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Don’t be lured into thinking that a Robben Island crossing is an easy feat. Theodore Yach’s hundred-odd swims can easily lead one to believe the swim is a “walk in the park”. It is exactly the opposite!
It is internationally rated as a difficult open water sea swim, short maybe, but with icy seas of an average of 12 degrees centigrade treacherous currents and fast changing conditions, it is rated as one of the finest training grounds for English Channel swim hopefuls.
Robben Island swimming has produced some world class open sea swimmers. Lewis Pugh, the human polar bear and ocean advocate, cut his teeth in Table Bay, as did current English Channel world record holder, Otto Thaning. The city heart surgeon is the oldest person ever to swim the 34km swim from England to France. Ice swimmer Ram Barkai and extreme swimmer Ryan Stramrood are still “Robben Island” regulars.
From the early days in the late 1870s, when the first Robben Island crossing was attempted, the swim has always attracted attention and curiosity. In 1909, when Henry Hooper became the first person to successfully swim from the Island to Roggebaai, Capetonians could not believe what he had achieved. Before then it was thought impossible. When the first woman, Peggy Duncan, swam the crossing, 30 000 Capetonians lined the Old Pier and Roggebaai Beach to welcome her. She completed the distance in nine hours and thirty minutes!
Theodore Yach’s escapades may have contributed to making the crossing seem easy. It is, in fact quite the opposite. The Robben Island crossing is respected around the swimming world as a difficult, cold-water swim. Actually, English Channel swimmers from this part of the world are some of the best prepared for the challenge. South Africa’s success ratio for English Channel attempts, rates amongst the highest in the world.
Robben Island swimmers share a passion for open water swimming and they share a willingness to assist others in emulating the feat. A sort of ubuntu exists within the swimming circle.
This is best explained by the folk who assist in getting the crossing organised, officiated and recorded. Dedicated swimmers, like Tony Sellmeyer, a veteran of over fifty Robben Island crossings, has single-handedly assisted scores of swimmers in the quest for a crossing. Tony will swim the crossing with the novice, encouraging him or her all the way.
Peter Bales has officiated hundreds of swims since the late 1960s, as has Tony Scalabrino and Barry Cutler and latterly, Alon Kowen have piloted many swimmers across Table Bay, navigating the shortest and safest passage to land. Bales and two friends formed the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association in the late 1960’s to officiate and record Robben Island swims.
The sport is currently enjoying huge popularity, with scores of swimmers registered to attempt the crossing. In the 1980s, there were 12 attempts a year, in the 1970s, maybe three or four.
The sport’s growth is attributed to the popularity of the Iron Man Ultra Triathlon and annual Freedom Swim, which saw many folk swim from the Island to Blouberg for charity. The ethos of daily exercise has also eventually filtered down to swimming with more and more athletes turning to the sport as an injury-free alternative to running and other forms of exercise.
Swimmers are also better prepared for the challenge. Sharks in False Bay have forced many swimmers into the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. Athletes are also training in professional swim squads, using the sea water of the Sea Point Pavilion as a Winter training facility and, therefore, present themselves on “swim day” in peak condition.
The Robben Island crossing has an interesting history. Originally, Roggebaai was the official end point. When the Foreshore was developed and Roggebaai disappeared, Three Anchor Bay became the official finish line. The small bay is difficult to enter, especially after swimming 11kms in icy water. The pilot guides the swimmer using Little Lions Head above Llandudno as a beacon, and then turns the swimmer a kilometre off the Sea Point Pavilion. Turn too early and the small mouth to Three Anchor Bay is missed. A fierce current heads towards Milnerton and will sweep the swimmer to the harbour entrance, adding an hour or two to the swim.
In the early 1950s, Barney Cemel of Muizenberg was ready to swim from the Island to Three Anchor Bay. At Murray Basin on Robben Island, his boat broke down.
The SA Navy, who was stationed there at the time, offered a rowing boat and an oarsman as a replacement. The oarsman was quick to state that Three Anchor Bay was too far, but Blouberg was within his ability. Barney Cemel blazed a new crossing to Blouberg that day and the 7.4km swim became a hugely popular challenge.
Robben Island crossings are run by the same rules which govern English Channel attempts. Just a simple costume, a pair of goggles and a single swimming cap are allowed. No wet suits, no thermal caps, no double costumes are permitted. Just bare skin immersed in ice cold water. It’s the swimmer against the elements and that’s why it is held in such high regard.
The Robben Island swim remains an ideal goal for many swimmers worldwide because of the physical challenge, as well as the historical significance of the Island.
Eddy Cassar is a local publicist who has numerous Robben Island swims to his name.