Seven swims, in some of the most dangerous conditions known to man…
Churning, 10-foot waves. Freezing cold water. Powerful currents. Whipping winds. Poisonous jellyfish, sharks and other creatures from the deep.
These are the last places on earth anyone would want to swim. But some brave souls do it anyway. This is the Oceans Seven swimming challenge. This is not for the faint of heart.
What is Oceans Seven?
With nearly 200 kilometers, or 124 miles, of swimming across the world’s most dangerous ocean channels, Oceans Seven is the swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits: A mountaineering challenge that conquers the tallest mountains on each continent.
Swimmers hoping to complete Oceans Seven must do solo, unassisted crossings of all seven channels:
- The English Channel, between England and France.
- The Catalina Channel between Catalina Island and the California mainland.
- The Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.
- The North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.
- The Molokai Channel between Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii.
- The Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
- The Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan.
Only 21 people have completed Oceans Seven, according to Openwaterpedia.
To put it in perspective, many people consider completing just one of these swims to be an incredible lifetime achievement. To do all seven? That’s on a whole other level, and it usually takes people years to check every swim off.
And for every one person who has completed Oceans Seven, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who have attempted these swims and were unsuccessful.
Oceans Seven requires incredible levels of mental and physical endurance, and the ability to withstand hours in very cold or very warm water, which can be deadly if you’re not prepared.
Weather conditions also vary widely between all the swims, from intense currents and waves to jellyfish and dangerous boat traffic… It’s not an easy undertaking by any means.
How to Train for Oceans Seven
Many athletes will train one to two years for a single swim. And it’s not as easy as just building up distance and endurance.
Swimmers must acclimate to the warm or cold conditions so they don’t overheat or get hypothermia. And, some of these crossings require a qualification swim to prove that you can handle such grueling conditions.
Related: What it’s Like to Swim the English Channel
There’s also a lot of time spent refining a nutrition plan, which can make or break the swims. Plus, there’s all the logistics involved with reserving a swimming date, hiring a pilot boat and choosing a support crew.
And these swims aren’t cheap. Depending on the cost of hiring a coach, reserving pilot boats, airfare, lodging, food and gear for the trips, swimmers could spend upwards of $20,000 to complete Oceans Seven. For that price tag, failing is pretty costly.
So, all that said, let’s take a look at these famous swims that have claimed many lives over the years. We’re breaking down all seven, from least to most dangerous.
1. The English Channel
While it’s not easy by any means, the English Channel is first on our list. This swim is one of the most famous channel crossings in the world, with the most successful attempts of the seven.
Swimmers cover 33.5 kilometers, or about 21 miles, between England and France, combatting ships, cold water, waves and jellyfish. The average crossing takes about 13 hours.
The English Channel’s current pushes swimmers in an S formation, pushing them up the channel for the first part of their swim, and then down the channel for the second part. Depending on how well the swimmer does against the current, their swim could take much longer as they battle it out to keep moving forward.
Related: How I Train for Marathon Open Water Swims
The water in the English Channel is about 62 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16 degrees Celsius, on average. And the kicker? For your swim to be an official crossing, you can’t wear a wetsuit! That applies to all the other swims in Oceans Seven, too.
Many swimmers bail out of their crossings due to hypothermia…the water is just too cold!
2. The Catalina Channel
Next we’re heading across the pond to California, where the Catalina Channel stands as the toughest channel crossing in the United States. At 32 kilometers or 20 miles long, it’s often compared to the English Channel, with similar distance and conditions, although the temperature is usually slightly warmer, in the mid-60s Fahrenheit.
The water temperature can drop by up to 10 degrees in the final few miles before the California coast, causing hypothermia in even the most experienced swimmers.
Swimmers often begin this swim at midnight to avoid daytime wind conditions, which can be pretty nasty. Swimming in pitch black can be very disorienting as well, with some swimmers reporting vertigo and nausea during this stage of their crossings.
The Catalina Channel also has its fair share of currents, which are tough to predict. In some cases, strong currents have caused swimmers to stay in the water 50% longer than their predicted times! Crossing times range between 8 and a half hours, up to 33 hours!
On top of all that, swimmers may encounter marine life during their swim, like jellyfish, sharks, dolphins and whales.
3. The Strait of Gibraltar
The Strait of Gibraltar runs between Spain and Morocco, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Swimmers typically follow a 14.4-kilometer route for this swim, which is about nine miles.
Known for its intense currents, swimmers attempting the Strait of Gibraltar can experience average current speeds of up to 3 knots, or 5.5 kilometers per hour! When paired with windy conditions, that makes for a tough swim.
The Strait is one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors, so swimmers can expect to be dodging boats in addition to choppy waves.
Because the weather can be so unpredictable, there are very few days when the conditions align for a safe crossing. Due to this, swimmers are usually grouped together in groups of four. They will all do solo crossings, but have to stay within a few meters of each other. The average crossing time comes in at around five hours.
Related: The 7 Most Stunning Open Water Swimming Destinations
Most people swim from Spain to Morocco, to get a bit of assistance from that speedy current. But for those crazy swimmers who choose to cross the Strait of Gibraltar more than once in one go? They’ll have to fight the current…brutal!
Compared to some of the other swims on this list, the Strait of Gibraltar is a highly regulated swim. All swims have to be completed during daylight hours, and there can only be one swim per day. The waiting list for a spot is often up to two years!
4. The Cook Strait
Next is the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Swimmers cover approximately 26 kilometers, or 16 miles, between New Zealand’s North and South Islands, battling with three currents to avoid getting swept out to sea.
The water temperature ranges between 57 and 66 degrees Fahrenheit or 14 to 19 degrees Celsius, and it’s common to see dolphins and jellyfish during the crossing. The water is often pretty choppy, too, which can make it tough to maintain good technique.
Many swimmers have reported getting nasty sunburns during this swim…some people have even gotten second degree burns!
The record for the Cook Strait is about four and a half hours, but many swimmers take much longer, sometimes up to 10 hours or more!
5. The Molokai Channel
From the chilly waters of New Zealand, we’re heading to the much more tropical waters of Hawaii. Coming in at 42 kilometers or 26 miles, the Molokai Channel, also called the Ka’iwi Channel or the Channel of Bones, is one of the toughest swims on this list.
According to the Molokai Channel Swimmers Association, about 70% of swimmers fail their first attempt at this crossing. The fastest swim ever recorded took about 12 hours, but many swimmers come in around 15 hours or more.
This channel has wiped out ancient canoe fleets, and swallowed modern fisherman and boaters as well.
Related: 5 Secrets to a Faster Open Water Swim Race
The Molokai Channel is known for large, rolling swells, strong wind and warm weather. Swells have been reported as high as 30 feet, and water temperatures range between 76 and 81 degrees Fahrenheit, or 24 to 27 degrees Celsius.
Aside from the crazy conditions, swimmers also have to worry about jellyfish. The Molokai Channel is home to the Portuguese Man of War, a jellyfish with long, poisonous tentacles that can shut down your organs if you get stung. Many swimmers have powered through their crossings after run-ins with the Man of War, fighting back numbness and pain from stings.
They’ve also reported other marine life, like great white sharks.
6. The Tsugaru Channel
The Tsugaru Channel in Japan is next up…this deep water channel swim goes between Honshu, where Tokyo is located, and Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
It’s known for having an extremely strong current that flows from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. Swells can reach 10 to 12 feet high!
Swimmers who want to take on the epic current choose a shorter, 19.5 kilometer crossing, starting from Honshu’s northernmost point…that’s about 12 miles. But if they can’t power through the current, they will be pushed out of range for their finish on Hokkaido.
Many swimmers choose a longer, more conservative route that starts further west, which allows them to take advantage of the current to push them toward the finish. It does add an extra 10 kilometers, but that’s no big deal…or is it? You tell us!
Related: How to Safely Swim in Cold Open Water
The water can range between 62 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16 to 20 degrees Celsius. Not as chilly as some of the other swims on this list, but it gets tougher when added to the rough conditions, including unpredictable eddies and tidal flows, and strong winds.
Plus, there’s always a chance they’ll encounter some sea life…anything from jellyfish and squids to sharks and sea snakes!
Swimming time varies widely for this crossing, due to different starting points. But the fastest crossing comes in at just over six hours, with many others taking 10 hours or more.
7. The North Channel
Coming in at number seven on our list is the North Channel: The toughest channel swim in the world.
At 35 kilometers or 21 miles, the North Channel is a stretch of water between Ireland and Scotland.
It’s extremely difficult to predict weather conditions for the North Channel, and they can change very quickly. The water temperature is often close to 54 degrees Fahrenheit, or 12 degrees Celsius. Swimmers can often expect overcast weather, wind and strong currents during their swim.
And on the subject of currents…the currents in the North Channel are no joke. The tide runs north to south, and changes every six hours. Swimmers need to be comfortable swimming across a current, and many report that the currents in the North Channel are unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.
Depending on the strength of the currents on the day of your swim, and your swimming speed, you could end up swimming 45 kilometers due to an extra push from the current.
If the water is calm, you’ll have to fight through large pods of jellyfish. This area is known to have a large population of lion’s mane jellyfish, which have a very painful sting.
Depending on the tides, swimmers sometimes start in the dark, and a full crossing can take between 9 and 18 hours!
I think we can all agree that Oceans Seven is not for the faint of heart. Only the toughest athletes will go down in history.
Would you ever try Oceans Seven? Or do you think it’s a crazy challenge? Let us know in the comments below.