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It’s the cold that hits the hardest. Your head feels like it’s about to break apart as you force yourself under the water for the first time; your body burns as you try and find your stroke, your rhythm. Pushing beyond the break and out into open water, you have to fight the urge to abandon the swim. Besides, you know that sooner or later you’re going to warm up.
At least that’s what you keep telling yourself as you count out strokes, sing the last song you heard in the car or con- sider what that coffee’s going to taste like when you finally get back to dry land – anything to take your mind off it. It is more mental than physical. If you can block out the ice-cold temperature and the fear of what lies beneath the surface, you are half- way there.
As I began my maiden Robben Island Crossing – a 7.5km swim to Big Bay – the water was a balmy 12°, so no problems there. But I was still being forced to draw on all my mental reserves as the sea water and fumes from the support boats combined to destroy my gut and have me choking down the vomit rising in my throat.
1. Open Water Swimming Is Scary As Hell
The Robben Island Crossing is an iconic South African swim. It is also one of the toughest endurance challenges you can commit to. While the measured distance is just over 7km, chances are good you will end up doing closer to 9. Keeping your bearings in open water can be tricky at the best of times, even more so if the current is against you or if the mist rolls in over the ocean. Swimmers have been pulled out of the water less than 500 metres from Big Bay because of poor visibility and rough conditions.
When I told people about my decision to take on the challenge, they thought I was crazy. The idea of swimming in the sea scares most people silly for a variety of reasons – being eaten alive the most prominent of them. Great White sharks are as common to Cape Town as hipsters and artisanal coffee, so the thought of swimming through their neck of the woods can be a terrifying one.
Even the most experienced open-water swimmers always have it at the back of their minds, because although there are no recorded attacks on a registered crossing, the reality is that you are just a guest in their water… and they’re better at this swimming thing.
2. The Cold Can Kill You
We got lucky on the temperature front on the day of our crossing – but the Atlantic can often end your swim before it even starts. Hypothermia is a real risk and you need to learn how to listen to your body, because these conditions can quite literally stop you dead.
The bulk of my training was done in the pool, but nothing beats time in the ocean. Early-morning swims at Clifton can be brutal with water routinely dropping below 10° and just getting in is a lesson in determination and perseverance. On the coldest days it felt like I was swimming through fire and I often battled with headaches and nausea – both signs of hypothermia.
Slurred speech was a frightening experience and generally happened once I was out of the water. The first time it happened I thought I was having a stroke, but I came to realise that it was natural… for me at least. It’s crucial that you know your body’s warning signs.
3. But It’s Also Kind On Your Body
Open-water swimming is not an easy sport and it isn’t for the easily spooked, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Cape Town locals Theodore Yach and Ryan Stramrood are two of the most well-known open-water swimmers in the country and their accomplishments are close to legendary. Yach completed his 100th Robben Island Crossing in March, has swum the English Channel and the Sea of Galilee, and is one of the most celebrated local swimmers in the business.
Stramrood, meanwhile, is quite possibly insane, with a list of accomplishments that includes the first swim around the southern tip of Africa and the first official ice mile swum in Antarctica in sub-zero water. Both are incredibly passionate about the sport and can list multiple reasons why you should be joining them in the water.
“Open-water swimming is one of the best sports in the world,” says Stramrood. “It is the kindest on your body in the long term and one of the most all-round exercises you can get for body and mind. It doesn’t have to take place on a court, on a road, on a field or even a pool, but it is a truly one-on-one experience with nature, which is exhilarating and refreshing.”
4. It Might Be The Purest Sport On Earth
Refreshing is an understatement, of course, because the water could wake the dead on some mornings. Wetsuits are not allowed if you want your swim to be official, and while some might argue that this rule – and the staunchness with which it is policed – restricts people from taking part.
The very reason wetsuits were created is to make swimming in cold water easier and more bearable, so legalising them would take away the bulk of what makes it so challenging in the first place. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. “This is one of the purest endeavours that humans can undertake without any assistance,” says Yach. “You want a reason why I still do this at the age of 58? It’s the fuck-you factor. Despite all the risk, I’m doing it.”
5. It’s One Of The Last Great Adventures
It was this desire to test myself that drove me towards the Robben Island Crossing. This was only further entrenched by the shocked reaction I received when telling friends and family of my goal. After years of injuring myself running, I was desperate to take on something big that didn’t involve hours on the road.
I also didn’t want to drop a lot of money on gear – all you need for swimming is a costume, a cap, a decent pair of goggles and a place to swim. And hell, the ocean is free. I joined three mates in preparing for the big day and trained for three months, using the time to not only put in some serious distance, but to condition my body to the cold and ultimately get used to the movements of the ocean. Before long I was lured to the ocean – the vastness of it. Swimming in a pool for hours is tedious, but splashing around in a body of water without any walls is one of the last great adventures anyone can have.
6. And Lastly – It’s Worth It
The pay-offs are huge. I had my issues during the crossing, but I knew I could push through it because I had faced far worse in the months lead- ing up to it. Knowing that I could swim for over an hour in 10° water without faltering made me realise what my body was capable of, and I knew that I had it in the bag. As I stepped out of the water and onto the beach, suffering from dehydration, both my legs cramping and my eyes starting to swim with tears, I knew in my heart that even though there were times I struggled and questioned why I was out there, I would be back in the water soon enough.