The Unprecedented Adventure to Helgoland by André Wiersig
German swimmer and ocean ambassador André Wiersig became the first person to swim solo between the German mainland on Helgoland, an island in the North Sea, a total of 48.53 km in 18 hours 14 minutes.
Three weeks ago, André Wiersig set off on another very challenging project – after achieving the Oceans Seven, completing the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, doing an Ice Mile and writing Nachts Allein Im Ozean, Mein Weg durch die Ocean’s Seven (English: Alone in the Ocean at Night, My Way Through the Ocean’s Seven) with Erik Eggers released in September 2019, he wanted to set a record.
His new goal: to became the first person to cross from the German mainland to the only high sea island in Germany – Helgoland, a small archipelago in the North Sea. Wiersig writes, “For over 200 years, no one believed a solo crossing would be possible to swim through the cold and dangerous body of water from the mainland to Helgoland.“
“Helgoland – can you really swim there?” he was asked.
“Don’t worry,” Wiersig replied five nautical miles from Helgoland. “I can swim this speed forever.” By then, the 49-year-old already had the silhouette of the deep-sea island in view. A few hours later, the adventurer from Paderborn had achieved his goal: to swim from the sandy beach of St. Peter-Ording to Helgoland.
On August 21st at 6:16 pm, Wiersig staggered out of the water in the Bay of Pigs on the Helgoland dune. It took him exactly 18 hours 14 minutes to cover the straight-line tangent distance, which is 48.53 km as the crow flies. He drifted strongly in the middle section and was also unable to swim directly for the island.
For many years before, the Paderborn native had his sights set on the Helgoland adventure. “Is it possible to swim there? Answering that question just appealed to me,” he recalled. “Yes, you can,” he answered his own question. He was overwhelmed by the 200 people who had been waiting for him on Helgoland. The first thing he did on shore was hug his wife, Beate. “I’ve never had a reception like this,” Wiersig said in an altered voice. The salt water had taken its toll on his vocal cords.
When he took off from St. Peter-Ording at midnight, there was a strong onshore wind, and the swell was higher than predicted. “That was pretty heavy. That’s when I thought it could be a bumpy night,” Wiersig said on his rough start. But then the weather gradually changed for the better, and soon a gentle northeast wind was pushing him. The sea, which can be rough and furious off Helgoland, lay calm. The North Sea is one of the dangerous body of waters on earth for a swimmer. The winds, weather and waves can change from one minute to the other.
During the night, the bioluminescence in the open sea thrilled him. For a while, he swam through a bright blue patch that seemed like fairy dust to him. When he touched jellyfish with his arm strokes, they changed colors, “When you touch them, they light up green. That was so great to see.”
Accompanying Wiersig out on the sea was a Helgoland barge, which he used to orient himself – his course was set by the captain and a navigator. In addition to a current expert from the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, who became severely seasick after an hour, his cameraman Dennis Daletzki was also on board. Two kayakers, including Wiersig’s brother-in-law Jürgen Peters, also escorted the swimmer to his destination. “Without such a reliable crew you are nothing, this Helgoland adventure is the result of a great team effort,” Wiersig said.
In the middle part of the course, Wiersig had to swim against strong currents. In doing so, he benefited from the many experiences he had already gained by swimming in the oceans of the world: In the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii, a current had also caught him in 2015 when he could already see Oahu close ahead. “It doesn’t help to get worked up or to quibble about something like this. The sea decides in the end whether you arrive or not. I just try to enjoy this time in the sea as intensively as possible,” said Wiersig who completed the Oceans Seven in 2019.
He will now focus again on his mission as an Ocean Ambassador. He always sees his swims as an extension of his environmental activism. During the swim to Helgoland, Wiersig served as the German ambassador for the United Nations’ “Ocean Decade” that had just been proclaimed. “This is an action that focuses on sustainable research to protect the oceans.
We need to create awareness of how beautiful the ocean is – it’s so much more than just a backdrop for hotels and cruise ships,” he wrote in his book, “Alone at Night in the Ocean,” which chronicled his experiences as an Oceans Seven swimmer in 2019. “After the many hours I spent in the ocean, I presume to be able to speak for the ocean.”
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