Write-up by Ned Denison
I enjoy a blessing and a curse through my friendship with Kevin Murphy (the King of the English Channel with 34 crossings). The blessing includes an insight into his incredible global marathon career. The curse delivers suggested swims that I should tackle – none looking easy. So Kevin planted the False Bay (home of the great white sharks) seed – one of the few swims he attempted but did not complete. I heard more, when I served on the Santa Barbara Channel Board, from Carina Bruwer the fourth swimmer to complete this swim.
False Bay never really featured on my long wish list until May 2011 when I tied the speed record for the swim around Cape Point – with the last 6km in False Bay. Fast forward eighteen months and looking for a holiday swim. I could accept (just) Steve Redmond charging ahead with Oceans 7. But Eddie Irwin beat me to the Triple Crown and I wanted to beat him and the other local marathoners back behind me (which of course will not work) by doing something big and gnarly…! Finally, we all have a shark fear so the mental challenge was a big part of my choice. I never rated my mental toughness in most of the previous marathon swims – so time to put it to a big test.
I called my friend living on False Bay: channel swimmer and “waterman” Hugh Tucker. The hospitality in Cape Town the year before still had me smiling. From that point on I stopped watching the shark programs on the Discovery Channel. I landed in Cape Town on 26th December to fabulous swim conditions and set a date of the 28th. Within minutes the wind picked up and we faced the first delay. Cape Town produces fine marathon swimmers, many with an eye to the False Bay swim. They hesitate for three reasons. First the 400 square mile bay contains 200,000 seals and 200 great white sharks. Most weeks the “shark spotter organisation” closes a beach until the danger passes and several times a year a human attack occurs. Second, the water temperature moves from 9 to 20C pretty quickly and third the winds from the South Atlantic come up quickly and strongly. Some local swimmers wait more than a decade for the perfect day.
I took advantage of the delay to get re-acquainted with False Bay. I did a 4km swim on the 27th – alone. I returned again on the 28th and did a 6km swim: half alone and half with Linda Clarke, a super swimmer on holiday from Dublin. My head nearly exploded with constant shark fears and visions – in hindsight I got them out of my system.
My trip afforded me an 11 day swim window. I might not get a shot and certainly not a perfect day. My pilot Arend and I spoke daily and he monitored the conditions. The 29th looked likely and then the forecasts started to favour the 4th. Arend made the call on the 29th that the 30th looked possible – but he had one more call to make. He reported back that the “shark spotter organisation” recommended that no swimmer ever attempt the swim. I told him we knew this already and agreed the 30th. I arranged for Arend and his boat (and of course Hugh who crewed three times for me in 2011) and Keith with a second “shark spotter” boat. I offered to pay more for a “shark stopper”. On the evening of the 29th a third crew, with a boat, volunteered to help, bringing two English Channel aspirants who would do some escort swimming. We met at 6 am in the dark and I was delighted that Peter Bales was also coming. Peter is the Chairman of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, English Channel swimmer, had been on the previous four successful swims and was Kevin Muphy’s False Bay swimming partner on the long ago attempt.
We motored across the bay in calm seas and I set off.
This would be the swim that most depended on mental toughness. From my training swims in False Bay (without a crew) I moved to 3 safety boats, a pilot (Arend) who I used twice before, Hugh who crewed my three swims in 2011, Peter who crewed all 4 previous successful False Bay swims, a shark shield (pulsing wire in the water) and 5 others. I felt safe and secure with a boat on each side and one behind. I trusted my team. My mind was occupied with the NORMAL physical and mental part of a 20 mile swim into worsening conditions (Arend had warned me that it would “freshen up” later in the day). Only seven times (for about 15 seconds each) did I get a shark thought in the next 11 hours:
Several crew pointed to something (in the distance)
Within minutes of starting I swam into a thick kelp stalk
My foot hit a substantial object
For these three, I didn’t look and got my head back into the swim quickly.
Arend’s boat seemingly hit something BIG, veered dramatically to the right, the crew nearly fell over and it needed to be replaced on my right by another boat. I later found out that the steering bolt shattered – but it could have hit a big shark!
Arend put an extension pole on a big fish gaf. I later found out he used it to steer
The crew tapping on the shark shield, pulling it up and replacing the batteries
The final time I noticed at least 20 seals (shark’s normal food) within 15 feet of me at a feed stop. I tried to imagine a full table of delicious Christmas foods….with that horrible pickled onion dish that NOBODY in my family ever touched. I thought of myself as that dish.
In the sport we know that some of the marathon swims are 80% mental (once you have correctly prepared physically). False Bay was maybe 95%… and I was really happy with my mental toughness (for a change).
I have very few other memories of the first six hours. Arend later told me that I was fighting a current for the first half.
I remember vividly when it all changed (“freshened up”). The swim so far was calm and warm – only moderate glory in that (!). Now the wind increased to 17 knots – gusting to 22 knots (from my left) and the water temperature was dropping 5C (9F) in pockets. It gave the water a formidable “texture”. Normally this is where my head would go, I’d slow down and all but cry for my Mommy.
I could imagine Roger Finch phoning Arend from Johannesburg and emailing the news to Owen O’Keefe in Cork who would be posting to the web. I knew that the Cape swimmers would be following and being the 30th of December I would be the only open water news for the northern hemisphere swimmers. I could imagine the shiver going up the backs of monitoring marathon swimming friends. I have been on the end of such reports myself in the past – you just groan at the thought of conditions deteriorating in the last part of the swim.
It helped to motivate me.
This was the first of my nine big marathons (more than 16 miles/25 km) where I got tougher in the second half. A few months earlier in the Catalina swim I “mentally enjoyed” a jelly fish sting – now I enjoyed ploughing through the waves. I didn’t have a single physical pain (or throw up) – another first.
Then Hugh gave me the best news: “one more feed”. I did the maths (I was drinking 400 ml of carbo drink every 30 minutes), less than an hour! With a poor history of mentally and physically “limping home” – I actually picked by my pace.
After 11 hours and 5 minutes, a group greeted me at the end (great hug from Hugh’s wife Fran!) and walked to Arend’s boat club for a long shower, drinks at the bar and a sausage off the grill. I enjoyed Kevin Murphy’s induction speech to a thousand guests at the International Swimming Hall of Fame years earlier: “I don’t enjoy the swims – but I sure like having accomplished them.” Maybe I found a better way: I enjoyed the swim and the accomplishment slowly started to hit as my phone, email and Facebook lit up.
The morning papers carried the news along with the above picture of a great white taking a seal – a few miles away while I was swimming. Very cool to see while having coffee – sporting the evidence of a long swim!
The best came days later when I met Hugh, Fran and Andy for breakfast. Hugh said: “The conditions were tough, wind up to 40 km/h and swell at 4 meters. Lots of seals that can look like sharks to a swimmer. I have been on about 250 swims and this rates as number one with Andy Pfaff’s English Channel swim.”