Swimming the Robben Island Crossing in South Africa
Se7en (@se7en_hoods), one of our returning Impi ambassadors lives in Cape Town, South Africa with her family, and recently she completed the Robben Island Crossing, an incredibly challenging open water swim. She is a runner, swimmer and all-around adventurer. We sat down with Se7en to hear about her experience swimming the Robben Island crossing and why she can never back down from a challenge. To read Se7en’s experience on her personal blog, check out her article, The Time Has Come to Swim the Robben Island Crossing.
1. Why did you want to do the Robben Island crossing?
“To be honest I never really even dreamed about doing a Robben Island Crossing, it was such a big and completely unachievable goal, and something that I had reserved in my head for super athletes...you know those crazy folks who go out and push their limits to see how far they can go. It was never even on my bucket list because, because quite simply, I didn't think it was possible for me to achieve this. The Robben Island Crossing was way out of my reach...I am an everyday, ordinary athlete. My goal for every race or challenge is, to be honest, to finish.”
2. How did you find Open Water swimming and when did you start?
“Before I had kids, I did triathlon, running and a certain amount of open water swimming, nothing serious, I just enjoyed being outdoors and fitness. I've always loved swimming and specifically, swimming in the ocean. Once I started having kids, I thought I would take a couple of months off and then get back to training...well 20 whole years later, not to mention eight kids later, I was the most unfit person on earth. I literally spent 20 years sitting on the couch reading stories or exercising at a toddler’s pace. I had to start my fitness journey from scratch. It took me a year to learn how to run again and even longer to keep on running for long enough to complete a Parkrun. Running was my focus.
In August 2019, a friend invited me to come and swim in a mountain dam near where we live. You must understand, our August is probably when the water is coldest, as it’s spring in South Africa. But I can't resist a challenge, so off I went. I probably swam 200 meters before I got out. Even though I didn’t last long, I loved it and I kept going back, slowly but surely, I swam a mile, and then another, and then I entered a 3km race and survived, and honestly, I was hooked.
When another friend said she was training for her Robben Island Crossing and I realized that I was training alongside her each week, I realized I could give it a try as well. Just as I was about to try my crossing... lockdown happened. No venturing out of the house, no swimming in the sea and no swimming at the gym. I was devastated for about a week, and then realized that for the duration of lockdown I could work on strength training and that's what I did. I got much stronger and waited for the time to be right.”
3. Why do you feel so passionate about protecting our oceans?
“I have always lived by the ocean and have always loved the ocean. I spent high school surfing and I studied Oceanography at University. I have traveled all over the Southern Ocean as a scientist. The ocean is something I am quite passionate about and I feel the need to speak for the ocean when the ocean cannot speak for itself. I don't think we realize that the impact that our lifestyles have on the ocean, and how small changes to the way we live could affect the ocean in a big way. No matter where you live, even if it is miles and miles away from the ocean, chances are your litter, your runoff chemicals, your garbage all end up in the sea.”
4. What inspired you to start working with the Beach Co-Op?
“My kids and I have been cleaning beaches with the Beach Co-Op for a number of years, they are a local group that get together and clean our beaches. They also go out of their way to educate school groups, local industries and seaside restaurants to be plastic free and to make more eco-friendly choices. One particular cleanup they do is in a location called Surfer's Corner in Muizenberg, where we clean up every single New Moon (when the tide is at its lowest), and we have been cleaning up that particular corner of Cape Town's Beach scene, every month since March 2015.”
5. What was going through your mind when you first jumped into the water for the Robben Island crossing?
“For the Robben Island Crossing you are taken by rubber duck from Cape Town harbor to the Island. The boats are not allowed to touch the island, so you have to jump out of the boat and swim until you can touch land and stand up. My biggest worry and fear, really, for the whole event, was that I would get out of the boat swim that short 50 meters to shore and because the water is really cold, it would cause an initial shock to my system…that I would ask to get back into the boat and go home. With this big fear in my head, as we left the Jetty, someone who had recently done the crossing said to me, ‘Don't be so nervous that you forget to have fun.’ That's exactly what I needed to hear, and my worst fears were behind me.
What a privilege it was that I could do this and get to swim in the open ocean miles from land. I was overwhelmed with the fantastic opportunity to be out in the open water, safe from the shipping lane, where I could just swim my heart out. I couldn't see the bottom, I couldn't see much because of the mist, all I had to do was keep on swimming. Three strokes in, I had forgotten about the cold and I was just thrilled to be there. Towards the end of the swim the mist cleared I could see the line of the beach appear and I could not have gotten to the shore faster. I was so excited to share with anyone and everyone what fantastic adventure I had just had.”
6. What has been the most challenging part of training for this?
“The hardest part about training for me is getting into the water. We live alongside the Atlantic Ocean, the water is very cold and during the summer, it’s even colder. Swimming in water that can be as low as 10 degrees Celsius is a mental challenge. Getting into the water is hard for me, every single time.
We are very lucky to have beautiful places to swim, there are plenty of kelp forests near our home to go exploring and I really can't get enough of being in the water. Curiosity wins every time. I want to see starfish, I want to see octopus in their nests, I want to see fish swim by, I was so excited the day I swam over a Pajama shark in the kelp forests. That being said, when I am racing, all curiosity goes out the window and all I focus on is getting from one buoy to the next buoy, to the next and out of the water!”
7. When did you start working with Balega and why?
“Ironically, my first interaction with Balega socks was when I won two pairs of socks from them for entering a competition. Those socks changed my life, and they are still my favorites. The competition was to take a photograph of yourself doing a cleanup, either on the trail or on a beach. I entered a photograph of myself and my kids doing a cleanup on Robben Island. At that stage I was a beginner runner, I had just started my fitness journey that year and my goal for the year had been to run a Parkrun from start to finish. The following year I applied to be a Balega Impi, and with the support of the team I ran the ‘Two Oceans Half Marathon’ as a Balega Impi. From then on, I have been part of the team and I can't imagine my adventure-loving lifestyle without Balega socks.”
8. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start open water swimming?
“Find a team and just start. I belong to a team called Elemint, that focuses on helping folk, especially women to get out and adventure in the wild. As a runner I would say, the thing that most improves your running is when you run as a team. We always want to get a bit better before we join a group, but we all know that nothing makes you raise your game more than running in a group. Similarly, for swimming, I could not do it on my own. I swim as part of a team, we swim together, and always buddy up. Obviously, it is safer to buddy up, anything can happen in the open water and having someone beside you is ideal. Either a little ahead of you so that you have to push to catch up, or a little behind you so you have to pace yourself a little better. Faster swimmers buddy up with faster swimmers and slower swimmers with slower swimmers, you are never left alone and knowing that your team is waiting for you to get into the water means a lot. We train together, we race together, and we challenge each other to swim further, train harder, try challenges we never dreamed of doing and most importantly, we never give up.”
9. Where do you draw your strength from and what keeps you going?
“I actually cannot let a challenge go past without giving it my attention. Really, there is no reason on earth why I should think that I could ever swim the Robben Island Crossing. It is one of the hardest crossings: conditions can be tempestuous, the water icy, the currents unpredictable and there is a rocky finish. What kept me going throughout the swim was knowing that my family would be there on the beach when I stepped out of the water. I took on the challenge, I was completely focused on getting to the shore and I did way better than I expected to. So well in fact that my family hadn't gotten to the beach yet when I arrived! I fully intend to try this challenge again, because I would love to do better. At this stage my focus was on finishing, but I would love to go faster. I was astonished to discover that this is a challenge that sounds impossibly difficult but wasn't impossibly difficult for me.”
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
“Don't be afraid to dream big. Don't limit yourself to what people think you can achieve. If folks look at me, they see a middle-aged mum, whose biggest aspiration is to get dinner on the table and all her kids into bed at the end of the day. Well, that is an assumption and just isn't true! Most challenges that I do, I make sure the kids follow me along. Together we have done over a thousand parkruns. Take the impossible out of your dreams and start chipping away at them, bit by bit. You will be amazed at what you can achieve when you move out of the safe zone of ‘I couldn't possibly do that,’ and into the ‘I am just going to give it a try’ zone. Try new things, try challenges, you never know what you can achieve until you have actually tried.”