Lewis Pugh

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Lewis Pugh in 2012

Lewis William Gordon Pugh OIG (born 5 December 1969) is an ocean advocate, maritime lawyer and a pioneer swimmer.


Four-point-two kilometres is a long way for a frozen body to sink.
Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.
There’s nothing more chilling than swimming across open sea, where recently there used to be a solid glacier.
Going against the tide has never been difficult for me. It wasn’t even a conscious decision but the natural consequence of following my own instinct.
Wherever we damage the environment, conflict ensues. We have had enough conflict; now is the time for peace.

Achieving The Impossible (2010)


Autobiography, Simon & Schuster.

  • Four-point-two kilometres is a long way for a frozen body to sink.
    • p 1, describing his North Pole swim (2007)
  • My father taught me to understand that not much was impossible, if you had a mind to go after it. What seems beyond you is only unreachable if that’s what you believe.
    • p 7
  • Nothing excited me more than opening up the atlas and seeing places and seas, imagining what they looked like and what kind of life the people had.
    • p 8
  • My love for the water would always be tempered by respect for dangers that must never be underestimated.
    • p 9, reflecting on his father's near-drowning off the Australian coast
  • My own feeling was that witnessing the explosion of an atomic bomb, and having to examine all the dead animals, had a profound effect on my father.
    • p 12
  • Always when we walked, it was clear to me how much he loved nature, wild flowers, animals in their natural habitat and the simple pleasures of a beautiful sunset. My love for the environment did not develop out of a vacuum.
    • p 21, describing his father
  • Going against the tide has never been difficult for me. It wasn’t even a conscious decision but the natural consequence of following my own instinct.
    • p 37
  • It took me over three years to get the beret and the most enriching part of the experience was getting to know men for whom you would have given your life on the battlefield. It is a big thing to say there are people who are not your family for whom you would give up your life. But that is how close we became.
    • p 150-1, describing his time in the British SAS
  • Ultimately I wanted to be a pioneer swimmer, a distant descendant of Scott, Amundsen and Hillary, except that I would be an explorer of the water.
    • p 167
  • I resolved to follow my dream. I wanted to push every boundary. I wanted to swim further than anyone else. I wanted to cross seas and round capes that no one had dreamed of swimming before. And I wanted to swim in waters that were so cold no one thought it was possible to survive in them. And though it promised to make me poor and would take away the security provided by a career in law, that didn’t worry me.
    • p 168
  • I could not believe what I was seeing: everywhere there were whale bones. Thousands of them stacked on top of each other. They rose from the seabed almost to the surface of the water. There were big bones. I could make out many of them: rib bones, jaw bones, vertebrae. In some places they were piled so high that, when I took a stroke, my hands touched them. I thought of all the beautiful whales I’d seen around the coast of South Africa and Norway that add so much to the area. How many whales were hunted and brought to this island before having their carcasses burned for oil and their bones dumped in this way? It disgusted me to such an extent that I considered stopping the swim to move it elsewhere, but I decided I had to press on.
    • p 233, describing his swim at Deception Island, Antarctica (2005)
  • I have been haunted by that swim through the whale graveyard and haven’t been able to get the image of the bones out of my head. Man hunted whales almost to the point of extinction, not seeming to care that we would lose one of the wonders of the sea world forever. It is the coldness of the water in Antarctica that preserves the bones and makes it look like they were left there yesterday but I like to think they are there as a reminder of man’s potential for folly.
    • p 315-6, describing his swim at Deception Island, Antarctica (2005)

21 Yaks And A Speedo (2013)


Autobiography, Jonathan Ball Publishers (Pty) Ltd.

  • ...when you swim from England to France you’ve got to leave your doubt on the beach at Dover.
    • p 11
  • When people say to me, you must have a very strong mind to swim across the North Pole, or off Antarctica or on Mount Everest, I tell them that endurance swimming builds good mental strength.
    • p 16
  • I don’t know of any sport where the goalposts can shift the way they do with endurance swimming.
    • p 17
  • Thoughts alone won’t make extraordinary things happen. But nothing ever happens if you don’t visualise it first.
    • p 50
  • A massive turquoise glacier feeds into Magdalenefjord, with chunks of ice as big as buildings breaking off and landing in the water to float away as icebergs. As I swam past them, with my head in the water, I heard a tantalising sound: a snap-crackle-pop, just like Rice Krispies in milk. It was the sound of tiny air bubbles being released from the ice – air that had been trapped there as much as 3,000 years ago. To swim through this sound, I thought, is to swim in history.
    • p 61, describing his swim in the Svalbard archipelago (2005)
  • They have [...] a split personality. One moment they’re your best mate, and next they are trying to drag you down to the bottom of the sea to drown you. [...] It’s just astonishing.
    • p 65, describing leopard seals off Antarctica
  • The essence of any great achievement is to believe in your purpose.
    • p 75
  • I knew now that I had to stand up and start speaking about protecting our environment. From that moment on, every swim should have the aim of inspiring people to protect and preserve the world’s oceans and all that live in them.
    • p 85, describing his swim at Deception Island (2005)
  • The most powerful form of self-belief comes from believing in something greater than you. Because when you’ve got purpose, everything becomes possible.
    • p 86
  • I’m not a rule-breaker by nature. But there are times when you need to untangle yourself from red tape. Because the truth is, if you wait for permission, some things will simply never happen.
    • p 94, referencing his swim across Sydney Harbour (2006)
  • When you have hope in the future, you have power in the present. And when you lose that hope, your dream goes with it.
    • p 156
  • Never plan for victory and defeat in your mind at the same time.
    • p 189
  • This wasn’t some kind of stunt. This was a symbolic swim, and I needed to be courageous. [...] Swimming in a wetsuit or drysuit just wouldn’t send the right signal.
    • p 192, describing his swim across the North Pole (2007)
  • When you are walking up a mountain to attempt something that nobody’s ever tried before, and you pass people bringing corpses down, it becomes very clear that if you get it wrong, the consequences could be fatal.
    • p 234, describing his swim on Mt Everest (2010)
  • [...] it’s much easier to achieve big dreams than it is small ones. Big dreams require big passion. And when you’ve got passion it’s easier to inspire others to come along and help you.
    • p 261
  • I’ve been swimming for 25 years, and I don’t think there is one swim that I have done where someone didn’t say beforehand, ‘I don’t think it’s possible’ or ‘You’ll never make it’. If someone tells you that you can’t achieve your dream, don’t waste good time arguing. Walk away and do it.
    • p 261
  • Don’t look for other people to validate your dreams. If it feels right, just go for it.
    • p 262



FAQ's on website, 30 December 2014 [1]

  • No matter how tough my day has been, when I dive into the sea, the world seems perfect.
  • There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity, which should never be crossed.
  • I always tell young swimmers: 'Practice things until you can't get them wrong. Not until you get them right.' There's a big difference.
  • Law taught me how to argue passionately and rationally. That’s key to being a successful environmental campaigner. If you are too emotional you run the risk of turning off policy makers. And if you can’t present your arguments rationally, no one will listen to you.
  • When I can’t decide which path to take, I have a meeting with the 75-year-old me. That person usually knows what to do.
  • If you have a passion, follow it. It's the best barometer of what you will be good at. And choose a career that you enjoy – the extra money of a job you detest isn’t worth it.
  • I tolerate cold water. Anyone who says they love swimming in freezing water is either lying or has never done it.
  • I think it foolhardy to predict the absolute limits of human endurance.
  • Too little confidence, and you're unable to act; too much confidence, and you're unable to hear.
  • I look for swims where I can carry a powerful message. No message, no swim. I don’t get wet now unless it’s for a reason.
  • I’ve swum through some very cold and rough seas. I think that’s made me more determined than the average person.
  • As a pioneer swimmer, you've got to be willing to fail and try again. The point isn’t to learn to fail, the point is to learn to bounce back.
  • There's a tyranny in perfection. Just do things to the very best of your ability. Then move on.
  • My mind has to be ready. My body also has to be ready. But even more important, my heart has to be ready. What I mean by that is for the swims I do, I must have a burning reason.
  • Being the first to undertake a swim is exponentially harder than going second. You don’t know what will happen. The fear can be crippling. It’s much easier to go second. You know it’s possible. But the world is divided into pioneers and followers. You are one or the other. I prefer to be a pioneer.
  • The trick is to make fear your friend. Fear forces you to prepare more rigorously and see potential problems more quickly.
  • To do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding doubt and fear.

Speaking & Features

There is nothing more powerful than the made-up mind.
  • You must not dither - swim like you're running through a minefield.
  • You don't know pain until you've had a stalactite in your cock.
    • Outside Magazine, 13 April 2009
  • If we pass on an unsustainable environment to our children we have failed them.
    • Address to the House of Lords (19 November 2010)
  • There’s nothing more chilling than swimming across open sea, where recently there used to be a solid glacier.
    • Address to the House of Lords (19 November 2010)
  • A thought came across my mind: if things go pear-shaped on this swim, how long will it take for my frozen body to sink the four and a half kilometers to the bottom of the ocean?
  • There is nothing more powerful than the made-up mind.
  • We made fracking a civil rights issue. Because that is what it is. We all have a right to a healthy environment and to clean water. And so do our children.
    • Against fracking in the Karoo, 3 May 2011
  • Unless our children have been into nature, it is unlikely they will care about it when they grow up.
    • 4 November 2010
  • Everywhere water is under threat. It is our most precious resource. And there is no alternative to it.
  • The right to have our environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations is our most important human right.
    • 29 October 2011
  • Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.
    • 24 Nov 2011, Twitter
  • The English Channel is the perfect stretch of water to truly test the human mind.
    • 25 November 2011, Twitter
  • These are areas of unparalleled natural beauty to be handed to our children undisturbed. We are merely custodians. You would not build a toll plaza and an administration block in the Grand Canyon or next to the Victoria Falls or within any other World Heritage Site.”
    • 24 February 2012, Cape Argus (p5), in response to the building of a toll plaza on Chapman’s Peak, South Africa.
  • A healthy ocean is an ocean with sharks. Take away an apex predator and it’s like removing the lions from the Serengeti. It won’t be long before the gazelle, zebras and wildebeest have multiplied and eaten all the grass. And when the land is laid bare the grazers will starve to death. Predators are crucial for a healthy ecosystem – be it on land or in the water.
    • 24 September 2014, Op-ed in the New York Times [2]
  • An estimated 100 million sharks are fished out of the world's oceans every year. Take a minute to mull over that figure. That's over a quarter of a million animals each day … If this number of humans were killed in a year, it would be called genocide. There is a name for what is happening in our oceans today: it is ecocide.
    • 28 September 2014, Sunday Times [3]
  • When we set aside MPAs we protect the marine habitat. When we do that, fish stocks recover. Which supports food security. When we create MPAs, we protect the coral, which protects the shoreline and provides shelter for fish. Marine Protected Areas are places people want to visit for ecotourism, so it's good for the economy. It has, if you'll pardon the pun, a ripple effect. Marine Protected Areas are good for the world economy, for the health of the oceans, for every person living on this planet.
    • 28 September 2014, Sunday Times [4]
  • For us to find lasting peace between people, we must first make peace with nature.
    • 28 September 2014, Sunday Times [5]
  • I always feel nostalgic when I disembark (off a ship). It's not that I don't like land. I just love being at sea.
    • 6 November 2014, Twitter
  • To succeed as a pioneer you need two things: ignorance and purpose. Ignorance of just how tough the path ahead will be. And a driving purpose, which keeps you going nonetheless.
    • 26 November 2014, Twitter
  • Most Channel crossings are won or lost before the first stroke is even taken.
    • 16 January 2016, Lewis Pugh's blog

Standing Up To Goliath


Karoo Anti-Fracking Speech to Shell in Cape Town, 25 March 2011

  • Never, ever did I think that there would be a debate in this arid country about which was more important – gas or water. We can survive without gas. We cannot live without water.
  • Look around the world. Wherever you damage the environment, you have conflict. We have had enough conflict in [South Africa] – now is the time for peace.
  • Now is the time for change. We cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis. The era of fossil fuels is over. We must invest in renewable energy. And we must not delay.

My African Dream: Faith Rally Address, COP17


United Nations Climate Change Conference, Durban, 27 November 2011

  • The right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our generation and the benefit of future generations is our most crucial human right. I do not say that lightly - especially given South Africa’s past.
  • We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism or even pessimism in our reaction to climate change. The situation is too serious. We must tackle it head on – and immediately.

Quotes about Lewis

  • I have seen what the challenge of the impossible does to some athlete's minds - once their minds accept that the impossible is achievable, their bodies soon follow.
    • Professor Tim Noakes describing Lewis Pugh, as quoted in Challenging Beliefs: Memoirs of a Career, p273 (Zebra Press, 2011)
  • Afterwards, I saw a visible transformation in Pugh, and was reminded again of the power of a single event to change a sportsperson's life radically. I have witnessed this twice in my career - once when Joel Stransky kicked the winning goal in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, and now with Pugh's North Pole swim. Both became more complete and confident people after achieving such sporting milestones.
    • Professor Tim Noakes describing Lewis Pugh, as quoted in Challenging Beliefs: Memoirs of a Career, p273 (Zebra Press, 2011)
  • Lewis Pugh is a maritime lawyer by training and a pursuer of dreams by inclination. There isn't an ocean he hasn't wanted to swim, or a mountain he hasn't wan't to climb, and it's no surprise that he quit his well-paid lawyer's job in the City of London for a more interesting life.
    • Simon & Schuster's write up on the inside sleeve of Lewis Pugh's book "Achieving the Impossible" (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
  • He just pulls on his Speedos and gets on with it. It's Britishly mad.
    • Stig Abell describing Lewis Pugh, in the inaugural UK Sunday Times Alternative Rich List 2017
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