Tales By Bales

Tales By Bales

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Peter Bales, one of the founding members of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA), is one of those legends of the sport whose personality, energy and dedication have been greatly appreciated by generations of swimmers.

The 73-year-old dynamo was reminiscing with Theodore Yach about early days of piloting swimmers in the Cape [of South Africa]. Here follows are some of his reminisces:

In the 1970s, open water swimming was in its infancy. There were no regular pilots and those who occasionally did the job were fishermen who had no idea of a swimmer’s requirements. Weather reports were bad, GPS and and cell phones were a thing of the future and even water temperatures were seldom checked. Most boatmen weren’t available when needed, so I decided to start piloting myself as I knew the swimming side and exactly how the swimmers felt and what they needed.

Having acquired an extremely small and unseaworthy dinghy with a 5HP engine, my co-pilot, swimmer and helper Hugh Tucker and I were for many years the main pilots for Robben Island and Simonstown-Muizenberg swims. That we avoided disaster in Benzol, as the boat was called and in later years Angel which was a slightly larger model was more due to luck rather than good seamanship.

Some interesting and amusing anecdotes come to mind, such as once being rescued off Robben Island by a trawler.

Two well-known Cape Town swimmers Ian and Alistair Cameron-Strange were attempting to break the Island to Woodstock beach record, a 13 km swim. I was alone in Benzol when 5 km from the Island, we were hit by a gale force South Easter wind. The swimmers were pulled from the water, but a huge chop meant we were taking water over the bows faster than we could bail it out. The only solution was to turn and head back to the Island with the wind behind us. At that moment, a Portugese trawler was sighted and after a lot of frantic waving of clothing, they stopped, took us aboard and hitched Benzol on behind. Twenty minutes later we were dropped off at Woodstock Beach.

Unusual circumstances also forced us to abort a Simonstown-Muizenberg crossing. Bill Currer was only 1 km into the swim when a naval patrol boat ordered us to get the swimmer out of the water. When we refused, they got extremely nasty and explained that the President was out on a minesweeper and a swimmer was a threat to his security. Our offer to let them check for a limpet mine in Bill’s Speedo was not accepted. We were warned if we did not remove the swimmer from the water they would. Some you win and some you lose.

On my first Simonstown-Muizenberg swim with Dennis Pearson, his sons acted as boatmen and observers. After finishing the swim in heavy surf, we watched in horror as the boat – which had run out of petrol – was pounded by waves, then sunk. With the help of trek fishermen and some surfers, we salvaged everything, but it was not an ideal way to end a swim.

A few years back Barry Cutler and I faced an unusual problem with a Canadian woman who had aborted her Robben Island attempt because of cold and exhaustion. She was a very large lady and very weak with exhaustion. Barry and I both have back problems and pulling her into the boat wasn’t working as she kept hooking on the handles of the inflatable. Alternatives like dragging her to Blouberg[strand Beach] on a rope did not sound good for someone with hypothermia, so we had one last heave and landed her top.

Understanding what is going on in a swimmer’s mind is essential for a pilot. Sometimes its elation; sometimes desperation. So there are times to be nice and times to be nasty, but at the finish, there is a great feeling of having helped a swimmer to achieve something very important to them.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones