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Peter Bales 48 years at the helm of the Cape Long Distance Sea Swimming Association 

15 April 2018

Peter Bales - 48 years as chairman of the Cape Long Distance Sea Swimming Association 

After forty eight years at the helm of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, a body he co-founded in 1969, Peter Bales has stepped down as its chairman.  His name is synonymous with sea swimming in Cape Town and his story is as colourful as the legacy he leaves. 

We are here to pay tribute to a man and his dear wife Kay, who, through their love of the sport and selfless effort, have given so much joy to so many people. Peter and Kay have always been “the go to people” for anything regarding sea swimming in Cape Town.

There can be no greater satisfaction in life than to give so much joy to others, and to see others achieve their goals. What they gave was experience and expertise, but more importantly, they gave of their valuable time.

Peter will be the first to admit that without Kay’s meticulous record keeping, constant reminders, he will refer to it as nagging, and a genuine interest in fellow swimmers, the CLDSA would not have succeeded and he certainly would have moved on to pursue other interests.

Peter’s first two Robben Island swims were done without goggles! A near impossible feat today, but in the sixties, swimming goggles were hard to come by.  

Peter recently told me that all his early training was done without goggles and most of it along the St James, Kalk Bay coast, where he lived. As a young guy, his eyes were permanently red and swollen. Actually, when he arrived in Dover to swim the English Channel in 1969, he did not have a pair of goggles. They laughed at him and a fellow Channel swimmer went home to find a second pair for him to use. It was the first time Peter wore goggles.

Since the first successful Robben Island swim in 1909, a Robben Island swim or an attempt occurred every plus minus five years. In the late sixties Robben Island swim attempts became more frequent. There was a small group of Cape Town guys who were involved in water sports. Actually, they became the fathers of their respective disciplines. 

Coenie van Eyssen owned a boat, so he was important to the creation of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, as was John Whitmore, who is today regarded as the founder of the Cape Town surfing industry. Coenie brought the triathlon to Cape Town, a sport that has since become an Olympic discipline. Swimmers John Pagden and Dennis Pearson made up the final committee, of which Peter Bales was elected chairman in 1969. 
Up until 1969, sea swimming rules did not exist in Cape Town.  Robben Island swims needed to be recorded and officiated in terms of the English Channel Swimming Association rules and the CLDSA was formed for that reason.

On his second Robben Island swim, Peter broke Dennis Pearson’s record. The Rhodesian did not take kindly to the new record. He had just returned from swimming the English Channel, the first Rhodesian to do so. “You may have broken my Robben Island record, but you’ll never swim the English Channel” was Dennis Pearson’s retort.  The young Peter took up the challenge and arrived in Dover with no booking or swim arrangements and, no goggles!

Peter recalls that he was under prepared and not aware of the mountain of logistics that needed to be arranged to swim across the busiest waterway in the world. Visas, customs, pilots, port control and many other administrative issues had to be taken care of, before even thinking of the swim logistics, like fuelling, hydration, lanolin, officiators and medical back-up.

He just arrived on the beach in Dover and met the nicest group of people, who trained him properly, gave him a pair of goggles and organised the necessary logistics. They became lifelong friends. 

In those days all Channel swims started from France to England which no longer is allowed under French maritime legislation. Thirteen hours and thirty eight minutes later, Peter became the first South African man to swim the 34 kilometre English Channel. Coincidently, he was the 100th person ever to swim the famous “sleeve”. His time is considered respectable even by today’s standards, with scientific training methods, fuelling intelligence and better weather and sea reading information.

His English Channel swim created interest back home and Peter returned to Cape Town to a hero’s welcome. Robben Island swimming attracted a few more aspirant swimmers, but the flood gates only opened in the early 1980’s when an injured runner, who took to swimming to keep fit, decided to swim Robben Island. The late Barry Cutler is credited as the first so-called non swimmer to swim Robben Island. He was the 37th person to swim Robben Island since 1909. Today close to 1 000 swimmers have emulated the feat.

Peter has officiated about 250 Robben Island swims in his time. He will tell you that nothing gave him more joy, than witnessing athletes realising their dreams. The Robben Island crossing is a tough swim. Seeing folk prepare themselves, challenging the elements and succeeding at a lifelong goal, gave Peter and Kay a great thrill.

I remember in the late 80’s how Kay and a team of CLDSA members contacted every swimmer on Kay’s list to invite them to the CLDSA medal ceremony. Pagliari designed the medals from a photograph taken of Laurie Fialkov’s swim. Some folk sent family members to collect medals as their relatives had immigrated or already passed on. On that night we met Barney Cemel, a Muizenberg resident, who inadvertedly became the first Robben Island Blouberg swimmer in 1954. His motor boat gave problems and the Navy, the then custodians of the Island, supplied him with an oarsman, who could confidently row to Blouberg, not Three Anchor Bay. 

Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, distance sea swimming is a discipline which requires hours and hours of solitary training, real tough mental resilience and a basic appreciation of one’s own company. It is a selfish sport which focuses on the individual. It is ironic however, that to achieve a Robben Island swim, you need selfless characters like Peter and Kay to realise the dream. 

All of us here tonight, know that personal feeling of reaching Blouberg or Three Anchor Bay. I am sure that even Theodore still gets a rush at touching the sand at the end of a swim.

We at this function pay tribute to Peter and Kay Bales for allowing us to realise our dreams. Every Robben Island swimmer, where ever they may be, is grateful to you Peter and to you Kay, for what you have allowed them to do. 

In his time, Peter has seen super swimmers like Theodore Yach, Lewis Pugh, Otto Thaning, Carina Bruwer, Steven Klugman, Ryan Stramrood, Tony Enderli, Tony Sellmeyer, Ram Barkai and so many others excel. Not to forget the swimmers who just wanted to add a Robben Island swim to their bucket list.

Peter and Kay, you both have left a rich legacy of helping others. You leave a vibrant community of swimmers who will relate your story and contribution for generations to come. We all, in some way, thank you for allowing us to achieve our dreams.


Eddy Cassar Public Relations and Promotions