The Gibraltar Strait: Europe to Africa

On April 24th 2015 I swam across the Gibraltar Strait between Europe and Africa. As the sun rose at 7.28am I took to the waters of Tarifa Island off the Spanish coast and 4 hours later arrived on the shores of Punta Cires on the Moroccan Coast. I swam nonstop without a wetsuit covering a total of 8.8 miles (16.2km) in a time of 3hrs and 51 minutes. Here is my account of one of the most magical swims I have ever had the pleasure to do.

The alarm went off at 4am waking me and my wife Rebecca to start prepping for my biggest swim of the year due to commence in 3 ½ hours time. We had been in Spain for just 1 day and had settled into our villa with our 2 year old daughter Bella, 12 week daughter jasmine and a whole entourage of family to help look after the kids! I had not expected to be swimming so early in the week but when the weather and sea conditions are right you have to take the opportunity and go for it in case the factors do not line up a second time. You have a very specific window in channel swimming to work with the tides and so many other factors need to be perfect too like weather, visibility, temperature, and time of day. Our window had arrived so I demolished a couple of bowls of porridge, did a final check of my inventory and then commenced the 1 ½ hour drive to Tarifa where the swim was due to start.

By 7.15am we were ready to go. The support boat was loaded, the crew were briefed and we were making our way out of the harbour to Tarifa Island, a small outcrop of rock off the town of Tarifa, where I would begin my swim. At 7.28am I said my goodbyes and dived into the frigid water. At this time of year the water in the Gibraltar Strait is normally 18 degrees so in my mind it was 18 degrees. It felt warm as a result. It was only when I finished the swim that I was informed it was in fact 15 degrees for the duration! It’s funny how the mind can convince the body that the water is warm when in fact it is anything but.

The sun was starting to rise now and I was swimming strong. Considering my last channel swim ended in near death by jellyfish I was a little apprehensive to say the least and couldn’t help but keep my eyes constantly pealed for Jellyfish. Luckily there were none so we had completely clear water! It was a vivid sapphire blue and as the sun began to rise higher in the sky the water began to shimmer in shades of teal. This was wonderful and every feeling of apprehension and anxiety was quickly leaving me as I settled into my stride.

1 hour in it was time for my first feed. Time was moving very slowly and I was convinced we had gone way over the 1 hour mark but apparently all was legit!

I swam to the support boat and was handed a bottle of high carb drink to keep me going. I asked how I was doing and that is when my confidence took a knock as the answer was that I was going too slowly. I had planned on swimming at 4km per hr but was only at 3.2km per hr. That may not sound like much but it is enough to add significant time and mileage onto a swim by not working with the tides. I had obviously been relaxing into my stroke too much and taking my focus away from my speed. This knocked my confidence as I thought I had blown my chance.

When you get a little negative thought like this in your head when in open water it can very quickly spiral and become an abyss of depression so I had to snap out of it quickly. I therefore picked up my pace considerably and started to work!

Having to swim faster this early on in a swim worried me greatly as my plan was to plod the whole thing to make it easy. I started to feel a lot of self doubt again and after 1.5 hours I was starting to wish I was on dry land again. Some days I just don’t feel like swimming and today was turning out to be one of them which was not at all good news. When I feel like this I tend to go into a medative state and repeat a mantra to snap out of it and remotivate myself. It works every time and involves saying a word with every hand entry into the water. For me it is “Stronger, faster, more powerful.” Within 10 minutes I was back to myself and enjoying the swim again. Something strange happened at the same time. I noticed the crew on the boat standing up and pointing behind me. I couldn’t read their expression but the fact they were excitedly talking to each other made me suspect I was no longer alone in the ocean.

My suspicions were proved correct when a flash of silver the size of a man darted under me. My heart jumped as I thought it was a shark but before I knew what was happening I was surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins that had surrounded me. They were clicking and talking to each other which I could hear crystally clear as I swam and for the first time in the swim I felt truly grateful to be there and to be able to experience such an amazing phenomenon. To swim with these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat was incredible and an experience I will never forget. Within less than a minute the dolphins disappeared as quickly as they had appeared but I was smiling and was 100% back on track.

The main job of the escort boat is to mark the path to make sure that you are swimming in the right direction and working with the tides. One of their other jobs which people don’t always think about is that they have to communicate with the ships and super tankers that plough through these channels like cars on a motorway. Super tankers the size of cathedrals weighing hundreds of thousands of tons cut through the water like a knife through butter and the Gibraltar Strait being one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world means that swimmers have to be very careful. The boat pilot radios the tankers as they approach to warn them that there is a swimmer in the water and they alter their course accordingly. I could see these vast boats passing and I could feel their massive engines churning up the water. It was very exhilarating to be swimming between them and the fact they were changing course so as not to hit me was a huge bonus!
I was still swimming strong but suddenly I heard a whistle. We had passed through the first shipping lane successfully and were approaching the second but something was very wrong. I was being shouted at to stop swimming and stay very still.

I realised we were about to be smack bang in the middle of the path of one of the biggest ships I have ever seen and it was coming straight for us. I found out later that this one boat had refused to change course as the captain had had too much whiskey. My boat pilot was swearing at him in angry Spanish as I had to tread water for a good 2 minutes. I welcomed the break to be honest and took the opportunity to sneak an extra energy gel! I lay on my back in the middle of the ocean looking up at the sky and basked in the magic of the situation. Today was turning into a day that not many people have ever experienced and it was wonderful to be there. The tanker was getting closer and within seconds it was passing in such close proximity that I could feel the vibration of its propellers. I could certainly feel the swell of the huge waves it generated as it cut past us and as it passed I felt the temperature of the sea drop considerably as freezing cold water from the depths was driven up by the massive propellers. Then it was gone and I carried on swimming.

By now I could see the coast of Morocco very clearly. I could see buildings now and could make out the shades of the different terrains. It felt like I was just minutes away and that is why looking at the land all the time in channel swims is so dangerous as what may seem incredibly close is most likely a good few miles away. In this case I still had 3 miles to swim and they were the longest 3 miles of my life! I was aching a lot by now and just wanted to get there. I picked up my speed, got my head down and ploughed forward. This is where the Gibraltar strait becomes quite tricky as the tides sweep through it is vital you get the timing right. In my case I had a decision to either sprint the remaining 4km to hit the last opportunity of close land or risk swimming another good few hours and potential 10km to hit the next one. It was an easy decision so I went for it!

An hour later I started to see the colour of the ocean start to change beneath me and I knew that I was coming out of the depths and starting to enter shallower waters. It felt noticeably warmer now and land was now 100% only a matter of minutes away. The water was now too shallow for the main escort boat so I was escorted in by the smaller motor boat. I kept placing 1 arm in front of the other and then I arrived on land, well more of a massive sharp rock face. The waves were strong but I managed to find a foot hold and stood up in elation having just swum between Europe and Africa.
I made my way back to the boat, climbed out, kissed my wonderful supportive wife, had a stretch, and went to sleep.

This swim taught me a lot about the importance of pacing and maintaining good technique whilst swimming. I will take these lessons with me and learn from them for in 12 weeks time I will be taking on the Irish Channel for the second time in 12 months and am confident that this time I will make it all the way to Scotland, as long as I don’t run into too many jellyfish on the way.

Dry Land

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