Life in Salt: How Distance Swimmer Sean Conway Swam Britain

by Owen James Burke

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Sean Conway swam the Midmar Mile, the world’s biggest open water swimming event, when he was 15 years old.

A traveller, swimmer and cyclist with an adventurous spirit, Sean Conway is the first and only person to have swum the 900-mile distance between Land’s End and John o’Groats of Great Britain. He charted his own way with neither guidance nor experience — no one had ever even tried to swim around Britain, at least not in recent history. Stopping to rest only at night, Conway completed the swim in 135 days.

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Scut: Can you give us a bit of your background story — when did you first take to the ocean, and what drew you in?

SC: I love the water generally and any water sports. When I was young I competed in the Midmar Mile which was great fun but I only really took to the ocean during my swim! I didn’t swim in the sea once in training, although I grew up on the Indian Ocean in Africa and always loved it.

Scut: What’s the most horrific thing that’s ever happened to you at sea?

SC: During the swim we nearly sank the yacht around Cape Wrath. We lost the kayak and I ended up swimming around during a Force 8 – it was pretty horrendous.

Scut: What’s your favorite ocean story?

SC: I only found out about this one recently: there’s this guy called José Salvador Alvarenga who spent 13 months in the Pacific…He only got found about a month ago, when his raft drifted [into the Marshall Islands] between Hawaii & Australia. Any story where someone has spent months and months surviving in a life raft at sea is pretty cool!

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Scut: What is it that gratifies you most about what you do?

SC: It’s a personal thing…pushing myself way beyond what I thought I would be physically and mentally capable of doing. Whenever I do an adventure I aim higher than what I can think I can do and always surprise myself. Human beings are capable of so much more than they think they are…

Scut: What’s your favorite piece of gear right now?

SC: I really, really want a Suunto Watch. I don’t have one but they do awesome diving watches.

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Scut: I read on your blog that you’re working on restoring an old WWII-era boat by Harland and Wolff, which you plan to live on. Can you tell us a bit about that?

SC: Yeah, it’s an old 1931 RAF boat rather than a Navy boat, built by the same guys who built the Titanic. It was used in the Second World War and it was going to sink so I decided to save it and fix it up! It’s currently moored over in Worcestershire and I’m hoping to live in it when it’s all sorted out.

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Apart from having swum around Britain, Sean Conway has also ridden his bike around the island and is now preparing to complete his triathlon of Britain by running around it. Born in Zimbabwe, Sean grew up in Mana Pools National Park with his father, which no doubt contributed to his unrelenting pursuit of adventure. In 2002, he moved to the UK with £100 in his pocket and began work cutting 12,000 cabbages a day in Cambridge while living with 7 other people in a tiny room in London. It wasn’t long until he quit, and has since been pursuing every sort of adventure he can dream up, including a world-record bicycle circumnavigation. When he’s not swimming, riding his bike or rebuilding his yacht, Sean can be found exercising his passion to raise awareness about rhino conservation.

(All images courtesy of Sean Conway)

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