I always wondered what it would be like to escape from Robben Island and swim to the shore. Curiosity drowned the cat.
After reading Ryk Neethling’s book I was keen to take on a long swim. I heard about the Freedom swim and searched for picture online. When I saw a bloke with one leg in the pictures. If he can do it, so can I. And I entered. It only later occurred to me that his other leg might have been taken by a shark.
7-8 May 2011
The Robben Island crossing on Saturday was cancelled due to dangerous conditions. It was replaced by a longer and colder swim the next day. The water temperature was down; and the distance was increased from 7.5kms to 9.3kms. I was 28 at the time and it took me 4 hours to complete the swim.
This is my account of the weekend.
The first Robben Island swim was recorded in 1909 when Henry Charteris Hooper swam from Robben Island to the old Cape Town harbour. It took him just under 7 hours to complete the swim of approximately 11km. Since then about 500 individuals have done the crossing from or to Robben Island and various points on the coast.
Despite the relatively short distances (the main swims are between 7km and 11km), swimming Robben Island has become a challenge even to accomplished swimmers, mostly due to the cold water temperature. The swim remains an ideal for many swimmers worldwide, because of the physical challenge and the historical significance of the Island.
My plan was to train quite a bit, but it never happened. I got married, went on honeymoon, and spent time in the water in Thailand, where the average temperature is around 28 degrees Celsius — the complete opposite of the cold Atlantic of 13 degrees or below around Robben Island.
Cold showers? No, thanks.
I’ve heard of people only taking cold showers for months before the event to acclimatise themselves. That sounded horrendous. Why would you torment yourself unnecessarily during winter? I thought I’d rather suck it up and and minimise my discomfort to only that of during the actual swim.
Going into the swim, I’ve never done more than 5kms at once. And that was in a swimming pool, where you could kick away from the wall and the water was perfectly flat and you could follow the line on the tiles. At sea, things would be cold and choppy, with zero visibility. So you have to look up ever so often to see where you’re going.
I flew from JHB to CPT 3 days before the swim. There was some admin — organising a boat, crew, seaworthiness, pre-race briefing etc. Thankfully Niki & Jannie took charge and helped out. There was also a qualifying swim at Clifton’s fourth beach, 4 days before the event. To be honest, I was a bit scared about what to expect, but speaking to Tony Sellmeyer and doing the qualifier I was confident.
The rules (for the solo category) dictate that you are only allowed 3 things. Cap. Goggles. Speedo. So I had to go and buy a grape smuggler before the final swim. After the qualifier I realised this was possibly a good thing, as you chafe like crazy with a board short in the salty sea water.
I saw people put on Vaseline like it was going out of fashion — not sure if it was meant to stop you from chafing or the keep out the cold. If it was for the latter, then it was a lost cause.
Friday afternoon. I came back from the office and went to lie down from 5-7pm, trying to visualise what was going to happen the next day. I didn’t know what to expect, but in my mind the conditions were perfect. I awoke refreshed and hung until I had to pick up Niki from the airport – he came in with a delayed Kulula flight and arrived just before 1am. So again we didn’t sleep much.
We woke up at 5am, arrived at the harbour very early and were the third boat to launch. A formidable blanket was starting to appear over Table Mountain. Just after 7am we got the confirmation sms: “Swim is on. Choppy water. Wind gusts but swimmable. Sea temp 13 degrees. Launch boats. Swimmers to go to the Clock tower. Ferry Leaves 9am sharp. Good luck!”
I parted with the crew and made my way to the Waterfront, where we checked in and were greeted by many a camera. On the ferry to Robben Island I heard people say that around a quarter to one third of the solo swimmers don’t finish the swim. It sounded high, considering the field. Outside the water looked choppy and I started to wonder.
We arrived on the island and started getting ready, right there on the harbour wall. We got a message stating that it will take half an hour before we get final confirmation of whether the swim will take place or not. I went for a nap in the sun to stay warm. Time went by.
After an hour we had another briefing. The swim was called off due to the conditions. Safety risk. Have a look at what the NSRI had to deal with while were waiting on the island – Multiple Rescues during Cadiz Freedom Swim. And it was a wise decision, seeing as there are so many people in the water, each with their own boat. You don’t want to end up under someones propeller.
So we got back onto the ferry and headed back to the Waterfront. Very disappointing. Still, we planned for a contingency day on the Sunday. Now we had to wait and see.
I want to thank my support crew – organiser Niki Louw, skipper Jan-Hendrik Rust and enthusiast Cornelius Weyers. They went out of their way to assist me. And they had a much longer, colder & wetter Saturday on the rubber duck than than I had on the island. On the ferry to the Waterfront you could see how difficult it was for the small boats to make it back to the harbour. Thanks guys, I really appreciate your help and would love to have you on board again next year.*
*And all 3 of them once again supported me in 2015.
We also have a beautiful panoramic shot of one of the crew members taking a leak over the side of the rubber duck, with the soccer stadium and Table Mountain in the background.
It was unbelievable how tired you are at the end of the Saturday, even without swimming. The wait and uncertainty and prior mental preparation really takes it out of you. While driving home we saw an accident on hospital bend — one of the boats that launched with us was involved; a green Land Rover was pointing in the wrong direction and their boat was on its side. Those poor guys had a long day. And then the Stormers lost to the Crusaders at Newlands.
Late Saturday afternoon: “No Robben Island swim tomorrow due to boats shortage and weather forecast. Tomorrow, we will have a 7-9km race around the rocks (3 or 4 loops) at Big Bay. Awards at 2pm at Big Bay. No boatman required. More info soon on Cadiz Freedom Swim on Facebook and SMS.”
This was very disappointing. I wanted to do the island crossing. Not a random swim at Blouberg during winter. But at the same time it was a relief as you don’t want to put your crew through the whole ordeal again.
I really thought the swim was going to be easy. But the conditions from the day before lowered the water temperature. The prize money was substantial ($10k for the winner), so the organisers thought they’d have to work for it. And the distance increased quite a bit. We were going to do 4 laps of the ‘around the rocks’ at Big Bay. Ram Barkai announced the swim at around 9kms. We saw plenty of people converting from solo races to relay swims at the registration. That was a bit concerning.
When you stand there and see blokes undressing from Olympic track suits then you start to wonder whether you are in the right place, especially when they start talking about English channel crossings and triple Robben Island crossings. They swim around 13min per kilometre and in doing so, spend much less time in the water being exposed to the cold.
- Bulgarian Petar Stoychev – winner & WR for English channel
- Terence Parkin – Olympics, Sydney & Athens
- Otto Thaning – English channel, Olympics
- Danie Marais – World champs
- Ryan Stramrood – English channel
- Carina Bruwer – English channel, False Bay, Straits of Gibraltar
- Tony Sellmeyer – 25 island crossings.
At just after 11am we were good to go. We made off to the rocks for the dry start. The first 100m was probably the worst of the swim. To say the water is pretty cold is a gross understatement. It takes your breath away. Temperatures start at 12 degrees Celsius, decreasing as you go around the rocks. You wonder whether you will be able to keep this up for another 3 hours plus. I started slowly, not sure how to pace myself for such a long swim.
Had we done the island crossing you would have had your support crew right next to you all the time. That would have made a huge difference to your morale. Now all there was to look forward to, was getting to the next buoy each time. And they were difficult to spot, being far apart and disappearing and reappearing with the swell.
The first lap of just over 2kms seemed to continue forever. At the start of the second lap you pass the beach and the spectators and you think of how nice it will be in the sun. It seems so easy to just turn left and head for the beach. But you carry on, still not sure whether this is for you.
Your calve starts cramping. Ignore it. Continue. Until it goes away. Only to be substituted with another cramp. Nothing in the upper body. But quads, calves and hamstrings. I was filled with enough Magnesium [to prevent cramps] to have my own spot on the Periodic Table of Elements. But it didn’t help.
Coming around to start the third lap you realise that you are only half way, and you wonder whether you are going to make it. And you are extremely hungry. I go around the rocks and hear they announce the Bulgarian is already out of the water and has won the race. Expletive.
Eating and drinking on your own boat would have been easier. Now everyone has to share Energade off the supplied support rubber ducks. And it is not easy in the rough waters. I managed to grab ¾ of a cup of Energade from the support crew and promptly spilled half of it into the ocean before managing a sip, while drifting away from the boat fairly quickly. It wasn’t worthwhile to swim back to the rubber duck for another attempt at a cup.
At least I swallowed plenty of sea water so I wasn’t completely empty.
Thoughts of sharks
This inevitably enters your mind. You visualize one coming up from below like on The Beach. So you wonder, ‘what if’. At least there would be one less limb to cramp. No, seriously. The next rubber duck is out of sight. Even if they fire up the magic white flare [sign of a shark — everyone into a boat]; there would be no boat close by to get into.
The rest of the third lap went very well, as you start to realise you might actually make it. At the start of the 4th and final lap I wanted to ask the support crew to row with me, as I was scared of cramping up in the deep waters with no one around. But your tongue is numb from the cold and you just don’t bother to ask.
I went around. Alone. Again. Conditions were worsening and by now it was overcast. Which means colder. And you are very hungry. I kept thinking of the proper Mothers Day meal waiting at home in Stellenbosch.
The last kilometre
It was extremely long. You see the beach. You think you can hear the crowd (but you can’t). And you start to count strokes. 100. You haven’t moved much. 200. The last buoy is still just behind you. 300. You feel a wave. Great news. Breakwater. Your hands are numb and its difficult to move your fingers. But the sand is close and that is all you could wish for.
The moment you feel the sand underneath your fingers you try to get up. The lifeguards are close. You try to stand up but struggle. Funny this – you just swam for 4 hours but you cannot walk the last 20 meters. The lifeguards move in side by side and you shuffle out onto the beach.
The guy from Good Hope FM announces your name and you cannot be bothered. They wrap you in your freedom swim towel and hang a medal around your neck. I have 100 cycling medals at home, none of them compares even close to the effort it took to get this one, maybe not even combined.
After the briefings I got the feeling they are exaggerating a bit, but I never knew that hypothermia might really be on the cards. I remembered the following. Your regular temperature is around 37.5 degrees. Hypothermia has various stages. First you start to shiver, at around 32-35 degrees. After that you stop shivering, at around 30-32 degrees. And below 30 things get sketchy.
In the tent
When I got out they measured me at 28 degrees. I wasn’t pleased to see the Medi-Clinic girl frown and say ‘uhmm’. Luckily I carry enough whale blubber to see me through. You quickly go through the motions. Tracksuit, blanket, up to 30 degrees. 5mins and a cup of hot chocolate later and you’re up to 32. I devoured three hot cross buns. A few more minutes under the heater and you’re at 35 degrees and out of the potential relapse zone. Ready to leave. It is amazing how quickly the body fixes itself.
|Stage 1||Awake and shivering||Mild||32–35 °C (90–95 °F)|
|Stage 2||Drowsy and not shivering||Moderate||28–32 °C (82–90 °F)|
|Stage 3||Unconscious, not shivering||Severe||20–28 °C (68–82 °F)|
|Stage 4||No vital signs||Profound||<20 °C (68 °F)|
I wondered whether I turned female during the swim, as my member seemed to have disappeared. And I’m very glad the used the earpiece thermometers and didn’t measure our temperatures rectally.
Well done guys
There were 149 solo entries for the Saturday. There were only 44 solo finishers on the Sunday. Fastest time just under 2 hours; slowest time 4½ hours. Results here.
I have had silly ideas before. But this was a draining event. Manus & myself cycled 1800kms from JHB via Springbok to CPT over 9 days in 2009, but this swim felt like that whole event compressed into a few hours. At the end of the day you hop onto a plane back to JHB and then everything is over and done with. You aren’t going to die, it’s just a few hours’ worth of discomfort. It could have been easier if I trained more beforehand. But you can go far with the right mindset.
Of course. I still do not have an island crossing to my name. This swim was arguably much harder, but is doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Here is an extract from an article after the race:
Stoychev wins extreme sea swim race
Posted at May 09, 2011 Issued by Leap Communications
Bulgarian swimming sensation Petar Stoychev overcame icy water, strong local and international competition and a day’s delay to win the extreme Cadiz Freedom Swim in Big Bay, Cape Town, South Africa on Sunday. Stoychev, 34, widely regarded as the world’s most successful open water swimmer of the last decade, finished an 9.3km route in 11 – 12°C in a time of 1:51:54 in the event which raises funds for Vista Nova School for children with learning disabilities and which is part sponsored by Marcus Rohrer Spirulina, Speedo and the Western Cape government.
Stoychev, wearing only a Speedo, goggles and a cap (regulation for all solo participants) finished ahead of Australia’s Trent Grimsey, 23. Stoychev takes home just over R80 000, one of the biggest open water prizes in swimming in the world.
Grimsey collapsed as he crossed the finish line and was treated for mild hypothermia by Medi-Clinic’s emergency team at the site. Seventeen year old South African sensation Lisa Cowling was the winning female and third overall beating a field of strong male and female international and local extreme swimmers.
“It was tough. I went numb from the cold and then I was okay. I didn’t expect to do as well as I did, I was just aiming to finish. I’m happy,” she said afterwards. Stoychev described the race as “very good, but very hard. Trent started very fast and it was difficult out there. There were also very strong South Africans in the field,” he said.
Grimsey said the race was “the hardest I have ever done by far. I’ve never swum in anything this cold. I remember crossing the finish line and not much afterwards.”
The swim traditionally follows a 7.5km route from Robben Island to Big Bay, and was set for Saturday with Sunday as a contingency date. Cadiz Freedom Swim patron Ram Barkai said after initially preparing to swim on Saturday, strong winds led to a postponement to Sunday for safety reasons. When strong winds and very cold water was also predicted on Sunday, an alternative buy tough swim route in Big Bay was arranged, again to ensure swimmer safety, said Barkai.
Of an initial field of 410, about 260 swimmers (solo and relay) took to the water on Sunday for the 9.3km route. Twelve were treated for moderate hypothermia during and after the race and at least 70% of the field experienced mild hypothermia, said Medi-Clinic’s Dr Basil Bonner.
Why am I doing it?
Swim for a purpose
I want to help my brother, Pieter, to go and play golf overseas. It’s an expensive sport. He’s got the talent and the right attitude.
He is 25 years old and playing off a scratch handicap. He started playing from a young age and quickly developed into a serious golfer, representing South Africa while still at school. He went on to study Accounting at Stellenbosch, where he played for, amongst others, the Maties and Boland teams.
Pieter has also started both the Golfbuddies coaching school and www.lasercaddie.co.za. Here are some of his achievements to date:
- SA Schools 2002
- Boland Schools Champion 2002
- Paul Roos Gymnasium from 1999-2003
- Maties from 2004-2006; Stellenbosch University
- Member of the team that won the 2005 SASSU’s in Pretoria
- Representing Stellenbosch Golf Club from 2001 to date
- Boland Premier League winning team 2005
- Boland Kruger League winning team 2010
- Boland all age groups from U/13 to U/23 from 1998-2008
- Represented Boland Central in regional tournaments
- Represented Boland in 2010 Country Districts
- Represented Boland in 2010 Premier Interprovincials
If you want to help,
Thanks for reading.
Featured image from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/24/africa/gallery/robben-island/