False Starts and Dark Thoughts In Hout Bay

False Starts and Dark Thoughts In Hout Bay

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Theodore Yach wrote an insightful description of his 35K Hout Bay to Robben Island swim in Cape Town, South Africa. In his own words, Theodore writes.

“It’s the Pick n Pay for sharks” quipped Bob Skinstad when I was interviewed on his radio show in mid November 2010 when I announced that I would be attempting to swim from Hout bay to Robben Island. I played these words over and over in my mind as I was being swept through the gap between Duiker Island — colloquially known as Seal Island — and the Sentinel.

During my first attempt to become the first person ever to swim 35 km from Hout Bay to Robben Island in late November, part of me perversely hoped to see a great white in the area. For obvious reasons, I was glad not to!

The swim commenced easily enough and swimming against the current out of Hout Bay and around the Sentinel was pleasant. Once around the Sentinel I realized for the first time that there are distinctly differing sea and weather conditions to contend with. Nevertheless I pressed on into a rising swell and the swim through the channel between Seal Island the Sentinel was enjoyable as I had total visibility to the bottom and enjoyed the swaying of the kelp beds and the seals frolicking all around me. Seals are friendly and inquisitive creatures that like to ‘dive bomb’ swimmers from the bottom and then break left or right just when one thinks that they will crash into you. The only downside of being in the middle of thousands of seals is that they are a major food source for great white sharks, so I ran the risk of a shark mistaking me for a breakfast morsel.

By this stage , the swell had increased in intensity while the water temperature also rose from mid – 13°C to over 14°C and I am very comfortable at those temperatures. So I tried to ignore the buffeting that I was taking. I continued swimming past the famed Dungeons area – the location for the most extreme surfing event in the world where surfers are towed into the waves by Jet skiers. Dungeons was firing at about two metres that day and we gave it a fairly wide berth to avoid being swamped.

The next 40 minutes or so were probably the most extreme swimming conditions that I have experienced probably because we were too close to the coast, but on this particular day I am not sure if a different line would have been easier. The waves were crashing onto the coast and then reverberating back so I was being knocked sideways whilst trying to go forwards. Eventually, at just short of 3 hours into the swim, I aborted as I realized that conditions were becoming more and more dangerous and I still had approximately 26 km to go.

‘Failing’ a swim is not something I take lightly and even though it can be rationalized that this was not a failure in the true sense I have come to realize that the only way to go forward and succeed on some future date is to acknowledge the experience as a failure, deal with it, learn from it and move on.

Interestingly, I have not had many swim failures but they have been epic. I failed my first Robben Island crossing in October 1981 because I underestimated the mental process required to deal with swimming in the open ocean and then later succeeded in November 1981.

I swam into an oil slick after four hours in the English Channel in 1989 and it took me seven years to summon the courage to try again when I succeeded in 1996. Due to the adverse currents, it took me four hours to complete the final kilometer. But there was no way I was giving up at that stage. I had had seven years to think this one through and failure again was simply not an option no matter what was happening.

Greg Bastick , Wayne Chaitman and I failed a swim from Blouberg to Robben Island in the mid-1990s as fog closed in to zero visibility after we commenced and the boat crew had no GPS. We had swum past Robben Island by some distance before realizing our mistake and were probably slap bang in the middle of the shipping lanes when we exited the water in a hurry and eventually found our way back to Oceana Club by which time the fog had lifted.

I am always acutely aware of the effect that my sea swimming exploits has on those closest to me and on my dedicated team so failure makes the process all the more difficult. We have now had three more false starts on my attempt on Hout Bay to Robben Island which does not make things easier for anyone involved. It is not fun getting up at 4 am to find that the wind has arrived or the sea temperature has dropped overnight. I had my first date with Michelle , my wife of 25 years , a week before my very first crossing from Robben Island to Blouberg’s Kleinbaai so she has been on this journey from the very beginning.

We have worked out that there are three fairly distinctive weather systems operating en route which makes planning and deciding on the day all the more difficult. Hout Bay has its own system; there is a different system from Seal Island to LLandudno and then from Camps bay to Robben Island. So, the sea temperature at Hout Bay can be 11°C and 16°C at Sea Point and Robben Island. Similarly , a westerly wind can be blowing at Hout Bay and the dreaded southeaster at Robben Island . To find a day when the sea temp averages 14-15°C and there is little to no wind is a challenge. However, March and April have always been months where such conditions do prevail so I will be back on standby from March 1st onwards.

Thoughts of abandoning this attempt cross my mind from time to time – usually soon after we have aborted an attempt due to adverse conditions. Dealing with these thoughts – and similar thoughts over the past 30 years – is crucially important. I try to reaffirm my goals and think my way through the dark hours when the mind vs. heart arguments are raging within. Fortunately, I have always loved training especially at my two favourite venues. At Clifton 4th I swim directly in front of the wave line so that the wave action pushes me around. I find that very soothing and this training is important as I am constantly having to avoid being dumped by the waves so it builds shoulder strength.

However, it is in the 50-meter pool at the Sea Point Pavilion that I do my best thinking and training sessions. This is my chosen venue to recover from failures and false starts. I have always preferred the solitude of training on my own except when Otto Thaning makes an appearance, sometimes accompanied by Hugh Tucker, as they understand the precepts of my training methodology. Even though both are a few years older than I am, they are both superb long distance swimmers so when we swim together it is in perfect harmony.

I decide on the makeup of my swim session for the day just before I enter the water. It could be a predominantly locomotive session which involves a pyramid of slow versus faster lengths or a negative split session where I try to increase my speed per kilometer by 10 or 15 seconds per kilometer. Or , it could be a long session where I force myself to swim at 1 – 1.55 minutes less than my usual average per kilometer speed. This is very important for me as it builds me ability to pass the hours in the sea and to deal with frustration and boredom. During my sessions I use visual actualization to ‘see’ the successful conclusion of the swim and I use the 50-meter length to work out how many hours I will be in the water approximately, always being mindful that pool hours and sea hours are very different.

In summary, whilst there are many obstacles to overcome on an undertaking of this magnitude, I am confident that given the superb team and a little luck, I will be successful in the not too distant future. I thank all those involved in this effort and particularly those who have contributed to the fundraising element of this swim thus far. The beneficiaries will be seen participating at the Cadiz Freedom Swim and in the various programmes planned for disadvantaged swimmers through the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust.

Copyright © 2011 by World Open Water Swimming Association