Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Swimming the Strait of Gibraltar: Part II - swim

I was in the water by 9:30am. The conditions were good, not great, but not bad enough for the captain to call off the swim, and neither am I sure that they would say the conditions in the Strait are ever “good” for swimming, only that they are not “too bad”. I had finally decided to attempt the swim without a wetsuit, a decision that I couldn’t actually make until that very morning. People who know me, especially my swim mer friends, know how cold I can get in the water and may understand my concern. In any case, I attempted to protect myself from the cold with a thick layer of makeshift blubber, consisting of those kilo jugs of lanoline and Vaseline. I basically used the entire mix, meaning that I had about 1.7 kilos of that shit all over my body. Marga and I each put a glove on, and on the small dock of the port in Tarifa with the pink clouds given way to a blue sky, we smothered my body with this magic goo.

I wore three swim caps, a pair of clear Swedish goggles with the bungee-cord strap, and a blue soon to be retired speedo swimsuit. The first two, one green and thin and the other orange of the think latex caps, were given to me during two separate 2.5km swim competitions I had completed, one in Santander and the other in Guadalajara. The third, and most awesome swim cap, was a fading black cap with a giant white B on either side, aka a Bowdoin College swim cap, my alma mater. The blue swimsuit, which is now officially retired, is a suit I picked up in the lost and found pile at Bowdoin and have been wearing for the past 5 months to the point that acquired an awesome hole on each side where the fabric stitched together.

There were two support boats. I left the port of Tarifa in the first boat, captained by Antonio, who's job it was to stay in contact with maritime officials and make sure that we weren’t going to cross paths with any of those huge tankers. This was also the boat that helped me to navigate the currents and chart my path- it was the boat that stayed 200m ahead of me and what I followed through the Strait. The second boat, captained by Charley, was the support boat that stayed close by and gave me food and water whenever I asked. Marga rode in this boat, throwing me food and telling me to keep swimming. Now check this, amazingly enough, Martina Welke, a friend from Bowdoin College who happened to be traveling in Spain during that time, came for the ride on the other navigating boat, along with her travel companion Britta. It was awesome.

Antonio told me to hop off the boat and swim to Point Tarifa- I had to start the swim by touching the European continent first. The water was cold, but felt fresh and not shocking, and I could sense that that layer of blubber was doing some good. I touched the rock, raised my hand to the sky, put my face in the water, and st arted to swim. And from then on out, nothing really changed. I simply swam, and swam, and swam some more until I hit land on the other side of the Strait.

The water temperature changed dramatically throughout the swim, something that I had been warned of by the American swimmer who traversed the day before. The first 5km or so from the Spanish coast towards the Moroccan, the water was really cold, about 16-17 degrees C or about 62 degrees F. I basically sprinted through this region and was very thankful to have been warned of the changing water temperature beforehand- it really helped me to plan my swim. Suddenly, however, without warning or a gradual change, the water temperature rose dramatically to about 20-21degrees C, or 69 degrees F, which made a huge difference. Arriving at the Moroccan coast, the water temperature dropped to what it was leaving Spain, but I was so close to land that I wasn’t at all fazed by the cold.

I listened attentively to my body throughout the swim, making sure that my body temperature didn’t drop too low. My concern was that if it did, even if I put the wetsuit on I wouldn’t be able to get warm swimming. At times, I felt like I would need to put the wetsuit on, but then I would just keep on swimming, and swimming. I only stopped a few times, each for no more than a minute. At first Marga would tell me how far I had swum, and then started to tell me how many kilometers were left. I drank water each time, and tried to eat some dates and bananas, but didn’t feel hungry and the sweet fruits mixed with the salty sea didn’t help my lack of an appetite.

Fatigue wasn’t a huge issue during the swim. Of course, I was tired by the end, but I never felt like my arms were heavy or that my muscles were cramping. I think that I trained well. The swell and ocean chop are what I remember feeling most during the swim, and at times the warm sun on my back and face. It was amazing how much the character of the ocean changed throughout the Strait. Leaving Spain, the ocean was rough with large rounded swells that picked me up to catch a glimpse of the land, water and boats around, and than dropped me into the abyss of only the sea. Other times, which were few, the ocean was as calm as a lake and I could feel myself gliding through the water, breathing tranquilly to both sides and enjoying the peace. And when the wind picked up about half way through the swim, the water turned to a mix of medium swell and a choppy white cap filled ocean that kept with me until I landed. What I loved most when the oce an behaved as this, was how the white caps would often crash over my body and I could feel the bubbles of white wash over my sky, in the middle of the ocean.

There were a few incredibly powerful visual moments during the swim. One was watching the Moroccan coast become ever clearer in the horizon, as the faded browns turned to defined shapes of hillsides and rocks. Another was seeing the huge cargo ships or oil tankers in the water around me. I never got too close to them, but seeing the boats from the waters view reminded me of the oceans expanse. It was as if I had to see something so much bigger than me to be reminded of the profundity of the ocean. And a much more subtle but more constant image that I will always retain from the swim are the colors of the waters below me, and how I was mystified when I saw the turquoise wate r so familiar to the coast reappear as a jaunting reminder of what I had just crossed.

It took me 3.5 hours to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. In the end, the currents didn’t play out as projected, and I landed at Perejil, a rock formation between Point Cires and Ceuta, covering a distance from Tarifa of about 19km. What happened was that instead of the current changing direction from the east to the west when the tide began to go out, it continued to push east. What I find most funny about my traverse is that Perejil, or la Isla de Perejil, actually belongs to Spain. It is a giant rock that I’ve been told is connected to Morocco during low tide. There was a small war between Spain and Morocco about 10 years ago over possession of the island- it was historically Spanish, and then Morocco put their flag on the island, and so Spain had to come and do something about it. Nobody lives there; it is nothing but a large rock. When I arrived, hundreds of gulls took to the sky and squawked the familiar squawk of gulls on the move. I imagined, however, that there were squawking “Welcome to Morocco”, or maybe they said Spain.

Anyways, if you take notice in the video below, as soon as I arrived on the rock, I was told to get off. I think of Perejil as a no-mans-land, neither Moroccan or Spanish, and by no-man I mean that nobody is really allowed there, I guess the exception would be if you swum there, but even then I only had a about 3 minutes of glory before I jumped back into the water, swam to the support boat and got a ride to Tarifa.


  1. Dude, that is frickin' incredible! I am so impressed & I hope this is something you will remember for the rest of your life.

  2. Just stumbled on your blog while searching for open water swimming. Congratulations for this. This is truly awesome. I am training for such swims and by reading your blog I gained some confidence