Sometimes benevolent, more often challenging, the Indian Ocean has buoyed me up, and taught me some key lessons.
2007 | 4°S 73°E 140km: 10 days
Floating in the ocean just one kilometre from the Maldives, I couldn’t see them at all. That’s because most of the islands are less than half a metre high. It wouldn’t take long for the entire archipelago to drown in rising seas. What would become of the people who live here then?
I asked myself this question while treading water somewhere off Velassaru Island. I wasn’t just enjoying the wonderfully warm sea: our mission was to swim the 140km breadth of the archipelago to draw attention to its fragility. But our support boat’s engine was broken; we were stranded. And the wind was picking up.
I could see a rather large yacht on the horizon. I’d heard that Roman Abramovich kept a boat in these waters. What chance that the boat was his? And would the owner of the Chelsea Football Club care enough to come to our rescue? Expedition leader Tim Toyne Sewell made a phone call. Minutes later, the yacht began steaming towards us.
Limiting beliefs stop us asking for what we need. But more often than not, people say yes.
Ten years after that swim I returned to the Maldives. They had changed dramatically. I hoped to swim again alongside a manta ray – still one of the greatest privileges of my life. But the coral reefs were dying, and along with them the islands’ natural defenses. To see people sandbagging the beaches to hold back the rising waters was heartbreaking.
Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa
2006 | 33°S 25° E
16km: 4 hrs 57 mins
I was on my way to becoming the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, and we needed an Indian Ocean swim. I chose to do this leg at Nelson Mandela Bay, off Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s East Coast, for a number of sentimental reasons.
My father’s mother was a descendant of English settlers who landed here by boat, in what was then called Algoa Bay. The other reason was that the bay had been renamed to honour Nelson Mandela, and I wanted to acknowledge the great man. Swimming there felt like I was completing a circle of history; my first swim had been from Robben Island in 1987, where Mandela had been incarcerated.
The swim itself was uneventful, if incredibly windy. I had just completed my first Antarctica swim, so I hadn’t done any distance training, and I felt every one of the 16kms. There was a shark in the water but all I could focus on was getting to the end of the swim. Once it was done we had four out of five. Next, we would be off to Sydney…
Cape Agulhas, South Africa
1994 | 34° S 20° E 10km: 4 hrs 15 mins
I couldn’t stop thinking about sharks. Agulhas is the most southern point of the African continent. It’s where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, and I wanted to be the first to swim around it. It was shortly after my father died, and well before electronic anti-shark devices had been developed. Today I wouldn’t dream of doing that swim without a shark shield, but grief made me careless.
My skipper Trail Whittun was a shark hunter turned conservationist – his son had been taken by a Great White in these waters, and survived. I reckoned he’d be a good person to have on the boat – there would be no messing around with him!
Still, it’s very easy to let your mind get carried away. When a negative or a frightening thought comes in you have to get it out immediately. I focused by counting strokes – I counted the hundreds until they got to thousands, and the thousands until they got to the tens of thousands. And then I started again. The 10km went off without incident.
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