It was an emotional return to his birthplace for Lewis Pugh, the United Nations’ Patron of the Oceans, who landed in Plymouth on Friday night on the course of his 50-day attempt to swim the English Channel the hard way. From the Lord Mayor, Sam Davey, to the Labour leader of the city council, Tudor Evans, to the local MP, Luke Pollard, Plymouth’s dignitaries turned out to greet him on his first major stop on the way from Lands End to Dover. Hundreds turned up to hear his views on the state of the oceans at the National Marine Aquarium, for Pugh’s 350-mile endurance swim is not just a physical feat it is his latest exercise in what has been known as “Speedo diplomacy” since his part in the declaration of a marine reserve in the Ross Sea.
The difficulties of pulling off his latest physical feat, in the face of currents and mats of jellyfish which stung him in the arm and the groin, were not to be trifled at. There was also the sighting of an unidentified shark fin which the crew of his support catamaran did not tell him about until he was out of the water. The crew explained to us how they cram into him the necessary 10,000 calories a day and get him enough sleep on land, or at sea, each night so he can take to the water again. Other swimmers who want to join him present their own health and safety conundrums. When I met Pugh first at the Lord Mayor’s tea, he was looking tired and slightly coldy but these are not things that daunt the man they call the Human Polar Bear. He rallied and gave an inspirational speech without a single note at the Aquarium.
As he told the Plymouth Herald: “The world is divided into pioneers and followers; you can’t be both. But this city is famous for its pioneers. It’s in our bones. So when it comes to ocean conservation, it’s fit and right that this city leads… And finds a model that is right for this specific area. In any protected area, the primary focus should be to protect the natural habitat.”
The most resonant part of Lewis Pugh’s return to Plymouth dawned on all of us for the first time – including perhaps Lewis himself – as he waited to launch himself off again on Saturday morning, pursued for the first few hundred metres like the Pied Piper of Plymouth by 60-odd wild swimmers including the local MP. This was a Plymouth boy – as Tudor Evans described him – born in the city in 1969 and now living in Cape Town, coming back to support a global idea, a national park for the sea in Plymouth Sound – on the lines of the great national parks in Africa and marine parks in other continents, of which Britain has none. Plymouth seems united in wanting to be the place where Britain creates its first marine park. Pugh, last weekend, was the human embodiment of that idea. His Long Swim was bringing it all back home.