“Prepare for the worst – hope for the best.” This English Channel motto definitely also applies to swimming the Strait of Gibraltar.
It can be extremely easy – only half a Zurich lake marathon swim! – and it can be “the hardest swim of my life” (Armin Wunder). Pat Gallant-Charette (EC in 15:57) had swum the Strait o Gibraltar at age 59 in only 3 hours 28, supported by some amazing currents as Rafael explained, whereas a fellow countryman who swam the English Channel in 11 hours 20 had to battle it out for 7 hours 30 min., due to a strong current that kept him swimming in one place for 2 hours.
When I was invited to participate in the Moroccan part of the World Harmony Run in 2008, I wondered “Why not swim from Spain (Europe) to Africa?”, and another dream was born. I soon realised, however, that it is not so easy and inexpensive as one might think, even if the distance between the two continents at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar is only 14,4 km. Just to get there by plane, train and bus (or rented car), then having to allow for the possibility of a bad weather period like at the English Channel, and even the possibility of being stopped by fog, wind picking up or erratic strong currents that can give a hard time even to fast swimmers. Boat and registration alone are 1700 €uro (for more info see ACNEC).
After reaching one of my bigger goals – the Channel-Triathlon Dover-Calais-Brussels-Aachen in 2010, “Swimming to Africa”, i.e. swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar seemed a nice smaller challenge. Still I was in doubt about my chances as a sub 3 km/h swimmer in open water. I missed the registration starting Dec. 1st, 2010, and when I was getting ready to register in Dec. 2011, I hesitated just for a few days – now only the second week of October was left (yes, they do take bookings into the second and even third week of October!)
Dedicated to the 25th Anniversary of the World Harmony Run
But it turned out to be a blessing. We experienced warm air (19-24°C), warm water (20°C most of the way, with only a few cold patches and currents nearer to Africa), quite a few calm days – and appartment prices are lower after the main season. Tarifa, where swimmers will stay to wait for their swim, is dubbed the world’s kite surfing capital and is much more peaceful now – the summer craze is over, and training swims at the endless kite surfers beach Playa los Lances, with beautiful clear water and softly rolling waves, is less dangerous.
I was happy to be able to dedicate the swim to the 25th anniversary of the World Harmony Run - and almost everyone got the opportunity to hold the World Harmony Run torch!
Booked for Oct 7-15th I arrived the night of the 4th, briefly talked to Rafael, the president of ACNEG the next morning, to meet for detailed information on Sunday evening (the 7th) , with a view to swimming on Tuesday or Wednesday the 9th or 10th around 8:30 a.m. “You are a slower swimmer,” he said, “you need the right combination of wind and currents”. Wednesday would be best with half an hour more tidal support. This sounded quite reassuring. I had come with a cold from a final 3 hour cold swim at home, feeling quite weak, and hoped to be able to get well and acclimatise in time. Albena, my helper from Edinburg, was due Saturday (6th) late at night. Shortly before she arrived, a text message from Rafael came: “If tomorrow the weather is good we’ll try to cross. I’ll inform you by morning.” O no, not this experience again! I was still sick, unprepared and uninformed about any details, and stores were closed on Sunday. I called Rafael to learn a possible start would be at 1 p.m. I realised that would force me to stop if I needed longer than 7 hours – since the sun was setting at 8 p.m. and there is no night swimming allowed in the Straits. Also wind and currents did not look too good on the internet. I sent a text message to Rafael that I wanted a fair chance. My inner voice said: no swim for me on Sunday. Even if there was mist predicted for Tuesday and fog for Wednesday morning. Luckily, there was no call on Sunday morning, so no discussion was needed. We had time for a proper briefing with everyone later in the day, more shopping on Monday, rest, food and two more training swims in the colder coastal water, before the final call came – for Tuesday.
A Magic Day
Ginger tea and Paracetamol helped me once again, and on Oct. 9th, at 8:30 a.m., I felt o.k., mas o menos. It was quite misty – and at the starting point at Tarifa island, ready to go, there was a discussion between the two pilots – Christina on Columbia 2 and Fernando on the small craft (who had swam the Straits 5 times, fast!) – for a few minutes whether it would be safe to give it a try or not. Albena obviously asked the right questions to help with the decision – according to the forecast the mist would lift soon and the sun was already visible in the East. So off we went. I had to swim towards the rocks, but the swells were powerful – so we started a few meters away.
I swam into a beautiful calm day. Soon the rays of the sun lit up the dusky water below me. Apart from the schools of fish at the rocks at the start I did not see much marine life: one single fish, one lonley jelly, and some whitish marshmallow-like things speeding under me in the currents at the end. Albena saw a few dolphins in the distance at the start and a flying fish at the end.
In the Straits, the bigger boat is always guiding you, going in front (which I like – but to be sure the boat stays so far away that it is definitely not assisting the swimmer!!!), and the smaller craft mostly stays beside you with your helper and food. Feeding in calm water is easily done by hand – we still used rope to retrieve the cup or bottle. My feeding plan was: first feed after 45 min., then 40, 35 and 30 min. intervals. Mainly 2 dl hot ginger tea or Bengal Spice tea mixed with maxim (every 30 min) plus fruit sugar (on the hour), in between an additional piece of banana, canned peach, half a tiger sweet or Chia seeds (endurance runners’ secret). We had brought loads, but hardly needed anything – just as on the Zurich lake.
After 2.5 hours I was in the “separation zone” – “what a baby channel”, I had to smile to myself. The traffic seemed not heavy at all, and from the water you even see less. Thanks to modern communication, the ships try to keep a distance of 1 km away from the swimmer. Only if a ship does not pay attention, a swimmer may be taken out of the water and put back in at the same spot once the ship has passed. It is not an advantage, but rather a disadvantage for the swimmer, says Rafael, and I am sure I would feel the same. I started to feel free now – the mind had calmed down, some inner singing started, I enjoyed the rhythm, the peace, the vastness – the beauty of long distance swims. After 3.5 hours Albena told me: only 2 km to go. I calculated: will I be able make it under 5 hours? Then I might go for the Cook Straits. But then I got a little more of my money`s worth. An unexpectedly strong current started to push me to the East, so we had to take a little detour to Africa. “If you sprint for 15 min. we can make it in 30 more minutes,” I was told. But I am not a good sprinter, although I gave it my best, doing intervals for an hour or so. Pushing hard when you pretty much know you will make it (there was hardly any question), is fun. Half an hour became an hour and half – then Marsa point was getting closer and closer. Albena later told me they wanted to land me – like many swimmers – at Perejil island, which belongs to Africa but is Spanish territory, and she protested heavily. So I had to swim a bit further, which in retrospect I am very grateful for. After 5 hours 25 min. I touched Africa at the foot of the famous Jebel Musa! Swimmer no. 373 in the solo non wetsuit category of the ACNEG annals (yes, you can do relays and use wetsuits, and you can even swim side by side as a team, up to 4 persons or so.), and the first member of the International Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. (One member of our team had tried before but never got a chance to swim.)
Back on the boat, we held the torch of the World Harmony Run together, which had been present also at the IMSHOF Ceremony in Long Beach and in my last EC swim and relay. Oceans and waterways are connecting people – an idea embodied in the torch. And one of my favourite mantras in the water, along with special songs or aphorisms, is “peace”, in the rhythm of my stroke.
I had intended to dedicate the swim also to Tegla Louroupe`s Peace Academy – but fundraising is not my thing. I was thinking of the kids during my swim – and next year, with the Harmony Run bigger in Africa, we will go there again, and we have been supporting the school and other projects for quite some time and will continue to do so.
The second swimmer on my tide was less lucky. The following day was calm, but thick fog prevented any swim, after that the winds picked up. When he finally started, a strong tidal westward current around Tarifa island made the skipper change the start to the rocks east of the harbour (also more northern) – and after 3 hours he was pushed so far to the east that there was no chance of landing any more.
Conclusion: prepare for the worst, even a no-swim – and pray for a great day! And take the whole stay in Tarifa as a holiday – if the swim works, great, if not (only 10 % failure rate I am told), at least you got so see nice places (go whale and dolphin watching, visit Tanger etc.) and meet nice people, hopefully!
As a training swim for the Channel, lake Windermere or the Zurich lake may be more helpful. But “Swimming to Africa” has its own special magic. Back home in Heidelberg now, part of me and my heart is still there in Tarifa, feeling the sand under my feet, gliding through the clear and powerful water, or marvelling at the glittering lights on the African coast at night, looking ever so close from the rooftop terrace of our appartment. By the way, registration for the Zurich Lake Int. Self-Transcendence Marathon Swim just started!
For more info on Swimming the Strait of Gibraltar see the website of ACNEC.
And this is where we stayed, a very nice and affordable place, with a beautiful view (in the main season probably quite noisy with lots of young kite surfers): Residential Luna.
Last not least, one of my favourite “mantras”, also in training:
The goal will be all yours.”
– Sri Chinmoy
PS: Here a fascinating report about Penny Palfrey`s Gibraltar Straits 2-way swim in 2010 in much more difficult conditions – and with a Great White on the way back (I had no idea they exist there!!!)
And another report on “The Challenges of Gibraltar”
Interview in German → on Swim.de