The world’s most epic swims

Thought a few lengths of your local pool was hard? Check out these epic river and sea swims.
Martin Strel swimming the Amazon river.
Martin Strel Amazon Swim © Martin Strel
By Will Gray

Length of Britain

Distance: 1,448km
Time: 135 days
Temperature: 14°C
Hazards: Giant tankers, jellyfish, 7m waves
Respect rating: 7

This mammoth journey saw Sean Conway swim between one and 34km a day, with 45 days off due to bad weather. He got through six wetsuits, was stung by 10 jellyfish and threw up seven times. "I burst out crying when I finished," said Conway. "At times, the waves were huge and I was sick from drinking salt water. It's annoying to see 1,000kcal go to feed the fish."

Sean Conway swimming in the rough sea
Only another 1,000km to go... © Owain Wyn-Jones

Cuba to Florida (without a shark cage)

Distance: 177km
Time: 52hrs 54mins and 18 seconds
Temperature: 19°C
Hazards: Sharks, sunburn, storms, jellyfish
Respect rating: 10

It took five attempts, but Diana Nyad finally completed this swim in 2013, 35 years after she first tried it. She wore a full lycra suit, had a silicone mask to fend off jellyfish and a faint electric field around her to keep away the sharks. "When my mind goes and my right brain emerges I lose control of my intellectual thinking," she said. "I'm in a dream state."

Diana Nyad swimming in the open water between Cuba and Florida
Diana Nyad swimming from Cuba to Florida © Christi Barli

Manhattan Island

Distance: 46km
Time: 7hrs 14mins (2013 winner)
Temperature: 17–19°C
Other Hazards: Strong tides, boat traffic, floating debris
Respect rating: 5

Flotsam and jetsam are the biggest challenges in this annual event, which first began in 1927. It runs a counter-clockwise circle around Manhattan from Battery Park City. Paul Newsom won in 2013 in terrible conditions. "It was the coldest MIMS on record by some margin at just 16°," he said. "Three swimmers were taken to hospital with hypothermia."

The NYC Swim participants have to swim 45 kilometres around the island of manhattan.
NYC Swim - an annual event since 1927 © Capri Djatiasmoro

Ka'iwi Channel Swim

Distance: 45km
Time: 18hrs
Temperature: Warm
Other Hazards: Strong winds, giant waves, Man O'War jellyfish
Respect rating: 6

Slap bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, this swim runs between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu – but it's far from paradise, with unrelenting winds, huge waves and strong currents. Just 28 people have completed it and organisers warn: "Because of the precedent set in previous swims, shark protection devices are allowed."

A swimmer conquering the Ka'iwi Channel Swim accompanied by a kayaking adviser.
Ka'iwi Channel Swim © hawkinsbigginsphotography

North Pole

Distance: 1km
Time: 18mins 50 seconds
Temperature: -1.8 degrees
Hazards: Hypothermia, frostbite, polar bears
Respect rating: 9

In only a pair of Speedos, eco-campaigner Lewis Pugh took on the first long-distance swim across the Geographic North Pole – in a bid to highlight the effects of climate change. "It's a tragedy that it is possible to swim at the North Pole," he said after swimming in an ice crack. "The water was absolutely black and the pain was instant. It felt like my body was on fire."

Lewis Pugh jumping into the icy cold water of the North Pole during his historic first long-distance swim at the top of the wolrd
Lewis Pugh swimming at the North Pole © Jason Roberts

The Amazon (all of it)

Distance: 5,269km
Time: 66 days
Temperature: 25°C
Other hazards: Piranhas, alligators, sharks, snakes, whirlpools, tidal waves and armed bandits
Respect rating: 11

The Danube, Mississippi and Yangtze rivers were not enough for Martin Strel. So for a scarier challenge he swam the Amazon. Completing 52 miles per day, sometimes against tides that pushed him backwards, he battled dizziness, nausea and diarrhoea to finish. "The animals just accepted me," he said. "I've swum with them so long they must think I'm one of them."

Martin Strel swimming the Amazon river.
Martin Strel Amazon Swim © Martin Strel

Missouri 1000

Distance: 1,610km
Time: 58 days
Temperature: 17–11°C
Other Hazards: Barges, jet skis, submerged logs, shopping trolleys, toxins
Respect rating: 9

Having never swum more than 100m in one go before, Dave Cornthwaite swam 7–14 hours per day from Chamberlain to St Louis. Sometimes he could see only three inches ahead, so a team of paddle boarders led the way. "My body reached its limit in the final three weeks," he said. "I vomited countless times each hour, almost once a minute through the last week."

Dave Cornthwaite swimming the Missouri river towing his gear with him on a carbon fibre raft.
Dave Cornthwaite swimming the Missouri river ©

River swimming, England

Distance: -
Time: -
Temperature: Average 10–15°C
Hazards: Currents, swans, ducks, Weil's disease, fishing lines
Respect rating: 2

Ok, we're not going to pretend that taking dip in your local river is going to earn you massive bragging points. But jumping in a river and letting yourself be carried downstream is a great and invigorating adventure open to anyone who can swim. This image shows a swimmer in the river Stour, England. For more ideas, check out these wild swims and get exploring yourself: Wild Swimming: 300 hidden dips to the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain.

Swimming at sunset in an English river.
The River Stour at sunset © / Daniel Start
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