Strait of Gibraltar 2010
This is our second swim crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar (SOG). There is a comprehensive report of the 2006 crossing on our website, so if you are interested in this swim, read that report first, as it will give you lots of background and non swimming information. In this report, we’ll just cover the actual swimming.
But firstly, some general information, from an open water swimmer’s perspective.
The SOG Swimming Association (ACNEG) is the official organization through which you organize a swim crossing, and the organization which records successful swims. It is run by Rafael and you can contact him via www.acneg.com
You could swim outside of ACNEG (and some Spanish swimmers do), but we like and recommend going through Rafael.
You swim from the southern most point of Spain (Europe) to Morocco (Africa) and as you head south, you have the Atlantic ocean on your right and the Mediterranean sea on your left. You start from Isla Tarifa (a small island attached to the mainland by a causeway) and you generally hope to finish at Cires Point, the closet point on the Morocco side, a distance of roughly 16 klm.
Being the entrance to the Mediterranean, the SOG is a very busy shipping channel (second in the world after the English channel). The strait can be swum year round, but June to October are the most popular months. When we swam in early June, the water was 15.3C increasing to 18C when the sun came up. In August/September, the water temperature gets up to 22-23C.
As far as long distance, open water swims are concerned, SOG is not particularly difficult. The distance should be manageable with appropriate training. The water temperature shouldn’t be a problem as long as you acclimate (we live in the warm tropics and handled it fine). And your escort boat guides you through shipping traffic. I (Chris) had to stop for a couple of minutes in the eastbound shipping lane on the Morocco side of the strait as my boat crew waved at a large ferry to get it to change course.
The two main concerns with this swim are the weather and currents.
Tarifa is the wind/kite surfing capital of Europe. In 2006, we were taunted by strong easterly winds which prevented us from swimming for over a week. This year, the winds were fickle and mostly came from the north west, giving assistance when swimming to Morocco.
There is a net inflow of water into the Mediterranean due to evaporation within the sea. The tide flowing from west to east into the Med is much stronger than the outgoing tide. For a swim to be successful, it must be planned around the tides. Rafael prefers to take swimmers out on the weaker “neap” tides. Swimmers please note : Rafael and his boat crews are experienced in guiding swimmers. You need to discuss the swim with Rafael and give him an accurate assessment of your experience and pace. He will then plan the swim. All you need to do is ensure that you understand and agree with the swim plan. If the swim doesn’t go exactly to plan, you have a reasonable margin for error. If you don’t land at Cires Point, there is still a fair stretch of coastline to aim for. All that means is that you will end up swimming further and longer. But due to the swift currents, it is important for all swimmers not to dilly dally on the way across. Ensure that you can hold a reasonable and consistent pace and keep drink stops as short as possible. Otherwise, the currents may punish you for the time you spend treading water.
We have a reasonable understanding of the options Rafael employs in basing swims around the tides. But because we are not experts, we won’t go into that here. You can discuss that yourself with Rafael.
After a hellish 48 hours of traveling, we arrived in Tarifa (we based ourselves in the old town, which is a great location to stay) and were ready to swim on June 2nd. The weather forecast was good and we agreed to meet at the boat harbour at 5.30am.
I was doing the traditional crossing and Penny was planning a two way. The disappointment of not completing a recent swim (due to external factors not under her control) was still fresh and she wanted to salvage something from all the training. Rafael was reluctant to let Penny try for the two way, as he only ever allowed these attempts on the weakest tides, which occurred only a couple of times each season. He actually said “It is not possible to swim the round trip (due to the tides we had)”. But Penny is a very determined individual and managed to talk him into letting her try.
Conditions were excellent as we motored the short distance to the start. It was cool and clear, with only a ripple on the sea and a 5 knot NW following breeze. We each had separate crews and would swim independently. Our escort boats were 5M fiberglass runabouts. They were manned by a skipper and deckhand (who spoke hardly any English). Penny also had a 5M RIB to give extra support for the two way. And we each had a crew person. Our very good friends from NYC, Dan & Brooke, had joined us in Tarifa for some R & R and were helping us on the swim.
Due to the two way, Penny wanted to get away as soon as possible. She jumped at 6.30am whilst it was still dark (sunrise was at 7.09am). I started at 6.57am as the sky began to lighten. It was not possible to start from dry land, so after jumping in, we swam the 70 or so metres in, and did a wall touch. I saw from Penny’s start that she was going hard, and I also felt really comfortable in the good conditions. I could tell that the current was also helping us, as the land dropped quickly away behind us.
Having experienced crew with us (Dan with Penny and Brooke with myself) helped ensure that everything went smoothly (with drink stops, communications & boat position), despite some language barriers. But that all changed in the space of a few minutes, around 8.30am. The breeze had picked up to 10-15 knots, but it was still behind and pushing us along. I was in the separation zone, almost at the half way point, and Penny was through the eastbound shipping lane, with about 4K to go. The first odd thing I noticed was that the sun totally disappeared behind, what initially appeared from water level to be due to a dust storm. It was actually a massive blanket of fog, which the crew could observe racing across from the Spanish mainland and enveloping the strait. After a brief consultation by radio, the crews aborted the swim.
Penny Palfrey Gibraltar Swim 2010 – Cargo Ship
Though a few kilometers apart, Penny and my reactions were the same when the crews motioned to us to get out. We were a little shocked and dismayed. But upon exiting the water, we could see that visibility had dropped from very clear to less than 300M and in the middle of a busy shipping lane, that could be very dangerous. Still, it was frustrating, as Penny was headed for a way under 3 hour crossing, and myself, maybe 3:40.
Rafael was there to meet us at the harbour when we arrived back in Tarifa. And we agreed to try again the following day, weather permitting. Despite the frustration and the fact that we had expended a fair bit of energy on the unsuccessful attempt, the swim did serve a useful purpose. Penny’s boat crew were full of praise for her speed and swimming ability, and both they and Rafael were now very supportive of her two way attempt.
We met at the boat harbour at 5.45am the following morning (June 3rd) a little stiff & sore and with rationed supplies of energy drinks, but otherwise eager to go. The fog was still there, visibility was maybe 3 klm, and Rafael was concerned that heavier fog may close in. But boats, crews and swimmers were ready, so we decided to chance our luck.
Today, we all had a bit more urgency in what we were doing, knowing that conditions (which were currently good) could deteriorate. Penny jumped at 7.00am and I started swimming 4 minutes later. The water was a lot colder this morning (15.3C as compared to 17.7C the day before, simply due to the absence of the sun the previous day, to warm the surface layer). But I think we barely noticed the temperature, due to the adrenaline of jumping into the still dark waters, and the sense of purpose (knowing we had to work hard to get the miles under our belt as quickly as possible).
Once again, we had slight seas for the first half of the swim and a 5-10 knot NW following breeze, making for pleasant swimming conditions. And after yesterday’s practice, both crew and swimmer knew exactly what to expect from each other so we felt very comfortable with our escorts. One thing which stood out on this swim was the large amount of shipping traffic on the strait. On the southbound leg of the swim, there must have been 15 ships of varying shapes and sizes which crossed in front or behind us, sometimes within a few hundred metres. You could clearly hear the pulse of their engines underwater, and the boat crews were having to brace themselves from the ships’ wash.
We started about a third the way into the flood tide cycle, meaning that the tidal movement would be weakening in the latter part of my one way crossing, and giving Penny a chance to make good inroads into her return trip before the strong floods resumed once again.
At about 3 hours 25 minutes into my swim, I crossed over with Penny’s boat crew, 200M to the west of me. The breeze, still NW, had picked up to 10+ knots with a 1 metre swell. It was fine for me, heading downwind, but would have been punishing for Penny on the return leg. I was very thankful to be near the finish.
Penny landed right on Punta Cires (as the Spanish call it) having only to swim a couple of hundred metres uphill in order to make landfall. Dan took some video footage of her landing (which is posted on you tube). On the rocks where she finished, you can see a fisherman. One can only wonder about his surprise when a woman, having swum across from Spain (which was hardly visible on the horizon), climbs out on the rock, jumps back in and starts swimming in the direction from which she came without missing a beat.
Penny Palfrey Gibraltar Swim 2010 – Turn around
Probably because I am not as strong a swimmer as Penny, I missed Cires Point. As I got closer to the Morocco coast it became apparent how strong the current was, as I was being carried east. I landed at Ahmair Point, about 1 ½ klm east of Cires Pt. The exit was similar to, but trickier than Catalina, with some light surf breaking onto big boulders. But after several hours of swimming, there is no way that a few rocks are going to stop you, so I was able to exit the water without any problems. My finishing time was 3.59:41 and I had covered 17.2 klm. The previous day, I was on track for a much faster swim (no doubt due to better currents), but that is just part of open water swimming. Mother nature can throw so many variables into the mix, even on consecutive days. And your results, on paper, can look much better or worse because of that. Nevertheless, I was very happy with my swim and going sub 4 hours.
We had to keep the revs low on the way back to Spain due to the nasty chop we had to punch into, and I couldn’t help thinking of how difficult it would have been swimming into that.
Brooke & I got back to Tarifa at around midday, not knowing how Penny and Dan were going, as they were out of mobile phone range. We didn’t hear anything from them until 5 hours later, when we got a call from them at the harbour. When we met up at a café across from the harbour, they were sunburnt, obviously tired, but grinning as they talked with a TV cameraman and newspaper journalist, who interviewed them (with Rafael interpreting).
As I had imagined, the return leg of Penny’s swim was brutal. She completed the first leg in 3.03 (for 16.6 klm), which is a fantastic time considering she was pacing herself for a two way. In doing so, she broke the women’s record by 21 minutes. On the return leg, she managed to hold an almost northerly course for a couple of hours. At that point, the currents started pushing her eastwards. As well, the NW headwind backed around to the West, which was also pushing her further into the Mediterranean. The wind toward the end was very strong. Again, view the video footage (on you tube) of the white caps she was having to battle through in the last few kilometers.
Penny Palfrey Gibraltar Swim 2010 – White caps
Penny & Dan commented that coming back was like a totally different swim. Not only did the conditions switch from good to very difficult, but for some reason, there was hardly any shipping traffic on the return leg. And most notable of all, was the marine life. Neither of us had seen anything at all on the south bound leg, or the day before, for that matter. But on the way back, Penny and team were treated to some of the ocean’s great spectacles. First, there was a pod of Pilot Whales, which once again Dan captured on video and posted on you tube.
Penny Palfrey Gibraltar Swim 2010 – Pilot Whales
Next, she had dolphins swimming with her, and these she could clearly see underwater. She remembered thinking that their chirping sounds sounded a bit stressed (she has swum with dolphins before in Cook Strait and off Los Angeles). And very soon after, she and the crew found out why. The boat crew saw it first, pointing it out to Dan and saying “Blanco” as he crossed his chest. Penny saw the Blanco (Great White Shark) cruise by underneath her. The sighting only lasted for a few seconds and the shark didn’t come within the field of vision again. Penny had a shark shield deployed from the RIB which could have deterred the shark from any further investigation of the strange visitor to its realm. We had a lot of luggage on this trip resulting in a charge for excess baggage (thanks British Airways!), but the shark shield was one piece of luggage we were very happy to have carried around the world.
The combined forces of the wind and current pushed Penny on a big easterly arc in the second half of the return leg. Looking at the chart of her crossing, she was very lucky. She landed at Punta Carnero on the western edge of Algeciras Bay. Had she have missed that, she would have another 8 klm swim across the bay to the rock of Gibraltar. The boat crew commented after the swim that they didn’t think the authorities would let Penny land on Gibraltar, a British principality. Ironic, we thought, since Penny was actually born in England.
Penny finished her swim at 2.56pm, giving a total elapsed time of 8 hours 27 minutes, and covering 38 klms. It was a fantastic swim, given the bad conditions for the return leg, plus the fact that according to Rafael, the tides were not ideal for a two way crossing. She became only the 6th person to swim a two way, notching the second fastest time overall. Only one other woman has swum a two way, a Spanish lady, 20 years ago. And Penny bettered her time by 2 hours 31 minutes. Hence the reason the press were talking to her at the café.
Rafael and his team were still learning about swim crossings back in 2006. But this year, the support and professionalism was much better, and we have no hesitation in recommending this crossing, and ACNEG. And as well as being a good swim to notch up, Tarifa, Gibraltar and Tanger (Morocco) have plenty to occupy you whilst out of the water.