A perilous shark-infested marathon swim anyone?

We face challenges every day, from keeping calm when we’re stuck in traffic to dealing with unexpected complications at work.

A perilous shark-infested marathon swim anyone?
Photo: Cate Gunn

But five British swimmers faced the toughest challenge of their lives when they attempted one of the world’s most extreme swims last May.

Their sights were set on completing the Farallon Swim, a chilly and tempestuous 30-mile marathon between the Farallon Islands and mainland San Francisco.

This perilous stretch of sea is also known as the Red Triangle and it’s often described as ‘like the English Channel, but much colder, rougher and with sharks’.

Swimmers attempting the challenge can encounter swells as high as 6m and temperatures as low as 9°C. And banish all thoughts of keeping warm in a wetsuit – they're strictly forbidden.

If the cold, stormy waters weren’t enough to put you off, perhaps the constant fear of a shark attack will. Bumping into a Great White is a very real possibility in the Red Triangle, where 11% of the world’s shark attacks take place.

It's not surprising to learn that the Farallon Swim has been labelled as one of the most dangerous cold water marathon swims on earth.

Fancy a go? Neither do we.

The challengers

Back in 2014, Ali Wilde, Ed Morgan, Joel Richards, John Gunn and Mary Stokes decided to undertake the incredible challenge and set up their blog, Great British Farallon Swim, to track their progress.

They had two aims:

  • to make the record books as the first British (and first non-American) relay team to complete the swim

  • to raise money for the RNLI in the process.

'We’re hoping that by attempting this challenge, we’ll be able to drive both awareness and funding for this extraordinary organisation,' they wrote on their blog.

Although the challenge was cut short after one of the team members appeared to be hypothermic, they fulfilled their goal of raising funds for the RNLI.

Their daring feat inspired their supporters to donate an impressive sum – which wouldn’t have been possible without the months of dedication and hard work they put into training.

The training

But before they reached San Francisco, the team had a lot of training and preparation to do.

'Unfortunately, more than a half of our team had little open water swimming experience,' remembers Ali. 'So 6 months to acclimatise, learn to swim, learn to swim consistently and powerfully, and learn to swim in open water was quite a challenge.'

The team had 18 weeks of rigorous technique training and cold water acclimatisation to ensure they could swim against the strong tides and endure long periods of the Farallons' chilly temperatures.

During the relay, each swimmer swims hour-long shifts, resting and recovering on the boat until it's their turn to swim again. A relay swim relies on the strength and endurance of each team member to complete the challenge. Performing to the best of your ability and staying safe is vital.

A cold day in Brighton

To get used to swimming in cold water, the team set themselves the challenge of swimming from pier to pier across Brighton's seafront. The chilling 9°C swells were perfect for imitating the conditions they’d face in the Farallons.

'It was cold, seriously cold, almost unbearably cold! It hits you instantly and burns your whole body to the extent that you turn sunburnt red in colour,' one of the team members documented on their blog. 'It was safe to say we were all mildly hypothermic and personally the whole episode was a bit of blur.'

Cold water acclimatisation was more of a challenge for team member Joel, who was living in Australia. With Brisbane's sea temperature at an envy-inducing 23-26°C, Joel took prolonged ice baths to adjust to the cold water and avoid panic later on. His evenings were spent lying in a tub of icy water, as he practised mentally blocking out the cold.

‘A once-in-a-lifetime experience’

The following month, the team were invited to RNLI College in Poole to experience some rather daunting conditions in the sea survival pool and wave tank. In cold rain, 14°C water and huge waves, they got a taste of what they'd face during the challenge.

The team described the experience as 'once-in-a-lifetime' and 'invaluable but terrifying'.

Their extreme swim training was accompanied by a classroom session with two specialists. They learned about cold water shock theory and the importance of acclimatising yourself to the water slowly.

Their preparation wasn't all physical. The team also had to mentally prepare themselves for the risk of hypothermia, extreme sleep deprivation and the possibility of encountering a Great White.

While training, they received an email from the Farallon Islands Swimming Federation asking if there was any way they could prepare themselves for seeing a 3½m Great White Shark pass beneath them.

On their blog, the team reflected: 'There is no real way to prepare for swimming alongside a Great White and while I’d like to say I’d keep on powering through, I’m pretty sure I’d be fighting a strong and innate gut instinct to jump onto the boat as fast as my cold limbs would carry me.’

Just two weeks before the swim, the team hit a snag when Joel had to drop out of the challenge. But luckily, Simon Clarke, a friend of the team, bravely volunteered to step in.

Respect the Water

Preparing for cold water and rough seas is a crucial part of the team's training. But even if you’re taking a casual dip at the beach instead of a perilous swim across shark-infested water, the sea can be unpredictable and dangerous.

More than 160 people die around the UK coast each year. That’s more than the number of people killed in cycling accidents. You might assume that adrenaline sports and rough weather are the leading cause of incidents, but casual, everyday use of the coast often sees fatalities.

One of the most significant contributors is cold water shock. It causes uncontrollable gasping, draws water into the lungs and can lead to drowning. It can also cause cardiac arrest, even in the young and healthy.

Cold water shock can occur in any water below 15°C, so the risk is there all year round in UK and Irish waters. Be aware of the effects of cold water shock and remember to acclimatise yourself to the water gradually. Stay safe.

The swim

After weeks of intensive training, 8 May soon rolled around for the swimmers.

And, donning their neon yellow neoprene caps, they set off in the early hours of the morning.

Brave team member Ed was the first to jump into the dark waters at 5am. Temperatures had dropped to between 9-10°C, some of the coldest waters the team had experienced in their training.

For an hour, each swimmer's world became an endless stretch of smooth sea. The calm waters were a blessing, but blocking out the sensation of the bitingly cold water was a challenge.

Ed successfully completed his first hour, and was followed by Ali, Mary, John and then Simon.

Things seemed to be going well. And thankfully, there were no sharks.

But by round two, one of the team members starting showing signs of hypothermia. It was too dangerous for them to continue the swim and the team had to pull out of the challenge. The Great British Farallon Swim was halted, one third of the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Team member Ali said: 'It was awful pulling him in as it meant the end of the challenge for all of us. It was even harder for him. He had not asked to be taken out. He had not given up and so we felt like we had taken it away from him. That was really tough.'

They took to Facebook to update their supporters.

‘I'm sorry to say the conditions got the better of us in the end.

‘Disappointed but still immensely proud to be the first British team to attempt the world’s toughest marathon swim.’

Still a success

Although they didn’t succeed in making it to the record books, the Great British Farallon Swim Team raised £5,285.48 for the RNLI. That's enough to fully kit out three all-weather lifeboat crew members or six lifeguards, or to cover half the cost of a rescue watercraft.

They’ve made a real difference to the RNLI and the safety of people at sea and on the beach. None of this would have been possible without the hard work, dedication and sheer bravery each team member displayed.

And this isn’t the last you’ve heard of the Great British Farallon Swim.

After the challenge they posted:

‘I promise you the Great British Farallon Team will be back for more, so watch this space!’

You can keep up with the #GreatBritishFarallonSwim on Twitter and Facebook. We can't wait to see what their next adventure will be!

Feeling motivated to challenge yourself and raise money for the RNLI? Take a look at our fundraising ideas for inspiration.