Ferries are for Wimps and for the Wise

Robben Island to Cape Town – 4 hours and 1 minute

There’s no question that Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Situated at virtually the southernmost tip of the African continent and usually bathing in bright sunshine the city is sandwiched between the blue Atlantic ocean and a quite spectacular range of mountains with the great Table Mountain itself providing a dramatic centrepiece. Directly opposite Table Mountain lies a much less ostentatious landmark; the low lying Robben Island, originally used as a leper colony and also notorious for its prison during the Apartheid era where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. The ferry to Robben Island takes about 27 minutes to get there.

Robben Island

When I first visited Cape Town in 2007 I was aware that the swim from the Island to the mainland had been achieved and could immediately see the attraction - what a destination to swim to ! BUT – and there are always ‘buts’ with these kind of things ! - I had taken a dip at Cape Town’s Clifton Beach in the middle of the summer and was both shocked at how icy the water was and nervous about the “exotic” wildlife which frequents these waters. Long distance swimming is as much a mental as a physical challenge and it was obvious to me that this swim would involve two main hurdles – mentally conquering both the cold and the fear !

After a fair amount of procrastination I got talking to Simon Murie about attempting the swim together. The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association comply strictly with Channel Swimming regulations (1 swim hat, speedos & goggles, clear the water at both ends and no touching the boat) but do allow more than one solo swimmer to swim side by side. With Simon signed up we opted for May as a suitable date. May is well into the autumn in South Africa but it would at least give us a chance to do a bit of open water swimming in the UK during our spring – most importantly getting as much cold acclimatisation as possible in advance. We booked our flights and would need to get lucky with the weather as we only had an 8 day window in which to complete the swim and Cape Town’s weather is frequently volatile.

Training wasn’t straight forward because the English Channel remains cold until well into June and is positively icy during the spring months of March and April. Our longest sea swim in the build-up was 1hr 30 minutes at Brighton in water of 9-10 degrees C. This swim was a confidence booster as we knew the water in Cape Town would be a little warmer (12 degrees) but we’d have preferred to have had a few longer swims to build up our endurance more.

In the weeks leading up to departure, I cannot deny that the forthcoming challenge played on my mind. I had no worries about being able to swim the distance (11.5kms) and wasn’t too fazed about the prospect of the cold water but fears of the unknown crept in. Great White Sharks frequent these waters – in fact, False Bay around the eastern side of the Cape peninsula is a positive haven for them. There are also nasty jelly fish – most notably ‘Bluebottles’ which give a painful sting - some of which I had seen and avoided on a previous swim in Cape Town’s Camps Bay. I did my best to shut the fear out but it was still there nagging away.

Simon tackled this issue with more practical measures expounding the wisdom that sharks are actually colour blind and therefore attracted to dark colours or materials – wetsuits or black swimming trunks – like mine ! He’d even gone to the trouble of purchasing an outrageous pair of skimpy multi-coloured budgie smugglers “a la Chippendale” which he was convinced would buy him complete immunity from shark attack. As this attire might induce a giggling fit in any curious wildlife I began to wonder if he had a point !

We arrived in Cape Town on Saturday 30th April and spoke that morning to Peter Bales, Head of the CLDSA and our boat pilot. He said the following day looked good and that we should grab the opportunity while it was there. He said the forecast was for sunny weather without too much wind but that the sea would be cold – 12 degrees – which was what we were expecting. We agreed to meet at 9am the following morning for a 10am start at Robben Island. This couldn’t have been a better result as there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting for days for the weather to come good. All we had to do was focus on a big pasta supper and getting an early night. It also meant that if we got the swim out the way, we’d have a nice few days holiday in Cape Town before heading home.

sharkPeter was right, Sunday turned out to be the best day of the whole week – not too much wind and warm and sunny. We met at 9am at the boat harbour and were soon motoring across to Robben Island in Peter’s rib. The views back to Table Mountain are breath taking but I still couldn’t help scanning the water for shark fins ! About half way across we saw what I thought were a pod of dolphins breaching the waves about 50 metres from the boat but Peter took a glance and informed us they were actually seals. Oh great – isn’t that what sharks eat ?!!

Just short of the Island we slapped on the sun cream and Vaseline and jumped in. We’d need to swim to the rocky shore of Robben Island, through the thick kelp and climb out on to dry land before the swim could begin. As we struggled through the kelp and rocks I had only two thoughts 1) God this water is cold ! 2) Take great care not to cut yourself on the rocks – a bleeding swimmer might be tempting prey ! As we stood on the shore and looked back to table Mountain there was then a third thought – 3) Blimey – it’s bloody miles away !

We were told to swim close to the boat at all times. Peter had lowered a “shark shield” into the water from the side of the boat. The “shield” is basically a long wire which emits an electric current over an 8 metre radius around the boat. By his own admission, the electric current can actually alert the curiosity of sharks but that they will not swim within the field itself. Fingers crossed it doesn’t run out of batteries then !

So we set off in what was initially quite choppy sea. The water was dark and cold; this was going to be a long swim ! Staying parallel to Simon and the boat and hopefully within the shield was enough to focus on in the first hour. We spotted a few jellyfish but nothing that couldn’t be avoided.

We’d agreed to break for feeds (taking on warm energy drink) on the hour and hoped 3 feeds would be sufficient to get across. As we stopped for the first feed I looked over at Simon and was a bit alarmed to see that he was palpably shivering in the water. I certainly felt very cold but wasn’t shivering yet but I hadn’t expected us to be in this condition so early on in the swim. We cracked on needing to keep moving.

During the 2nd hour Simon slowed down at one point and said – “did you see the seal ?”. I’d seen nothing and then swam nervously for the next 15 minutes keeping a look out. A few minutes later a small seal swam up from the deep and stopped, still submerged, right in front of us giving an inquisitive look with big curious bulbous eyes before darting away to the right. In the Channel or the Med I would have rejoiced at this encounter but here I just wanted the seal to clear off fearing it might attract “other interest”. As it was, we were to see plenty more seals on the way across but as cold and tiredness set in we became largely oblivious to them.

During the 3rd hour we also started seeing more jellyfish – there were white ones which didn’t look too dangerous but also smaller blue ones which I immediately presumed were baby Bluebottles. Suddenly we were swimming into a large bloom of hundreds of small jellies – I braced myself thinking, bugger this is going to hurt ! – but we swam through without a scratch. Whatever they were, they were either put off by Simon’s trunks or bless fully just weren’t the stinging type ! And though we saw plenty more jellies on the way across thankfully neither of us were stung during the swim.

Peter and his crew gave us plenty of encouragement from the boat but land still looked quite a way off when our 3rd feed (on three hours) was signalled. Peter shouted – “going well guys, no more feeds, about 2-3 kms to go”. If anything Simon looked warmer than before but I was feeling cold to the core at this point and my hands had started to “claw” which makes swimming much more difficult. We both found the last stretch hard work and our stroke rates slowed as we laboured on. It was a contrast to when we had swum the Gibraltar Strait where we had plenty of energy left for the last stretch and had upped our pace as Morocco got nearer. I could feel my torso shivering in the water and wondered if I was simply going to run out of steam and konk out even though the shore was now clearly visible. The cold was simply sapping the life from us. The last hour dragged but inside ourselves we knew we would make it. Sheltered by the looming mountain from the wind the sea was much flatter and the bright sun glittered on the water. We’d definitely been blessed with an ideal day. Peter swung the boat in towards Three Anchor Bay which sits almost in front of Cape Town’s sparkling new football stadium which was built in time for the recent World Cup. There was a small reception committee of family & friends waving from the beach.

Sand under foot – thank god for that ! I really felt drained and struggled to stand up feeling doddery and slightly dizzy. Simon and I shook hands and almost simultaneously exclaimed to each other: “bloody hell that was a tough one !” Our time was 4hours and 1 minute. It was a bit slower than we had hoped for but it didn’t matter now, the sun was shining and the sharks would have to look elsewhere for their lunch !

And if you are tempted to ask – “so what are you going to do next ?” – the answer is: “next time I’m taking the ferry !”

By Tom Hudson .