After setting my sights on the Robben Island crossing two years ago, I set about to accomplish this feat. My motivation for swimming the four and a half miles in open water was three-fold:
- I was inspired by the idea of Freedom and Nelson Mandela,
- I wanted to improve my health and do something that was “Big” to make my 60th birthday memorable, and
- I wanted to raise awareness and money about psoriatic disease and for the National Psoriasis Foundation www.psoriasis.org
The Robben Island Crossing – What it takes
According to the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA), the Robben Island (RI) crossing is held to the same rules and standards that govern English Channel attempts. This means swimmers are permitted to use a speedo (not a wetsuit), goggles and a single non-neoprene swim cap. The RI crossing is internationally rated as a difficult open water sea swim and viewed as a training swim for the English Channel.
The first sentence of the CLDSA issues the following warning: “Don’t be lured into thinking that a Robben Island Crossing is an easy feat. Theodore Yach’s hundred -odd swims can easily lead one to believe the swim is a ‘walk in the park’. It is exactly the opposite!”
So, I set my goal to swim from Robben Island to Cape Town by my 60th birthday (March 5th, 2019). And now, back in San Diego, is the conclusion of my story…
A few months before I departed for Cape Town, I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news that my friend, Theo Yach, had died unexpectedly at age 60. Theo was an inspiration for me and countless other swimmers to attempt the RI swim. I had talked with him a couple of weeks before he died, and during our conversation he said he would help me organize an escort boat for my swim. I was devastated to hear of his death.
It’s difficult to sum up Theo’s life in a few words, but I believe he was a mensch, a family man who was passionate about Cape Town and was an ambassador for open water swimming.
To honor Theo, I decided to adopt his name as my middle name and dedicate my swim to his memory.
Finding my stroke
Despite training with ocean swimmers in North County San Diego and at the La Jolla Cove for a year and a half, six months prior to departing for Cape Town and my swim, I began to doubt myself. My training was not going very well. I knew I had to be more efficient (i.e. go faster) to avoid hypothermia and be able finish the swim. But I was not able to find my swim stroke to help me do so. It was a frustrating time.
Among the many supportive swimmers and newfound friends at regular ocean swims was Joel Dorfan, who introduced me to a technique called Total Immersion (TI) Swimming. I adopted the technique and after a few weeks my times improved dramatically. Thanks to Joel, the TI method gave me a new spurt of enthusiasm. I rededicated myself to the task at hand.
Cold Water Training in Cape Town
It was a hot sunny summer’s day when I arrived with my wife Jeanie, and my children Jacob and Lily in Cape Town. The first thing I did was walk to Queens Beach in Sea Point with Jacob and put my feet in to feel the water south Atlantic. It was very cold and felt like pins stabbing my legs. Jacob couldn’t stay in longer than a few seconds. My guess it was about 51 degrees.
I soon found a routine of walking to the Pavilion for daily swims. The Pavilion is a municipal 50-meter saltwater swimming pool located right next to the ocean. It was there that I met several accomplished swimmers whom I had heard about from Theo, namely; his training partners Otto Thaning, Martin Goodman and Roger Finch.
It was from these and other swimmers that I learned about other swim groups, including:
Sunday Hot Chocolate Swimming Group – organized by “ice swimmer” Ram Barkai at 9am at Camps Bay beach. It is so called, because following the swim, swimmers gathered across the road at a restaurant to enjoy hot chocolate and flakes. The group was friendly, loose and supportive of swimmers attempting the RI crossing.
1SOMS and 3SOMS (First Sunday and Third Sunday of the Month Swim) – a well-organized competition for intermediate and advanced open water swimmers, usually over a marked course at fourth beach Clifton, organized by Warren Fialkov who has a dedicated and loyal group of supporters.
Atlantic Triathlon Club (ATC) – a Friday 5:45 am swim work-out for members of the Club. I was grateful that Steve Atwell gave me permission to join the group for the swim in the canals at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.
Big Bay Swim Club (‘Round The Rocks’) – one in a series of swims organized at the Derrick Fraser founder of Big Bay Events and held near the Big Bay Lifesaving Club. It was through Derrick that I arranged an escort boat to accompany me on my swim from Robben Island to Big Bay.
There were many social swims with fellow swimmers, and I made several solo swims, including those at Silver Mine (a fresh water reservoir in the mountains near Muizenberg with Yael Joffe) and Langebaan, Fish Hoek, Three Anchor Bay, Lambert’s Bay, and Llandudno.
Then the Day Arrived
After patiently waiting for ideal weather conditions while continuing to prepare every day, the day for the swim was finally here.
On Monday February 25th, 2019, I woke up early after a restful sleep. I was surprisingly relaxed when I doubled checked my backpack that contained, my speedo swimsuit, two pairs of goggles, swim caps, ear plugs, sunblock and Vaseline, along with a change of clothing.
My other bag contained my water bottle, and several bottles of BOS Sports drinks – a Rooibos based carbohydrate, electrolyte and antioxidants drink. With little experience of feeding during long distance swims, I took my cousin Wayne Chaitman’s advice to take a few sips of the drinks during my swim. We agreed that my first feed would be after 45 minutes and then every 30 minutes after.
Wayne is an accomplished open water swimmer with 15 RI and an English Channel crossing to his credit. He was very supportive, knowledgeable about local weather conditions and gave me his best advice. It gave me confidence when he agreed to be on my escort boat.
The Drive to Big Bay
The drive to the Big Bay Lifesaving Club house was familiar and uneventful. I had previously participated in the “Around the Rocks” race and volunteered to crew for Ryan Stamrood (who recently successfully completed his 100th RI crossing) and his training partner Andrea.
Everything seemed normal and familiar. I was focused on the weather conditions but enjoyed the view of Table Mountain as we rounded the bend to Big Bay.
Boat Preparation and Shark Shield
Wayne was first to greet us when we arrived. Walking into the garage that stored the lifesaving boats, I met my pilot Nick and his dad Guy, who were designated by Derrick Fraser to be my crew.
Nick was prepping the boat with a Shark Shield, checking the motor etc. The shark shield is nothing more than an electric wire placed in the water over the bow of the boat. An electric impulse is emitted when turned on. It is believed to first attract sharks, before the charge repels them. It is not known how effective the Shark Shield is, or if it works on Great White sharks, many of which make their home in Table Bay, where Robben Island is located.
Soon we were making steady progress in the boat towards Robben Island. There was a large container ship and a drilling platform anchored a few miles away. Nick slowed the boat momentarily to point out a Sunfish nearby. Guy said it was good luck.
About a mile from Robben Island, Nick radioed port control to advise that we were approaching. After a minute or two of radio chatter, we continued towards the Old Pier. About twenty-five meters of the island, Nick cut the engine. Suddenly it became quiet. There were beds of kelp preventing the boat from getting any closer.
Into the Water
I wasted no time. I stripped to my speedo, inserted ear plugs, put on a swim cap (I had especially made for the swim) and goggles. I applied Vaseline around my neck, under my arms and between my thighs to prevent chaffing. After a few fist bumps and good luck wishes, I slid off the side of the boat into the water.
There was a gap in the kelp that allowed me to swim to the closest rock on the Island. Within a minute, I was standing on Robben Island. I took a couple of breaths and waved to the crew. I saw Guy wave back in acknowledgement. The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association rules state that a complete swim must begin with the swimmer standing out of the water and clearly visible, and end when the swimmer is clear of the water at the end of the swim.
I set off. There was a wind shadow from Robben Island and the prevailing northwesterly winds were very light. The water surface was still and like a mirror. As I breathed to my right, the iconic view of Table Mountain in the distance was inspiring and serene – and helped calm me down into a steady rhythmic stroke.
The water temperature was about 57-59 degrees Fahrenheit. It felt comfortable to me after training in much colder waters during the prior two months. I was confident that if the water stayed about the same, I would complete the swim. In fact, I don’t remember ever having a negative thought in my mind.
After 45 minutes, the boat stopped, and I was thrown my first feeding bottle. I think I drank too much during that first feeding because I felt bloated and full. I tossed the bottle back to the boat and immediately continued. The sun was out and shining on my back. Combined with the heat I generated from swimming, the cold water was a non-factor.
Soon I was about halfway, the swells were noticeably larger, and the wind had picked up, creating a texture on the water. I noticed a catamaran nearby heading straight towards me. It pulled around and stopped about 30 meters from me. I was surprised when about a dozen people on board started cheering for me. I recognized them from a previous swim. They were a group of swimmers from the UK who were in Cape Town to attempt the Robben Island crossing. I got caught up with that scene and momentarily distracted, but Wayne got my attention and waved me on to continue.
Near the Finish
The buildings at Big Bay still seemed far away when I lifted my head to check my progress. But soon I was told that I about half a mile from finishing. The boat escorted me as far as they could go. I had to finish the swim on my own. It was then I experienced cramps in my right calf. But after a few seconds, I continued. I was so close to finishing; nothing was going to stop me.
The final quarter mile was the most challenging. The water temperature dropped, the swell picked up, there was churning in the water caused by the waves crashing on the nearby rocks. But I could clearly see people on the beach and the end in sight.
I experienced another cramp as my feet touch the sand, when I walked out of the water. My goal had been accomplished – I finished the swim. Walking onto the beach, I raised my arms up high – an expression of relief as much as success. Jeanie and my sisters, Noreen and Zea as well as Wayne and the crew were waiting.
After a quick shower and getting into dry clothes, I stood in the sunny and warm courtyard of the Big Bay Lifesaving club. I wasn’t shaking as I had expected, but my core temperature had dropped. After about half an hour of chatting, we said our goodbyes and walked over to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a hearty lunch.
The swim had taken me 3 hours and 6 minutes, but it was two years in the making.
Lots of People to Thank
Looking back at all the events that had led me to complete the swim, I am grateful to all the supportive swimmers (now friends) I had met in the prior two years. From the swimmers with the San Diego Triathlon Club (the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday swim crew), and the La Jolla Cove Swim Club.
My gratitude and thanks also go out to my new friends in South Africa. The Big Bay swim group, the 1SOMS Open Water Swim group, the Atlantic Tri Club, and the Sunday Hot Chocolate group. I will have fond memories of my many swims at the Pavilion and the solo adventure swims I took with Jeanie keeping an eye on me. Thank you all.
I also want to thank my family and friends in Cape Town and the USA for their love and support.
I look forward to continuing to swim – to enjoy the exercise, comradery and freedom I experience when swimming in the open water.
Through the generosity of dozens of people, over $4,000 was received by the National Psoriasis Foundation in support of my swim. Thank you to all donors.
I have commemorative swim caps still available. If you would like one, please call me at 858-254-9530 until supplies last.