Join the Macyswim mailing list and receive email notifications about new blog posts.

Blog Categories

Gibraltar Strait – Swim Recap

May 27, 2011

The weather on Thursday proved to match the forecast and it was LOVELY!  Overcast with no wind.  Funny that a town known for wind surfing had a day with no wind.  According to our pilots, this is a very rare occurance indeed.  With the conditions all lined up, it was just time for Billy and I to do our job of swimming towards Africa. 

We (Billy, Elizabeth, my friend and crew person, and I) met the swim organizer and pilots down by the harbor at 8am.  We quickly loaded up the two boats dividing our stuff between the larger DRY boat, which we would ride back on and the smaller Zodiac aka WET boat with all our necessary supplies.  Once loaded we got down to business of preparing for the swim.  For Billy this meant greasing up to high heaven with loads of the channel grease.  I can attest that he was slimier than a watermelon in a greased watermelon competition.  Perhaps you have to have grown up in Minnesota to understand this reference.  Maybe google will help…ok I checked and dang it if it isn't there.  CRAZY google.  Anyways back to the swim.  Greasing up and getting ready.  Billy was incredibly nervous and kept asking if he had enough grease on.  Not being one to really wear grease except in chaffing locations, I replied "I can't tell you that. You have to be comfortable."  I think he eventually became comfortable or ran out of grease.  I'm not sure which came first. 

From the harbor to the swim start was a whopping 2 seconds as we just had to head around the harbor wall.  The captain looked at me and said.  "My english not so good.  Prefer Spanish."  Ok was my reply and I hoped to goodness that my college education would pay off.  Antonio launched into the instructions.  The guide boat i.e. the large boat would be ahead 10 – 15 meters and would be setting the direction.  We were to follow that.  Antonio would be alongside in the zodiac with Elizabeth and this is where we would feed.  (NOTE:  Both pilots were named Antonio.  We started calling them Antonio 1 and Antonio 2 or Elizabeth's Antonio.)   We were to feed as quickly as possible due to currents and potentially winds.  In addition, even when we got towards Morocco we were to follow the guide boat even if that meant he was parallel to shore.  At this point, I got some instruction that I didn't really understand.  I think it was something to do with current or landing location.  I just got that we were supposed to follow the boat regardless if it seemed he was going away from shore.  Also we were to stay swimming together as it could be dangerous with the freight traffic.  Okey dokey.  Then onto the start directions, he would pull in close to the island.  We would swim in turn around and raise our hands.  Antonio 1 would take photo and say ok.  At this point, we were to start.  The same procedure would be followed at the end.  Seemed straight forward enough to me.

All the while this was happening Billy was looking on expectantly and if not a little green in the gills.  I translated back to English every few sentences or so but I don't think that this alleviated any nerves on Billy's part.  For me, it was actually pretty calming.  The 2 Antonio's had this thing really dialed in and all we had to do was stay together while we swam.

Antonio 1 looked at us and said "Ok. Go ahead."  Into the water I went and Billy followed shortly after.  No looking back now.  We touched the Tarifa Island raised our hands and started swimming.  My goal was to get into a rhythm as soon as possible and hang onto it. 

Around the Tarifa island there was quite a bit of trash and fish.  It was an interesting combination and one that can screw with your mind a little bit.  Out of the depths I say a light grey color item which looked pointed with fins.  It was moving in a very mesmerizing way.  I started to hyperventilate and wonder…dear lord that isn't a xxxx is it.  I kept an eye on the creature, which turned out to be a large plastic bag.  I've had quite my number of run ins with plastic bags in the sea and they are incredibly creepy…seriously.  First the way they move is so offputting and then once you determine it is trash it is very disheartening.  Sad to think the damage we may be doing every day.

As we moved away from the island, the trash level became less and the water was clear and a deep sapphire blue.  It was beautiful and the weather was amazing.  Overcast and calm is great for this redheaded freckled swimmer.  And the water temperature, very comfortable for me.  It was around 18 C/64 F.  Just lovely. 

Our first feeding was planned for after 1 hour of swimming.  Billy and I were busy during this time working out our swim pattern and timing so that we stayed close together which became very critical in our swim as we began to play Frogger with the barge traffic.  At the first hour, we received word that we had traveled 5 kilometers and were making good time.  The wind and currents were cooperating, so was the first barge that needed to adjust course to allow us to pass.  Flashes of my first English Channel swim came to mind as I began swimming over under and through the ginormous wakes that these vessels produce. 

After the 1 hour feeding, we moved feeding intervals down to 30 minutes.  For me this allowed more frequent check ins with Elizabeth on swim progress.  Plus it allowed for check ins with Billy.  This was his first cold water swim and Elizabeth and I wanted to ensure that he was fairing well.  He was all smiles on the first feedings even if he wasn't really feeding. 

The swim proceeded without much incident except for more avoidance of barges.  I do have to say if you want to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond, swim incredibly close to very large loaded barges.  Elizabeth got some great pics. 

Oh side note for people about crews.  I have had some of the most amazing crews on my swims.  They are really my safety and my entertainment.  I know that I'm in good hands always.  Having this worry taken care of makes the swim seem so much easier.  Elizabeth has the crew thing dialed in.  She is funny, uplifting, serious when she needs to be and most importantly calm.  She knows that I'm watching her every move as if she is my own personal TV.  I know that during the swim she is on high alert.  She keeps rigerous notes on how I'm feeling, things I say, food I take in or don't take in, etc.  She takes pictures, talks with the pilots…the list goes on and on.  For anyone that thinks being a crewmember is a trip out enjoying the water, think again.  Elizabeth was essentially trapped on a zodiac for the entire length of the swim.  And this time she had 2 swimmers to care for.  Not an easy job at all.  I can never thank all of my crew members that were on the boat or providing assistance via land enough.  There aren't enough words. 

Here is a perfect example of crew support:

2 hours into the swim I started to watch Elizabeth and Antonio 2.  I noticed that they were watching something on the other side of the zodiac from where Billy and I were.  Elizabeth was smiling…a good sign.  She started to take pictures…another good sign.  She was pointing some, which she knows I hate.  Pointing while on a crew is for me a No No.  It makes me incredibly nervous that there is something in the water worth pointing at.  Elizabeth knows this so she wouldn't do it if it was something serious.  Then I started to watch both their heads start to  slowly pan in our direction.  Whatever that was causing smiling, photo taking and pointing was headed our way.  It wasn't long until I got to see what that was.  From underneath appeared about 8 dark big shadows and they were swimming up towards us.  Then there they were these things that could move like dolphins, but weren't dolphins.  Had faces like beluga whales, but weren't white.  They were very black with small dorsal fins, large pectoral fins and about 10 feet long at least.  They would curve and squeek and turn to look me in the eye.  It was all I could take.  My head popped out of the water and Elizabeth ever at the ready said "Don't worry these won't eat or hurt you."  My reply "Ok. Ok. Ok."  At just that moment, one of the creatures popped up head first and made a quick jack knife dive back into the water.  The resulting uplift of water pushed me back.  I can't lie that it startled me.  They wouldn't purposely hurt me but one more close manuever like that and I'm sure being hit by a whale fin wasn't going to be a small matter.  I put my face in the water and began swimming again as the creatures continued their underwater ballet.  While scared, I was oddly comforted.  I saw Billy raise his head once with a great big smile.  It was only later that we were able to translate the Antonio's words of "Calderon!" – Pilot Whales.  If Elizabeth hadn't kept her cool, I would have made the most excellent propulsion out of the water and straight into the zodiac.  I'm sure that I would have gotten some serious clearance of the water.  As it was, it was all good and I had an experience that will be tough to beat on other swims.

Being visited by pilot whales is enough to keep the adrenaline and system occupied for a while.  At 3 hours, we got the notice that we had 4 kilometers to go.  This swim was going very well.  My reply "Una hora mas."  Antonio 2 smiled.  Head down and back to work.  I knew at this point that looking at Africa would only make me annoyed because it never looks like it is getting closer.  One thing that I have learned from all my swims.  Keep your head down until you see land beneath you and even then question it as the water may be so clear you can see down forever too. 

Another feeding 30 minutes later, and a 2 kilometer warning.  Back to work.  With 1 kilometer to go, I had a quick conversation with Elizabeth.  I wanted to check that we weren't caught in some outgoing current. This was partially because I had peeked and land didn't appear to be getting closer.  I had thoughts of swimming in place up in Clarence Strait with my kayaker fake paddling next to me.  Elizabeth assured me we were moving forward.  And we were.  It wasn't too long and I started to see the bottom and Billy and I were making our tentative and clumsy steps up onto Africa.

In all my life, I never thought that my first visit to Africa would be because I had swam there.  Life brings you some strange and wonderful experiences. 

After sitting in Africa for a short period, raising our hands and getting our photo snapped.  I noticed that both Elizabeth and Antonio 2 were calling for us to hit the water and get back to the boat.  I didn't know what the hurry was, but I grabbed my few rocks and clumsily fell back into the water.  Of couse this was not before I stepped on a spiny sea urchin, so I have another type of souvenier as well.  When we reached the zodiac, we understood the concern.  There were 2 men that had started to run towards us from the cliffs.  This made both Antonios incredibly nervous, which in turn made Elizabeth nervous.  While I can't say what these men wanted, it seems clear that it was good that we didn't wait around to find out. 

Back on the zodiac and ultimately back on the large boat dry and happy, we made our return trip to Tarifa.  We would make it home in time for siesta and of course a great bottle of inexpensive wine.

Official time of crossing:  3 hours 39 minutes.  I don't think Billy has stopped smiling yet.


6 Responses to “Gibraltar Strait – Swim Recap”

  1. Courtney says:

    Way to go Michelle and Billy (and Elizabeth) (and the Antonios)!  Love the pilot whale episode and also that you seemed to really enjoy the ride.  What a cool way to make your first visit to Africa.

  2. Sarah Schneiderman says:

    I know it was a lot of hard work but sounds magical, too. Glad you got back in the boat because the magic was undone.

  3. Shanna says:

    Yay!! Congrats to you both – fab write up as always. Can't wait to see the pictures!

  4. Bernie says:

    Congratulations, just read your blog! I did swim with mate Stu June 2010 in 3.51, you guys were a little faster.
    What a great swim.   

  5. Rebecca Morgan says:

    From one adventure to the next! Congratulations and what an incredibly cool experience to swim with the whales!

  6. Tim says:

    Awesome, Michelle!  Thought I'd check on this because I never got the chance to ask about it.  Such a cool thing that you do. 
    See you soon in da PDX.  There will be beer.  Oh yes. 
    Tim Vandehey (aka, MM7)

Leave a Reply