7.5km Robben Island crossing

The 2011 edition was cancelled due to weather and replaced with a contingent swim, so not an official crossing. Then a sponsor pulled out and I lost track with the event for a while, but in 2015 we were back.

Familiar crew. The same musketeers from 2011 once again supported me. Gratitude to Niki who flew down from JHB, Jannie who skippered the rubber duck and Cornelius for waiting on the shore. Glad to report they had much better conditions this time.

A boat is compulsory, for safety reasons, as without one you might just end up kilometers away from where you aim. Remember science class — a man wants to swim across a river, aims for point A, but the current comes and pushes him to point B. Given the conditions below, I wouldn’t even know where to aim at:

Ram Barkai: "Robben Island. Fifty shades of grey. Good luck to all swimmers."
Ram Barkai: ‘Robben Island. Fifty shades of grey. Good luck to all swimmers.’

Sharks? No. The water is too cold. They don’t like frozen food.

How far do we need to swim? If your local Virgin Active indoor pool is 20 meters in length, then 375 laps. Which is ample if you are only used to doing forty at a time.

Having done the 9.3kms (or 465 laps) of the 2011 swim, the distance was not going to be a problem. But don’t count your chickens just yet. The twist came on Friday at lunch time, the day before the swim, when we received this text:

Due to the water temperature what was taken this morning at 10:30am, it was determined that for safety reasons all first time Freedom Swim swimmers (wetsuit and open) will have to collapse into relay teams of 2 swimmers per team. The highest temperature across the bay was 11 degrees Celsius, with an average temperature under 11 degrees.

 

The cut-off temperature for the event is 12 degrees, which is considered a minimum temperature for a safe swim. These temperatures increase the risk of hypothermia greatly and will reduce your swimming speed and therefore increasing your time in the water by 20%.

 

Any swimmer with SIGNIFICANT experience may apply for a waiver on this rule (the waiver must be signed prior boarding the ferry). Please do not apply if you have never attempted a cold water swim in temperatures less than 12 degrees Celsius. Check your emails for more details.

I got a few phone calls from people wanting to team up for relay, but kindly declined as I was most certainly here for the individual event. Having done the 2011 swim, I was cleared to go solo.

Race day

Niki stayed over on Friday. We got up early Saturday morning. Neville’s Range Rover pulled the rubber duck like a boss (while guzzling fuel like a relapsed AA member). I hopped off at the Waterfront and made my way to the clock tower, while Niki went to join the launch at Granger Bay, where Jannie was waiting.

All swimmers boarded the Nauticat ferry to the island. Other for a number of seals we didn’t see much en route, but the water was as flat as could be. The trip to the island was uneventful and you want to fall asleep to the monotonous drumming of the engines.

Upon arrival we hung around on the harbour wall and received the following sms’s while waiting to start.

  • 09:29. Race delayed, fog, stay posted.
  • 09:45. Swim is on, waiting for fog to lift.
  • 10:24. Visibility improving, possible 11am.
  • 10:28. Boats cleared, go to Robben Island.
  • 10:58. Confirmed start, solo at 11:05am.

When this last one arrived we were already standing all lubed up and ready to go.

It starts

As you jump into the water you immediately want to jump back out again. But the harbour wall is too high. So here we go. Luckily there aren’t many swimmers and you don’t have to fist your way open like on the Midmar.

Find your boat is easier said than done. I had to look for a rubber duck, just like almost every other swimmer. And through the fuzzy goggles it wasn’t that easy to spot. I recommend a helium-filled blow-up doll on a string to stand out from the crowd.

I felt a bit queasy as the fumes from the rubber duck, and indeed all combined, was more than expected. But after the swimmers dispersed we were on our way and Jannie gracefully pointed the rubber duck in the right direction.

I only breathe towards to right, so Jannie followed suit and moved the rubber duck there. Which means that with every second stroke I could see the boat, with the iconic view Table Mountain in the background. Idyllic.

Because the water was so cold, the crew was instructed to count the swimmers’ strokes at different intervals. If it dropped significantly then there was trouble. Niki diligently counted and reported on the WhatsApp group he created. All seemed fairly consistent.

The silence was golden. Even with the boat next to you, it remains a lonely event. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great the see Niki & Jannie all the time. But your mouth is cold and your tongue is numb. So with the fear of sounding like a stroke victim, I decided not to make small talk.

At 12:15 the leaders were 1.7km off of Big Bay. Nic Manoussakis was in the lead with Rudolf Visser close behind. I was probably still seeing the island behind me. Progress was slow but consistent.

One would think that the water temperature stays fairly consistent throughout, but it certainly does not, as there were numerous cold patches in between. Ram warned us about these. When you hit one, just continue swimming. But it remains ridiculously cold for those precious few metres and when you come out of one, the 11 degrees water feels like lava.

And so it continued. Stroke for stroke. Jannie pointed me in the right direction, even though at times I wanted to stop and question it, because to me it felt like I was going to end at Blouberg not Big Bay.

At the last kilometer before the finish, my crew had to leave, as they are not allowed to come too close to the beach.I waved them goodbye, very thankful for their help, and continued towards the flags. Now there were lifesavers on paddleski’s guiding us home.

Low-and-behold, same as last time, the walk onto the beach felt like a bigger challenge than the swim. After swimming for three hours, your arms are willing to continue like a windmill, but your sea legs just don’t want to walk.

At the finishing arch you receive towel and they stick a beanie onto your head. Then a girl hangs a medal around your neck — when I bowed down it felt like I was going to fall forward and headbutt her in the face. Fortunately not.

On the beach I was met by Cornelius & Charl & Johine, but had to continue to the tent to warm up first. This time it didn’t take as long as 2011. Still, you don’t get dressed in record time, as your limbs remain somewhat dysfunctional — your brain sends the messages, but the execution isn’t perfect.

Done.

It took me over 3 hours to finish. Deduct 20% for the cold and I’m rather happy. Looks like we were only 15 who completed the swim in the solo men (no wetsuit) category. On the ferry that morning I chatted to a promising young swimmer, Rudolf Visser. He came second overall and completed the swim in less than half my time. But I shouldn’t compare — as far as I can remember he swims over 10kms every day. I only swim in self defence.

The fitter you are, the quicker you swim, the less you are exposed to the cold. But for any cold water long distance swimmer this is a bucket list item that needs to be ticked.

What’s next? I’m dusting off Tony Sellmeyer’s journal of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association and read some wonderful stories about crossing the English Channel.

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Herewith the journey as from a swimmer’s perspective. You are flat on the water so you can’t see very far. Pics by Marnette Meyer & Niki Louw.

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