Thursday 09 July 2009
Simon Murie and Tom Hudson swim from Europe to Africa in 3 hours & 34 minutes
There are four SLSC members attempting the gruelling English Channel solo swim this year and we wish them all the very best of luck.
But swimmers, it may be worth giving just a little thought in advance as to “what the hell will I do afterwards ?” The build up to the Channel can be all-consuming and there can be something of a vacuum in your life afterwards. And you need to get ‘media savvy’ on handling the post swim questions too.
Now if I could have had a quid (£) for every time I’ve been asked “what’s the next challenge?” I’d have been able to pay for my Gibraltar Strait crossing with enough change left over for the beers afterwards ! If you threw in a quid too for the “did you wear goose fat?” questions we’d have flown 1st Class and done a two way !
But, enough flippancy, I’d highly recommend this swim. It was Simon’s (Murie) idea and he’s wanted to do the crossing for a few years. I just tagged along as it seemed the ideal foil to the “what’s next?” questions and was a nice new goal to aim for in 2009 and fill that post Channel void. No North Channel for me, oh no Sir ! - let’s find something where it’s warm and sunny ! And let’s face it, Europe to Africa certainly sounds impressive.
The swims are managed by The Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association which is run by Rafael Gutierrez Mesa - their website is: http://www.acneg.com/. Rafael is very friendly and speaks good English (nice for those of us whose Spanish vocab extends to “dos Cervezas por favor”). He is also in charge of the local Tarifa Coastguard Association so he does seem to know what he’s doing.
You swim from Tarifa (not Gibraltar) to Morocco. It’s 10 miles (or 16km) across. They provided us with both a pilot boat and a smaller motorised support boat. You follow the pilot boat which goes 30/40 metres ahead of the swimmer/s with the support boat by the side to manage the feeds etc.
In general, Channel Swimming rules or similar apply - i.e. just a swim hat and normal trunks, no touching the boat etc. But they don’t mind taking small groups if the swimmers are the same speed - so that was perfect for us and makes it all a bit more fun.
This is a notoriously windy part of the world and a Mecca for kiteboarders and windsurfers so you definitely need some luck with the weather. We arrived on the Sunday and waited most of the week before swimming on Thursday 9th July. We got lucky as Thursday was a lovely day - not too much wind and very hot - about 38 degrees C ! Start time was set for 11am so the vaseline was turning to liquid in the hot sun and we lathered up with plenty of factor 50 sun cream.
At the mouth of The Med the sea is tidal but Rafael explained that due to the amount of water evapourating from the enclosed Mediterranean during the summer the tendency is for the flow to be West to East, the Atlantic replenishing The Med. So the idea is to set out a few hours before high tide to take advantage of any Westerly flow before high water when the much stronger Easterly flow into The Med from The Atlantic helps to sweep you in towards the Moroccan coast.
Well that was the theory and it worked for us because our boat chart shows that we ended up swimming across in an almost straight line landing on the tip of ‘Punta Cires’ Morocco’s equivalent of Cap Gris Nez.
We were surprised that the water was initially reasonably fresh - around 16 degrees C we think - but these are Atlantic, not Mediterranean waters and there is also a marked contrast between the air temperature and the water temperature. It was also definitely colder on the Spanish side and got warmer as we progressed.
So the swim started when we’d touched the rocks outside Tarifa harbour (by their rules, touching the coast on either side is sufficient, you don’t have to clear the water at the start or the finish). We were expecting something between a 4 and 5 hour swim and decided to feed on every hour. Simon’s mate Serge was on the support boat making up the maxim - not especially strong, 2-3 scoops with warm water and ribena. There was a bit of chop but conditions were pretty good and everything went like clockwork. Like the Channel, there are two distinct shipping lanes and plenty of boat traffic so you get a good view of ferries on the way to Tangier and vast container ships passing in or out of The Med. And if you didn’t see the big boats you were certainly made aware of them being flung around in their wakes after they’d passed.
On our two hour feed, Serge announced that we were already over half way. I refused to believe this, putting it down to Latin over-enthusiasm and knowing the woeful tales of Channel swimmers who’ve been told “half way” when time-wise, they are very far from it !
Just after this feed, Serge became even more animated waving frantically from the support boat. We looked to our right and through the clear water saw that we were being approached by a group of whales. Initially I felt a little uneasy but as the whales came parallel to us they looked so docile and graceful all fear was banished and we just enjoyed the moment - and they did come very close as the photo shows - whales far side (just 1 visible in the photo), me in the middle (pink hat) and Simon nearest the boat (blue hat). They were Pilot whales - like big dolphins - 5 of them including a mother and baby. They were obviously checking us out because they looped around and came back for a second time even closer so that I felt, had I dared, that I could have reached out and touched the nearest one. After a few minutes they dived and swam directly below us. Seeing these great creatures move so naturally and effortlessly through the water was amazing. It was just a wonderful moment and the highlight of the crossing.
Stoked up by the experience the 3 hour feed came round in no time and we could now clearly see Morocco and it looked close. Sensing this, we upped our pace and went for it as the land came closer. We could clearly see the pilot boat heading towards a rocky point (Punta Cires) and before we knew it we were there standing on Moroccan soil and a little bit stunned that we’d got across in 3 hours and 34 minutes.
According to the official website we were the 225th & 226th swimmers to complete the crossing (this doesn’t include those who have swum in wetsuits). Also using their stats we’re the fastest Brit and the fastest Aussie to do the crossing in history - so we’ll be dining out on that for a while ! (In case anyone is wondering, Simon claims to be Australian - especially when the Ashes are on!).
Clearly our experience of this swim was very positive. Tarifa is good place to stay with an interesting old town and plenty of restaurants. And if it’s windy while you wait, the sun still shines and you can sit on the beach or take a day trip to Tangier (only 35 minutes on the hydrofoil).
Just one word of warning - it is pretty expensive - especially with the current weak £. The Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association charge € 1500 for a solo swim + an additional €600 for every extra swimmer, so it cost Simon & me € 1050 each.
But start saving it’s worth it !
So that leaves me with just one question and I’ll offer to pay my quid up-front - what’s the next challenge Simon ?!!!