For some reason I am finding the Straits of Gibraltar more difficult to process than my other channels. I am so used to the swim carving itself deep into my psyche and leaving me indelibly changed. I spend so long delving into my inner world that I learn something new about myself on the way out….. but this whole experience was marked by differences to what has become my norm.
There are nothing but positives to be drawn from my time here- no jetlag, finding out on the day I arrived that 48hrs later I would swim, the weather doing what it was supposed to and offering up a rare day that they get only 2-3 of a year here…..no wind, no fog, calm seas.
However, this meant that I was a crew member short, meaning I would swim ‘unsupported’ which is a bit of a misnomer, since the Straits are shepherded by the nicest group of individuals you can imagine. But I would not have met the person feeding me and they wouldn’t speak English, my Spanish is non-existent, so I had to prepare and pack all my feeds and keep it simple, and hope I had calculated right. Ella, my trusty side kick had a family wedding to attend. We knew going into this that it could mean she missed it, and the only other support would have to look after Dylan…. and so it transpired.
As it turned out, Dylan would have been allowed to accompany me on this swim, it being the shortest, daytime only channel with a big enough boat, but he wisely (I think) elected to stay on dry land, it being too stressful for him to see mum go through the mill and distracting for me worrying about him.
Packing my bag the day before, pre-mixing my drink- coconut water and a weak maltodextrin solution, back up gels, was a calm, solitary affair. It felt strangely freeing to sort myself out- often the support crew deal with that as they are the ones who need to know where everything is. And I travelled much lighter than normal. Just a daysack. 3 sports bottles of pre-mix, a back up 1.5l bottle of water and some ovaltine powder, Vaseline and sunscreen, spare cozzie and goggles and hat.
On the docks, my stretch routine was made up of self-applying said sunscreen and Vaseline as the day was cloudless and already at 7.30am in the high teens. Loose shirt and trackie bottoms on, instructions from the skipper about the start and finish, meeting the Zodiac pilot who would feed me- Fernando, who had swum the Straits 5 times already. I knew I was in good hands.
The first shock was to hit before the swim started. The duck pond conditions the I could see didn’t reach the shore. Tarifa Island juts into the sea and the force of the Atlantic shunts the water alongside the coast, building force as it goes so when it reaches the protruding nose of the island, the surge is immense. It was incredible. I dove in and swam hard towards the sheer rock face that was rhythmically covered then revealed in surging water, the whistle sounded when I was within 5m of the rock- it was too dangerous to touch rock…. a first for me not to start clear of the water, but the nature of the Straits mean that the association dictates when a swim starts based on safety and conditions.
I had been told that I would not be able to stop for the first hour- no questions, no chance of reprieve. And I found out why immediately. It was a battle to get anywhere. I could see the bottom and I could see the pitiful progress I was making, getting knocked back by some waves, held in place by others, only moving forwards riding down the backs of them. I knew this would be a power swim- not my forte- and I was thrown in at the deep end. I focused on strong long strokes, not counting strokes, making each stroke count. Feeling the water be pushed behind me. Using my breath to mentally make my own surge through the current, timing my strokes to assist me down the back of each wave.
But there was no let up! Out past the shore surge, I was so aware of the swirling eddying currents, feeling like I was in a gyroscope- feeling my body get thrown around in all directions. Disconcerting and disorientating, my mind had no chance to find my stride, settle into my stroke.
Oh, God. I feel all over the place. If it’s this hard the whole way across, will it take me longer than planned, have I mixed enough feed? Should I tell the boat crew to get all my back up ready? Will my shoulders hold out? When is an hour over already? Is he keeping me going because I haven’t made it out passed the coastal current? Is the one that everyone thought I’d have no trouble with going to be my downfall?
All that in the first hour, loud and relentless. My shoulders felt fatigued- had I set off too strongly, blowing my chance at endurance?
The bottle was waved like a sentinel of peace- I drank, gratefully and quickly, not wanting my feeding stops to cause me to drift East and miss landing! 15 secs. But meeting Fernando’s eyes, he smiled warmly, both thumbs up and nodded. Not in a patronising, sympathetic way of someone in trouble who needs encouragement, but a meeting of equals. He was happy with my progress….. it was all it took.
I elected to go another hour before feeding. Another hour of blasting it, but in this hour, I lengthened, opened up, rode on top of my power, rather than flailing in my own wake. I was owning this swim. I was concerned at having to sight forwards though. The zodiac was not a constant in my view. I had been told this and also told to sight frequently off the big boat that was ahead, testing the currents as we went. Would my neck jam, or my shoulders fail at the deeper dig needed to raise my head out of the water to protect my neck? How long could I keep that up?
I was still battling current although the surface of the water was mirror flat in places. Sudden whirling water would kick up for 5-10 mins and I would feel thrown around, take in a mouthful of water and up the anti.
After the second feed at 2 hrs, I was aware that sighting ahead meant that I was seeing the land I was heading to and that was getting difficult. One moment i was sure i could see more definition on the cliffs, the next, despondent that it was a trick of the mind. All the while telling myself not to look at the far shore. It was impossible not to, looking ahead for the boat. The land was definitely rising more, and I could see these strange white structures that looked at a glance like a holiday complex… try to ignore it. It’ll break your resolve. Focus down……
And then I got vertigo.
Not long after the 2hr mark, the water changed. No longer fighting me, I hit calm. True calm. Mid morning sun beating down, the water suddenly became so clear that the light refracting through it that creates this mesmerising starburst that I love to watch became vertiginous. The water was so clear, the star burst so strong that I felt I was falling into the deep blue…….Occasionally soothing, but frequently worrisome, I felt panic rising that I wouldn’t find the surface on my next breath. Daft really, since I was still powering away with my arms….
And into this rhapsody of blue swam a myriad shining shapes just below me. A massive shoal of red tuna, endemic to this region and very much sought after for sushi. Astonishing to see them. Over a hundred, darting along underneath me. At first I thought how nice it was, then the flicker of a wonder…. if they were swimming along so purposefully, what might be behind them? But no time to dwell on such things…
And following them, the urge to play. It felt almost a compulsion. The water, my favourite shade of blue/turquoise/aqua/teal so clear and finally neutral around me. I wanted to spin and dive and explore and play. It was so strong, the bubbling giggle. So distracting. So inviting. No, focus, you have a job to do…..
The first words from the zodiac, in halting english were simply ‘1.5km.’ I whooped and squealed. And doubled my efforts. If the start was anything to go by, I was going to have to use all my remaining energy to make land. Little did I know that I could have lain on my back and I would have drifted in…. but powering home wouldn’t hurt either way! I felt empowered and on a high. I didn’t care how long it had taken me- had lost track after 3hrs. Suddenly the main boat veered aside…. I was confused, but then I remembered. 150m from shore, the Zodiac would take over. Holy heck, was I there? But it was taking me parallel to the shore. I could see the bottom. And again, the surge was impressive and incredible. I was urged to follow the Zodiac so I did…. and lo and behold, around the point of Punta Ceres, i was sheltered and could swim in, stand on the shelf of rock and holler my heart out. I had made it to Africa!!!
It was a tumultuous 4hrs and 24mins. I was home for lunch. I felt ready to drop in the afternoon, but couldn’t sleep that night, my metabolism still rushing, feeling caffeinated. But I felt awesome. And my shoulders didn’t hurt- they had taken the pounding and ridden the storm. Elated and on fire. I am over half way through my project- the last half is always tougher. But I am looking forward to the challenge. As ever.