On July 11 2012, Albert Yome became the 5th Gibraltarian to successfully swim across his local pool: the Strait of Gibraltar. Thank you Albert for sharing your story with us.
I took up open water swimming about 5 years ago (I am now 46), initially using a wetsuit but discarding it some time ago. I later hooked up with several friends who were already swimming without wetsuits throughout the year. In 2011 we formed the Bluefin Open Water Swimming Club with the aim of getting more recognition and cooperation for our swimming ventures, in particular swims in aid of local and UK charities.
I signed up with ACNEG early, having missed out the previous year. Although I did some pool work, which I hate, most of my swims (every training swim since early March this year) were in the sea.
Having reflected on my crossing, I feel that the following were the greatest assets in my swimming ‘armoury’.
Being at home in the water – as a lifelong Gibraltar resident, the waters of the Bay and Strait of Gibraltar are my ‘pool’. I have swum at all hours of the day (and at dawn, dusk and even darkness), all year round (even sub-10 degrees Celsius in winter). I have been stung by jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca) many times and know I am not allergic, although they are a real nuisance. In the harbour we swim in close proximity to harbour vessels and at the beach in different sea conditions, including swell, choppy conditions and even waves.
Long swims – develop endurance, particularly the mental strength to overcome distances which may seem daunting. Of particular significance was a nearly 15km swim in the harbour which I found harder than the crossing itself. This was on an out and back course along the seafront, with the added temptation of reaching my entry / exit point every kilometre, so I had to keep telling myself to keep going. This distance was chosen on recommendations from previous Strait swimmers who advised me that if the could have done things differently, they would have swum a longer maximum training swim than their 12km efforts.
Experience – in 2010 I swum Round the Rock, an 11.4km solo effort from Western Beach to Eastern Beach in Gibraltar. This meant a pre-dawn start (on the day of my Strait crossing I started just before dawn, so this didn’t freak me out) which meant that I was swimming in the dark for about the first hour. The course took me from a beach, past the runway at Gibraltar airport, in and out of the harbour, past a sewage outlet at Europa Point and onto the most difficult part; battling very strong currents between the lighthouse and Gorham’s Cave. This 4hr swim was my first proper ‘big swim’ and a springboard for my later efforts.
What would I do differently?
If speed is important to you, I would suggest more interval work in the pool.
Better all-round fitness (I did nothing other than swim). With a full time job and a young family, I was already being selfish enough putting swimming first.
Swimming technique – I tried to improve my stroke, but without a coach to correct my faults, this was a challenging task. Improving stroke efficiency will bring huge benefits over distance, but remember that the Strait is not a swimming pool and your style has to be flexible enough to cope with different conditions. Look at my arrival at Punta Cires, Morocco here. The voice shouting at me is Antonio, the pilot, who is telling me to avoid swimming straight at the rocks as I would be smashed against them by the Westerly chop. I had to swim around these to be able to get to where I could hold on to count as landfall.
Part of the challenge of completing a crossing such as the Strait of Gibraltar is the waiting for the day of the crossing itself. Although a swimmer may have been given a tentative date, conditions in the Strait and prioritisation of other swimmers (e.g. those whose own swim may have been delayed) may have a knock-on effect on a given swim date.
Although I had a “first week in July” slot, ACNEG initially offered to go on 30 June, but weather was unfavourable and I was delayed slightly to a first attempt for 7 July 2012.
TIP: Call ACNEG at least a week before your given date and make it known that you’re ready to go. This will of course depend on your actual travel plans. Living in Gibraltar, I was just an hour’s drive from Tarifa (border queues permitting).
On the morning of what would have been my first attempt, I registered at ACNEG’s office, but as we walked down to the harbour, flags were already flapping in the wind and Rafa quickly postponed the swim for the next day, when very light Easterly winds were predicted. The vastly experienced Rafael Gutierrez Mesa did add that the only risk was a chance of fog in such otherwise idyllic conditions…
On Saturday we were to catch a later tide, and by noon we were ready by the boats and just after 1230pm I jumped into the sea about 50m from Isla de Tarifa. From there you have to touch the rocks, signal your readiness to the skipper of the pilot boat and then you’re given the ‘go’ to start swimming.
A beautiful summer’s day, calm with a sea temperature of around 18°C / 64°F and I was off, swimming smoothly towards the distant Moroccan coast. My plan was for a stop every 40 minutes, for alternate feeds of Isostar Endurance drink, bananas and energy gels.
With two stops completed and at around 1hr 45mins swum, I saw the caudal fin of a large fish disappearing into the blue a couple of metres below me. I never saw the entire fish, but it was probably a large Marlin or a Blue-fin tuna. It’s not often that one swims with marine creatures bigger than one’s self, so that was exciting and perhaps a bit unnerving.
However just a few minutes later, I was approached by the small Zodiac inflatable (the close escort boat) and instructed to board the pilot boat ‘Columba I’. Quickly aboard and confused, my first thoughts were that there may have been either a closely approaching ship or other hazard, such as a shark, but unbeknownst to me, ‘Tarifa Trafico’ the Spanish maritime control centre for all Strait shipping had been repeatedly asking the skipper to get me out of the water as we were fast approaching a fog bank which was spreading from the East. That was that for the day. 1 hour 50 minutes and around 6km of hard swimming (this was ‘it’ after all, not a training swim) and I was on the way back to Tarifa, without getting anywhere near the North African shore.
My support team (my dad, also Albert, my wife Silaika and swimming buddy and Strait swimmer himself (2010) Gerard were disappointed for me, but even on the boat I was already focussed on the next attempt and telling myself that this had been a useful ‘training swim’ not a failed attempt. The fact that the abandonment was entirely due to factors beyond my control helped, and at no time did I think that I had ‘bottled it’, I hadn’t!
Although I could have gone a day or two later, I wanted to recover fully and waited until Wednesday 11 July 2012 for my next attempt. Same again, bar one change with Gerard unavailable and my wife’s cousin Tiffany along for the adventure.
This time we would be setting off on an earlier tide, around 7am with a lightening Easterly horizon before sunrise itself. Once again, I leapt off the ‘Columba 1’ and towards the island, in very murky, unwelcoming water, with tuna fishing boats passing close to me. The latter sometimes lose their catches to Killer Whales, so it was a very humble Albert who started stroking away from the Spanish coastline.
The wind came from the West that day, picking during the swim to a moderate choppy sea, but nothing I wasn’t used to. Having a finishing point over 14km away (as the shark swims) doesn’t help you when trying to break the daunting distance down to intermediate targets, so my sole reference was after every feed, when the skipper of the Zodiac ‘Puca’ would tell me how far we were. The half-way mark of any endurance challenge is always for me, the peak before the eventual summit, as after then, every portion can be broken down further into ever smaller segments.
At one point, feeling very tired and sore I looked up at the huge cranes of Port Tanger-Med and for some reason thought “They look about 2-3km away” only to be told that I had 5km to go! I quickly summed up the situation, 5km being a familiar training distance. In open water at 3kmph, that would be 1 hour 4 mins, not that long, or 100 minutes, making it a more palatable 99 mins after a few strokes. At the next feeding stop, expecting 3km to go I was told 2km to go, lifting my spirits with the Moroccan coast ever nearer. One more stop perhaps. Feeling a bit bloated at the next stop I asked for just a gel instead of the intended drink and was informed just 800m to go; this was it, but Antonio, on the larger ‘Columba 1’, keen for the Westerly current not to push me further East and causing me to miss the nearest landfall, cut across shouting “400 metros Albert”, at which point and just dug in an went for the nearest landfall, which was the reef with a metal latticed mast on the rocks, known in Spanish as Punta Cires, just off the beach.
Swimming towards these rocks head on Antonio again hailed me and told me to swim around towards the side so as to avoid getting dashed on the rocks. As I approached I could at last see the seabed and looked around for somewhere to cling on to and thus end the swim. After giving a thumbs up, my legs, which usually shut down on long swims, were cramping up and unable to haul myself aboard the Zodiac, swam over to the ‘Columba I’ and safety.
In less than an hour or so we were back on the pier at Tarifa, with Rafa there to meet us. It all began to sink in once Rafa had presented me with my certificate and an elegant chart, depicting the fairly straight route we had taken, 18.3km between two continents in just under 5 hours.
Did I say “never again”? Not for a moment!