Rough, cold and overfished.
I’ve swum in some very beautiful places, but no swim has ever come close to the sheer joy of that first one. I was 17 years old, taking on my first long-distance swim: the 7 kilometres between Robben Island and Blouberg Beach, Cape Town.
The water was a relatively warm 18°C that day – still bone-chilling for a skinny kid with only a month’s training. I was so skinny, in fact, that the support crew and members of the long distance swimming association were laying bets on my not making it. Three hours later, when my feet touched sand, I remember punching the water in triumph. I had shown them! It was first time I ever achieved anything. And it set me up for life.
There is positive motivation, where you swim for the people behind you, and the negative kind, where you swim against the doubters. But I’ve learned to ignore what anybody says. The most important thing is to have a dream, and go for it.
This is the Everest of swims. Not because it’s the most difficult, but because it’s the one against which every other swim is measured.
The first ten hours of my Channel swim was like a washing machine. Just when I thought I wasn’t going to make it, it started to get a lot calmer. But I was exhausted. And I was still five hours off France.
There are four essentials to getting across the Channel: One, an experienced pilot who can find you the shortest distance. Two, patience – people get frustrated and pick the wrong day to cross, but timing is everything. Three, cold water training – 16°C feels icy after 10 hours. And four, someone really inspiring on your boat who can make good judgement calls.
And one more thing: don’t look back. Because when you are three-quarters of the way across, you can still see the white Cliffs of Dover behind you! Just look ahead, and focus on where you’re headed. And know that if you have a deep enough desire to do something, you have the capability to do it.
Vince van der Bijl, arguably South Africa’s greatest fast bowler, told me that of the 767 wickets he took in his time, he only ever bowled three perfect balls. It got me wondering how many perfect swims I’ve done, and the answer is two: the North Pole and Dassen Island.
This was a flawless one. Dassen Island is about 100km north of Robben Island, and has an incredible penguin colony. (I’m crazy about penguins.) It’s ten kilometres to the mainland and the water was an icy 9°C.
It was the first time we swam with a GPS (that dates me a bit!) so my support team could tell me how fast I was going and what distance I’d covered. I just put my head down and literally raced all the way to the beach – and broke the previous record by two hours.
I think I must have had a current behind me, because it remained the fastest 10km swim in South Africa for some time, even though much better swimmers than me tried to break it. And I’ve learned that striving for perfection can be demotivating; better to strive for excellence.
We faced a stark choice: get out now, or carry on and hope for the best. Moments earlier, a Great White had sped like a silver torpedo underneath my three swimming companions and me. As one, Tony, Jill, Kevin and I lifted our heads. And as if it had been rehearsed we all let out a breath that sounded a lot like ‘Fuuuuuuuuu….’.
The sea was rough and our support boat with its electronic anti-shark device was about 100m away. (The efficacy range is about 10m, so we were well out of the safety zone). We sprinted as fast as we could towards it and regrouped. From there, our decision was unanimous.
A few hours and 12kms later, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, we came up on the beach at Buffels Bay. I’d always thought the Cape of Good Hope had the best name. It epitomises my philosophy in life: Hope for the very best, even while you plan for the worst. Now it’s also become my Cape of Good Luck!
I’ve grown to realise that it really doesn’t matter what people think. But when you are doing something for the first time, and when it’s something no one has done before, it helps to have at least one person tell you it’s the right thing to do, and that you are doing it the right way.
I met Professor Tim Noakes when I was about to embark on a 100km swim around the Cape Peninsula. I planned to break the swim up into ten stages of 10kms each. The temperature would be consistently cold, the conditions rough. So I asked the world-famous sports physiologist if he thought my body could handle it. He had only one word: yes. That was all the affirmation I needed.
They don’t call it the Cape of Storms for nothing. Swimming into the gale-force South Easter day after day after day was brutal. And when we rounded that last corner to finally put the South Easter behind us, the wind changed direction!
But we made it. Through it all, one person’s faith that it could be done sustained me. In the end, it just takes one yes.
Seventeen years after my first Robben Island swim, I decided to break the record for swimming around the island itself. The view from the water is the same one that welcomes every explorer arriving in Cape Town by sea: Table Mountain on one side, the Island on the other. It also has lots of kelp.
Swimming through kelp requires a judgement call; through it or around it, which will be quicker? Although the kelp looks soft, it contains sharp, jagged edges that can slice your skin. And you don’t want to cut yourself in the water with Great White sharks around.
I went through it, and broke the record I’d set 10 years earlier swimming with Otto Thaning. Otto is an incredible swimmer – technically the best I’ve ever seen – as well as a wonderful mentor. On the sprint for the end he let me get ahead of him, and then effortlessly started reeling me back in.
The finish was a dead heat. I’ll never know whether he let me draw with him just to build me into the swimmer I could be. But whenever I get cocky he has three words for me: ‘Around Robben Island’.
They call it the ‘King of the Fjords’. It’s the longest unfrozen fjord in the world, and we decided to swim the full length of it. The water pours off the spectacular Jostedals Glacier, and the temperature is icy, so we aimed for 10kms a day. Once again, Nick Peterson accompanied me, this time on a kayak.
I loved Norway from the first day I arrived there. It has the kindest people, and a great sporting spirit – but swimming was not popular. In fact it was actively discouraged in the fjords – possibly because two Germans disappeared while trying to swim across a few years earlier. If you wanted to play, you’d go to the mountain. But I like to think we turned that around.
Every night we’d arrive in another picturesque hamlet, the houses either yellow or blue or red. It was summer and the people would come in from harvesting in the fields, strike up the band and gather to celebrate our arrival.
Eventually, hundreds of kids were coming down to swim with us at the end of each day. And when our swim was over, they organised a race across the fjord which they still do every year.
I had swum across the English Channel before, so I well understood why endurance swimmers call it the ‘Everest of Swims’.
But no one had ever swum the entire length of the Channel.
We undertook this swim to bring the message home to the British government that only seven out of 750,000 square kilometres – that’s an appalling one hundred thousandth – of its waters were fully protected.
The Channel is one of the most tidal bodies of water on the planet, which makes swimming there very technical. You can either work with the tides, or have them work against you.
The Channel coastline is astonishingly beautiful. Its waters support a wealth of marine life, but we saw precious little of it; the only thing we encountered in abundance were jellyfish – their painful stings a reminder of how our seas are changing.
We called this campaign ‘The Long Swim’, and it lived up to its name.
As we walked onto the yacht David Bush (my right-hand man) commented that The Long Swim would be 1/3 swim, 1/3 campaign, and 1/3 social experiment. But we seemed to get the team mix just right. Sometimes our yacht felt like a pressure cooker – and not just because we were in the middle of the longest heat wave in British memory. We had competing interests: the skipper was concerned for my safety, and that of the boat and crew; the photographer wanted scenic shots; my writers wanted to capture the story; my operations manager wanted me to stop in every village along the way to meet and greet; and when I developed a shoulder injury, the doctor wanted me to rest. We all wanted to get to Dover to deliver our message: we want one third of the world’s oceans to be fully protected by 2030. We found common ground in the mission and it brought us all closer.
We were also under intense scrutiny: we had live coverage from Sky News for the entire expedition.
Michael Gove, the UK’s Environment Minister, was there to greet me as I touched the wall at Dover Harbour. A month later the UK supported our call for 30% of oceans to be protected by 2030.
As exhausted as I still was, it felt like we had achieved something enormous. The UK is the first major economy to recognise the importance of large protected areas to save our seas.
But in order to do that, they and the other nations of the world need to acknowledge that you cannot ‘sustainably manage’, and at the same time ‘harvest‘, the last great ocean wilderness areas.
Protection must mean full protection.