Thar she blows in the Strait
We first heard about the Gibraltar swim through Stephen Junk’s article on the Oceanswims website. My wife Penny has booked an English channel attempt for the end of August, 2006, and this crossing sounded like a good training swim. And I am always open to the idea of a challenging swim to prove to myself that I’m not really getting older (?).
So we got in touch with the Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association. The president is a chap by the name of Rafael, who is based in Tarifa, a town of 16,500 people at the southern most point of Spain.
Stephen Junk, a regular Rottnest channel swimmer from Perth, kindly gave us a few pointers on the Gibraltar swim. And after some toing and froing with Rafael via email, we booked our crossing for a set of tides in early June, 2006, which fitted in best with our business commitments.
We have done a bit of traveling, but I don’t know how anyone can get used to spending 36 hours or more on airplanes. Stiff, sore, uncomfortable and jet lagged, we arrived in the Mediterranean port of Malaga on 31st May. We had booked a mid sized hire car and the plan was to drive the 165 klm to Tarifa so we had wheels for our stay. We went through the normal routine with the hire car people, and since I have driven once before in Portugal, I had a bit of an idea of how to drive a left hand drive car on the wrong side of the road (the opposite to what we have in Australia). So I thought it would be safe to decline to insure against the excess. But then when I saw our hire car, I had major second thoughts. We had been given an almost brand new black Mercedes. So taken aback was I (I had never even been in a merc, let alone driven one) that I sat in the passenger side of the car. I wasn’t the only dill. Penny hopped in behind the wheel, before we realized we had to change sides. Needles to say, it was a very cautious drive along the motorways to Tarifa.
Our first view of the Strait of Gibraltar gave us some confidence. There was almost no breeze and we could easily see across the strait to the Rif mountains of Morocco. It didn’t look too far at all.
After catching up on some much needed sleep, we went down to a local beach for the first of many training swims. We stayed 5 klm west of Tarifa, only 100 metres from a very nice beach. The neap tides, when it would be most suitable for the crossing, were between 4th to around the 8th June. This would give us three days to acclimatize and settle in. We were hoping to get the crossing done as soon as possible and then head over to Portugal to spend some time with Penny’s folks (Jo and Vic) who are retired and living in a lovely little seaside town in the Algarves.
Swimming along the beach was nice enough. The main thing we wanted to do was acclimatize to the colder water. We hail from the tropics of North Queensland where the ocean temperature varies between 29 degrees C in summer to no less than 20 degrees C in the depths of winter. Water temperature in the strait was meant to be around 18 C.
Visibility through the water was good and we could see quite a few fish swimming around. We even spotted a moray eel in amongst a shallow rocky outcrop. The water though was a bit cooler than expected, 16 C according to our trusty thermometer. The wind also picked up as we swam and was up to 20 knots by mid morning.
The body clocks of the Spanish are totally different to we Aussies. We do almost all of our training in the early morning, eat a hearty breakfast of fruit, cereal and yoghurt, and go to bed early, lest we turn into pumpkins. The Spanish on the other hand, are late risers, eat an ordinary breakfast (by our standards….juice, coffee, croissant with a slice of ham and cheese) and don’t even start to think about their evening meal until well after 8.00pm. We didn’t stay up late enough to find out when they turned in.
We met with Rafael on 1st June and he gave us an idea of what to expect on the crossing. Due to evaporation in the Mediterranean, there is a net inflow of water through the strait. The outgoing tide is fairly weak and the ingoing tide rushes in at over 5 klms per hour. The plan was to swim due south for the last part of the outgoing tide so as to be in the middle of the strait at the change. The incoming tide would then whisk us in a south east direction toward the Moroccan coast.
The weather however, looked like it was going to dictate our holidaying plans. A big high pressure system was establishing itself hundreds of kilometers north of us, to the south west of the UK. Rafael explained that it had the effect of channeling winds in a clockwise direction, from east to west, in the Mediterranean. Imagine the strait of Gibraltar as the narrowest part of an hourglass turned on its side. There are mountain ranges on each side of the strait and the winds seem to increase in intensity as they pass through the strait. We were told not to expect a swim until June 7th.
Since we now knew what we were doing, we relaxed a bit, did some shopping and some local sightseeing. Although we hardly spoke a word of Spanish, it was easy to find our way around. And although not many of the locals spoke good English, we communicated well enough. An exception was one morning at a local coffee shop when we ordered three white coffees and were presented with three pints of beer. One day, we caught the fast catamaran across to Tanger, a large coastal town in Morocco. It was a good opportunity to have a close look at the strait. It was also interesting to walk through the old Kasbah and do some shopping, although the novelty wore off by the end of the day, as we were constantly hassled by people trying to sell us all manner of things. On another day, we visited the tiny British principality of Gibraltar. If it wasn’t for the heat and the ships waiting to dock in the port of Algeciras, you would swear you were in a high street somewhere in Britain. The nicest places we saw, were the tiny seaside villages dotted along the Costa Del Sol.
June 7th arrived and the wind had been howling unabated for a week. We were starting to get nervous and were in daily contact with Rafael. Not only was our tide set running out, but we were flying back to Australia on the 12th.
The wind finally abated on the afternoon of June 9th, and we got the word to go for the morning of the10th. We had missed our tides but the important thing was getting our swim done. We were due to start at 8.30am, and the plan was to swim together for most of the crossing. Penny is a lot faster than I, so she was going to go fairly easy, whilst I would treat the crossing as a race. Things were a bit disorganized at the start. We normally have a routine with feedings and information that we like having relayed to us, but whilst the boat crew were great, communication was not, so we opted to go with the flow. As well as the main boat, there was meant to be an inflatable guiding us across. At 8.15am, one of the crew drove down to the dock. He was in a neck brace and not in a fit state to sit in the zodiac. So Rafael sent him off to get a replacement crew. The decision was made to start the swim regardless, and the inflatable would meet us out in the strait.
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We finally hit the water next to Tarifa lighthouse, at 9.05am wondering whether anything else would go wrong. The answer came almost straight away. For the first 10 minutes, we made almost no progress at all, except sideways, due to the current. I remember thinking that this could end up being a long day. But then, the effects of the tide must have slackened and we could see Spain slowly fading in the haze. We were fairly lucky with the conditions, apart from the tides. We started the swim in calm conditions. From about half way, an easterly breeze slowly picked up to 15 knots at the finish. Visibility through the water was around 6 metres. The water was very cool. About 18 degrees C at the start, dropping to around 16 degrees C as we neared Morocco. We didn’t feel the effects of the tide which overall, pushed us from west to east. The skipper takes this into account for you. There were, however, two patches of water with a nasty slop (similar to swimming through the wake of a power boat), which lasted for 10 minutes or so, both on the Spanish and Moroccan sides of the strait. These were current induced and a bit annoying, but they didn’t last for long. Whilst the strait is the second busiest shipping channel in the world (after the EC), traffic was not a problem for us. We only saw 3 freighters on the way across, plus the Tanger fast ferry, which came by for a close look.
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Our times were slower than what we were expecting. Penny left me about 4 klm from the Moroccan coast and finished in 4 hours 31 minutes (had she had not waited for me, she would have been a good 20 minutes faster). I finished in 4 hours 43 minutes. Based on recent form, we would have each expected to swim about 45 minutes quicker than this. We can only put that down to the effect of the tides, as conditions apart from that were very good.
All things considered, we enjoyed the crossing and our sojourn in southern Spain.
Getting used to the Spanish way of doing things, took a bit of adjusting to. The swim was a little less organized than what we would have liked, but in fairness to Rafael and his team, they were very helpful, and everything fell into place in the end. And since the weather and communication worked against us, we just had to lower our expectations, and just be satisfied with a successful crossing.
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We would certainly recommend the Strait of Gibraltar as a good crossing to add to your resume. There are not too many swims where you can go from one continent to another (ie from Europe to Africa), and also transverse two of the worlds major waterways (Atlantic on one side and Mediterranean on the other).
The swim is not too difficult provided that you have a reasonable training base. By way of comparison, the Rottnest Channel solo swim in Perth, would definitely be a harder swim. The cost of the swim was also quite reasonable. We paid 1,800 euros for the crossing for both of us. This included the main boat, the inflatable (which did eventually find us in the strait), and all organizing and permissions from the two maritime authorities. We also received a certificate and a chart plotting our crossing.
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And finally, some statistics on our swims. The times are as above. Penny is the first Australian woman to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. And I am the fifth Aussie male to do it. Including our crossings, 125 people have made 139 successful crossings. And you can see by the website www.acneg.com that the number of crossings is increasing all the time. We are also the first married couple to ever complete this crossing.