Arctic to 10 Downingstreet, 021 maps Lewis Pugh’s journey form cold water swimmer to environmental activist.

Meeting Lewis Gordon Pugh in person, it’s easy to fathom what drew him to the Arctic. His chiselled, cheek-boned, icemelting good looks cry out for a sleigh and a pack of huskies. His handshake, despite the wintry evening, is warm. But if you’ve swum one kilometre across the North Pole, surely even the chilliest Kalk Bay night would barely register.

You’ve certainly seen him. He’s the guy in the Investec advertisement who pops up between icebergs, causing you to choke on your popcorn in the movies. He’s the solitary figure swimming back and forth in Steenberg Dam before sunrise.

Pugh’s destiny began taking shape while at Camps Bay High School. Drawn to the Arctic, he would spend hours staring over the Atlantic, knowing that somehow, one day, he would become intimately acquainted with the mystery that lay beyond the horizon. He always loved the water but preferred holding his breath underwater to doing laps. Like many locals, he joined the Camps Bay Lifesaving group but the first inkling of his indomitable will appeared when he become the first teenager to undertake the arduous swim between Robben Island and Blouberg. No-one took the skinny, unremarkable youngster seriously until he reached the beach. Although the Cape’s waters are not particularity cold by Pugh’s present standards, he wasn’t well prepared at the time and the last hour was, he says, “protracted hell”. He writes in his book, Achieving The Impossible: “There would be difficult and far more challenging swims in my future, but none would give me the same sense of exultation as that first one.”

Even while training to be a corporate lawyer, Pugh always had a sense of a special destiny awaiting him, that somehow the label “corporate lawyer” didn’t quite fit. He coveted something more rugged, along the lines of Pik Botha’s “farmer, patriot, statesman”. To satisfy his urge to push his physical endurance, Pugh began training for the British Air Force’s Special Air Service (SAS), believed to be the toughest battalion in the world – their motto: Who Dares Wins. The training, which Pugh failed to pass three times, is gruelling. But it was the SAS that taught him the skill that would enable him to eventually survive his arctic swim.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to an inflatable pool at the I&J warehouse in Cape Town: Pugh’s preparing for the insane challenge of the first long-distance swim at the North Pole. Strapped into a harness that enables him to swim on the spot, amused workers shovel more and more ice into the water to make it colder each day. Then, at 4°C, Pugh simply cannot bring himself to get in. His American trainer, by some instinct, tells him to imagine that he is back in the SAS, flinging himself out of an Hercules aircraft at 1000 metres. The adrenalin rush makes Pugh’s body temperature rise and he dives in.

On 15 July 2007, Pugh swims one kilometre in some of the coldest water on earth.
Imagine: the water is -1,7°C. Surrounded by arctic ice, Pugh is wearing only his Speedo, goggles and swim cap. It’s 4,5 kilometres to the bottom of the impenetrable black water. There’s a very big possibility that his body will fail and that he will sink without a trace. His body temperature and heart-rate monitor is read by his mentor, Tim Noakes. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is playing in his earphones, spurring the aggression that, despite his military training, doesn’t come naturally:

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted –

One moment

Would you capture it, or just let it slip?

But since that first Blouberg swim, Pugh has been training his body to be a servant to his mind. By now his will is as sharp as a blade.

Getting into the water is the first step. The next is to keep going for the 20 minutes it would take to swim one kilometre. Lapsing momentarily from his characteristic seriousness, Pugh says, “It’s fucking freezing. You have to get your mind away from the pain. The body is just a slave to the mind.”

He mentally places a flag at each 100 metre mark to symbolise the countries that have put their faith in him. At the most difficult part – 900 metres – he places the Australian flag: “For the part of me that will never give up in front of an Australian”.

Afterwards, reflecting on his achievement, he said: “In many respects the swim was the ultimate experience of my life because it brought together my two greatest passions: my desire to see the world’s most spectacular places and my desire to help protect them.”

Pugh’s unusual accomplishments have given him celebrity status that has granted access to world leaders. Now he has turned his unusual passion for coldwater swimming into a public speaking career and a crusade to highlight the impact of global climate change. He has few illusions about one swimmer’s ability to influence the global politics of capitalism – but recognising limits has never been his strong point. And who knows. After receiving a call from the former UK Prime Minister asking him his opinion on climate change, Pugh told Gordon Brown that he has seen the ice melt in the Arctic over the past six years. One month later, the advice Pugh gave Brown was implemented.

Ice caps and polar bears may seem a world away from Africa but Pugh assures me that his endeavours are relevant: “We are entirely dependent on nature for our survival. The global warming that causes ice to melt in the Arctic also causes drought in Africa. In one place it hurts people; in the other, it threatens polar bears.”

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