Ross Edgley is an “extreme adventurer” by trade, who has made a name for himself by achieving physical feats we consider impossible. Of the many records the former water polo player has set during his impressive career, none are as extraordinary as his run four years ago around the entire island of Britain. For 157 days, supported by the sailboat Hecate, Edgley swam 1,792 miles through icy waters without touching land.
No wonder Chris Hemsworth recruited Edgley to join him on his new Disney+ show Limitless, study the perceived parameters of human performance. Edgeleyit is The circumnavigation of Britain taught him a number of lessons about cold water therapy, arm strength, resilience and mental toughness. Below, he gives an overview of the ups and downs of this incredible adventure. His story appears as told to InsideHook correspondent Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There are two stories about how I came up with the idea of swimming around Britain. The first begins with Captain Webb, who swam across the English Channel in 1875 after the world told him it was impossible. Everyone thought the water was too cold and the tides were too strong. But he believed he could do it, so on a diet of beef broth and brandy, he brewed all the way. The front crawl was considered rude at the time. It’s a story I was told all the time growing up, which led me to face equally difficult physical tests.
The other story begins after I started attempting the longest current neutral swim, which refers to any swim completed without the help of the tides. I ended up swimming 48 hours with the Royal Marines while I trained for the feat. I finished it, and then I remember sitting in the dining room when this older officer with an amazing mustache came up to me and said, “What are you doing? ” I was nursing trench foot that I had caught after being in the water for so long. I told him that I was training to do the longest neutral swim in the world.
This older Royal Marine listened to me, sipped his tea, looked me up and down, then said, “Can I be honest with you, young man?” I said he could, and he added, “That just seems kinda shitty.” Shocked, I asked him what he would prefer me to do. He replied, “You just need to be a man and swim around Britain.” So many great feats have been attempted because of one gentleman’s wager. I think I can say that this was one too.
Once I knew in my head that this was happening, I set out to optimize my training for this new type of swimming. In the realm of conventional sport, swimming is made for speed. You determine how fast you can go while building up lactic acid. But this stunt was more like that heroic era of arctic explorers that I loved: Amundsen, Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott.
I knew early on that this attempt would be as much a sailing feat as a swimming one. I couldn’t swim the whole trip in one go, so I needed a boat where I could sleep about six hours at night before heading home. try with me. I was able to get in touch with Captain Matt Knight of the Hecate, to whom I owe a lot of credit for getting me through.
For training, it wasn’t so much about making me the fastest swimmer in the world as it was about making me the strongest and most physically robust swimmer possible. I really leaned into my strength training. When you look at a concept like mechanotransduction and how it can benefit not only muscles, but also tendons and ligaments, there were plenty of reasons to train before a swim like this. I needed to know that my shoulders were going to be able to handle the number of rotations I was doing, because out there in the ocean, I wasn’t just swimming, I was surviving.
I built a program that included lots of brachiation exercises (hanging exercises) to really dial in my shoulder joint. I wanted to develop this kinetic chain all the way through the muscles, without leaving any weaknesses. One of the other instruments I turned to for this was the medicine ball. I lay flat on the bench with my back and threw balls of varying weights in the air to catch them. This movement invites an eccentric contraction similar to what would happen when I was beaten by the waves. On top of everything, I needed as many reps as possible in the ocean. I needed to confirm that I had the gas tank to complete the task, which meant a lot of aerobic conditioning on top of that prehab strength.
The other thing I had to prepare for was the cold. I had an advantage, having grown up in cold regions, and I’m no stranger to diving in freezing water. I know a lot of people are familiar with cold water scuba diving, which has huge health benefits, but swimming long distances in really cold water is very difficult. There is vasoconstriction of the capillaries and all your blood moves away from your extremities making your arms and legs feel like lead.
It’s less than ideal when trying to cover distance. Because my head went underwater quite often, I couldn’t hide from that shock of cold you feel every time the cold water hits your face. There was also no relief when my head came back above the waterline. On top of that: as the current swirls around you below the surface, that moving water can feel like wind chill running through your body.
I was young and naive when I started swimming. I thought of the challenge as an athlete preparing to win against his opponent. I had my little notepad where I stupidly wrote down how many kilometers I was going to do each day, and how many days it was. I was humiliated pretty quickly. The ocean came and slapped me and made me realize that my day was going to end every time this decided.
There’s a reason sailors and captains find their place on the boat by having time on the water, seeing how it works and how it can make you or break you. I also learned a lot from surfers before I started swimming. They really understand what it takes to move your body through ocean water that doesn’t always want to cooperate with you. There are different methods for attacking a stroke with a tailwind, a crosswind or a headwind. I learned some of them the easy way, some the hard way.
Every morning I started by looking at the ocean to find out if I was going to dance with the ocean that day or fight it. Anyway, I was getting there. I would eat my pre-swim snack, put on the wetsuit, then dive where I left off last time and swim another six hours, sometimes longer depending on the part of the course.
The itinerary was everything, which is why Captain Knight was so crucial to my success. Every day he put me where I needed to be. I needed to have a team there to support me, cook meals and deal with the physical ramifications of being in the water working that long. I had rashes from the jellyfish stings, wounds around my neck from all the rubbing and my tongue was falling out from all the salt. I was constantly battling hypothermia. I didn’t have time to think about anything other than staying the course.
One of the most brutal parts came 70 days into the swim when I crossed the famous Corryvreckan. It’s basically a giant whirlpool. I had been swimming for at least 12 hours every day, so I was really starting to feel the roll. But there was no choice but to sprint through the Correyvreckan as quickly as possible. Ships were shot down there, people lost their lives. Jellyfish stings were everywhere and I was in pain from some of the other injuries, but the ocean didn’t care, or how little I had slept.
I remember coming out of that swim exhausted, ripping jellyfish tentacles from my face and beard. Captain Knight turned to me as I lay on the deck of the boat, eagle spread, saying, “Happy swimming. You get six hours of sleep and then it’s back. He was just expressing what the ocean demanded of me at that time. Winter was coming to the UK, and if I was still swimming when it really hit, there was no way I could stay there and survive. I still had a long way to go, and there was going to be a lot more suffering before the feat was complete.
The coldest day I have experienced, or at least one of them, was on the east coast of Scotland, near the port city of Aberdeen. I accidentally left my wetsuit outside overnight, and when I came back at two in the morning, it was solid ice. I had to break it down to give it a shape where I could put it. Once turned on, I had to jump into that black water, and there was no choice but not to. This is where you need to look beyond motivation and tap into discipline. Do things no matter what.
It wasn’t just pain. There were some really good times where it all clicked together, like at the top of Scotland, where we touched everything from the time to the tides. I was swimming at about three knots and the water was moving at seven knots, so I was sliding through the water at 10 knots. It’s somewhere around the cruising speed of a dolphin. I’m not saying I can swim 10 knots because if we hit it at the wrong time I could have been sent five knots back. But instead I was able to fly thanks to our planning and Captain Knight.
I don’t know how to describe what it feels like to complete the course and become the first man to swim around Britain. I struggled to put it into words then, and I still do today. I wouldn’t call it happiness and I wouldn’t call it relief. Since then, I realized that feeling is what Aristotle was talking about with the term “eudaimonia”, which is about finding happiness through fulfillment. That struggling or suffering to gain happiness is better than just walking around satisfied. In that moment, I feel like I’ve earned the smile I wore.
Discover Edgley in the episodes of Unlimited with Chris Hemsworth, now available on Disney+. Find his books here.
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