The CLDSA acknowledges the 1000th official Robben Island crossing since the club was founded in 1969.
Dial back the clock 52 years.
There’s no V&A Waterfront. No one has ever heard of Roka goggles, Trisuits or Jonty Rhodes, although Jonty has just been born, along with several other legends-to-be, including Hanse Cronje, Linda Buthelezi and Ernie Els. Electric trains take to the suburbs, while fringed suede Boho jackets and psychedelic kaftans scare puppies on Sea Point Prom.
Picture the scene. It’s 1969 and Nautical Weekend in March in Cape Town, and a right motley crew of Harry Casual swimmers are sat around a braai, tinnies in hand, having just swum the first ever Robben Island race. “We have to do something official,” says Peter Bales to John Pagden. “We can’t have any loose cannons claiming to have swum this swim without any proof. We need an authority to control things…”
Or so it might have been. John Whitmore of surfing fame and Koen Huisman nod wisely. The seed is sewn.
It is 1969 and the CLDSA has just been born too. It has no members and no entry fees. It gives out no medals and no certificates, and boat costs cover petrol alone. But it does have some dedicated volunteer time-keepers and observers who are paving the way for the next half century of open-water swimming around the Cape Peninsula.
Fast forward those 52 years, and the 1000th CLDSA Robben Island crossing has just been bagged by first-timer, Oranjezicht automotive journalist Graeme Hurst (51) in 3h23, in a fresh 13 degrees. And rather appropriately, he was born in 1969!
“I never thought in those early years that the sport would grow like this,” says a delighted Peter Bales. “It’s fantastic. In the early days, we all just expected there to be a trickle of swimmers. I mean, there were only two or three swims a year. The desire to swim is stronger now than ever, and I think numbers are up for all endurance sports all round the world, especially for female entrants.”
Graeme says that his Robben Island also came about after sitting around one too many braais with tinnies in hand. “Most of the swims I did were limited to the 1SOMS, but I was inevitably asked, when making chit chat, if I had swum Robben Island. I thought I’d better get my act together to stop having to say, “Ehm, no, not yet!”
Graeme also says he had a more personal reason for wanting to bag an island crossing. “My paternal grandparents met there while in service as officers with the Navy during WWII. I owe my existence to the island in a sense!”
(Read more about that in a previous post on this page)
Graeme says the hardest part of the swim was the last half hour. “I started getting very cold as the temperature dropped noticeably near the shore and I was convinced that I wasn’t headed in a direct line to Big Bay, even though the boat captain – the experienced Dayle Willars – did his level best to tell me I was! He was fantastic and super encouraging for a ‘first timer’.”
Graeme now has his sights set on the 12km Langebaan Express in October…the day before he’s planning on cycling the Argus!
“There’s something about the scale of it that I find addictive. To be so small in such a huge ocean with nothing, well, hopefully nothing, below is hugely compelling for me. It sort of re-sets my calibration of who we are relative to Nature. Naturally these deep thoughts quickly evaporate when one swims into a jellyfish or blue bottle, two things I had to avoid on the crossing! And I find the cold enormously invigorating, even if it leads to me shivering so much I can’t be trusted to make my own hot chocolate afterwards. I sent cocoa powder all over the table at Big Bay following one swim when I couldn’t even control the teaspoon!”
And behind every great swimmer is a long-suffering partner – “My other half Rob Warner and two gorgeous elderly dogs – who all met me on the beach at Big Bay!”
CLDSA chair Kerry Kopke says Graeme’s swim represents a milestone in CLDSA history as well as local open-water swimming. “It also means that Robben Island crossings are no longer just for elite athletes. They are also an accessible achievement for everyday people!”