Saturday morning and the swim was on. The rain had stopped and weak sunlight was hitting the houses outside my window. My boatwoman Mariza called. "I haven't heard from the organisers, but I we're getting ready", she said. When I hung up, a text message came through. "All systems go."
At the marina, I met up with Mariza and her crew - her husband, her young daughter and daughter's friend. They were deep in discussion with Gary about feeding plans. We'd decided to feed on each half hour and handed over bottles of sports drinks and bananas to the girls. Mariza tied our swimmer numbers to the side of the boat so that race officials could recognise us. Gary then told me a friend of his was also going to swim with us. Jared, like Gary, had come down from Johannesburg for the event. Like Gary, he was extremely fit - an Iron Man competitor. But neither man had had the opportunity to train in cold water. This race was going to be tough for them.
On to the dockside where all swimmers were handed one-way ferry tickets to Robben Island. We're not the first to be given these, I thought. As we boarded the boat, there was a sense of carnival. The 7.2km Robben Island to Cape Town race has become a major event for South African long-distance swimmers and over sixty competitors were taking part this year. I met one man who'd swum the Channel (around 30km) in eight hours. These people were serious athletes.
The sun shone but it was cold. I had decided to wear flipflops and a thin top - my reasoning being that I might have hardened to the cold by the time I got in the water. Rumours of water temperature spread through the group. I heard everything from a very chilly 11C to an almost Mediterranean 16C. In fact, it was 13C - the coldest temperature at which the race could take place. A couple of years ago, swimmers competed in temperatures of 10C leading to several cases of severe hypothermia.
I was in heat two - the heat for the slower swimmers and relay teams. Gary and Jared both assured me that they were happy to swim at my pace, though I felt bad at holding them back. As we waited at Robben Island we looked at pictures of formers prisoners in the souvenir shop. Another swimmer told me that she'd heard three prisoners had tried to escape by swimming to the mainland. One was eaten by a shark, one reached the other side but was trampled by an elephant and one made it. I really wished she hadn't brought up the subject of sharks.
The rules of the race are that the swimmer can wear only one hat, a pair of goggles and one swimming costume. No wetsuits are allowed. Nor is it a good idea to use Channel swimming grease - it contains lanolin which tastes good to Great Whites. But you can use vaseline to prevent your costume rubbing in the salt water. It must have been a strange sight to see a load of swimmers smearing vaseline onto each other before the race began.
And then it was time to start. Many people adopted a sprinting-into-the-water style racing start, but I ambled in slowly repeating "lovely warm water" over and over to myself. Gary and Jared followed my pace. Looking back I wish I had started a bit more quickly because we immediately became the last competitors in the race. But at least my body didn't get a shock from the cold.
In fact, although 13C is very cold, my mind games had worked. It actually felt quite warm. I began stroking at a comfortable rhythm, negotiating my way through underwater kelp forests. The sun was on my back and it felt great. Twenty minutes into the race and I began to notice white, floating shapes beneath me. Jelly fish. I adjusted my stroke to be on jelly fish alert - looking around me underwater as much as I could. The girls on the boat started pointing out the big ones for us. Then one of the girls took up position at the back of the boat to point out things that could be sharks. This was a sensible and helpful thing to do, but it's funny how you perceive things when you're in the water. As I turned my head to breathe, I'd scrutinise the faces of my boat crew for any signs of anxiety or potential threat. The face of the shark hunting girl was beginning to scare me. Mariza picked up on this quickly and asked her to stop.
Squelch. My hand hit something soft and slimey in the water. I had slammed into a jelly fish. I waited for the pain of the sting, but nothing happened. Brilliant! These were non-stinging jellies. I relaxed and kept to my rhythm. Gary swam on one side of me and Jared on the other. I could tell that we were going much slower than Gary's normal pace but Jared and I seemed quite well matched. I felt strong, warm and secure. How easy, I thought.
Everyone tells me that long-distance swimming is a sport of the mind. Whether you succeed or fail has more to do with your mental endurance than your physical fitness. Some swimmers work out problems when they swim, some fantasize and some sing to themselves. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you don't loose your nerve. I'd like to say I come up with solutions to difficult and important issues, but in fact when I swim I have the mind of a gold fish. My thoughts are as complicated as "look at Mariza on the boat, green water, breathe out, look Mariza again, green water, breathe out....." Every now and again "shark!!!" manages to squeeze it's way in there, but luckily I forget about it quickly. A rhyme that someone had told me kept creeping into my mind. "How do you swim to Jo'burg? One stroke at a time." Stupid rhyme, I kept thinking, Jo'burg is landlocked. But it matched my stroke pace and seemed to work.
We stopped for our first feed and then Gary suggested we sprint for a while to warm up. It was the first time I noticed that the boys were cold. I still felt we were swimming in warm water. My intense chocolate training had worked! I had managed to lay down enough fat to insulate myself. Gary was shivering but still strong in the water. Jared, who had virtually no body fat, was beginning to lag behind.
Mariza kept our second stop to a couple of minutes. She didn't tell us but the race officials had told her unless we reached the half-way mark by a certain time, we'd be disqualified. We made it with 16 minutes to spare and stopped to celebrate with another drink. Then all of a sudden, everything changed. The sky and sea became cold and grey and a huge swell rose out of nowhere. I looked at Mariza. "It will wash through, keep swimming'", she said. But my earlier confidence started to leave me.
The swell increased. Gary struck out ahead and I kept close to the boat. I was beginning to worry about Jared who was now some five metres behind me. I noticed other boats in the area, including a big rescue boat. When you're cold and at water level, logical thinking is difficult. I thought the boats were responsible for the choppy water and I wanted to shout at them to get lost. Later, the skipper of the rescue boat told me he was trying to put himself between us and the wind to protect us from the increasingly large waves. I've always heard people say conditions at sea can change in an instant. It was first time I'd experienced it for myself.
The swimming was no longer easy. My left shoulder started to ache, then my left knee. I began to feel the cold. Our cosy formation of three swimmers in a row had completely disintegrated. Gary was ahead and to the left of me. In the swell I kept losing sight of him. I couldn't see Jared at all.
We stopped for another feed. Jared was behaving oddly. After sipping his drink he sank under the water, came up and then sank again. He did this several times. "Swim next to me", I said to him, but his eyes didn't register my presence. He was beginning to show symptoms of hypothermia. I looked at Mariza. "Don't worry about him, keep swimming your race," she said. We set off again and I kept as close the boat as I could. In the distance I could see land, but it didn't seem to be getting any nearer. A new thought popped into my mind. "I don't like this and I want to get out". I looked at Mariza. "I'm worried about sharks", I said. "No sharks, don't worry, we'll look after you. Just keeping swimming."
The shore still wasn't getting any closer and the cold was beginning to bite. I could no longer close my fingers to pull through the water. My hands had turned into claws and had lost their efficiency. I began to swim by rolling my hips from side to side to propel me forwards. My shoulder and knee smarted with pain. Suddenly I noticed that one of the organisers, Peter Bales, had manoevered his rubber dinghy next to Mariza. They chatted for a while. "We're going to change direction", she said to me. We had been trying to swim directly to the finish line, but the current and the winds had been blowing us down the coast. It was the reason we hadn't made any progress for the last half hour. Peter had allowed us to swim with the current and land wherever it took us.
We started off again and it finally seemed like we were moving forward. But I was concerned. I noticed Mariza was talking a lot on the radio and she kept looking behind the boat. What was it? What had she seen? Had something happened to Jared? I kept swimming. We were now only one kilometre from the shore. Gary was ten metres ahead of me with Peter's boat next to him. Later he told me that Peter had said to him - either you sprint to the shore or you wont make it. The cold had worn him down and he didn't have much energy left.
But what of Jared? Mariza was still looking behind her. Finally I stopped to ask. "He's been taken out", she told me. "He was becoming disorientated and confused and he couldn't keep up. But you keep swimming, you're doing so well." I stroked ahead thinking of how disappointed Jared must be. This was the second time he'd attempted and failed to finish the race. To have to give up one kilometre from the shore must be hard to accept.
And then I realised I was going to make it. As the swell rose and fell, I could catch glimpses of the beach less than 200 metres away. The water colour changed to light green and I knew I was getting close to the surf line. Suddenly I was overcome with the urge to cry. Stop that, I thought and another more worrying thought crept into my mind. Waves. If you've grown up by the sea, knowing how to deal with waves is probably nothing to you. But I grew in the quiet countryside by the River Thames and only had my first encounter with massive surf a few years ago in Australia. I made the mistake of turning my back on a wave that broke over the top of me and I've never forgotten what it was like to be churned and smashed against the sea bed.
"You'll stay with me", I pleaded to Mariza. "We can only go this far, you'll have to swim in alone," came the reply. Ahead of me I could see white water and massive breakers. And something else too - a dark shape in the water. "Is that a surfer," I asked Mariza. "No a seal, keep swimming." Later the guys on the rescue boat told me how they hoped I hadn't seen its flippers and thought it was a shark. But by that point, a shark was preferable to what I could see in front of me.
I left Mariza and kept swimming. Peter Bales moved his dinghy up towards me. "Hardly any waves, Jo, just keep swimming." But the waves were huge. Only 30 metres to go. OK, I'll keep swimming I thought and then suddenly a wave swept me up and smashed over the top of me. In the white water my goggle straps were torn off the back of my head and I almost lost them and my cap. What was going on? I couldn't work out why the waves were breaking so far offshore. Afterwards I found out that there were reefs and sandbanks stretching out into the deep water which means waves can break several times before reaching the beach. Mariza described it as a dangerous dumping ground where the surf was so strong people don't swim. I looked behind me and could see another massive wave bearing down on me. I tried to swim through it but was dumped again. I knew if I kept swimming the waves would slam me against the sea bed. By this point I had been in the water for almost three and a half hours. I was exhausted, cold and frightened. I could see a small rescue boat in the distance tossing and turning in the surf. I waved "help, help me, please help me". But they didn't hear. As the next wave broke over me, I had to think of another plan.
Then I remembered that waves often come in groups and then stop for while. I was in the middle of a big group now, but if I found a place to wait it out safely, surely they would die down? And only a few seconds after thinking this, that's exactly what happened. The sea seemed to relax around me and the waves disappeared. "Swim for it", mind my mind yelled and I put my head down and pelted the last ten metres to the shore. I could see sand clearly beneath me. Before the next wave had a chance to break, I stood up and struggled onto the beach. I had done it. I had swum from Robben Island to Cape Town.
Gary was waiting for me wrapped in a blanket. Medics quickly wrapped me in one as I started to shiver violently. "What about that surf," he said, "I lost my goggles." It had taken him 3 hours 20 minutes to finish the race and I had come in six minutes behind him. We waited for Jared to appear through the surf before I remember that he'd been taken out of the water. The medics escorted us to a waiting ambulance, offering to carry me up the hill to the road (it was tempting, but I felt I should walk it.) As we drove back up to the official finish line Gary said it was the toughest swim he'd ever had, tougher than the English Channel.
It's Sunday now and I feel like a truck's hit me - I'm sore all over. Gary's gone back to Jo'burg, but rang to say that Jared is fine and is recovering well. Last night there was a prize giving ceremony and dinner to celebrate. The fastest swimmer, Tyrone Venter, completed the race in an amazing one and half hours! Natalie du Toit, an amazing swimmer who lost a leg in a road accident, took the woman's prize for the sixth year running. I'm not sure, but I think I may have been the slowest competitor. It doesn't matter though. I did it.
(For more pictures, click on the photo album link on the left hand side of this page.)