Despite daily rough weather, high seas, cold water swims and exhausting boat rides, extreme environmental activist Sarah Ferguson refuses to back down from the toughest swim of her life, and the toughest message to sell – that of plastic pollution in the sea.
Extreme swimmer Sarah Ferguson, who has been swimming from Durban to Cape Town, without a wetsuit, covering between 20 and 30km a day with a strong current-assist, to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the sea, has hit the wall and the halfway mark and called a rain-check until November.
It’s back home to her cats in Durban, via a mate’s house in the Berg, and some serious R&R and re-strategizing for Sarah, a retired national SA swimmer and physiotherapist, who became the first person to swim the 63km around Easter Island in 2019. She had always planned to break the 1500km swim, which she started in February, into two segments. She had planned to swim throughout April or until she reached Mossel Bay. However, recent cold fronts and strong winds, together with a lack of funding, forced Sarah and her team to call the swim earlier than planned, although she has still swum more than 760km in just 30 separate swims. She made it to PE this week, buoyed up by a recent cash injection from two national corporates, Nampak and Mr Price Sport, only to be confronted with heavy seas, a projected four-day cold front and a long, deep and busy PE harbour.
All along the coast, communities have flocked to the beach to welcome Sarah in from her swim, and she has spent time addressing schoolkids about marine pollution in various locations, including Port Alfred. However, in recent social media posts and videos, a visibly exhausted and downbeat Sarah, has been revealing the sheer extent of the challenge.
Sarah, who took out a loan in order to part finance her swim, says the lack of sponsorship is still a problem, and that she underestimated just how gruelling swimming every day would become. “The last two weeks have been really tough for me mentally. I don’t think I have ever been as mentally fatigued in my life, and having to dig as deep as I have for a swim as I have in the last three or four swims. To be honest I’ve never had to dig really deep in any of the swims I have done before, even though they were tough in different ways. I haven’t really felt like I’ve spent everything that I’ve had. This swim has taken everything out of me.”
Nevertheless, she says, she has given up everything to make sure the message about the scourge of plastic in the oceans, and she still needs to get that message across. “If you just look at what is happening with the Durban and KZN floods, you see how bad the problem is. Inland the plastic is washing into the road, the beaches are horrendous. Climate change is real and we need to take a wake-up call as consumers. People should be taking notice. It is causing havoc in our marine life and in our own lives. That’s how I stay so focused.”
She says that if the finances hadn’t been an issue, she would have probably been in a better mental state, but the stress of that combined with logistical headaches such as identifying viable launch sites and finding the Agulhas current some 40km out to sea, rough weather, and managing team dynamics, had been enormous. Not to mention the increasingly cold water from the Transkei coast southwards.
“Decisions are made daily. We don’t even know where we are staying half the time, or where we are going to come in. We burn fuel to get out to the backline and the current isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, or the wind’s going in the other direction or stronger than the current, we can end up swimming backwards and we have to make a call and take a gamble how far I am going to try swim.”
She says trying to keep something in reserve for the next day’s swim was hard. “I can’t break myself on every swim because I’ve got so much more to go. It’s those constant decisions that are exhausting, on top of not sleeping well due to all the adrenalin. I’m at my end, exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally. Everything seems to be counting against us, so we’ll go home early and come back in November or December. It’s a good decision and we’re proud.”
Sarah says temperatures of 18 and below came as a shock, having never swam longer than two or three hours in cold water, for example on a Robben Island swim. “And it’s not even that cold in terms of Cape Town standards. Going from 25 and suddenly hitting 18 is a big shock. You’re already at a deficit and your body is burning huge calories…It’s hard to embrace that water temperature, especially when you have to then get out into freezing wind and face a three-hour boat ride back to shore. So we’re learning a lot of tricks how to keep me warm and dry.”
For now, though, it’s time to rest up and soothe frazzled nerves. “We’re gonna spend a few days escaping the world. I’m not ready to face the world yet. I’m very keen to jump into a warm, calm swimming pool!”
Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/oneoceanswim/
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