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 for a swim. I heard about the Freedom swim and after seeing a picture online of a participant with just one leg, I thought if he can do it, then so can I. It only later occurred to me that his other leg might have been taken by a shark.
Fast forward to the second weekend in 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 upped from 7.5kms to 9.3kms. At 28, I was a decade younger than the average age and it took my 4 hours to complete the swim, a far cry from 15min per km as in the pool.
This is how it happened.
Little bit of history — the first Robben Island swim was recorded in 1909 when Henry Charteris Hooper swam 10km from Robben Island to the old Cape Town Harbour in just under 7 hours. Since then about 500 individuals (at the time of writing) have crossed to or from Robben Island and various points on the coast. More on cldsa.co.za.
Despite the relatively short distances of 7-11km, Robben Island has become a challenge even to accomplished swimmers, mostly due to the cold water temperature (maybe 25% colder than the English Channel). It remains ideal for many swimmers worldwide, because of the physical challenge and the historical significance of the island.
I planned 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’s typical 13 degrees around there.
Cold showers? No, thanks. I’ve heard some serious swimmers only take cold showers in order to acclimatize themselves. That sounds horrible. Why torment yourself like that during winter? I would limit my discomfort to only that of during the actual swim.
I’ve never swum more than 5kms at once. And that was in a pool, where you could kick away from the wall and the water was perfectly flat and you could follow the crystal clear line on the tiles below. At sea, things would be cold and choppy, with poor visibility, requiring you to look up to see where you’re going.
My flight from JHB to CPT was three days before the swim. There was some admin with the boat, seaworthiness and briefings, but Niki & Jannie took charge and helped a lot. Then there was the qualifying swim at Clifton’s Fourth beach, where I got some tips from Tony Sellmeyer.
Solo category rules dictate that you are only allowed three things: cap, goggles and Speedo. I had to buy a grape smuggler, which was for the best, as I chafed a lot during the qualifier in only a board-short and the salty sea water. I saw swimmers cover the torso’s in Vaseline like it was going out of fashion — not sure if they were about the combat chafing or the cold. The latter, it seemed, was a lost cause.
Niki’s flight was delayed and I fetched him from the airport at 1am, so we didn’t sleep much.
Woke up at 5am and arrived at the harbour very early. We were the third boat to launch.A formidable blanket was starting to appear over Table Mountain. At 7am the confirmation SMS signaled the swim was on. I made my way to the Waterfront, checked in and saw the camera crew. On the ferry I heard people say that up to 1 in 3 solo swimmers don’t finish. It sounded high, considering the field. Outside the water looked choppy and I started to wonder.
Upon arrival at Robben island, we prepared for the start right there on the harbour wall. There was a 30 minute wait until we’d get the final confirmation on whether the swim would take place. I went for a nap in the sun to stay warm and time went by.
Bad news. An hour later we had another briefing. The swim was called off. While we were waiting, the NSRI had to deal with Multiple Rescues during Cadiz Freedom Swim. The weather conditions proved a safety risk. We headed back to the ferry, disappointed. There was still a planned contingency swim for the Sunday. It was the correct decision, given the number of boats in the water — you don’t want to end up under a propeller.
My support was amazing. Niki Louw organised, Jan-Hendrik Rust skippered and Cornelius Weyers enthused. They went out of their way to assist and surely had a much worse day on the rubber duck than we did 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. (PS, the whole team supported me again in 2015).
There’s a panoramic shot of our one crew member taking a leak over the side of the rubber duck, with the new stadium and Table Mountain in the background. Priceless.
We were tired at the end of the day, even without swimming. The waiting game and uncertainty took its toll. While driving home we saw an accident on hospital bend. It was one of the boats that launched with us, lying on its side while a green Land Rover was pointing in the wrong direction. And the Stormers lost to the Crusaders at Newlands.
Another SMS arrived: ‘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. No boatman required.’
This was disappointing. I wanted to do the island crossing and not a random swim around the rocks in during winter. Fortunately the crew wouldn’t have to go through the whole ordeal again.
Sunday, bloody Sunday
I expected a walk in the park, but the conditions from the previous day lowered the water temperature and the prize money was substantial enough ($10k for the winner) for the organisers to make us work for it. When Ram Barkai announced the distance to be 4 laps and over 9km, plenty of swimmers converted from solo to relay. Slightly unnerving.
There were numerous big names. I saw blokes undressing from Olympic track suits and wondered whether I was in the right place. At 13 minutes per kilometer, they would spend much less time being exposed to the cold.
- Petar Stoychev — WR English channel
- Terence Parkin — Olympics, Sydney & Athens
- Otto Thaning — Olympics & English channel
- Danie Marais — World champs
- Ryan Stramrood — English channel
- Carina Bruwer — English channel
- Tony Sellmeyer — 25 island crossings
And we’re off
Just after 11am we got the go-ahead and made our way down to the rocks for the dry start. The first 100m was probably the worst of the swim. Saying the water is cold is a gross understatement. It leaves you breathless. Temperatures started at 12 degrees and decreased as you went around the rocks. I wondered whether I’d be able to keep it up for another 3 hours.
With a support boat you crew would always be visible — a great morale booster, but now there was nothing to look forward to other than aiming for the next lonely buoy each time. They were surprisingly difficult to spot, being far apart and obscured by the swell.
Temptation. The first lap of just over 2kms seemed to take forever. At the start of the second lap you pass the beach and spectators and think how warm it would be to bail and rather go lie in the sun. Carry on regardless.
I was filled with enough Magnesium (in an attempt to prevent cramps) to have my own spot on the Periodic Table of Elements. But they eventually started. Nothing in the upper body, just quads, calves and hamstrings. Ignored it in the hope that would disappear.
Halfway. This was a low point. When starting the third lap, it dawned on me that I’ve still got half the distance to complete. I was hungry and a bit demoralized, especially when I heard the announcement that the Bulgarian is already out of the water, having won the race. Expletive.
Eating and drinking off your own support boat would have been easier. Now everyone shared Energade off the seemingly single support rubber duck and it was difficult to manage in the rough water. I managed to grab ¾ of a cup and promptly spilled everything into the ocean, while instantly drifting away from the boat. It wasn’t worthwhile to swim back for another attempt. At least I swallowed lots of sea water so I wasn’t completely empty.
Thoughts of sharks enter your mind. I visualized one coming up from below like on The Beach and wondered, ‘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 did fire up the magic white flare to indicate a sighting, everyone into a boat — there would be no boat to get into.
Final lap. I considered asking the safety crew to tag along in sight, but my tongue was so numb from the cold that I couldn’t utter a discernible question and didn’t bother asking. Around I went, for the last time. Conditions were getting worse and I longed for that Mothers Day meal waiting at home.
I started counting stokes during the last kilometer. 100. Haven’t moved much. 200. The last buoy is still just behind me. 300. Felt a wave. Brilliant. Breakwater. I feel sand underneath my fingers and try to stand up but struggle. Funny this, I swam for 4 hours but can barely walk the last few steps across the line.
The guy from Good Hope FM announces your name and you cannot be bothered. They wrap you in a towel and hang a medal around your neck. I have over a hundred cycling medals at home and momentarily it felt like none of them compares to the effort it took to get this one, maybe not even combined.
Into the tent. At the briefings it felt like everyone exaggerated about the cold, but I do remember the following. Your regular body temperature is around 37°C and hypothermia has 4 stages:
- Mild, shivering, apathy (33–35°C)
- Moderate, stopped, low HR (28–32°C)
- Severe, unconscious, coma (20–27°C)
- Death (below 20°C)
They measured me at 28°C. The girl from Medi-Clinic frowned, but I quickly went through the motions. Tracksuit and blanket and up to 30°C. Five minutes and a cup of hot chocolate later and up to 32°C. Three hot cross buns in front of a heater and I’m back at 35°C and out of the potential relapse zone. I’m extremely pleased they used earpiece thermometers and there was no rectal violation.
Pun intended. Herewith the results. There were 149 solo entries Saturday and only 44 solo finishers Sunday. Fastest time under 2 hours and the slowest time 4½ hours. Would I do it again? Off course, I still need to do that island crossing.