How to Swim a Robben Island Crossing

Personal Advice from CLDSA member, Felicity Pentland-Smith

So you’re thinking of swimming a Robben Island crossing? Fantastic! If you can dream it, you can do it.

Swim training

But where to start? You need to be able to swim just for starters. Then we would suggest joining a squad for the distance and endurance training. A lot of the swim preparation and training for a Robben Island crossing can be done in a pool. There are many swimming groups and swim coaches around and most gyms have a pool with coaches and squad training sessions attached so be brave and join one. Also check out our Resources section on the website for some ideas. Tell your coach your intentions and then take their lead and build up your endurance slowly, increasing gradually over time. Trying to build up distance too quickly often leads to injury and this can set you back badly and cause unnecessary discouragement. A squad will also introduce you to other like-minded people who may also have the same or similar goals. Having a group of people to swim with is great fun and really helps with the time in the water swimming up and down that black line.

The principles of training for a long distance swim are basically the same as any other long distance event e.g. marathon or triathlon. You put the time in the water and build up the distance so that each week you are swimming more than the actual distance of your planned long distance swim. Everyone has different theories as to when you are “ready” with your training but a great litmus test for fitness for the Robben Island crossing is the ability to do a 5km swim non-stop and feel like you still have some more gas in the tank after the swim.

Cold water training

Great, so that’s the easy part sorted! The distance from Robben Island to Blouberg is around 7.4km depending on currents and where you actually exit the water – most people end up in the right spot but some have been known to arrive a little further up or down the beach than anticipated! Training for this distance is doable – may be harder for some people than others, but with a bit of work, it is doable. The thing that is very necessary and not so easy to ‘wing it’ is acclimatizing to the cold water – and being able to spend at least a couple of hours in this cold water for the duration of the crossing. Some people choose to do the crossing in wetsuits but most want the coveted spot in the CLDSA records as a ‘skins’ swim – that is with only a costume, one cap (sorry guys, no double capping allowed) and a pair of goggles.

Acclimatising to the cold takes time and determination and there is only one way of doing it and that is ….er….. swimming in cold water.  We recommend always checking with your medical doctor first before participating in any cold water swimming.

When Felicity Pentland-Smith first started swimming, she swam in the gym pool until she could do at least a kilometre. Felicity had heard about a group of swimmers who do the ‘Hot Chocolate’ swim in Camps Bay at 9am on a Sunday and so she ventured down there one Sunday and asked this group of strangers if she could swim with them – knees shaking and heart in her mouth. Felicity had no idea how cold the water was nor how she would manage in the cold and for fear of having to be rescued on her first swim, she decided a wetsuit would be safest. Felicity swam a bit, got out, took off her wetsuit and went back in again, and haven’t swum with a wetsuit (by choice) since then.

We believe that swimming with or without a wetsuit is a personal choice and for some people it’s just not possible. The cold water is a huge challenge and not possible for everyone and therefore we always recommend safety first.

Once Felicity had met a few swimmers, they soon told her where and when they were swimming again and kindly added her to WhatsApp groups so that she could stay in touch with what was happening. There are groups all over the peninsula – on the Atlantic Seaboard side, the False Bay side, Big Bay and beyond. The swimming community is a wonderfully inclusive group of people from all walks of life who are happy to point you in the right direction, include you in their swims and watch out for you in the water. For more information on some of the social open water swimming groups, check out our Resources section on the website.

So once again, starting with shorter swims in the cold water and gradually increasing the length of time in the water is the way to go. It really does not help to stay in for an hour on your first outing and end up hypothermic – that can be very scary, and dangerous. Your body will acclimatise, but it does take time. Regular sea swims as often as you can will condition your body and your mind and before you know it, you will be able to stay in the cold water for longer and longer periods of time. The secret for some of us, is to breathe out deeply – from the bottom of the lungs, as you enter the water and then as soon as you start swimming, concentrate on your stroke and your breathing, and soon the breathing will be under control and relaxed. Keep swimming as much as you can, if you keep stopping and waiting/hanging around in the water, you will get cold, and it is harder to get going again. Once you have finished your swim, get out of your wet costume and into warm, dry clothes as quickly as possible. Then have a hot drink if you can.

Mental preparation

Another vital component of your preparation is training the mind. This can be tricky for some of us. It is important to remember that your thoughts and fears are only that – your thoughts and fears invented by your mind when you give it too much time to think! We all have our own way of dealing with the mind out in the ocean – some focus on perfecting their stroke, count each stroke and some have a mantra, some sing songs in their head, some solve difficult mental puzzles. The point is that we all experience some sort of fear or anxiety at times, it’s just a case of managing that and not letting your imagination get ahead of itself.

Planning to do a Robben Island crossing

As your training progresses, you can start to consider what nutrition you would like on the swim for your feeds; who you would like to skipper the boat and who to be your seconder and observer. Everyone has their favourite drink or nutritional snack that they want for their feeds – Felicity gets super thirsty so she likes to have an energy drink of sorts and doesn’t like to eat anything. Feeds must be quick and then get on your way again –you do not want to be hanging around and getting cold. Some people feed every hour, some every 45 minutes, some every half hour – it’s up to each swimmer to decide what will work for them and you need to practice the feed before the main event.

Your boat skipper is an important person in your team and should help you choose the right day. Sometimes it can take weeks for everything to align – the right temp, swell, wind/chop, leave from work, family commitments, fitness, illness, etc., etc. The skipper should also assist you in obtaining the right permissions and permits. There are a number of skippers who will take you across – check the Skipper section on our website for contact details.

You also need to join the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA) and be familiar with our official swim rules and have an official CLDSA observer for your swim to be recorded in the CLDSA records and for you to receive a certificate and medal – and we all know how important this is, it’s the reason we do it right? Certificates and medals are handed out annually at the AGM and awards ceremony where you are celebrated along with your peers.

Final points

So, are we ready to do this? Felicity always remind herself that even the best of the best out there, all started at exactly the same point that she did – they too started with an idea, a dream. They too went for their first swim once. They too had to learn how to swim and had to acclimatise and to get fit. It comes a lot more naturally to some but nonetheless, the starting point is the same. If all of us on the CLDSA committee can do it, so can you. Best of luck and enjoy the journey. We hope that you will love the process and the ocean and the people as much as we have – that is what makes it all worthwhile and anyway, isn’t it great just to be a little bit crazy?

Need more details?

Watch the Youtube clip with Michelle Petring sharing tips and information on how to prepare for your Robben island: