After a week of waiting and continuing to prepare every day, the day for the swim was finally here.
I woke up early after a restful sleep. I made myself a cup of tea, toast with strawberry jam and peanut butter and a bowl of hot oatmeal with a half a banana. I was surprisingly relaxed having doubled checked my backpack the night before. It 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 bottes 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’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 thereafter.
The Uber ride to the Big Bay Lifesaving Club house was like the two I had taken before. I previously participated in the “Around the Rocks” race and volunteered to crew for Ryan and Andrea on their Robben Island double. Everything seemed normal and familiar. Although this time I was travelling to attempt the Robben Island to Big Bay crossing. Jeanie was in the car with me and we didn’t talk very much.
I was focused on the weather conditions and the task ahead. I enjoyed the view of Table Mountain as we rounded the bend to Big Bay. The early morning sunlight shone brightly on Robben Island shimmered on the water.
Wayne was already there and was the first person to greet us. Walking into the garage that stored the lifesaving boats and other equipment, I met lifesaver and my pilot Nick and his Dad Guy, who were designated by Derrick Fraser (the owner of Big Bay Events) to be my crew. I had asked Wayne to be on the boat too. He had to drive back from Clanwilliam, a small town in the wester Cape to join us.
Nick was prepping the boat with a Shark Shield, checking the motor etc. I introduced myself to him and his dad and immediately felt comfortable with them. I changed into my speedo and consolidated by gear to take on the boat. I asked Jeanie apply sunblock to my back. It was about 8:15 am. I was ready to go.
It was high tide when Nick, Guy, Wayne and I slowly edged the red rubber boat on its trailer down the ramp to the beach. The waves were a good size and I knew I was going to get slightly wet during the launch. But soon enough, Nick at the stern of the 4-meter boat opened the throttle to outrace an oncoming wave and guiding us to calmer waters just off Big Bay.
Soon we were making steady progress towards Robben Island. I wrapped my legs with a dry towel and put on my wind breaker on to keep me warm. There was little chatter on the boat as it was difficult to hear each other above the load two-stoke outboard motor. There was a large container ship anchored about a mile away on our port side towards Cape Town, and a drilling platform about two miles off our starboard size. 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 and exchanging courtesies, we continued towards the Old Pier. About twenty-five meters off the island, Nick cut the engine. Suddenly it became quiet. There were beds of kelp preventing the boat from getting any closer.
I wasted no time. I stripped to my speedo, inserted my ear plugs, put on my swim cap (specially made for this event) and goggles. I then applied Vaseline around my neck, under my arms and between my thighs to prevent chaffing. After a few exchanges of fist bumps and good lucks, I slid off the edge 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. Soon 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. The kelp was thick, but because it was still high tide, it was easy to swim over the few patches I encountered. Soon I neared the boat. Nick navigated the boat downwind from me, so I didn’t have to breathe the engine fumes while swimming. 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 13-14 (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 and was confident that I would finish.
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. After I tossed the bottle back to the boat, I immediately continued. The sun was out and shining on my back. Combined with the heat I was generated from swimming, the cold water was a non-factor in my mind.
Soon I was about half way, the swells were noticeable larger, and the wind had picked up slightly creating a texture on the water. I noticed a catamaran nearby heading straight for 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 that were in Cape Town to attempt the Robben Island crossing. I was caught up with that scene and momentarily distracted, but Wayne got my attention when he waved me to continue. So, I did.
The buildings at Big Bay still seemed far away when I lifted my head to check my progress and remaining distance. Soon I was told that I was 1 km from finishing. After my final feeding, 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 intended to finish regardless. I was so close to finishing, nothing was going to prevent me from doing so.
The final 500 meters was challenging. The water temperature dropped by a couple of degrees or more, 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 and took my time walking out of the water. My goal was to finish the swim and was not focused on the time.
Walking onto the beach, I raised my arms up high. Waiting on the beach were Jeanie, my sisters Noreen and Zea and Wayne who took the video below.
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 good by to Nick, Guy and Noreen. Jeanie, Zea, Wayne and I walked over to a nearby restaurant where we enjoyed a hearty lunch.
The swim had taken me 3 hours and 7 minutes, but it was two years in the making.
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 fun swimmers with the San Diego Triathlon Club (the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday swim crew), to the folks at the La Jolla Cove Swim Club.
My gratitude also goes out to my new simmer friends in South Africa. The Big Bay swim group, the passionate 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.
I look forward to continuing to swim – to enjoy the exercise, comradery and freedom I experience when swimming in the open water.