Unfinished Business

The Strait of Bonifacio Swim - Corsica to Sardinia, 17 June 2014.

In September 2012 Simon Murie and I travelled to Sardinia with the intention of trying to swim the 13 km Strait of Bonifacio from Sardinia to Corsica. We knew that the swim had been done before but there was very little information about it or how it should be approached. We struggled communicating with the local authorities and in the end the Italian coastguard denied us permission to attempt the swim. Maybe with hindsight it was just as well as we would have been trying to swim The Strait in the wrong direction !

So earlier this year we were delighted when a friend passed on the contact of a boat pilot in Santa Teresa di Gallura (a small port at the northern tip of Sardinia) who had some experience of escorting swimmers across the Strait. We’d soon been in contact with the pilot Tommaso, had a date in the diary and started to step up the training a little bit.

On paper, the swim didn’t look like a huge deal. The Med would be warm (18 degrees C) and not being tidal we thought it was just a question of the weather coming good. We imagined the swim might take us around 4 hours to complete. That in mind I can’t say that either of us overdid it with the training and the longest swims we did in preparation were two hours – something which we’d regret 5 hours-in on the day!

We arrived in Santa Teresa di Gallura on a hot Saturday but the weather was set to be very un-settled for the next two days with thunder storms and heavy rain. The Tuesday (17th June) appeared to offer a small window of potentially better weather and Tommaso gave us the thumbs up on the Monday night and asked us to meet him at the port at 7.30am the following morning. Communication was much aided once we discovered that Tommaso spoke French as our Italian is completely hopeless !

Tommaso explained that it’s preferable to swim from Corsica to Sardinia there being a tendency for the winds to be from north to south. He also warned us of a possible cross current running from east to west between the two islands.

Tuesday morning started perfectly, sunny and with very little wind. Being Italy, things got off to a relaxed start with strong coffees in the port side bar before we got on the water. We motored across to Corsica in about 25 minutes and lathered up with sun block and Vaseline. As has become tradition, Simon had chosen to wear an outrageous pair of budgie smugglers, this time in Brazilian national colours. There was a female doctor on board the rib who insisted on taking our blood pressure and pulse before we jumped in the water and I was wondering whose pulse was quicker – hers or Simon’s !

We swam the short distance to an idyllic deserted sandy cove on the southern coast of Corsica, cleared the water on the beach and set off at 8.47am. Conditions were ideal for the first two hours and we felt like we were making good progress. Tricky (Richard Tricker) had travelled over with us and provided plenty of encouragement from the boat and organised our Maxim feeds which we had agreed to take on the hour every hour. Thank you Tricky.

We spotted a few purple jellyfish but fortunately they were swimming deep and neither of us were stung on the crossing.

At some point during the third hour of the swim conditions changed noticeably as the wind got up creating a brisk east to west chop. This certainly hampered our rhythm and on our third feeding stop Sardinia still looked a long way off – it was pretty clear to us then that it was going to take longer than 4 hours! We were also aware that the easterly current which Tommaso had warned us of was pushing us slightly off course. It became a bit of a grind, plodding along and feeling that we were making slow progress our arms feeling tired. “We’re getting too bloody old for this !” was one of the more re-printable comments which were exchanged sometime after the forth hour. Neither of us had done more than a 4 hour swim since English Channel training (6 years ago for me and 12 years ago for Simon) so our slightly relaxed training regime was beginning to seem misguided ! Wise open water swimmers will agree that ‘prepare for the worst and hope for the best’ is a sounder motto than ‘wing it and hope you get lucky’ !!

The intention had been to complete the swim by landing in a sheltered bay with a sandy beach just north east of the port of Santa Teresa but the easterly current was taking us in the wrong direction so we settled for landing on the rocks which were closer and an easier option. The last few hundred metres seemed comparatively easy as the land zoomed in and we knew we were nearly there. We clambered onto the rocks inelegantly and were somewhat relieved to have reached our destination after 5 hours and 33 minutes.

We weren’t familiar with Sardinian celebration protocol which involved Tommaso showering us with some rather dodgy sparkling wine as we were trying to get back in the rib but we soon recovered our composure and enjoyed a good night out in Santa Teresa sharing a magnum of Sardinia’s best red wine: Turriga, with a hearty and fortifying Sardinian dinner.

For those visiting the area, the ferry from Bonifacio to Santa Teresa takes only 50 minutes and is an alternative and highly recommended way of crossing The Strait !

By Tom Hudson