Populous Magazine 15: Man vs Ocean
From the archive: Issue 15, 2016
Extreme cold, seasickness, sharks and near-fatal jellyfish stings. Adam Walker took on all these during his long, arduous attempt to swim seven huge ocean channels, a feat known as Ocean’s Seven.
“Suddenly, with no warning, I felt like I had been slashed across the stomach with a knife. I nearly shot out of the water. I felt an instant red-hot burning feeling across my torso and inside my leg. I started to shout in agony. I couldn’t see anything due to the darkness. I just knew I was in a lot of trouble. The pain was not like a jellyfish sting; it was a cross between being electrocuted and slashed. I was on fire – the sort of pain your brain struggles to tolerate.”
Adam Walker was thirteen and a half hours into his swim across the Kaiwi Channel, the stretch of water separating the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Molokai, when he was stung by a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish. For most human beings that would signify immediate hospitalisation, possibly even death. But Walker struggled on through the agony. “When a man-of-war stings you, it pierces barbs into you,” he explains. “It’s 75 per cent of the poison strength of a cobra snake. I lost the feeling in my spine for about an hour. I vomited for eight minutes solid.” Reciting inspirational quotes from Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone movies seemed to help.
Walker was in Hawaii for the third of seven long-distance ocean swims, part of what’s known as Ocean’s Seven. (The other six are the English Channel between the UK and France, the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, the Catalina Channel between California and Santa Catalina Island, the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, and the North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. See map.) He is currently one of only six human beings ever to complete the feat, the other five being Irishman Stephen Redmond, Swede Anna-Carin Nordin, Americans Michelle Macy and Darren Miller, and New Zealander Kimberley Chambers.
Jellyfish stings are not the only hazard facing ocean swimmers. The sea is often freezing cold. There are treacherous currents, enormous swells, seasickness and, very rarely, shark attacks. The rules of the challenge state that swimmers can wear nothing more than normal swimming trunks (or a swimsuit in the case of women), a cap and goggles. They are accompanied by a pilot boat with team members providing directions, advice, food and drink but nothing else. Just touching the pilot boat is considered cheating and results in disqualification.
What on Earth would possess a 30-year-old toaster and kettle salesman from Nottingham (as Walker was when he embarked on his journey) to put himself through the physical and mental anguish of such a challenge? After all, there’s no prize money – in fact, given all the training, travel, team support and pilot boat fees, each swim costs several thousand dollars. And there’s virtually no recognition. Few people have even heard of this swimming feat.
As a kid Walker had played sport to a high level, especially cricket and swimming. But he had always been held back by injuries. Then, in 2006, during a long-haul flight to Australia, he stumbled upon a film about a Scotsman who banishes personal demons by swimming the English Channel.
It turns out Walker had a few demons of his own. He was unhappy in his job and bitter that injury had shattered his dreams of becoming a professional sportsman. “I felt like there was something missing in my life,” he explains. “In my old age I didn’t want to be one of those people who would tell their grandkids what they might have been.”
Watching the film was an epiphany for him. “It was as if a light bulb had come on in my brain. I was convinced that this is what I was supposed to do.”
In July 2008, after serious training and some hypnotherapy to prepare him against the cold water, he swam 21 miles across the English Channel in 11 hours and 35 minutes.
After that, back at his job selling kitchen appliances, he inevitably felt empty and unfulfilled. Over the next six years, slowly and methodically he ticked off the other six swims in the Ocean’s Seven.
The physical and mental tests he put himself through would have sunk all but the most courageous long-distance swimmers. First off, a shoulder injury sustained during the English Channel swim forced him to develop a new front-crawl technique which he has christened the Ocean Walker stroke. It involves more rotation of the hips, and an unusual arm technique to reduce stress on the shoulders.
In Hawaii there was the sting from the man-of-war. In Japan he was stung in the face by a bloom of jellyfish so small he couldn’t spot them. He did spot a two-metre shark, however, lurking beneath him. There were sharks in New Zealand, too, but they were mitigated by a whole pod of dolphins that swam alongside him for an hour. In the North Channel he was stung by one of the hundreds of lion’s mane jellyfish that patrol those waters. “I felt ambushed. Instead of Russian roulette it was jellyfish roulette,” he said.
“The pain was not like a jellyfish sting; it was a cross between being electrocuted and slashed. I was on fire – the sort of pain your brain struggles to tolerate.”Adam Walker
Seasickness was a constant problem as Walker fought the choppier waters and larger swells. During the English Channel swim, for instance, he vomited more than 20 times, and struggled to ingest sufficient calories. His girlfriend Gemma’s vegetable soup was a godsend.
Hypnotherapy helped him combat the extreme cold on many of the oceans. Walker filled the long, monotonous hours by tricking his mind into thinking he was warm rather than cold. “I’d constantly say to myself, ‘I’m warm, I’m hot, I’m warm, I’m hot, I’m strong, this is what I was born to do’. I once did that for six hours non-stop. It was boring as hell but I didn’t feel cold.” During the entire seven years of his challenge Walker refused ever to say the word ‘cold’, even on dry land.
“Long-distance ocean swimming is very unforgiving,” he explains. “If you have any self-doubt, your mind will try to find a way to make those negative thoughts multiply and potentially convince you to quit.”
Perhaps toughest of all were the vagaries of the ocean currents which meant his crossings never followed a straight line and were often cruelly elongated.
But through it all, Walker remained steely and focused. Finally, on August 6th 2014, he completed his final swim and arrived on a beach in southwest Scotland. “This was it: the completion of seven years of desire and hard work – a goal that would never have seemed possible in my wildest dreams.”
Other swimmers are currently mid-way through attempts to complete Ocean’s Seven. But it will always be a very small and elite club. As Irishman Stephen Redmond, the first person to complete the challenge, once said: “It’s like climbing Mount Everest naked and blindfold.”
Adam Walker is one of just six human beings to complete this ocean swimming challenge. Here is a record of his astounding journey.
ENGLISH CHANNEL (ENGLAND TO FRANCE)
11 hours, 35 mins
STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR (SPAIN TO MOROCCO)
19 miles (round trip)
9 hours, 39 mins
KAIWI CHANNEL (HAWAII, USA)
17 hours, 2 mins
CATALINA CHANNEL (CALIFORNIA, USA)
12 hours, 15 mins
TSUGARU STRAIT (JAPAN)
15 hours, 31 mins
NORTH CHANNEL (NORTHERN IRELAND TO SCOTLAND)
8 hours, 40 mins
COOK STRAIT (NEW ZEALAND)
8 hours, 39 mins
Adam Walker offers public speaking and has published a book called Man vs Ocean (John Blake).