‘That’s true courage’: Ant Middleton on why the RNLI is a special force

Ant Middleton knows about courage at sea. As a corporal in the SBS (Special Boat Service) and former Royal Marine, his training and operations took him through hell and high water. Now the frontman for gritty on-screen challenges such as SAS: Who Dares Wins and Mutiny, he's taken time out to explain why he'll always support the charity that saves lives at sea.

Ant Middleton

Photo: Matt Sprake

What's the scariest side of special force operations?

I think that, in the military, it's the unknown. Once you're in the operation it flows because your training kicks in, you do things systematically. But the thing that always got me on edge was the bit before that - that's when you take the deep breaths. Because you don't know exactly what you'll face, and things might not go according to plan.

That's why I take my hat off to the RNLI crews. Getting that call, putting on that gear and lifejacket, not knowing what they might come up against … that alone is true courage.

Why did you become a member of the SBS rather than SAS?

It's all about the water. If you don't like it, the SBS is not for you. I have always been confident in the water and learned to swim from a young age. For the SBS you have to pass swim tests and do things like a high dive off a 10m board, do lengths in full combat gear, grabbing bricks from the bottom and so on. The focus is on endurance. You find yourself doing depths as well as lengths!

So our cold, unpredictable seas don't bother you as much as other people?

No-one is stronger than our waters. The tides, currents, the cold … I am used to jumping in and out of cold seas, but that's usually in a wetsuit and I know I can get out.

Many of our coastal waters don't get above 15ºC, and it's surprising how cold that feels. I was lowered into a tank of 12ºC water at the University of Portsmouth, as part of the work Professor Mike Tipton has done with the RNLI on cold water shock. I’ve been conditioned to deal with the physical and emotional effects of that sort of thing but it was still tough!

Before I went in we timed how long it took me to screw up a bolt, and it took 30 seconds. When I got out it took me twice that. I didn't expect that effect on my dexterity. I'll always respect the water.

You've used your special forces experience to put civilians through 'selection' as part of Channel 4's SAS: Who Dares Wins. But in your new series, Mutiny, it's you who faces the challenge, isn't it?

It's a recreation of the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 - when crewmen seized control of the ship from Captain William Bligh and set him and some of the more loyal crew adrift in the ship's launch. They completed a voyage of more than 3,500 nautical miles in the launch to reach safety. And we decided to do the same, with me in charge!

We had a replica open boat made and had to sail from Tonga to Timor, living on rations: ship biscuits, biltong, and whatever we could hunt from the islands. Just me and a crew of normal people and the sea.

Psychologically and physically it was really tough - I lost 21kg. But I know from my military days - your mind can drag you through pretty much anything. If your mind gives up, your body will follow.

Things are getting really busy for you, but you are finding time to be an ambassador for the RNLI - why is that?

I'm proud and honoured to help in any way I can.

I know from my Royal Marines and SBS days: however confident you are in the water, you are at the mercy of nature when you are on or in the sea. It can be great fun when you're aware of the risks. But, at its most brutal, it is no joke. I know how serious it can get.

For volunteer lifeboat crews to be prepared to go out when most people would be going in the opposite direction … all I can say is 'wow'.

Mutiny is due to be broadcast on Channel 4 starting on 6 March. You can keep up to date with Ant Middleton’s challenges and adventures at antmiddleton.com.