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He stood facing us with his back to the sea in just a pair of swimming trunks. It was a brilliant morning - the sky was crystalline blue, the water dazzled - but this far north, even though it was late June, the air was cold. He’d attracted a lot of interest. Twenty, maybe thirty, formed a half-circle round him on the rocky beach. Press journalists like me had come from all over the world to Norway, to Honningsvag, a small town in inside The Arctic Circle, to cover the event. There were some freelance stills photographers and two film crews - one a CanadIan TV station, the other a unit from the National Geographic. What a weird photo-call – us hacks all bundled up in hoods and padded jackets, and he, the focus of attention, standing there unconcernedly in the slicing breeze, semi-naked. We lobbed questions at him while the cameras pattered.
‘So you’re going to swim round the North Cape?’
’And it’s the most northerly point in Europe.’
‘You’re doing it tomorrow?’
‘Is this the first attempt?’
‘Er, no. A British guy did it a few years back. But it’s my first attempt.’
His trainer-manager, a heavy middle aged man, was standing just outside shot and chipped in every so often.
‘But Jon here will be trying to break that record, and – please make a note of this, gentlemen – his attempt will be six weeks earlier in the year, so he’ll be in much colder water.’
‘Will you wear a wet-suit, Mr Moors?’
‘No. Just trunks - like this.’
‘How far will you swim?’ / ‘How long will it take?’
‘Five kilometres. And the record stands at one hour four minutes.’
‘How cold’s the water?’
‘It’s six degrees.’
He continued answering our questions, affably. I jotted stuff down, though what I was really concentrating on was his appearance. He wasn’t what I’d expected – not a thick-set walrus who’d piled on the calories to add a layer of blubbery protection - he was medium height, medium build, lean, toned and muscled. His face was quirky yet pleasant, not conventionally handsome, and his receding sandy hair was cropped to bristle - but one feature kept drawing my eyes time and again. I couldn’t stop looking. He had the smallest packet I’d ever seen. He was wearing brief Speedos which were a revealing shade of light, bright, turquoise-y blue – the corporate identity colour of the multi-national bank that was sponsoring him. They stretched tight across his buttocks, yet there was almost no genital bulge - only the tiniest blip of a downward pointing triangle projected out of the smooth plane at his crotch. The guy must have the smallest dick ever, I thought, - how strange he should want to show it to the world. The pictures they were taking of him would be distributed everywhere - printed in the press, shown on television, scanned, reproduced on web-sites, posted and forwarded in a potentially infinite multiplication of unauthorised copies. This was how he was going to look for always – the guy with no packet – and yet here he was posing willingly for the lenses in the chilling wind. What made him court the double exposure?
‘Can we have a shot of you in the water now, Jon?’
Without a tremor of hesitation he turned and strode down over the fractured shale and into the shallows, kicking up spray, and - when the waves were rising to his thighs - dived in. Some of us winced involuntarily. He surfaced and swam front crawl to about 100 metres out, then cannoned back towards us in a strong Butterfly. Standing with the water round his knees and showing no discomfort from the cold, he posed again for the cameras, his grin broad and confident. His trunks had turned semi-translucent and it looked like his testicles had contracted to neutrons in the freezing sea. Now only a fingernail-sized smudge pressed against the wet nylon. It was hard to tell if he knew we were looking, but there was no doubt that despite his otherwise impressive physique, Jon Moors, 32 year old CanadIan triathlon champion, was the possessor of a penis way, way smaller than average, and - wittingly or not - he was putting it on display.
I hadn’t wanted to go when my editor sent me – I have a pretty low opinion of these sorts of stunts, they’re manufactured news – but of course I didn’t know then that it would turn out to be the most intense experience of my life. However, through Brian - Moors’ trainer – I had negotiated a one-to-one interview on the afternoon before the attempt. So Jon Moors and I met in the empty restaurant of Honningsvag’s main hotel where, relaxed, wearing a tracksuit, he chatted in his soft CanadIan accent about his training regime. I tried to bring the conversation round to his appearance.
‘This morning it looked to me like you’ve got no body hair. Do you shave it off?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s a habit I got into from competition swimming. Probably doesn’t help you go faster, but it makes you feel sleek.’
‘So you always shave?’
‘Uh-huh. Legs, arms, chest - ‘. He nodded towards his lap. ‘ - Everywhere.’ I thought he gave me a playful smile.
‘Before your photo-call,’ I told him, ‘I’d been down and felt the water. I know how much that plunge must have hurt.’
‘You get used to it,’ he said. He told me he swam all year round in a lake near his home in Ontario.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But tomorrow you’re going to be immersed for maybe up to an hour. You’re choosing to put yourself through real pain.’
He shrugged. ‘Hey, I’m not going to die. The guys will call me out of the water if I start going weird, though sure – I’ll have to be careful to avoid hypothermia.’
‘What will happen if you do?’
‘If it’s only mild I’ll sit and shiver in a blanket for a while.’
‘And if it’s more serious, then what? They throw you in a sauna?’
‘No way,’ he almost shouted. ‘No, if you get advanced hypothermia you have to be warmed up very gently or else it’s risky.’
‘What’s the method?’
‘You use another person’s body heat. You strip off and lie in a sleeping bag and someone else climbs in and hugs you till you’re warm.’
‘And they’re naked too?’
‘I see,’ I said slowly. ‘So, erm … it’s not all bad then.’
He laughed, and for a moment his eyes were playful again. ‘Gary, listen,’ he said, ‘Tomorrow, instead of travelling on the press boat with the other guys, how would you like to come on board my support vessel? Yeah? I’ll fix it with Brian.’
I never found the nerve to ask how he felt about being seen around the world in just his Speedos.
The weather had turned by the next day. The pale lemon sun had disappeared and grey clouds rolled low, oppressing everything. There was a slight swell on the sea too, but not bad enough to cancel the attempt, so - as planned - the two boats left the harbour at Honningsvag at about nine in the morning, heading towards the far side of The North Cape, to the starting point of the course taken by the previous record holder. Our boat was only a small fishing vessel with just enough room on board for the five of us - the skipper, the crewman, Jon’s trainer Brian, Jon, and me. The press boat was bigger, the size of a launch. It took nearly two hours to navigate round the peninsula. It was an unremittingly forbidding coastline - each rocky headland succeeded the last, between them gulleys of scree tumbled to the water. Jon spent most of his time down in the hold, exercising to stay warm. I left him alone, sensing he didn’t want to talk. Once we’d reach the right spot the boats turned and idled. Brian took readings. It was expected to reach 13 later in the day, but right then the air temperature was only 11 degrees, and the sea just 6.5. It was hard to believe anybody would be able to swim 5 kilometres in water that cold, or even get into it. All around us the sea was deadly lead-grey, agitated with choppy little waves – about as uninviting as natural water could be.
Jon came up on deck. Businesslike, he stripped off his tracksuit and there he was again in just his turquoise trunks, apparently unbothered either by the cold air or that the unusually small protuberance jabbing at the thin material at his crotch was on view again for all to see. He fiddled into a swimming cap the same colour as his Speedos, pulled on some goggles, did a few stretches, then padded barefoot towards the ladder that dropped over the side. On the press boat parallel to us the photographers lined up like they were about to fire a hostile salvo. Brian stood ready with the stop-watch. Jon scrambled quickly down the four steps of the ladder till he was a metre above the surface, and – ogh! how could he? - flopped backwards into the icy water. He surfaced, exhaling a full breath that betrayed the physical shock. Brian shouted, ‘Okay, Jon?’
He fiddled briefly with the straps to his goggles then struck out with an easy, purposeful front crawl.
The support boat stayed at his side, guiding him. You soon forgot you were witnessing something superhuman – a man swimming in The Arctic Ocean without a wetsuit. From the deck, cocooned in warm clothes, I had to keep reminding myself that just a few metres down there in the water someone was engaged in a painful struggle, pitching himself against the elements, striving at the very limit of human endurance. He made it look comfortable. His stroke was so rhythmic – right arm over, in, back, breathe-to-the-side, left arm over, in, back - I took it for granted he’d succeed. His bright turquoise swimming cap broke through the successive black wavelets, advancing forwards with each bob – his trunks visible in shadowy refraction just below the surface. He was going well - 72 seconds ahead of the record after his first kilometre, 96 ahead after his second. His margin was about the same at the 3 kilometre mark, but after that he lost time. By 4km he’d been in 6 degree water for over 49 minutes. Brian threw him down a protein drink.
‘How you feeling, Jon?’
Breathlessly he shouted something back. It sounded like his speech was slurred. Brian had to translate. ‘Your hands and feet are numb? Well you gotta keep moving, Jon – you’re dropping time.’
A few minutes later he stopped swimming and called out something to Brian which was difficult to understand. It seemed they were discussing whether there’d been a change of wind direction – yet Jon was having trouble forming words, as if his whole face had gone numb. Suddenly he broke off and started swimming again, but at an angle to the boat. The skipper rapidly had to alter course to bring us alongside and correct him. Jon’s stroke now looked laboured and ragged. There were about two concerning minutes of this, and then without warning he veered off once more, turning a semi-circle away from us almost into the path of the press launch. Clearly he was becoming confused and irrational. We’d missed the early signs. These were the symptoms of advanced hypothermia. Brian leant over the side and shouted at him to get out of the water. ‘We’re aborting, Jon.’
It seemed to take him a while to understand. ‘No,’ he kept saying, ‘M’okay.’ Brian had to plead with him to get out. It wasted urgent minutes.
Finally once Jon was convinced he reached towards the lowest rung of the ladder. But he couldn’t grip it. His hands were too numb. Suddenly, the situation was terrifying. Every further second he remained in the freezing water imperilled his life. He was in great danger.
‘Try, Jon,’ Brian screamed. ‘You gotta try.’
Repeatedly he lost his grip and fell back into the water. I was aware the cameras were trained on him from the other boat – these could be the gruesome pictures of the moment the record attempt went fatally wrong. But that’s journalism for you.
Without explanation Brian frantically unlaced his boots and threw off his jacket and fleece, then, still in his jeans and check shirt, climbed over the side and plunged into the sea beside Jon, letting out an ‘ouf!’ from the shock. Jon was now too dazed to cooperate. There was some desperate, splashy scrambling in the water, but by sandwiching Jon between himself and the boat’s side Brian managed to grip the lower sides of the ladder, and, with all his strength, nudge Jon’s body the few crucial centimetres up towards us.
‘Grab him! Grab him!’ he shouted.
The NorwegIan crewman and I leant over as far as we could - Jon’s upper arms were just within our grasp. We hauled, while in the water Brian positioned Jon’s feet onto the ladder. It was an ungainly struggle but one step at a time we managed to heave him up the side and onto the deck. Brian stumbled on board behind him. Jon slumped, semi-conscious, and as we turned to take him down into the hold he had to be supported between the crew guy and me, his arms over our shoulders, his feet dragging. Flashbulbs cracked from the other boat, capturing this pietà. I foresaw the image would be like some religious painting brought to life – the Deposition for modern times – Jon’s body cruciform, Speedos substituting for a loincloth, his compressed packet adding to the vision of his subjection.
Down in the hold we were frantic - throwing towels round Jon’s shoulders, rubbing him dry, checking his temperature, checking his pulse. There were rapid discussions by radio and mobile with the other vessel. It was thought too risky to transfer him to the faster boat. The best way was to keep him warm till we got back to Honningsvag and medical attention. We set off at once. Brian was shouting orders as he stripped out of his soaking clothes and towelled himself dry, ‘Take off his trunks. Put some towels on the deck. Lay the sleeping bag on top. Get him into it.’ But after his own immersion he was shivering violently and couldn’t do much to help. It was the crew guy who eased off Jon’s Speedos. Jon had told me he was shaved yet it was still a shock to see the depilated abdomen, and although I felt ashamed at such a time, it was hard to resist a glimpse of the tiny bobble of flesh – mottled mauve and white from the cold – that constituted his penis. Jon wasn’t really present. He wasn’t talking, he wasn’t even shivering. Carefully we lowered him to the floor and manoeuvred him into the sleeping bag.
‘Somebody needs to get in there with him,’ Brian shouted. ‘Warm him up. I can’t. I’m still too cold. Gary?’
It was no time to be self-conscious. I stripped naked as fast as I could, the adrenaline of the emergency inuring me to the chill, then inched feet first into the sleeping bag beside Jon.
‘Hold him around his torso,’ Brian growled. ‘He needs your body warmth. But leave off his hands and feet. Don’t touch his extremities. It will send cold blood back to the heart and it could trigger a heart attack.’
Gently, I rolled him onto his side and pressed my chest against his back, wrapping one arm beneath his neck and the other over his side, pulling him into me as close as possible. It was the most visceral feeling. Never before had I felt so responsible for another person. This man’s life depended absolutely on my care. I had to nurse him out of danger and I could only do it in the most elemental way - by holding him, by hugging him, by transfusing the warmth from my naked body to his. I put aside all feelings of my own discomfort – the hard curving deck beneath me, the stench of diesel, the nauseating motion of the boat, the cramp in my arms – and concentrated only on willing him to recover with every proton of my energy. Right then I felt the most intense love for him, greater than I had ever felt for anyone else.
His body was inhumanly cold and motionless, almost cadaver-like. For the first twenty minutes or so there was no improvement - if anything he felt even colder. I was terrified he would slip into a coma and die. I stroked his stomach, directed my breath gently against the nape of his neck, did everything I could to infuse him with my body warmth and persuade him he was being cared for. For a long, worrying time he scarcely responded. We lay there entwined in stuffy proximity, rocked gently by the boat’s forward motion.
Then I felt him tremble. He was starting to shiver. Occasional at first, it developed into longer and more violent bouts till his whole body was racked by convulsive, uncontrollable shivering.
‘Hmph.’ He grunted a response. I held him tighter and we rode out the storm of shivering together. He started speaking, though to begin with his speech was slow. ‘Zat’s good,’ he mumbled, and it seemed he wriggled his bum closer against my crotch. I could sense the boat was pulling into the harbour at Honningsvag. Brian had gone up on deck to arrange for a doctor and to deal with the press. We were alone in the hold. Jon fumbled and took my hand in his.
‘I shink,’ he said (his voice was still slurred), ‘it shokay now to warm up my extremities.’ And he guided my hand down to his cock. It stiffened the instant I touched it. Erect, it wasn’t big – enfolded within my palm it didn’t even stretch across the width – but it was as hard as a piece of flint.
The boat tied up. Brian came back down with a doctor. His advice was that it was best to leave Jon receiving the treatment I was administering to him right there. He’d recover with gentle warming and it would be detrimental to move him till his core body temperature had returned to normal.
‘Need a break, Gary? Want me to take over?’ Brian asked me.
It was Jon who replied – ‘No, we’re fine,’ - almost too quickly.
So we were left alone again, still hugging, and still fondling, the boat bobbing at anchor.
‘How are feeling now?’ I asked him.
‘That I screwed up.’
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘You’ve nothing to beat yourself up about. You’ve probably just set a record for the longest swim at the lowest temperature.’
He didn’t say anything for a moment, then - ‘I’m gonna try again.’
‘You sure?’ I murmured. ‘When?’
‘Two days time,’ he said. ‘I’m determined.’
‘You must be,’ I said.
‘Will you wait around?’ he asked.
‘Would you like me to?’ I replied. I clasped him tighter, though there was really no medical need – he was blood-warm once more.
‘Yup,’ he said. ‘I would.’
So in fact I was sharing his hotel room on the day of his second attempt, and watched the all-important moment as he pulled on his trademark turquoise Speedos, getting ready to face the cameras.
‘You’re really brave to do this,’ I said.
I wasn’t certain if he’d caught the double application I’d intended, but perhaps he had, because he turned towards the full-length mirror and assessed his appearance. We both took in the broad shoulders, the super-definition of his abdominal muscles - all the attributes of his fine physique – plus, unspoken, the ever-so-tiny bulge in his trunks.
‘Not too bad, eh?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Beautiful. Every single inch.’