Last week on the 26th of June, we swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, together, as five swimmers from three countries in the confluence of ocean and sea. It was a momentous event that in many ways was the culmination of this past year’s events, where people that I’ve learned to love united under a common goal and dream. We wanted to be the first international team of swimmers to swim as a relay across the Strait of Gibraltar, and in doing so symbolize the power of international cooperation and the little that political borders mean in relation to the geography and health of our planet.
On our way to Tarifa, Carlos showing Hakim and Bachir what jamon serrano is
We had spent the previous night in tents in Tarifa, sleeping a few uneasy hours as our nerves stood on edge awaiting the morning light. I woke the crew, already prepared in my swim suit and goggles, proclaiming that it was time to swim to Africa. We ate a good breakfast of yogurt and fruit and granola and bread and juice and cookies and milk and whatever else you wanted, then packed the car and headed for the port.
Grubbing on some breakfast
The morning of the swim
Weather conditions were perfect, and we all thanked our God, because trying to bring together five people from three countries during a specific date with very specific climatic conditions is not easy. But we had luck, or faith, or God, or an angel, or whales, but most likely many of the above on our side, because on that morning the Strait of Gibraltar lay before us with glassy waters and no swell.
Hakim and Bachir, nervous on the morning of the swim
The beautiful calm ocean
The television station Canal Sur from Andalusia was there to interview us before our departure. The cultural affairs department of the US Embassy had contacted them to organize this, and the cameraman ended up accompanying us for the duration of our crossing. Hakim was especially nervous when he was interviewed, so much so that it made me laugh. Bachir just wanted to talk about La Culture Tamazigh (Berber Culture). Carlos and Marga were typically lighthearted and Spanish.
Hakim and Bachir, talking with CanalSur...in what language?
The only rough section of the swim- the first 500meters
I jumped into the water first, swimming 200 meters from the boat to the European continent, touching land and then heading south towards Africa. It was a moment filled with emotion- the nostalgia from last year when I had done this same thing on my own, and now the love of the family I’ve created over this past year. The love of Carlos, Hakim, Marga and Bachir. There was more. There was the joviality that diving into cold waters brings me and the excitement of swimming towards the depths of the Strait, where the water changes color and the expanse opens around. It was a moment of worlds coming together. Of Hakim and Bachir, my Moroccan brothers who have taught me the power of a detailed living, of Marga, who I love more each day, and of Carlos, a Spanish brother who has taught me how to enjoy without question. And as I began to swim, these months and experiences passed before me as waves and currents to match those of Gibraltar, and I couldn’t tell whether I was swimming or dreaming, or in Morocco or Spain or Peru or California.
Swimming to touch Europe
Now off to Africa!
We swam as a relay, each person swimming a leg of 30min. The pattern of currents in the Strait of Gibraltar is as follows: when the tide is rising, the current pushes east, intertidal lull is a moment of relatively weak currents, and as the tide begins to fall the current switches south-west. This is the theory, but the reality of the currents is usually much different (something I learned during my solo crossing the previous year). On the day of our crossing, however, we encountered these exact conditions and our plan of action worked out perfectly.
Relay exchange between Max and Carlos
We planned to reach the middle of the Strait during the intertidal lull where there were supposed calmer waters and thus better swimming conditions. I started the swim, followed by Carlos and then Marga, each of us successively swimming legs of 30min, moving away from Spain and into the expanse of the Strait. The water temperature began at 17 C and improved to a comfortable 19 C when Marga finished her swim. I had full confidence in Marga and Carlos- I’ve gotten to know the two of them very well over this past year and learned to trust them in the water. And while I’ve been training with Hakim and Bachir over these past two months, I was still worried about how they would swim in the middle of the ocean. But by the time we had reached these waters, the ocean gave inviting waters and under the heat of the solstice sun, even Hakim and Bachir were excited to jump in and swim towards their home country.
Hakim getting ready
At first they circled our boat: ten to twenty pilot whales, floating, swimming and spouting water at us through their blowholes. When I saw them I started to scream and took off my shirt to jump in the water. At first I refrained myself and enjoyed the company of our baleen friends with Hakim, Marga and Carlos. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. The waters were an illuminating blue, worlds were coming together, borders being swum across, and whales’ backs were glistening under the light of midday. A dream was coming true.
We love you
Hakim said that the whales had come to rescue our “drowning” swimmer, but there were too many whales for this to be true. Marga said that the whales had come because we had an angel accompanying us, but our angel had already accompanied us in the form of calm waters and little winds and bringing whales would have been too much work for any type of heavenly critter. Carlos didn’t think twice about where the whales came from and just thought that they were sweet. Bachir was too busy swimming with the whales to think about why they had arrived. But I knew that the whales had come because we had called them. But first they had called us.Bachir, ackwardly getting ready to swim
Hanging in the middle of the strait with the team
Our whale in Mirleft, Morocco
We called the whales in languages from three continents. We called the whales of two oceans and even the landlocked central plateau of Spain. We called the whales when we created an ocean and a land and a sky in a mural that is gracefully diving into the Atlantic. We called the whales as five people from three countries, together swimming across a border that we believe should not divide us.
At a certain point, a few of the whales left the boat and swam to accompany Bachir. Maybe they could see that he was tired, as Hakim said, or that our angel had brought them, as Marga thought, and it was obviously a beautiful sight, as Carlos saw it. But I knew that it was a mutual meeting that we had both wanted.Getting ready to swim with our flag the last 200 meters to Africa
Carlos, swimming, swimming
When Bachir saw the whales, he stopped in fear and raised his head as if to ask if this was ok. I waved our flag and we all screamed for him to keep swimming. So he put his head back into the water and kept going, telling us later that he could see the whales under and around him.
Jumping into the water, getting ready to relay with Carlos
I met Bachir in the water, exchanging an emotion filled hug under the high-pitched chorus of whale-song. I was very proud of him, just as I was proud of Hakim. They had trained hard during the past three months, and even though it was only a thirty minute swim, this was an accomplishment for them (and as a team, us), that they couldn’t have imagined a year ago before we met. At this point, I knew that they would both be fine in the water, but it has taken a lot of work to get here.Max and Bachir. Meeting in the Strait
I swam another thirty minute leg, this time in water that was warmer than where I had swum leaving the coast of Spain. Carlos continued for another thirty minutes, Marga for another few minutes, but soon enough we were only a few hundred meters from the coast of Morocco, and so at the last moment we all jumped in together and touched land as a team.
The relay legs. One person to the boat, another towards Africa
And we did it; we swam across the Strait of Gibraltar in 3 hours and 35 minutes, landing at Punta Cires on the Moroccan coast. For Hakim Bachir it was an incredible feat of athleticism and their opportunity to cross the Strait (wider when visas are needed) and see Europe. For Carlos and Marga, they had swim across “El Estrecho”, a word that carries the weight of history and fear, but also the potential of the future. And for me, it was a demonstration of the community that can be built across borders, and the continued confidence to follow my dreams and create!Where are we?
The Strait of Gibraltar....so wide, so narrow, one world, one water