7.5km Robben Island crossing

11 April 2015

The 2011 edition was cancelled due to bad weather and replaced with a contingent swim around the rocks in Blouberg — so I was still short an official Robben Island crossing. Then the previous sponsor pulled out and I lost track with the event for a while.

In 2015 I stumbled upon it again — after the entries had closed, but spoke to the friendly organisers and was allowed to enter. Great experience.

Familiar crew

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


It’s compulsory. For safety reasons. And 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.”

So you without a boat you might end up going in circles.

How far?

If your local Virgin Active indoor pool is 20 meters in lentgh, then 375 laps. Which is enough, especially if you usually only dip for 50 laps. Luckily I’ve already done the 9.3kms (or 465 laps then) of the 2011 swim, so distance wasn’t a problem. But don’t count your chickens just yet.


None. The water is freezing cold. And sharks dislike frozen food.

A twist

On Friday, at lunch time, the day before the swim, we received the following sms:

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. Luckily I’ve done the 2011 swim and was allowed to go on my own.

Race day

Niki stayed over. 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.


We boarded the ferry to the island. En route we couldn’t see much, but the water was as flat as could be. We saw quite a number of seals. The trip to the island was uneventful and you want to fall asleep to the monotonous drumming of the engines.


After our arrival we hung around on the harbour wall and received the following sms’s. 09:29. Race delayed due to fog. We’ll keep you updated. 09:45. Swim is on. Waiting for the fog to lift. 10:24. Visibility is improving greatly. First possible start 11am. 10:28. ATT all boats. You are cleared to leave for Robben Island. 10:58. Confirmed start. Solo swimmers at 11:05am.

By the time the 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

Easier said than done. I had to look for a rubber duck. Like everyone else. And through the fuzzy goggles it wasn’t that easy to spot. Next time I’d recommend a helium filled blow-up doll on a string.


The fumes from the rubber duck, and indeed all combined, was more than thought it would be. But after the swimmers dispersed and we were on our way. 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. A good day out.


The water was cold and 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 that he created. All seemed fairly consistent.


Below is a clip from Russel Gaynor (not me), which shows how to eat & drink while on the go. I’ll remember this for next time. I cannot remember eating or drinking anything during the swim.


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.


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.

Cold patches

You’d think the temperature stays constant. But it certainly does not. There are some cold patches inbetween. Ram warned us about these. When you get into one, just continue swimming. But it is ridiculously cold for those 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.


Eventually my crew had to leave, as they are not allowed to come too close to the beach — think the last 1km or so. I waved them goodbye, very thankful for their help, and continued towards the flags, still far away. Now there were lifesavers on paddleski’s guiding us home.


Same as last time, the walk onto the beach felt like a bigger challenge than the swim. After swimming for 3 hours, your sea legs just don’t want to walk. And your arms want to continue like a windmill.

Same procedure

You receive towel and they stick a beanie onto your head. At the finishing arch there was a girl who hanged a medal around your neck — when I bowed down it felt like I was going to fall forward and headbutt her in the face. Luckily that didn’t happen.

On the beach

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



It took me over 3 hours to finish the swim, which is slow. But it’s done. 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 SA 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 10 or 15kms every day. I only swim in self defence.


The fitter you are, the quicker you swim, the less you are exposed to the cold. Next time I’ll train properly. 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 — there are some wonderful stories about crossing the English Channel.


Pretty little pictures

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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