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Extract: 'This is why you are here', the inner voice repeated. 'Breathe and trust yourself'

Nuala Moore is an Irish open-water swimmer, mostly known for her extreme ice swims. She has two Guinness World Records for extreme swims, one for her part in the first and only international relay team to swim from Russia to the USA across the Bering Strait, and the second for her pioneering cold-water swim in the notorious Drake Passage, South of Cape Horn.

Nuala was the first swimmer in the world to swim from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, the Drake Passage and the first woman in the world to swim south of remote Cape Horn. She was the third woman in the world to swim 1000m in zero-degree ice in just swim togs, hat and goggles. She is self-coached and developed her own training plans in the ice and open water. In 2006, she was part of a team of six swimmers to relay around the island of Ireland over 56 days and 1,330km of open ocean, one of the most challenging swims ever completed.

Nuala is a cold-water safety specialist, a mentor and a swimmer who has pushed the boundaries for women in extreme sports. This is an extract from her new book, Limitless…

MY BREATHING WAS heavy – laboured, even. As I knelt on the floor of the inflatable boat, I could feel a sense of panic starting to rise. My eyes fixed on the dark, iconic headland of Cape Horn. The Sailors’ Graveyard. So remote.

My swim hat and goggles on my head, the cold wind stripped what warmth I had from my body. The movement of the seas was frustrated and excited at the same time – three oceans mixing and meeting, racing around the world without resistance from any land mass. At this point in the world, there was no land either east or west. I was about to expose myself to the wrath of the Furious Fifties and lower my body into the notorious Drake Passage.

Closing my eyes tightly, I tried to visualise my swim. I rotated my arms and calmed my breathing. This is why you are here. My mantra played in my head. My mind flashed to the sacrifices I had made to get to this point, but mostly to the privilege I had of being here, of being strong enough to take on this swim. I was the first swimmer in the world to do so.

If you can’t breathe, you can’t swim, I told myself. So, breathe. I inhaled and calmed myself a little. I tried to close down my world to this moment only.

The fishing boat took a wallop from a rogue wave and the Zodiac, the inflatable boat, jolted as it was slapped against the side of the fishing vessel. We all fell forward, grabbing the ropes from the side of the tubing. I could sense the team’s urgency, but I was not ready to let go.

Power of the sea

The water was darker than I had imagined and bitingly cold, but it was the size of the waves that was upsetting me. I searched to find a pattern, some movement in the water that would allow me to see its intention, but there was none. Just undulating waves, coming from all directions at once. Some breaking, some billowing and then swirling. I wished I had more time to study their movements.

Limitless- Final Cover

The reality of my swim was not matching my plan. How could I swim without my team close by in these conditions? What if I panicked and couldn’t get my breathing right? Adan Otaiza Caro, the Cape Horn lighthouse keeper, had indicated over the VHF radio that my command boat would be a few hundred metres away, because of the size of the swell. My skipper, Roni Olivares, also insisted that the safety team could not accompany me with the small Zodiac.

The uncertainties of this swim were now huge. I felt the fear of letting go and not making progress, the risk of being tossed backwards and twisted by the waves, vulnerable to its power and failing to cross the meridian between the oceans.

I wondered if I should have taken the swim from lighthouse to lighthouse instead, which would have been certain progress. I was scared of going home having failed.

I stared high into the headland, which was a few miles north of us. I had chosen to swim the meeting of the oceans, this far south – not for glory, but to find that person inside of me who was willing to risk everything. If the team and crew were to lose sight of me while I was swimming, with waves breaking and flipping me in another direction, in 7-degree water, with 4-metre swells of rolling ocean, the question would no longer be whether I would make land, it would be whether I would survive. I could stay alive for two hours at most in these conditions. The sense of fragility, of vulnerability – those weaknesses that I had trained and worked so hard to push away – was creeping back in.

This is why you are here, the inner voice repeated. You are on the cusp of your own greatness. Breathe and trust yourself.

You only have to swim and stay alive.

Keep breathing.

Look what you are capable of.

You are built for this.

I tried to block out the feeling that this was a risk too far. Suddenly, the tears welled up. I was glad I had my back turned to the crew. Loud words fell from my mouth.

‘What am I doing here? I have to be home for work on Monday. Maybe I’ll take the easier option and swim closer to the headland.’ I could not figure out how I could make progress in this ocean.

Catherine and Chris, my dive safety team, were kneeling inches from my face, watching me.

Catherine said firmly, ‘Nuala, you have to go now. We’ve got you and you can do this. Trust us.’

‘Tell me again how you will get me out of the water.’ My eyes darted between Catherine and Chris. ‘How long will it take you to get to me if I need help?’ I was asking for the tenth time.

The fishing boat had its engines in neutral. We were tied to the side, suspended. I could hear Roni’s voice. I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand urgency: we were bobbing with the engines ticking over, at the mercy of three oceans, all fighting for freedom as they raced excitedly around the world. These rogue waves could topple the boat and land us all in the water. I knew the vessel needed to get her engines started. She needed to gain control.

Catherine replied in a stern tone, ‘Look at Chris. He is ready to go. We will not take our eyes off you, but you have to get into the water now. The wind is changing, and our window is closing.’

I wiped away the tears, still hiding my face. I lowered my goggles over my eyes. I now had just two tiny windows to see out of.

‘Steady your ship and drive into the storm.’ My father’s words fell from my lips.

I turned to look at the iconic headland of Cape Horn bearing down on us.

‘Please give me passage,’ I said.

With one last intake of breath, I lowered my body into the dark, ferocious waves, maintaining my death grip on the rope.

Seven degrees is a battle even in calm water; in rolling oceans, it’s an entirely different story. My breath was ripped from me as I tried to conquer the cold shock.

When I let go of the rope, I will be alone. The boat will have to steam away to gain control. She will disappear in the waves. I will be at the mercy of this water, this wind, my own weakness.

I am the storm.

I am the challenge.

I looked up at the crew. Three albatross circled above my head, their wingspan greater than the length of my body.

‘I know why I am here,’ I said, with a breath that was now broken and ragged.

Catherine stared into my eyes, stern. Chris had the same stare.

Silence.

‘Let go, Nuala. Let go,’ her voice repeated.

The Zodiac banged against the timber side of the boat, bouncing from side to side. With all my will, I struggled to uncurl my white fingers, knowing that once I let go, I would be alone in the Drake Passage, the most dangerous and volatile body of water on the planet.

I had to let go.

Nuala Moore’s new book, Limitless is out now. 

VOICES