After returning from Italy and World Masters Swimming Championships in July, I have been set on doing a solo Robben Island swim crossing. I knew that with the extra effort and dedicated training I put in for World Champs, that I would set myself up nicely for a fast crossing.
I got hold of Derrick Fraser, a renowned waterman from Big Bay, Bloubergstrand, the finish point of the standard Robben Island to Big Bay swim. I asked him to assist me during my swim, as well as provide insight into the ideal conditions and the best route to take on the day. When swimming in the ocean, or open ocean in general, the route taken plays an absolutely vital role in the success of your swim. With Derrick helping me, I knew I had the best person on the boat providing both knowledge and experience.
We agreed on what weather conditions were required and I was ready to wait for the ideal day. The key for me was to get a day with perfect conditions so that I could give myself a great chance of a good time, rather than just settle for any weather conditions and “just make” the crossing. I wanted to do it properly. There was also another factor at play here, it had to be over a weekend as I had no more annual leave available from work, to use for a mid-week swim. Waiting for a perfect weekend day made my wait that much longer.
Last week Monday I got an email from Derrick, the forecast was looking great for Saturday. We agreed to get everything set up for the weekend. As the week progressed the forecast didn’t really change, in fact it looked better and better as the week went by. After waiting for 8 weeks, we confirmed that we would go ahead on Saturday.
In between watching Olympic swimming finals on Friday night, I prepared my feeding bottles. I was going to use two alternate formulations. Uneven feeds would be a watered down Gu Roctane gel, easier to drink whilst in the water, and even numbered feeds would be Gu Brew. I found in the past that by just going with the gels that I didn’t get enough fluid in. This being in salt water, I figured the sweet mixtures would also nullify the salty taste in my mouth. The plan was to feed every twenty minutes. After sorting out my bottles, I watched Chad Le Clos win a silver medal in the men’s 100m butterfly and was soon off to bed.
On Saturday, Brendon, my coach, and I set off to meet part of the crew at Oceana Boat club alongside the V & A Waterfront. We made our first stop, along the way, at Sports Science Institute in Newlands so that I could get in a quick warm-up swim. After an easy 600m I hopped out of the warm pool and we headed to Oceana. On arrival at Oceana I realized immediately that the wind direction was not as what was predicted, we had a relatively stiff Northerly wind blowing instead of a 1km/hr westerly breeze. A Northerly would mean a headwind for the entire swim. After a quick chat with the crew, it was decided we would go ahead with the swim as the conditions were set to change and the wind was predicted to drop.
We had a relatively quick boat ride out to the Island, the water had a fair amount of surface chop on it from the wind, but there was a great swell running that would assist in the swim. Upon arrival at the island we sat about 500m off-shore as we waited for Derrick and Darren to arrive on their boat, they were coming directly from Big Bay. Once they arrived, we discussed tactics and how the feeding and GPS guidance would work. We also agreed which boat would give me a guideline for the swim. I hopped onto Derrick and Darren’s boat and they took me up to the island. I jumped into the cold water wearing nothing but an Arena swim brief, Arena Silicone Cap and my Cobra Mirror Goggles. I swam the short 100m to Robben Island through the rocky kelp beds. I made my way out of the water, to beyond the waterline, as this is where the swim is to start from. There are a number of different starting points on the Island, I was starting from the rocks alongside the old jetty situated on the southeast end of the island. The rules state that you need to start and end above the water line and that you cannot wear anything more than a swimming brief, cap and goggles, no wetsuits allowed.
I signaled to the guys on the boat that I was ready, and off I went. Getting through the kelp beds and over the rocks at the start is pretty tricky, it definitely left a few cuts and bruises on my feet and scrapes along my body as I was trying to do it as fast as I could. Before I knew it I was heading out into the open sea. The feeling of being out in the open water is daunting, yet thrilling at the same time. Nothing but the deep dark ocean below you, a small boat alongside you, but just you physically in the cold water, quite a rush!
The aim is to swim in a slight right to left dog leg towards Big Bay, the reason for this is the right to left current which can push the average swimmer well off course to the left of Big Bay. For the first 1km or so you are protected by the island from the sea swell. Once you get far enough out and the swell has had a chance to wrap around the island, you get the sudden surge pushing you along the route from the swell. My first kilometer was around 14 minutes 30 seconds, my second km dropped to around 13 minutes, purely the addition of pushing swell as I was swimming into the wind the entire time. My original aim was to swim at around 13 minutes per km.
I was going well, the water felt warm-ish and the pace was comfortable. I was having a ball. As I breathed to my right hand side, I had a spectacular view of Table Mountain and the white tufts of cloud sitting on the top of it. The air was clean and fresh, I was in the middle of the sea, it was awesome! As I swam I passed over big clumps of jellyfish, at one point there was a massive seal lurking within a few meters of me, so big it made the guys on the boat stand up and follow its movements very closely. This all happened without me knowing what it was that drawing their attention. Quite daunting (I say laughing) as I knew something was there. Haha.
Derrick’s rubber duck was equipped with a shark shield but you still get a bit nervous, especially when none of the support crew are watching you, they’re looking off into the distance not really paying attention, albeit for a short while. The guys were phenomenal, they watched very intently as I swam, always watching the water for any potential “hazards”.
Brendon was giving me 1km split times, which he wrote on a hand-held white board. I was going very well and feeling comfortable up until about 5km. I went through 5km just over an hour, it was at this point that I started to feel a bit of fatigue setting in and it was the first time I felt cold. As we progressed I fed again at 1hour 20minutes, it was during this feed that I battled to drink, I had gulped down previous feeds very easily. The cold was getting to me and hypothermia was setting in. On a swim like this it is almost normal to get mild hypothermia, especially spending well over an hour in 12 to 13 degree water.
The last 2km seemed to take forever. I was battling to keep my line and the boat fumes seemed to be so much worse. All I could smell was petrol fumes. The more Brendon, Darren and Derrick directed me left, the more I swam straight. I was not finishing off the dog leg very well, I was swimming in a straight line. This meant I was far off to the right of the Big Bay landing point and having to fight the current coming out of the bay. This slowed me down even more. Eventually I worked my way further left and was soon catching a wave all the way into the beach. By this stage Derrick, Darren and Brendon had driven up to shore and were already standing at the finish waiting to help me up the beach. I reached the beach in 1hour and 52 minutes. It was the first recorded Robben Island crossing of the new season and a great accomplishment for me to finally achieve. It ended up being a lot tougher than I had planned and I had lost a good 10 to 15 minutes over the last 2km due to the effects of the cold.
Derrick and his team were fantastic, they had me in a warm room inside the life-saving clubhouse within minutes. I was wrapped in blankets and well on my way to recovery. After a good 20minutes of shivering I was starting to feel normal again. I had a smile on my face as my son James was playing with the shiny silver space blanket wrapped over me.
I want to thank all my support crew for all their help. Nes and James for always being there to support me, no matter how crazy the endeavour. Brendon for being such a dedicated coach, for always believing in me, often more than what I believe in myself. Thank you Derrick and your team for your help on the day. To my mom and dad for always being there to cheer me on.
I have done many cold distance swims on the Atlantic Coastline of Cape Town, but never a Robben Island crossing. This was a swim on my bucket list, something I have always wanted to do and always been scared to attempt due to my slender physique and the cold water. Every morning I drive over the top of hospital bend as I head to work in town, I look at the view of Robben Island and think about swimming it. Now, I have done it, the first of many I am sure. I am glad I never gave up on the dream of doing this swim, it was great.
One of my BIG dreams I have finally grown into…