Sean Conway: Hell and High Water

Both Katie and I have just finished reading Sean Conway’s ‘Hell and High Water’. The book has caused much debate between the extended mermaid gang and Katie and I have exchanged numerous whatsapp messages as the tale unfolded while we were reading.

Hell and High Water tells of Sean’s attempt to become the first person to swim the length of Britain. Sean talks of how he was frustrated with his ‘regular’ life and turned to extreme adventures instead. His attempt to cycle across America had been cut short when he was hit by a vehicle and therefore he was looking for a new challenge. Sean had swum regularly as a kid in Zimbabwe but was not an experienced open water swimmer as an adult.

The book starts by talking about preparation and funding with many amusing tales – buying a boat from eBay, his friend quitting his job to skipper for him to name a couple. The main part of the book though is focused on the actual swim itself. Sean starts from Lands End in June 2013 swimming north to John O’Groats via the east coast of Ireland. He initially anticipated that the swim would take something like 90 days but it ended up taking 135 days with Sean eventually completing the challenge on 11 November 2013.

There is no doubt what Sean achieved is an absolutely amazing accomplishment. He swam 1,400km in total often swimming for several hours each day. Swimming in the sea adds an extra dimension. Battling the waves is extremely tiring but you get a boost from the tide. Sean also raised thousands of pounds for War Child his chosen charity. He should be celebrated for all these achievements.

Notwithstanding all of this, reading the book is kind of frustrating. Sean approaches the swim in a pretty haphazard way. He admits that due to focusing so much on raising money to do the swim he hasn’t really trained that much and he hadn’t even tried on his wetsuit. His original plan was to swim around the coast of Wales but he then changes his mind and swims up the coast of Ireland. This decision turns out to have pitfalls as progress is slow and before they cross back to England/Scotland his skipper leaves the swim to return to work leaving Sean effectively stranded in Ireland for weeks until they luckily find a new skipper.

Without wanting to sound like the start of a year 8’s 500 word essay titled ‘what is adventure’, the English dictionary defines adventure as “an unusual and exciting or daring experience”. Now the world is discovered and technology is only progressing, adventure and adventurers have taken on different methods of ensuring what they are doing is exciting, unusual and daring. On reading the book I couldn’t help feeling that Sean partly misses the beauty of adventure in its purest state by being distracted by the ‘adventure’ being created from the poor preparation. When the excitement in the adventure is possibly from being in silly situations rather than discovering new things, you lose the beauty.

What Sean did was a great achievement, there is no denying that, so Chapeau Sean, Chapeau. However, I wonder how much better it would have been for him with just a little bit more consideration for what lay ahead.

Sean previously had cycled from Lands End to John o’Groats. Following the swim he decided to also run the route and therefore is the first person to complete a length of Britain triathlon!

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