We Did It! Underwater accounts by Susan, Emily and Mauricio

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We made it!

Well, we did it! We swam from Europe to Africa and raised over $100,000 for Worldreader– thanks to you! The three of us experienced different things during the swim, so we thought we’d each share them with you. Again, thank you so much for all of your support!

Susan
Yesterday when we woke up to the fog, which followed weeks of strong Levante wind, I started to lose hope that we would get our chance to brave the Strait. I was split down the middle: half of me was absolutely terrified every time I looked out over the Strait, while the other half wanted to honor the 224 people who generously supported the cause for Worldreader. At 2:30pm, the officials called us to the port and told us that the three-pronged conditions (wind, fog and currents) were at the absolute limit of what they would allow anyone to try it (Mauricio and Emily, below, describe those conditions in more detail). They left it up to us: you can try, but we might have to pull you out.

Of course, we had to go for it– it might be our only window this summer. We rushed to suit up and jumped onto the boat that, much to my dismay, took us a couple of kilometres back from the normal starting point. The currents were too bad to start at the southernmost tip of Spain. “It’s on”, I kept repeating in my head while my nerves were totally out of control. I kept thinking about how Shakespeare used tumultous weather as a protagonist in Macbeth and The Tempest to show the unnaturalness of the universe. Against what seemed “natural”, we jumped in the cold waters and started to swim through some of the worst waves I’ve ever experienced. A couple of times I got flipped onto my back! My teammates seemed relaxed and cool which washed a calming effect over me. I found out later that the other two swimmers were having their own particular reactions (just see below).

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Tankers were a welcome distraction during the swim

We swam as a group, in the formations that we had practiced for a year– thanks to our fearless leader, Mauricio. Swimming together as a team helped to curb my fears of the vast enormity of the ocean and also prevented me from swimming out to the Atlantic. (I’m like a fly with a lamp- I always veer out to sea, where I shouldn’t be.) I saw a giant tuna leaping out of the water and a family of dolphins below us; I wished I could swim as they did. All the while, awesome Mark was heralding us along in the boat next to us- his arms spread into a victorious V. At our rushed feedings, Mark told us: “so many people are rooting for you– you guys can do it!” Honestly, this is what kept me going when my arms were telling me: “Quit, Quit, Quit!”.

Just a few kilometers from the finish, Africa loomed large in front of us and I had almost nothing left. The captain told us: “there are strong currents here: you must sprint or you’ll get swept away.” That’s not what you want to hear after you’ve just swam 15kms. Later they told us that there were 2+ kms currents against us, which is why I felt like we were never going to make it. Emily charged on ahead and I could see a straight line to our goal. At last, we touched a craggly rock in Morrocco and held up our arms- they blew the whistle. Thank god, we had made it!

That puts us into a small group of people in the world who’ve ever swam across The Strait of Gibraltar. But I must confess, while I’m happy about the swim, I’m more proud of two things: to be a third of Swim4Good and a part of the 224 friends, family and total strangers who found us– who raised a whopping $105,551 to empower children and their families in Africa with an education to change their lives. It makes me know on a deep level that together, we can make a huge difference!

Emily
At no point during the day did I think we were going to actually swim. Once the fog improved, the wind picked up to a Beaufort of 4 which is the upper limit of swimable conditions. The Levante wind persisted making waters very choppy.

We waited for more crew members and even then it wasn’t clear that this was a good idea. While I never expected (but secretly hoped) to swim in the best conditions, I certainly didn’t expect to swim in the worst.

Even when they said we would attempt the swim, I was in disbelief that it was actually going to happen. After having sat around for days, everything was all of a sudden rushed. I shoved a banana down as Susan reminded me that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast (it was after 3:00pm).

As we left the port, we couldn’t get to the island where most swimmers leave from because of the unfavorable conditions. We were going to have to swim an extra kilometer to get to the point where most people started. The wind was also not in our favor – usually leaving Spain, swimmers get in an extra kilometer per hour due to the currents and winds. But not today. It was going to be one very hard crossing, if we succeeded. Still digesting this, we were told to jump in and touch the port wall.

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At the start, we were all questioning if this was a good idea!

I wanted be the first one in (for once) and tried to jump off the boat but then back stepped and verbalized my thought that “I can’t do this”. I had never swam in conditions this bad. My stomach was in my throat from nerves and bananas. The wetsuit felt like it was choking me. I felt claustrophobic.

The waves were tossing us in every direction. I was scared and I didn’t think I could do it. There was a moment I almost stopped, I was not breathing well. I couldn’t imagine swimming like that for hours. As my thoughts were turning to the dark side, my breathing got worse and I felt the neck of my wetsuit tighter than ever. Then I concentrated on all of the support and messages and people I was doing this for. I did not want to be a failure to them, my team or myself. I just had to get to the first 15 second stop to drink and connect with Susan and Mau.

We started swimming in a row of three but Susan kept swimming out to sea and having her on my right side made me increasingly nervous because she was getting behind by not swimming in a strait line. I stopped and told her to get behind us despite thinking that I needed her next to me. Once she was behind us, I felt strong as a team again but I was not out of the woods.

Mark was cheering from the boat, smiling and clapping. The captain was calm. This helped but wasn’t enough. We stopped for water but I could not drink. I could barely swallow from the nerves. The stop was fast, there was no time to talk or to get the emotional pick up that I needed.

So we kept swimming and I thought that I just needed to get to the next stop. I kept looking at the boat in front of us and despite my desire to get on that boat I tried to sing the songs from the improv dance party we had at the port before we got the green light. The capitan on the side boat was calm which was good, the captain on the front boat kept giving us a two thumbs us and Mark was smiling. I loved all them- they were calming me down. I thought of Shelly Baker (one of the mentally strongest women I know) who told me that we are stronger than we think. I thought of my children and how I am lucky because they are at an age where they still think I am the best thing in the world. That morning my son told me that I was the best swimmer in the family and that he loved me the most in the whole world. Children’s love is powerful.

The next stop, I still couldn’t drink, I sipped about half of my fuel water and kept going. I mentally noted that I had to drink at the next stop or I would run out of energy. The captains were positive. Others who had crossed told us how the captains were constantly yelling at them to speed us, drink faster, etc. We weren’t having that, it was all good so far. I was coming down from the wall.

During the next 45 minutes I kept seeing the captain pointing to things which distracted me because I was worried about the marine life. I got tossed by a wave and flipped over, I could hear Mau laughing. Susan and Mau are always laughing. I could not have better teammates. It was contangeous, I thought about how my husband told me to have fun. “Esto no es un castigo, tienes que disfrutarlo o no lo hagas”. He was right, so I started laughing too. I was going to be alright.

The third stop I got a whole bottle of fuel water down. It was good, we had dolphins swimming below us (see Mau’s take on this below). I was unsettled but on autopilot. We passed cargo ships, I was fine. I felt great. We had another stop. I ate a banana. Time passed quickly and I felt stronger as we got closer to Africa despite feeling fatigued. I knew I could this. All of sudden we were three kilometers out. We had to sprint. I had plenty left in me to sprint. I had trained long distances a lot, more than the rest of the team because I thought it would help me mentally when I was tired. Ironically though when I felt tired, I felt strong. It was only the beginning of the swim where I needed strength and I got that from everyone involved; from Susan and Mau, to Mark and the captains on the boat, to my family and to the hundreds of friends following and supporting us. Everyone who wrote in and donated should know that they swam this with me. They made the difference. Thank you!

Mauricio
Since June 21, the Levante easterly winds had been blowing in Tarifa and no swimmer had been allowed to cross. I knew that swimming the Strait with Levante is not a good idea. Much better is to swim with no wind, or with Poniente wind, going in the same direction of the current, and helping swimmers along the Strait. But when Thursday arrived, I felt like we could not wait any longer. The dense morning fog slowly dissipated, swept out by the Levante wind. We talked with Rafa and the boat captain, and they told us that the conditions were not good: Beaufort 4 Levante. They were “at the limit”, but that we could have the last word. The captain asked us one question: are you able to swim against the wind for 20 km? In the last 9 months, Susan, Emily and I had hoped for the best, but trained for the worst. We felt strong, we were unwilling to wait any longer and we decided to go for it.

We started directly behind the Port itself and started swimming. The fight of the Levante wind going in one direction and the currents in the opposite direction made for difficult swimming for the first 5 km or so. The choppy ocean interrupted many of our strokes but we started with a good rhythm, the 3 of us swimming closely together in parallel. We got tumbled over by a couple of particularly strong waves. When this happened, I had an unexpected reaction: I started cracking up underwater. The sight of the Susan and Emily’s “WTF” expressions in mid swim and the thought of us being able to swim through this and reach Africa was very funny to me. At the same time, I was a bit concerned that the boat would pull us out under these conditions, but fortunately the captain looked confident with our pace.

At around km 8, the wind clearly came down and this helped us continue pushing forward. At that point, we had changed positions, because Susan was romantically swimming away into the horizon instead of swimming next to us. She is a strong swimmer, but navigation is not her thing. So we got in another familiar position for us: Emily and I swimming side by side and Susan following closely behind. Staring at our feet was less inspirational than following the seagulls, but it was sure a more direct route to Africa.  Suddenly, we saw a family of friendly dolphins swimming a few meters below us. And that’s when I feared for my life. Not because of a dolphin attack, but because I somehow ended up swimming a new stroke that I had never practiced: underwater freestyle, with no possibility of breathing. How did I end up there? Well, I was swimming right next to Emily (our shoulders were about 5 inches apart) but when she saw the deadly friendly dolphins she proceeded to swim literally on top of me until she made sure that not a single dolphin was in sight. Yes, she is particularly scared of large marine animals, and she apparently has no qualms of crushing her teammate as a result. I am sure glad she did not see the 20 meter fin whale (the second longest animal in the world and second largest rorqual after the blue whale and a much larger animal than the pilot whales she was panicking about on dry land) passing near us, or else I would not be writing this right now.

At around 12kms, I was shocked by what felt like a boat landing on my head. When I realized what was going on, it was actually our support boat crashing on my head. It was totally my fault for not being more alert in that instant, but still it hurt. I stopped for 5 seconds to recover and I kicked Susan (who bumped into me as she was swimming right behind) in her leg. She got a full leg cramp as a result. 10 seconds without swimming is not good when swimming in strong currents, so Susan did what every reasonable person would do when in the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar: she got her head down, continued swimming, and swam through her leg cramp. Emily, Susan and I have swum hundreds of km together in the ocean, so we are keenly aware of each other and know if and when one of us needs some help. This familiarity in the water came in handy, as they immediately noticed that I was a bit unsettled after the blow to my head, so they reconfigured our position and we started swimming one behind the other, with me in the back. After 30 minutes, my head was back to normal.

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Approaching Africa!

In the last 4 km, we faced a new surprise. Strong deep currents of over 1 knot (2km/hour) against us. The captain told us that we needed to sprint this last section. If we did not beat the current, we would be unable to make it to the coast (in the worst scenario) or we would be swept away and have to swim 9km instead of 5km. After swimming 14 km non stop (except 15 second feedings every 45 minutes and my 10 second head butt to the boat and karate kick to Susan) at a strong pace, any sentence with “sprint” in it can mess you up. And again here, the team helped out. Emily, a particularly strong finisher (when she sees the end in sight, she charges forward) turned to me and ordered to put on the turbo and stay close to her. That helped, although I seriously struggled to keep up with her mad race to the finish. But we swam through the current. The last 800m were pleasant. Emily, who arrived a couple of minutes before, was waiting close to the coast for Susan and me. The three of us charged forward and touched the coast. The first thing I saw when I looked up were a couple of Moroccans who, at the sight of 3 disturbed people swimming into their continent, fled away.

Huge thanks to Susan and Emily for the many sacrifices they made in the last 9 months. I hope they found this experience worthwhile and rewarding. Another very special thank you goes to our friend Mark, who crewed for us from the boat and helped us in so many ways these days. And thanks to everyone who followed our GPS tracker- we had no idea people were wondering if we finished until we got back to Spain!

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Categories: Gibraltar, Swim4Good, Worldreader

Tags: , ,

24 replies

  1. Felicidades al equipo y que bueno que Worldreader ya tiene una donación importante para seguir cambiando la vida de miles de niños….abrazos

  2. Que logro tan emocionante y que interesante lo que cuentan de su experiencia. Ahora disfruten las vacaciones de verano y mucha suerte en su próxima aventura!!!
    Un abrazo cariñoso lleno de admiración!!!

  3. You are all amazing. What great stories — I can’t wait to hear more about all of it in person! Congratulations to all of you on achieving such an incredible feat. Now, go get some cocktails!

  4. Congratulations! I loved reading about your experience and you should feel very proud of what you have accomplished! You are amazing all around!

  5. Congratulations!!! What an amazing and inspiring accomplishment. Enjoyed reading all your blogs leading up to it. My son saw it and thinks you guys are awesome.

  6. I am so proud of you all, so impressed by your determination, and amazed by reading each of your first-hand accounts! Wow, wow, wow!!! Congratulations to all 3 of you.

  7. I love you guys and I’m beyond proud……what an amazing demonstration of sacrifice and determination to help such a worthwhile cause. Now go have a few beers!!!

  8. Definitivamente muy impresionante!!!!!!!!
    Un abrazo muy grande a los 3 y sobre todo por hacerlo con un propósito muy noble.
    R

  9. Felicidades! Que emocionante! Que ilusion y menuda hazaña. He disfrutado muchisimo leyendo vuestra cronica y es todo un honor conoceros

    Besos a los tres!

  10. Well done Emily I’m in awe! Now go and catch that flight and have a lovely summer , the children must be so proud of you!!

  11. Congratulations to the three of you! It’s great to see that all the hard work paid off in the end. I look forward to seeing you at Marnaton Cadaqués in September…

  12. Words fail me but they didn’t fail you guys. A wonderful account of the pain and the elation. Big hug to the three of you!!

  13. Aunque tarde… Felicidades a los tres! Me habéis dejado francamente impresionado. Nos vemos muy pronto. Enrique

  14. ¡¡Estoy impresionadísima por vuestro valor y entereza!!
    ¡¡Muchas felicidades campeones!!

  15. Mis más sinceras felicitaciones! La verdad es que un equipo fantástico y un objetivo tan noble forman la pareja ideal para superar las adversidades, pero hay que haber entrenado mucho, tener el coraje de estar ahí y saber sufrir… así que, felicidades por el reto conseguido, estoy seguro que lo recordaréis por mucho tiempo! Muchos de nosotros también lo haremos!

    Mis respetos campeones!

    Un abrazo

  16. What a great swim and thanks for each of you sharing your moments of the swim. So good for anyone contemplating the Gibraltar Strait swim. Congratulations on the swim and the money you raised for a worthy cause.

  17. Impresionante. Un enorme éxito deportivo, mental y lleno de generosidad. Un ejemplo para todos nosotros de verdad. Felicidades a los 3! Qué bien! :-)

  18. I am very impressed by this wonderful adventure! Congratulations to all three !!!

    BRAVO !

Trackbacks

  1. 10 months in review | Open Water Swimming
  2. “It was magical” | Open Water Swimming
  3. Crossing the Sea of Cortés – June 2014 | Open Water Swimming
  4. Swimming for Literacy | About.me Blog
  5. We’re not part of their food chain | Open Water Swimming
  6. Swim4Good Just Got a Lot Bigger | Swim4Good

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