Lewis Pugh

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Lewis Pugh, inspirational speaker, ocean advocate, pioneer swimmer. Photo by Ben Brown
Lewis Pugh finishing his 1 km swim on Lake Pumori on the Khumbu Glacier on Mt Everest in May 2010 at 5,200m altitude
21 Yaks and a Speedo: How to achieve your impossible by Lewis Pugh
Lewis Pugh OIG is one of the most remarkable and unique individuals in the sport of open water swimming. He is a maritime lawyer, an environmental campaigner, adventure swimmer, and ocean advocate with numerous pioneering swims including those in the North Pole and in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean.

In 2010 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum for his "potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world through inspiring leadership. He has spoken at the 2011 Global Open Water Swimming Conference and was inducted as an Honour Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in its Class of 2013 for his outstanding body of work in the sport of open water swimming and marathon swimming.

On 18 June 2013, Pugh was appointed by the United Nations Environment Programme as its Patron of the Oceans.


Major Swims

1987 – Robben Island to Cape Town, 7 km in 3 hours
1992 – Crossing of Lake Malawi, 25 km in 32°C water in 9 hours 52 minutes
1992 – Crossing of the English Channel in 14 hours 50 minutes
1993 – Dassen Island to Yzerfontein, 10 km in 2 hours 35 minutes
1994 – Unprecedented swim around Cape Agulhas, South Africa, 10 km in 4 hours 1 minute
2003 – Swim around North Cape, Finland, 5 km in 1 hour 4 minutes
2004 – Unprecedented swim around Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, 12 km in 3 hours 15 minutes
2004 – Stage swim around Cape Peninsula, 100 km in 13 days
2004 – Record-setting circumnavigation around Robben Island, 10 km in 3 hours 42 minutes
2004 – Unprecedented stage swim down Sogneford, Norway, 204 km in 21 days
2005 – Swim across Magdalenefjord, Spitsbergen, 1 km in 3°C in 20 minutes 30 seconds
2005 – Swim in Petermann Island, Antarctica, 1 km in 0°C water in 18 minutes
2005 – Swim across Whaler’s Bay in Deception Island, South Shetland islands, 1.6 km in 30 minutes 30 seconds
2006 – Swim across Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, 16 km in 4 hours 57 minutes
2006 – Unprecedented swim from Manly Beach to Sydney Opera House, 16 km in 6 hours 1 minute
2006 – Completes Five Oceans
2006 – Gold medal in 500m freestyle at the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland
2006 – Swim in Nigards Glacier Lake, Norway, 1.25 km in 0°C
2006 – Unprecedented stage swim down the River Thames, 350 km in 21 days
2007 – Unprecedented stage swim across the width of Maldive Islands, 140 km in 30°C water in 10 days
2007 – Unprecedented swim across the North Pole, 1 km in -1.7°C in 18 minutes 50 seconds
2008 – Kayak attempt across the Arctic Ocean
2009 – Awarded South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold Class)
2010 – Unprecedented swim on Mount Everest, 1 km in 22 minutes 51 seconds at 5,200m altitude
2010 – Appointed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum
2011 – Appointed a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
2013 – Inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame


Life, Family and Education

Lewis Pugh OIG
Pugh was born in Plymouth, England and was educated at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town. His father, Surgeon Rear Admiral P.D. Gordon Pugh, OBE, FRCS was a surgeon in the Royal Navy and a prolific collector of ceramics of the Victorian era. His mother, Margery Pugh was a Senior Nursing Sister in Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service.

When he was 10 years old his family emigrated to South Africa. He read politics and law at the University of Cape Town and graduated with distinction and at the top of his Masters class. In his mid-twenties he returned to England where he read International Law at Jesus College, Cambridge and then worked as a maritime lawyer in the City of London for a number of years. During this time he concurrently served as a Reservist in the elite British Special Air Service.

In 2009 Pugh married Antoinette Malherbe, whom he met at school.

Adventure swimming

Pugh was the first person to complete a long distance swim in every ocean. He frequently swims in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to their plight and is best known for undertaking the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice and for swimming across a glacial lake under the summit of Mount Everest in 2010 to draw attention to the melting glaciers in the Himalayas, and the impact the reduced water supply will have on world peace.

Environmental campaigning

During his youth Pugh visited many National Parks in South Africa. He attributes this to his father's desire to teach him to love and respect nature after what he had witnessed whilst serving in the Royal Navy. In 2003, Pugh left his maritime law practice to campaign for the protection of the environment. He often addresses Heads of State and business leaders on the need to tackle climate change head on and the importance of a low carbon society.

In 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pugh took the evidence of witnesses from across Africa on the effects of climate change at the Pan-African Climate and Poverty Hearings. The evidence was presented to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Public speaking

Pugh is an accomplished public speaker. He has twice spoken at the influential TED Conference and is described on their website as a master story-teller.

“... was the perfect TED talk: a little bit of action, some thinking outside the box, humbling words on the need to respect nature, a happy ending. A Hollywood scriptwriter could not have structured it better.”

And his speech on environmental leadership at the 2008 Business Innovation Forum Conference in the USA was voted as one of the "7 Most Inspiring Videos on the Web" by Mashable, the social media guide.

Polar Defense Project

In 2008 Pugh founded the Polar Defense Project to campaign for greater protection for the Arctic and a resolution of the maritime boundary disputes. In 2009 it won the Best Project for the Environment at the inaugural Beyond Sports Awards.

World Wide Fund for Nature and the Wilderness Leadership School

Pugh sits on the Council of Ambassadors for the World Wide Fund for Nature in the UK with Sir David Attenborough and Jonathon Porritt. He also works closely with Dr Ian Player and the Wilderness Leadership School to promote and protect the last wilderness areas on the earth.

River Thames

In 2006, he became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames to raise awareness about the severe drought in England and the dangers of global warming. The 350 km (217.5 miles) swim took him 21 days to complete and was called the Investec Thames Challenge swim. The river had stopped flowing due to the drought, forcing Pugh to run the first 40 km of the river. While swimming through London, Pugh exited the water and made a visit to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street to call on the United Kingdom to move towards a low carbon economy. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister introduced the Climate Change Bill to Parliament.


In February 2007 Pugh became the first person to swim across the width of the Maldives. He undertook the swim to raise awareness about the effect of climate change on low lying islands in the world. The 140K (87 mile) swim took 10 days to complete.

North Pole

In July 2007 Pugh undertook the first long distance swim at the Geographic North Pole. The 1 km (0.62 mile) swim, across an open patch of sea, in minus -1.7 °C water, took 18 minutes 50 seconds to complete. Jørgen Amundsen, the great grand nephew of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, paced Pugh by skiing alongside him during the swim.

The swim coincided with the lowest coverage of Arctic sea ice ever recorded. Pugh disagrees with recent modeling, which predicts that the Arctic will be ice free in the summer by 2080.

In his autobiography Pugh wrote, "Ironically, global warming played no small part in undermining the entire expedition. We believed that the greater melting of summer ice would open up large areas of sea and allow us to paddle north at good speed. What we did not fully appreciate was that to the north of us there was a widespread melting of sea ice off the coast of Alaska and the New Siberian Islands and the ice was being pushed south towards us ... The evidence of climate change was stark. Fourteen months before I'd sailed north and I'd seen a preponderance of multi-year ice about three metres thick north of Spitsbergen, but this time most of the ice was just a metre thick."

Mt Everest - Swim for Peace

In May 2010, Pugh swam in Lake Pumori, a glacial lake on the Khumbu Glacier on Mt Everest, to highlight the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the impact the reduced water supply will have on world peace. The 1 km (0.62 mile) swim, at an altitude of 5,200 metres, in 2°C water, took 22 minutes 51 seconds to complete and was done as part of the Clinton Global Initiative.


Pugh has appeared on numerous TV shows including Good Morning America, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Richard & Judy, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and BBC Breakfast. He has also been featured by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Vital Signs on CNN, Carte Blanche and Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

In 2009 Pugh starred in Robson Green's Wild Swimming Adventure where he trained the English actor / singer to swim across the icy waters of Llyn Llydaw, a lake on Mount Snowdon in Wales. Afterwards Robson Green said, "… Lewis prepared me psychologically for something that was way outside my comfort zone. His introduction to the notion of committing to an objective, becoming unstoppable and reaching that objective was life changing. There was no swim I couldn't do after meeting Lewis because anything is possible if you COMMIT!"


In 2010 Pugh's autobiography "Achieving the Impossible: A Fearless Leader, A Fragile Earth" was published by Simon & Schuster. It quickly became a Number One bestseller.

He also released a new book, 21 Yaks and a Speedo: How to achieve your impossible in May 2013. It was nominated as the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year by the World Open Water Swimming Association.


Over a period of 24 years Pugh has pioneered more swims around famous landmarks than any other swimmer in history including swims in Deception Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. In an interview with Forbes he stated, "Between Lynne Cox, Martin Strel and myself, we've hit all of the world's major landmarks. There's really nothing left."

Early swims

Pugh had his first real swimming lesson in 1986, at the age of 17. One month later he swam from Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) to Cape Town. On 6 August 1992, he swam across the English Channel. In 2002 he broke the record for the fastest time for swimming around Robben Island.

He was the first person to swim around Cape Agulhas (the southern-most point in Africa), the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula (a 100 km (62 mile) swim from Cape Town to Muizenberg). Pugh was also the first person to swim across an African Great Lake, namely Lake Malawi.

Cold water swims

After 2003 Pugh focused on pioneering swims in the coldest and most hostile waters of the world. All of them were undertaken in accordance with Channel Swimming Association rules, in just a pair of Speedo swimming trunks, cap and goggles. He became the first person to swim around the infamous North Cape, Norway, the northern-most point in Europe. The following year he became the first person to swim down the entire length of Sognefjord in Norway, a 204K (127 mile) swim which took him 21 days to complete.

In 2005 he broke the world record for the farthest-north long distance swim by undertaking a 1 km (0.62 mile) swim at 80º North around Verlegenhuken, the northern-most cape in Spitsbergen. He followed that five months later by breaking Lynne Cox's world record for the farthest-south long distance swim by undertaking a 1 km (0.62 mile) swim at 65º South at Petermann Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

In 2006 Pugh challenged Russia's top cold water swimmers to a 500 metre race at the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland. He easily won the gold medal, beating Russian Champion Alexander Brylin by over 100 metres and the bronze medalist Nefatov Vladimir by 125 metres.

Anticipatory Thermo-Genesis

On both his Arctic and Antarctic expeditions Professor Tim Noakes, a sports scientist from the University of Cape Town, recorded Pugh's ability to raise his core body temperature by nearly 2°C in anticipation of entering the freezing water. He coined the phrase "anticipatory thermo-genesis" (the creation of heat before an event). This phenomenon had not been noted in any other human. Pugh believes it is a Pavlovian Response to years of cold water swimming.

5 Oceans

In 2006 Pugh achieved the 5 Oceans or the Holy Grail of Swimming by becoming the first person to complete a long distance swim in all 5 Oceans of the world. To date he is the only person to have achieved this feat. His five swims were:


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