Mexican open-water swimmer Antonio Argüelles dove into the North Channel on the Irish side. His goal was to swim from Northern Ireland to Scotland through the channel, a treacherous 35km route known for big breakers, fierce storms and the lion’s-mane jellyfish, the marine dweller Argüelles fears the most.
On that August morning in 2017, the weather finally cooperated after two weeks of waiting, and the sea was quiet until some last-minute drama. With a push at the halfway point, Argüelles was able to cross the channel and write his name into history as the oldest swimmer at the time to complete a series of challenging routes across the globe called the Oceans Seven (US swimmer Elizabeth Fry broke his age record in 2019). Now he has written about the milestone, and a lifetime of overcoming challenges, in his new book The Forever Swim.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 60-year-old is spending more time out of the water than he would like. A planned back-and-forth crossing of the English Channel in August is now uncertain.
“I have to wait until further notice,” he says. “The English Channel back and forth will not be my last swim, but probably my last long swim.”
Argüelles became enthralled with swimming in his youth after an unheralded countryman, Felipe ‘El Tibio’ Muñoz, won gold in the 200m breaststroke at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Argüelles trained with the aim of reaching similar heights but narrowly missed out on competing at the elite level.
He went on to attend Stanford, hoping to swim for the university’s prestigious team, but ultimately the program was not a good fit. Yet he rediscovered the sport later in life and found that he liked the challenge of open water swimming. He completed endurance swimming’s Triple Crown – crossings of the Catalina Channel and the English Channel, and a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Then he learned about the Oceans Seven.
All of the six previous finishers were under 40, whereas he was 56. Yet he was up for the itinerary: the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tsugaru Strait, the Ka’iwi Channel in Hawaii, the Catalina Channel in California, the Cook Strait of New Zealand and the North Channel.
His swims ranged from what he described as an easy crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar to grueling ventures in the Tsugaru and Cook straits. Incredibly, the Tsugaru crossing lasted almost an entire day – 23 hours and 18 minutes, to be exact.
“There was a lot of self-doubt in that swim,” Argüelles said. “I did not know if I was going to finish.” Yet he did, breaking his previous mark for longest swim, an 18-hour, 19-minute crossing of the English Channel.
Argüelles returned to the UK for his final swim of the challenge.
“It was the most difficult, the toughest, in the Oceans Seven,” Argüelles said.
Unlike other crossings, such as Gibraltar and Ka’iwi, the North Channel features frigid temperatures. When Argüelles jumped in, the temperature hovered between 13C and 15C.
“You can never get that coldness out of your body,” he said, “especially your arms, legs, hands and feet.”
He prepared as best as he could. He trained in the similarly cold conditions of San Francisco Bay, then spent two weeks in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, seeking a way to acclimate to the temperature while waiting for a day when the weather would accommodate a swim. He got to know a local swim club, the Chunky Dunkers, who go out for a plunge sans wetsuits every day of the year.
The conditions nearly made it impossible to schedule a date, yet on the morning of 3 August Mother Nature gave Argüelles a chance to make the crossing. This might have been aided by a ceremony earlier that week, in which he brought water collected from both the Mexican and San Franciscan waters where he trains and deposited it into the channel.
“I asked the ocean to please give me a chance,” Argüelles says. “It’s something I always like to transmit to people: You don’t conquer the mountains, they give you permission to do it. My philosophy has always been to treat Mother Nature [with] a lot of respect. I am not a religious person, but I believe in forces of nature.”
At the start of the swim, those forces treated him kindly. He had planned to reach the halfway point in six hours, but made it in five, to the delight of not only himself but also those in his escort boat, including trainer Nora Toledano and advisor Rafael Álvarez.
Then the conditions worsened. Colliding currents threatened to push Argüelles back to Northern Ireland. He got a message from the boat to pick up the pace or risk losing his chance at the milestone.
“They said, ‘You have to go sprint for the next hour,’” Argüelles recalls.
He increased his strokes from 64 per minute to 67. He credited his extra physical effort to a mind-body aspect of his preparation.
“One of the things I do in my training is a Qi Gong sequence,” Argüelles explains. “I have to try to do the sequence, move my legs, move my arms, lower back. The whole idea is to liberate your energy channels, create more energy.”
Surpassing the currents, Argüelles was ready to complete the crossing to the Scottish coast, but there were some final obstacles.
“Probably the scariest moment of all my swims in the Oceans Seven was at the end of the North Channel,” he said.
In his book, he mentions that the lion’s-mane jellyfish were a no-show for much of the swim. Yet he told the Guardian that they made a late, painful entrance.
“They appeared at the very, very end,” he says. “I got stung just a little bit. It’s one of the risks. It hurt so much. The next day, I was in pain.”
Meanwhile, Argüelles was scanning the coastline, as Oceans Seven rules mandate finishing on a beach. It wasn’t easy, with mammoth waves threatening to knock him unconscious onto a coast full of sharp rocks.
“Suddenly, it was the worst-case scenario,” he recalls. “Another wave was coming, a big wave.”
It was decision time.
“I thought that if I hit my head on the rocks, if I was not dead, I could lose consciousness,” he says. “The boat would not come in enough time to get me.
“I tried to position myself [for] whatever would happen, so that my back would come before my head and arms. I tried to make a slow landing. It happened. For some reason, I was able to land perfectly.”
Since completing the Oceans Seven, Argüelles did an even longer swim – 24 hours and 14 minutes back and forth in a return to Catalina. He experienced a different kind of milestone when he became a grandfather last September. He plans to share his real-life adventure stories with his granddaughter.
“I always thought I wanted to tell my grandchildren stories,” Argüelles says, “about those things I really did. They’re better than just imaginary stories. I swam with dolphins, with whales.”
As he noted, “there’s always time to go for a swim, a beautiful swim.”