Today was the most important day of my career.
I was up from 5am with my team, finalising details of how the day would run from logistics to campaign messaging to tides and looking at the not-so-good weather reports. It was already bucketing down with rain, and it wasn’t expected to stop for the rest of the day.
Sky News was on board filming from 7am, interviewing my team and I about the day ahead and reflecting on everything so far.
I’m always amazed by how much goes on behind the scenes with campaigns like this, the actual swim is only a small cog in the turning wheels.
Later that morning, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, and his team came on board for talks. We had a very frank and constructive conversation.
I explained what I’m seeing in the oceans and what I think the UK needs to be doing, how our response to the crisis isn’t keeping up with the speed and scale of the problem.
That only 7 square km of our 750,000 square km of waters is fully protected is shocking. In the rest of our waters, we have shipping, oil and gas drilling, gunnery exercises, industrial fishing and aggregate removal. Scientists are clear that we need to be protecting at least 30% of our oceans by 2030 if they are going to be able to stand a chance of recovery and be sustainable.
I told him how during this swim, I’ve seen virtually no wildlife – aside from a few birds, a few dolphins and one turtle. It shows that our oceans have been very badly over-fished. I have also seen plastic on every beach I’ve visited from Cornwall to Kent. We have taken the fish out of the ocean and replaced them with plastic.
Mr Gove listened intently, and we discussed what his goals and plans were for marine policy.
We then moved onto discussing the protection of the high seas – areas of ocean that don’t belong to a single country. I told him how Costa Rica and Monaco are leading the way here, but that there is a vacuum in world leadership on ocean issues.
The UK has an opportunity to fill that void.
We are an island nation, proud of our maritime history. There is a strong groundswell of public will and support; we have overseas territories in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans; we also have a strong Royal Navy and the scientific expertise to lead the world in ocean conservation.
This is where we belong.
An hour later, I dived into where I belonged and started my final swim.
There was a strong offshore wind, so the first half hour was a battle to get close enough to shore, before finally being able to swim only 25m from the fast approaching Shakespeare Beach.
As Dover Harbour wall came into sight, members of the public and camera crew started running alongside me across the pebbles, keeping pace with my strokes.
The wall was fast approaching - my adrenaline was building, I was swimming the fastest I had at any point of the swim. Even through the heavy rain, I could hear the whir of a helicopter far above me and the encouraging cheers of people on the beach.
The 30m high wall started to loom over me, I entered its shadow. It was nearly in reach.
And then, one last breath, one last stroke – I slammed my hand into it.
I was done.
I’d made it.
527km swum, 49 days. The full length of the English Channel.
I experienced what felt like every possible human emotion all at the same time – I was jubilant, I was exhausted, I was overwhelmed with pride for what we had achieved. I threw my arms up in the air and cheered with the crowds.
Walking up the beach moments later, I kissed my wife, not caring who was watching.
I was then met by Michael Gove and Sky News for the first interview after completing the long swim. We had a meaningful and robust discussion, with people pushing all round us, all while I was still in my Speedo swimming trunks. One of the things that I love about the UK, is that a Government minister is prepared to debate policy in the middle of a crowd on a rainy beach without any bodyguards or protection. That rarely happy anywhere else, and I respect that.
I had just enough energy left to deliver my message to the waiting news channels, telling them what I’d told Mr Gove earlier in the day.
Thank you to my team. Swimming is not a solo sport. Each and every person gave the expedition their all, battling sleepless nights, seasickness and no days off. I wouldn’t have made it without them. They were patient when I was stubborn. They were kind when I was difficult.
Thank you especially to my wife Antoinette for supporting me, when I most needed it. She was there for me during the storms off the Isle of Wight and Dungeness.
Finally, I wanted to thank every single member of the public for their support. You are the ones that made this campaign what it is. Every person who decided to stop using plastic straws or bags. Every person who now looks for sustainable fish. Every person who will now do a beach clean. Every person who spent a few extra moments considering the health of our oceans and changed their behaviour to help.
This is a campaign which is having real impact, things are beginning to change.
But we aren’t done yet.
There will be much more to come.