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 pictures online. I found one of a participant with only one leg and 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.
to the weekend of 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 upped from 7.5kms to 9.3kms. I was 28 at the time (a decade younger than the average age) and it took me 4 hours to complete the swim (a far cry from 20min per km as in the pool).
This is how it happened.
History of the swim
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 10km. Since then about 500 individuals (at the time of writing) have done the crossing from or to Robben Island and various points on the coast. More on cldsa.co.za.
Not a walk in the park
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 (maybe 25% colder than the English Channel). The swim remains an ideal for many swimmers worldwide, because of the physical challenge and the historical significance of the Island.
How not to prepare
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’s 13 degrees or lower, around Robben Island.
Cold showers? No, thanks.
I’ve heard of people only taking cold showers for months before the event to acclimatize themselves. That sounds horrible. Why would you torment yourself unnecessarily during winter? I thought I’d rather limit my discomfort to only that of during the actual swim.
Training vs reality
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 crystal clear line on the tiles below. At sea, things would be cold and choppy, with zero visibility. So you have to look up to see where you’re going.
The week before
I flew from JHB to CPT 3 days before the swim. There was some admin around the boat, crew, seaworthiness, briefings etc. But Niki & Jannie took charge and helped a lot. Then there was the qualifying swim at Clifton’s 4th beach, 4 days before the event. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but after speaking to Tony Sellmeyer and doing the qualifier, I was confident.
The rules for the solo/skins category dictate that you are only allowed 3 things: cap, goggles and speedo. So I had to go and buy a grape smuggler. After the qualifier I realised this was for the best, 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.
The day before
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 around until I had to fetch Niki from the airport — his delayed Kulula flight arrived just before 1am, so we didn’t sleep much.
Woke up at 5am, arrived at the harbour very early and were the 3rd boat to launch. A formidable blanket was starting to appear over Table Mountain. At 7am the confirmation SMS arrived:
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!
On the ferry
I made my way to the Waterfront, checked in and was greeted by many a camera. On the ferry to Robben Island I heard people say that up to 1 in 3 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.
Upon arrival, we started getting ready, right there on the harbour wall. There was a 30 min wait until we’d get the final confirmation on 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. Weather conditions. Safety risk. While we were waiting on the island, the NSRI had to deal with Multiple Rescues during Cadiz Freedom Swim.
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 a propeller.
Return to the Waterfront
So we got back onto the ferry and headed back, very disappointed. There was still a planned contingency swim for the Sunday. Now we had to wait and see.
My support was amazing — Niki Louw organised, Jan-Hendrik Rust skippered and Cornelius Weyers enthused. They went out of their way to assist. 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.
*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. Priceless.
It was unbelievable how tired you are at the end of the Saturday, even without swimming. The wait and uncertainty really takes its toll. 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. Long day. And the Stormers lost to the Crusaders at Newlands.
Try again tomorrow
Late Saturday afternoon we got another SMS update:
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.
Sunday, bloody Sunday
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 around the rocks at Big Bay. Ram Barkai announced the distance to be around 9kms. We saw plenty of people converting from solo races to relay swims at the registration, which I found slightly unnerving.
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.
Finally, we’re off
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. Saying the water is cold is a gross understatement. It leaves you breathless. Temperatures start at 12ºC, decreasing as you go around the rocks. I was unsure how to pace myself and started slow but still wondered if I can keep it up for another 3 hours.
Had we done the island crossing, your support crew would be in sight on your right hand side all the time — which is a huge morale booster. But now there was nothing to look forward to, other than aiming for the next lonely buoy each time. And they were surprisingly difficult to spot, being far apart and temporarily obscured by 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 how warm it would be if you bail to go and lie under the sun. But you carry on regardless, still not sure whether this is for you.
Calve starts cramping. Ignore it. Continue. Hope it goes away. But it only gets substituted with a cramp on the other side. Nothing in the upper body — just quads, calves and hamstrings. I was filled with enough Magnesium (in an attempt to prevent cramps) to have my own spot on the Periodic Table of Elements. But it didn’t help.
This was a low point. I came a round the rocks to start the 3rd lap, only to realise that I’ve still got to do the same distance as till now. I was hungry and a bit demoralized, especially when I heard them announce that the Bulgarian is already out of the water and has won the race. Expletive.
Eating/drinking off your own support boat would have been easier. But now everyone shares Energade off the supplied support rubber ducks and it certainly isn’t easy in rough waters. I managed to grab ¾ of a cup from the support crew and promptly spill everything into the ocean before managing a sip, while instantly drifting away from the boat. 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 did fire up the magic white flare to indicate sight of a shark — everyone into a boat; there would be no boat close by to get into.
At the start of the fourth and final lap, I considered asking the safety crew to tag along in sight, fearing cramps in deep waters with no-one around. But my tongue was so numb from the cold that I couldn’t utter a discernible question and didn’t even bother to ask. Around I went, alone, for the last time. Conditions were getting worse and I briefly thought about a proper Mothers Day meal waiting at home.
The last kilometre
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.
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 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 100 cycling medals at home and it feels 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)
When I got out they measured me at 28 degrees. The girl from Medi-Clinic frowned with an ‘uhmm’. Being in a speedo saved me the time of paradoxical undressing. But you quickly go through the motions —
Tracksuit and blanket and up to 30°C. 5 Minutes and a cup of hot chocolate later and you’re up to 32°C. Three hot cross buns white sitting in front of a heater gets you back at 35°C and out of the potential relapse zone. Ready to leave. I’m just extremely pleased they used earpiece thermometers and there was no rectal violation.
There were 149 solo entries for the Saturday. There were only 44 solo finishers on the Sunday. Fastest time under 2 hours; slowest time 4½ hours. Results here.
I’ve had silly ideas before — Manus and myself cycled 1800kms from JHB 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 I found myself on a plane back to JHB. I was never going to die. It was just a few hours’ worth of discomfort. It could have been easier had I trained more. But leave that for next time.
Again? Of course. I still need to do an island crossing. 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/