The Strait of Gibraltar – Swimming to Africa

Yesterday Helen and I swam to Africa.  Sounds cool huh?  But it was the swim we thought wasn’t going to happen.

Saturday we arrived from the UK, laden with a mixture of ‘stuff to take on a marathon swim’, and ‘stuff for a lazy beach holiday’.  Malaga airport is but a couple of hours from London, and Tarifa, hopping-off point for swimmers heading for Morocco only 90 minutes or along the motorway from Malaga, by-passing places I had only heard of before:  Marbella, Torremolinos and so.

Tarifa is an entirely different sort of place.  The charming old town is an interesting mix of kite-surfer cool, moorish decayed splendour, and bar culture, the whole set on a windswept piece of coast marking the most southerly point in Europe.


And why, I hear you ask, are all of those kitesurfers attracted to Tarifa?  Well obviously, because of the wind!  It is almost permanently windy here, either the levante out of the east, or the poniente out of the west.  The day after we arrived, there was a 40+ mph levante running, massive whitecaps in the strait, and the forecast was mixed.

There was a short window on the Tuesday where the wind was forecast to swing round to the west (the more favoured direction for a swim crossing), but this window was allocated for an Irish trio, Noel, Sean and Eoin, who had been cruelly fogged and weathered out 2 years previously.

The Irish Lads

The Irish Lads

This left a rather uncertain rest of the week, with dominant easterlies.  Rafael (who is the president of the Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association) thought there might be a chance for us to go on Wednesday, but suggested that we share our crossing with another British duo, Vicki and Kirstie from Brighton.  We met up with the girls and we all agreed readily; better to share a swim than to possibly not swim at all!

The only wrinkle here was that the girls were faster than us on paper, and would have to undertake to stay within a short distance of me and Helen.  In theory this needn’t present a problem, but they were a little worried about getting cold.

Tuesday came around and the Irish lads set off and returned.  2 Out of 3 made it, and the conditions were pretty unpleasant by all accounts, but they got there in about 5 hours.

We met Rafa on Tuesday evening and he said we would go earlier than usual and head off slightly against the tide, as the weather was set to turn shortly after lunch, but he pointed out that it was up to the pilot on the day, and if he wasn’t happy, there would be no crossing for anyone.  We went to be on Tuesday night still not knowing whether we would be swimming at all the next day………

We arrived the next morning shortly after 9 AM, carrying our kit the short walk from pour digs in the old town to the port. The weather looked reassuringly good, and we were relieved to be told by the pilot that he was happy for us to go, starting at 10 AM, 2 hours earlier relative to low tide than the usual time.  Yes!!  The girls showed up with their partners who would be supporting them, and we all set to getting ready.

The set up was to be as follows:  Pilot Antonio in the lead boat, then a RIB for each pair. The pilot boat would lead the way by 50-100 m, with the swimmers behind and sighting off the pilot boat, with RIBs for support.  We motored out of the harbour, greased and ready, out round the island and to the lighthouse on the far side.  We had been told to swim hard for the first hour to get a good swim out through the currents coming from the west.  We all jumped in and struggled (yes really) to swim the short distance in to the rocky foreshore.  It was rough, and the pilot actually instructed us not to try and touch the rocks as it would be too dangerous.  Instead we were to stop a couple of metres shy, at which point he would signal the start of the swim with a whistle.

Me Swimming in to the Start

Helen Swimming in to the Start

Vicki and Kirstie at the start (wearing Neoprene)

Vicki and Kirstie at the start

We had been warned that the first 1/2 a km might be a bit tough, and it was, especially as we were swimming reasonably quickly, for me at least.  By half an hour in to the swim, things had settled down a lot, and it was possible to get into a nice rhythmn.  The Brighton girls were feeding every 1/2 an hour, Helen and I every hour Dover style, all of us off the girls’ RIB, where the guys had all the feeds.

I was feeling it a little bit.  I was swimming probably about 3.6-3.7 km/h pace, which is not what I would typically do for a long swim.  But I had the pilot’s request ringing in my ears, and also didn’t want to slow the three girls down too much, so I knuckled down and pulled as hard as I could, trying as best I could to concentrate on good form in the water.

The first feed was a bit of a disaster.  I had opted to use a wide mouthed bottle, and not really thought it through like I should have.  The water was by no means calm still, and there was enough movement to send half of it straight into my face, up my nose, mostly where it shouldn’t have gone.  I cursed myself, but did my best and got swimming again.

Sighting off the pilot boat wasn’t great.  I would rather now have to sight if I could avoid it, as it makes swimming that little bit harder.  You could just sight off the RIB nearby, but there is no guarantee he is pointing in the right direction, and so it proved on a few occasions.  The pilot boat always seemed to be crabbing over to the right relative to where the swimmer wanted to go, pushed by the prevailing West to East current in the strait.

At 2 hours there was much excited talk from the boys on the boat.  There had been pilot whales and dolphins nearby, not that we saw them with our heads down, me still grunting my way towards Africa. Helen asked how the pace was.  I replied that it was a bit fast for me really, but I would carry on anyway and do my best.  And so we did, dodging massive ships into the 3rd hour of the swim.

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The mountains on the Moroccan shoreline are very high indeed.  They were clearly visible right from the start of the swim. But as the 3rd hour wore uncomfortably on, they seemed to get noticeably closer, and other things, like sand dunes, and a port started to become more obvious.  Part of me dared to think that this swim, which we had mentally allowed 6-7 hours for, might not last that long.

There was a greater sense of urgency as the 3 hour feed approached.  As we stopped, I looked up at Morocco, and said to Helen, “I don’t think there’s that far to go you know”.  She nodded and we cracked on – both of us thinking that there was maybe only a kilometre or less to go.  That was amazing.  Especially as my shoulders and arms were really complaining after 3 hours of swimming at a level of effort I was not used to.  The coast got nearer and nearer, and soon enough we saw the sandy bottom, then rocks.  We had finished!

We finished on the Moroccan coast 3 h 16 minutes after setting off from Spain.  Much faster than either of us had anticipated.  We got really lucky with a beautiful window between strong westerlies and strong easterlies.

Thanks go to Rafa, Antonio and team, to Kirstie, Vicki and the boys for being awesome.

We can recommend this swim very highly to anyone who fancies a OW challenge.  It’s great to combine an early season dose of sunshine with some early season training.

The next challenge is in early July, and is currently unannounced – more details to come.  It is new, and fun!!

Back in Blog – Winter Round-up and Gibraltar Preview

First blog since January.  I’ve rather been overtaken by events if I am honest.  A very busy life (personal and work) has left little time for blogging, or maybe the inclination has not been there to do so.

There have been a few swimmy events to write about as well!

Two of them were UK cold water events, in Jan/Feb, PHISH at Parliament Hill Lido, and Chillswim in Windermere.  For both I was entered to swim the endurance event, as well as a participate in a relay.  The relays were fun, and quite short, and at PHISH, the Hejakaro (Helen Gibbs, Jason Betley, Kate Steels-Fryatt, Rory Fitzgerald) managed a very creditable silver in the 4 x 66 m relay!

The endurance events didn’t happen though.  For both I scratched before even getting in.  Both were around a kilometre in water around the 5C mark.  While I did this sort of distance in the river the previous season, I just hadn’t done the work this season.  Helen and I had regular dips throughout the winter, but just not the sustained frequency and duration that would prepare me safely for these events.

It takes great dedication to train for distance cold water swimming.  The recent rise in popularity of the ice mile (a mile in water sub 5C, in just togs and a hat) has been remarkable.  But only the foolish go into these things lightly, and without plenty of appropriate training.  While there have not been (to my knowledge) any fatalities during ice mile attempts, some are worried that it is ‘only a matter of time’.  This is extreme stuff indeed.

Fortunately, the organised attempts tend to have very good safety cover.  Long may the unblemished record continue.

This season I left the dedicated training and hard work to a group of fantastic individuals who I am proud to know, all of whom achieved an ice mile.  Each has a story to tell.  These include:  Kate Steels-Fryatt remarkable in that she is really quite slim, not confirming to the more well-covered norms; Phil Hodges doing it the same year as training for the English Channel; Hazel Killingbeck still only 16 years of age, the summer after conquering the English Channel; Bryn Dymott the first (I think) Welshman, and swimming breaststroke to boot!

I salute you all!

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Many lovely winter swims were had though, in the rivers, in Windermere, in unheated lidos, in the North Sea, in Dover after the CS&PF dinner.  The Ice Mile will always be there, though I think I really dislike extreme cold a little too much!  Helen has done less this year as well, while still picking up her customary hatfull of gold medals at Chillswim!

Training has continued, though I am probably behind where I was last year.  Having said that, my ‘big swim’ the Catalina Double is not until 7 weeks later relative to my day in the Channel last year.  Helen is deep in training too.  The Menorca Channel awaits her in August.

A couple of reasonably big days have come and gone though.

April saw me reliving last year’s 6 hour in La Jolla.  This time it was with Kevin Smith (training for Catalina) for the 6 hours in and around the cover rather than up the coast and back. Dan Simonelli (training for SCAR and Catalina) also joined us for the first 4 hours (he was busy rather than anything less than capable!).  It wasn’t an easy day, though a few degrees warmer than a year earlier (high 50’s rather than mid 50’s), and the shoulders didn’t appreciate the chop in hours 5 and 6.

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A few weeks later, Helen and I participated as a relay team at 2Swim4Life.  This brutal event takes place every other year at Guildford lido.  The format is simple,  At 9 AM on a Saturday morning jump in and swim a mile.  On the hour for the subsequent 23 hours, repeat the process.  If you are doing this as a relay like me and Helen, it is REALLY hard work. Sleep deprivation and sustained activity get to you by the end, not to mention swimming 12 miles in 24 hours.  If you are a soloist, however, it is beyond brutal.  One of the toughest events you could imagine as a swimmer, mentally and physically.  23 Chances to not get back in.

Looking remarkably chipper after 21 hours....

Looking remarkably chipper after 21 hours….  Photo Paul Bates

And so, after successfully finishing Guildford, we find ourselves in Southern Spain, waiting to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. But more of that later…….