Theodore Yach's 30th Anniversary Agonizing Lesson

Theodore Yach’s 30th Anniversary Agonizing Lesson

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Theodore Yach of Cape Town provides a first-hand recollection of his 30th anniversary swim around Robben Island in South Africa:

My first successful crossing from Robben Island was in 1981. It was memorable for many reasons. I was courting Michelle, my wife of 26 years. I told her that I was about to swim from Robben Island to Blouberg. Many years later, Michelle told me that she told her friends at the time that “she didn’t think this relationship would work as Theodore appears to be delusional…”

I swam off Peter Bales’ skiff and swam 1 hour 54 minutes, missing my brother Derek’s record time by 2 minutes. Since then, I have swum 62 successful crossings and failed three attempts. One of the failures was when I attempted to swim from Big Bay to Robben Island in the mist with two other swimmers. This was pre-GPS days and my boat captain, Daantjie Truter, missed the island by some distance and we found ourselves in the shipping lanes.

In discussion with Martin Goodman, we decided to arrange my 30th anniversary swim to raise awareness for the Saving Private Rhino Foundation. My dream team – Mariza (boat captain), George Cloete and Hester Snyman and I launched from Oceana Power Boat Club in Mariza’s Sicat, a vastly more technologically appropriate craft than the one we had 30 years ago. We reached the old pier at Robben Island and I greased up and jumped overboard to swim the 100 meters to shore so that I could commence the crossing to Big Bay.

As my body entered the water at Robben Island I realised two things simultaneously – the water was “kuk” cold and I was not wearing my speedo cap. This was definitely a departure from my usual anal preparation style and in retrospect set the tone for what followed.

As I swam past Sicat, I asked for my cap and settled into stroke counting for the next hour. I like to break for a drink after the first hour and thereafter every 40 minutes. I count my strokes until I reach 1000 and then start again so an hour of swimming is usually 1350 strokes. All was not well when it took me 1700 strokes for the first hour as it meant that the extreme cold was forcing me to dramatically shorten my stroke. It also didn’t help that there was a small chop which was making me swallow much more water than I usually do during swims.

There was a pleasant interlude when a few seals came to play. However, I realized that the water was seriously cold as I had clear vision all the way to the shelf some 30 meters down.

My break at the hour should have given me pause as it took me an age to open the feed bottle. My hands were frozen into stroke formation. I then did the absolutely unforgivable by only having a few sips and throwing the bottle back to the boat. I should have exited at that point, but I insisted on persevering to the point of serious stupidity.

The next 20 minutes were a pure hell. The rest of my limbs started shutting down. At 1 hour 22 minutes, I stopped and asked for the water temperature. The answer came back: 7.3 degrees.

I was calling it a day and after some struggling, the crew managed to drag me onto the boat and put some warm clothes on my freezing body. Hester later advised that they were just about to end my attempt as they could see that I was dangerously cold.

The nightmare wasn’t over yet. I had to endure the 30-minute boatride back to Oceana which was agonizing. It took the rest of the day to recover physically, but the mental scars of making so many basic mistakes will be there for a long time or at least until I successfully complete another crossing
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