Swimming to Morocco 2011

Write-up by Ossi Schmidt

We arrived on Friday night, aware of the fact that the forecast was excellent for Saturday. But that was far too tight, because the trip from Malaga to Tarifa is quite long and it was late. Swims tend to start early – daybreak or thereabouts, so our preparation would have been too short and we were tired as well. Anyway, there were three Italian swimmers before us – in wetsuits – so Saturday was not an option. We were relieved, but anxious at the same time, because the weather could change anytime. Tarifa is a very windy spot.

We met Rafael, the organiser of ACNEG, the Strait of Gibratar Swimming Association (http://www.acneg.com), on Saturday morning, bought our water and food supply, swam a little in the surf on Tarifa Beach, reconnoitred the lay of the land at the harbour and retired for the rest of the day, with a 7.45 am start for Sunday in the offing – the first day of our window. We couldn’t have wished for a better outcome, because there is nothing quite as spirit-deflating and demotivational as waiting for good weather while the days pass by and the window is about to close.

As it turned out the weather conditions on Sunday morning were very good – maybe not as calm as the previous day – but we weren’t alarmed. It all went smoothly. We met our boat crew, loaded up our gear and feeds and then headed out to the southerly corner of Tarifa Island for the start. We hopped in, swam to the rocks, touched and off we were.

The first 3 hours were a delight. Clear & calm waters, very comfortable temperature both of air and water, good pace – or so we thought – and the spirits were high. However, at the 3 hour feed – we were feeding every 45 minutes – it became clear that our pace had dropped off significantly and we had fallen behind expected targets. I had decided to go for a gel at this point, which you take with water, but that was a mistake. It didn’t sustain me at all, never mind giving me a boost. And since Imelda & I were swimming together, my pace dictated our further progress, much to the concern of our accompanying boat crew. This I didn’t register at all, but Imelda was acutely aware of it and it caused her a lot of anxiety. The boat crew has the power to remove a swimmer from the water, if they thought it necessary. Just as well I didn’t know. I just kept my head in the water and my arms turning over as best I could.

The slower pace had Imelda kicking less than she would normally do and that resulted in a threat of severe cramps in her legs. My right shoulder began to hurt severely at the 5 hour mark – a time we should have been finished. So our swim became a trial of body & mind.

During the final 2 miles of the crossing you encounter a very strong coastal current, which takes you east towards the Mediterranean Sea. Too long in that and the swim is over. So we struggled towards the shore as it was changing while we were being carried east. My right arm was like a trailing oar, not clearing the surface of the on-coming waves continuously, veering me to the right into the current, which was not a clever thing to do. In this fashion and with a lot of self-encouragement – it didn’t come from the boat crew, because they seem to be getting more frustrated with us as time went by – we slowly closed in on the Moroccan coast line only to touch after 7 hours and 5 minutes on the face of a steep cliff called Marsa Point – a good 3 miles from the intended landing spot.

Happiness and relief was the overwhelming feeling for both of us, although our bodies & minds were pretty much tested to the utmost of our endurance.

Since then we’ve been recovering – remarkably quickly we think – and have been around Sandycove Island on our return. It has been an epic swim in our experience, even though it is so much shorter than the English Channel. Margit Bonhoff, a good friend of ours from Berlin did it last year, and she also felt that the Straits are a very tough swim – tougher than the English Channel in ways.

Underestimate the Straits of Gibraltar at your peril!