Open water swimmer Sigurgeir Svanbergsson took to the sea on Friday for a good cause. RÚV reports that the self-trained sea swimming enthusiast set out on his odyssey from the Westman Islands to Landeyjasandur on the mainland at 3:45 pm and was expected to complete the 12-km [7.5 mi] journey in five to six hours, arriving between 9:00 and 10:00 pm.
Sigurgeir is swimming on behalf of Save the Children Iceland. (Donate here.) All the money he collects for his monumental undertaking will be donated. He considers this a truly pressing issue, noting that one in every six children in the world—or 450 million total—live in conflict zones, which is a 5% increase from last year.
‘I always have to go a little further and try something a little harder’
This isn’t Sigurgeir’s first open water plunge—nor his first for charity—although he is still relatively new to the pursuit. Last year, with very little prior swimming experience, he swam across Kollafjörður from Kjalarnes to Reykjavík. (In that instance, he swam for Unique Children in Iceland, a support group for children with rare diseases.)
Sea swimming was a pursuit he took up during the COVID lockdown years, unable to practice or compete in his first sport, Lethwei, a particularly strenuous, full-contact form of boxing practiced in Myanmar. “I was supposed to be competing in the world championship, but COVID spoiled that. […] So I had to find something else to do.” Sigurgeir had no particular background in swimming and had only really practiced when he was in school. But that was part of the appeal for him. “I’m really interested in putting myself in situations that are really challenging. It’s so interesting to see where your head goes when you find yourself in a situation that’s actually kind of impossible.”
And he learned a lot during the course of that first journey, even if it wasn’t all smooth swimming. “It went well, I finished it, but with all kinds of complications,” he recalled in a recent radio interview. For one thing, the engine went out on his escort boat and Sigurgeir ended up having to swim around it for an hour and a half while he waited for a new one. During that break, the currents in the fjord changed direction and so Sigurgeir had to complete his journey swimming against a strong current. The swim took nine hours.
“It was hard and I almost failed,” he said. “But then I always have to go a little further and try something a little harder.”
Learning from experience
Sigurgeir has certainly found something “a little harder” with his current swim. The distance of the Kollafjörður swim was just the same, 12 km, but the swim from the Westman Islands will be much more difficult. “So, this is the open sea, of course,” Sigurgeir noted. “I really have no idea what I’m getting into, in a way.”
He’s learned from previous experience, however, and in addition to training extensively in advance of Friday’s swim—both physical preparation in the form of cold training and mental preparation for better stress management—Sigurgeir has made some adjustments. He said he’d be more mindful of the change currents and planned to bring a kayak with him where he could eat mid-swim. He was also going to practice better feeding methods. Sigurgeir said he didn’t do this very well last year and as a result, ended up vomiting for the last three hours of his swim. “There was actually a trail of vomit behind me the whole way.”
At time of writing, Sigurgeir hadn’t completed his swim from the Westmans to Iceland’s mainland, but the conditions were good when he set out. The currents were favourable, and the weather on Heimey, the only inhabited island in the Westmans from where he set out, was good: 10°C [50°F], with just a slight breeze, a bit of fog, and scattered showers.
Sigurgeir was in high spirits before setting out on Friday afternoon, saying: “In the first place, I just think it’s exciting. Just such an exciting idea to give this a try. And then there’s a good cause, too.”
Check Sigurgeir’s Facebook page, Synt frá Vestmannaeyjum (‘Swam from the Westman Islands’), to see how his saga ended on Friday night.