Few sports are as demanding as open water swimming, and even fewer put its practitioners face to face with alpha predators, namely man-eating sharks.
For the toughest swims, however, the athletes at the top of this game continue to add danger and difficulty as they strive for ever-more-challenging records. The swimmers below have dived into high-altitude Himalayan lakes, chilled Cold War tensions and braved waters infested with sharks, leopard seals and box jellyfish.
Imagine swimming the English Channel or the Amazon River? Sounds almost impossible, right? Well, it’s not. Here’s staggering proof.
Here are the most epic open water swims ever undertaken.
First English Channel Crossing –1875
It seems to be that almost every year one brave soul or another sets out to cross the English Channel, the rough stretch of sea between England and France.
Many are successful, setting all manner of records, but there’s no record out there that compares to being the first crossing ever. In 1873, after hearing of J.B. Johnson’s failed attempt to cross the Channel, British ship captain Matthew Webb trained for and attempted the storied swim.
After one unsuccessful try in early August of 1875, Webb breast stroked his way into the record books later that very same month. He withstood harsh currents and myriad jellyfish stings, but his 21-hour 45-minute, 39-mile course from Dover to Calais will never be forgotten.
First English Channel Crossing by a Quadriplegic
Being the first to cross the English Channel is a stunning feat, indeed. At least as impressive is French-born quadriplegic Phillipe Croizon’s 14-hour, 21-mile journey headed in the opposite direction of Matthew Webb (a bit more efficiently too it would seem).
In September of 2010, after losing all of his limbs in an electric shock incident involving a power line, the then 42-year-old Croizon used specially designed prosthetics fashioned out of carbon and titanium to achieve his monumental goal.
And Croizon didn’t stop at the English Channel. He also crossed the Red Sea and the Straight of Gibraltar, among others.
English Channel – Three-Way Swim
Are your swims lacking sparks after all these years? Do you yearn for the days when swimming excited you, made you feel like it was your first time crossing the English Channel?
Yeah, swimming the channel, still one of the world’s most hardcore swims, done by fewer people than have climbed Mount Everest, can get a little dull.
When that happens, spice up your swims with some repeats. That’s what Jon Erikson, Philip Rush, and Alison Streeter have done. They are the only people to have swam the channel, turned around, swam it a second time, turned around and done it a third time.
The unpredictable weather, currents and shipping boats that frequent the channel make for a zesty, rejuvenating challenge. It’s sure to get your blood pumping, like your first time on the channel all over again.
Between Grand Cayman & Little Cayman Islands
In 2011 the famed 48-year-old Australian-British distance swimmer, and mother of 3, Penny Palfrey, set the record for the longest, unassisted oceanic swim, traversing 67 miles of shark-infested sea between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman Islands.
Unaided by a shark cage, wetsuit, or flippers, and unable to draft off escort boats, Palfrey reportedly withstood a ferocious current and several white-tipped shark onslaughts and completed a stint that had her in the water for 40 hours and 41 minutes.
Palfrey had attempted the record twice before and was thwarted both times by severe jellyfish stings.
Cuba to Florida
You can’t find a stretch of ocean more rife with Mother Nature on steroids — for a swimmer — as you can across the Straits of Florida between Havana and Key WestDiana Nyad
The stretch between Cuba and Florida is a 103-mile route notorious for ocean-rattling thunderstorms, jellyfish and sharks. But apparently that didn’t stop Diana Nyad from trying to swim it…
On her previous attempt, 2 years earlier, Nyad found herself smack dab in the middle of a storm and after spending more then 63 hours in the water she and her team called off the attempt. On her successful attempt it took a measly 53 hours to swim from Havana to Key West.
In 2013, after 4 failed attempts, the legendary 64-year-old endurance swimmer finally became the first person confirmed to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage. She used electronic repellent and a team of divers to keep the creatures away instead.
Longest Open-Water Solo – Eleuthera Island to Nassau in the Bahamas
In October 2014, 29 year old Australian ultra-marathon swimmer Chloe McCardel swam 78 miles in 42.5 hours. This is the longest unassisted open-water solo, continuous marathon swim in history.
Wearing only regulation bathers, a swimming cap and goggles, McCardel endured jellyfish bites and sunstroke to reach the shore.
McCardel began her swim at Lighthouse Beach on the southern tip of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas and finished nearly 2 days later at Nassau at around 1am local time.
She arrived thuroughly exhausted and was escorted by her husband and support crew to a nearby hospital for a medical check-up and few well-deserved hours sleep.
Benoît Lecomte’s Atlantic Crossing
In 1998 French-born Benoît Lecomte became the first man to swim across the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard. He swam 3,716 miles in 73 days.
During his journey, Lecomte battled storms, 20-foot-high waves, 45-60 knot winds, and extremely cold water.
And then there were the sharks!
Lecomte was accompanied by a 40-foot sailboat which was equipped with an electromagnetic field to ward off the sharks that shadowed the swimmer most of the way.
Lecomte used the sailboat to rest and eat between each swim. He typically spent eight hours swimming each day in sessions of two to four hours.
The epic swim was accomplished in stages beginning in Hyannis, Massachusetts and finishing in Quiberon, France more than 2 months later!
The swim helped raise money for cancer research in memory of his father.
Because of some technicalities, Lecomte’s claim was never officially recognized by the Guinness World Records.
Amazon River Swim
He’s known as “The Fish Man,” and that’s not just a funny turn of phrase. The 55-year-old Slovenian endurance swimmer spends more time in the water than anyone we’ve ever seen.
Back in 2007, Martin Strel accomplished the unthinkable when he swam a 66-day route down the 3,272-mile length of The Amazon River.
He nabbed the world record for longest swim in the process. Though he’s kicked down some of the planet’s most taxing bodies of freshwater, from the Yangtze to the Danube to the Mississippi, Strel said his Amazon journey was the most grueling.
“The Amazon river has no barriers, like locks, so the current is constantly flowing,” he says. “I didn’t expect so many whirlpools and so many currents.”
As he continues, it sounds like the currents were the least of his worries. Strel and his crew reportedly faced off with a smattering of threats, from piranhas, crocodiles, jaguars and sharks, to bandits, pirates and Colombian drug runners.
I had to know everything about the animals I’d encounter along the way. I did get the odd piranha bite through my wetsuit but the support boat crew poured rancid blood overboard to distract them when we drove into a shoalMartin Strel – “The Fish Man”
Director John Maringouin documented the Amazonian journey in a Sundance award-winning film called “Big River Man.”
Open Water Everest Swim
The highest distance swim was completed at an elevation most people, including lots of mountaineers, never reach.
For this record-setting achievement, Lewis Pugh, a British Lawyer, and environmentalist chose Lake Pumori, an alpine lake in the Himalaya Mountains located 5,300 meters above sea level. Mount Everest’s summit is visible from its icy waters.
In 2010, Pugh swam a kilometer in this lake. The altitude was an added difficulty, even for Pugh, who was the first person to complete a major distance swim in each of the world’s oceans, including the Arctic and Southern oceans.
He swam across the North Pole (yep, you read that correctly) and did a kilometer in Antarctica, the most southerly swim ever.
Cold War, Cold Swim – Across The Bering Strait
When Lynne Cox swam across the Bering Strait in 1987, she may have done more than become the first person to splash across the frigid channel. She could have helped thaw Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
When the Soviets granted her permission to stand on Big Diomede, the island that marks the Russian side of the strait, she was the first American in decades given the privilege.
Big Diomede and its American cousin Little Diomede are two volcanic nubs between the Chukchi and Bering seas. Between them is an international dateline and 2.7 miles of ferocious waters.
Braving waters that were only barely above freezing – roughly 4°C (39°F) – Cox swam the 2.7 miles between 2 islands in 2 hours and 6 minutes. In doing so, she became the first person to cross the US-USSR border in 48 years.
The nations on each side of the strait smiled on the achievement of swimming between them, apparently for long enough to forget about the constant threat of mutually assured destruction.