To better understanding what it takes to attempt the Robben Island crossing, I asked the pilot of the boat that will escort me, the owner of Big Bay Events, Derrick Fraser, to allow me to crew for him and assist swimmers who will attempt the crossing.
My opportunity came at 6:30am on Friday Feb 8th. I arrived at the Big Bay Lifesaving Club where Derrick was getting the boat ready. It turned out that Derrick was going to be busy helping others, so his son, Jason would be the pilot that day. The two swimmers we’d escort were Andrea from the UK, and Ryan form South Africa. Both highly accomplished open water swimmers and training partners.
Andrea was in training to swim the English Channel, followed by cycling to Mont Blanc and then climbing the mountain – all in 5 days. Her goal is a personal challenge and not part of a race or larger event. Ryan already had successfully completed 91 Robben Island Crossing, and today he was going to be attempt his 92nd and 93rd crossing.
After some final preparations with the 4-meter rubber boat, and the swimmers getting ready in the Club House, we pushed the boat down the ramp and into the water. Jason attached a “shark shield” to the front of the boat. The devise drags a long wire in the water that, when turned on, emits an electromagnetic charge designed to repel sharks. According to Jason, it only works for certain kinds of sharks and not always effective.
The Shark Shield attracts sharks, until they come within about 5 meters, when they are repelled by the signal. Obviously, there is no guarantee that it works.
Great White sharks are rarely seen in the Bay. Mostly they are found in False Bay (Indian Ocean) about 20 kilometers away, on the other side of the Cape Peninsula.
At some point during the crossing, Jason spotted a fin in the water and raced over to investigate. He recognized it immediately. It was not the fin of a shark fin, but the often misidentified fin of a Sunfish. No harm no foul. Heart beat back to normal. (See the featured photo for this post).
The tide was high and within a minute we were over a couple of waves that got us partially wet. Soon, Jason and I were circling around waiting for the swimmers.
The swimmers began from the beach. They swam very close to each other. I could tell Jason was an experienced pilot, as he guided the boat a couple of meters from Andrea and led them in a direct course to Robben Island. He radioed Port Control and Robben Island to advise them of his approach.
As the swimmers settled into a fast cadence, Jason and I started talking. I watched how he piloted the boat, so the swimmers would not have to breathe fumes form the engine, and how scanned the horizon to be in tune to the environment. There were lots of seals, birds and dolphin the Bay that day.
After about 45 minutes, he signaled the swimmers and cut the engine. He tossed water bottles to the swimmers for their first feed. After less than a minute they tossed the bottles back to him and me and resumed the identical steady and fast pace they initially set out on. It was all business.
An hour into the swim, we were half way across the Bay and the buildings on Robben Island and the Old Pier came into clearer definition. Jason said could see a whale near the Pier. It took me a while to locate the whale. Sure enough, I saw the telltale sign of water shooting up into the sky. It turned out that it was a mother and her calf feeding just off Robben Island.
In a hilarious moment, both swimmers stopped mid stoke to express their disgust. They had swum through what was apparently was regurgitation of the whale’s breakfast. I can only imagine it – swimming through whale poo. Yuck!
As we neared Robben Island, Jason led the swimmers through the kelp to about 50 meters from shore. They stood on rocks and then began their return leg. The swimming conditions were ideal. A smooth surface and no wind. But with clouds blocking the sun, the iconic view of Table Mountain in the distance was partially obscured. The clouds hung over the top of Table Mountain and Lions Head.
According to Jason, the water temperature was about 14.5 degrees Celsius (about 58 degrees Fahrenheit). But after the swim, Ryan said there were much colder patches. He would know, swimming without a wet suit. After the swim, I watched Ryan shivering and shaking. But apparently, he recovers relatively quickly from the drop in his body temperature he experienced during the approximate 4 hours and 10 minutes swim.
After crewing for Andrea and Ryan’s swim, I was excited and tired at the same time. I now have a much better idea of what to expect on my Robben Island swim attempt. Congratulations to the swimmers for their amazing feats! Thanks to Derrick and Jason for sharing their knowledge.