The Swim from Europe to Africa

by Pool Builders on 04-28-2008 in Articles

I swam the fifty yards from the guide boat to the rocky point that was the southern tip of Spain. I placed my hand on the cold rock, without looking up, I turned toward the open sea and began the nine mile swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. On the other side was the northern tip of Morocco, Africa. This is the story of how on September 17, 2007, I became the 175th person and 24th American to cross the Strait of Gibraltar by swimming.

As I planned when I began the swim, I thought about the positives of the swim, I was prepared, I was confident, I was determined. At no time would I allow myself to think about the negatives that could loom large if I were to let them. The water is cold for my standards at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is choppy; four foot swells from the west (the Atlantic) and the ever present Gibraltar wind is about 10 to 15 miles per hour out of the west. There are very big ocean freighters that are moving through the strait, about three hundred per day for which to contend. My Spanish crew understands very little English, and I understand only a little Spanish. My ears are plugged for some extra thermal protection so I wouldn't hear them anyway over the guide boat engine. Finally, I am not twenty or thirty or forty any more, I am 49 and a month from 50 years old.

I have done other marathon swims including The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4 miles (10 times), The Swim Around the Island of Key West 12.5 miles, Alcatraz Island to Chrissy Point San Francisco 1.5 miles and The Swim Around Manhattan 28.5 miles (didn't make it all the way around, I stopped at 16 miles). I would love to swim the big prize, The English Channel, but I'm a skinny guy from Cleveland, Ohio, one needs to have some fat tissue for insulation to withstand ten hours in the water at 57 to 60 degree water temperature.

So why did I want to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar? There are a lot of reasons. Initially I wanted to do it because of the challenge. The goal seemed obtainable to me. It sounds exotic, swimming from Europe to Africa. My hobby is long distance swimming. I truly love swimming from point to point, through the elements and the thrill of making it to the other side.

Another big motivational force behind my desire to attempt this challenge came to me one day in church. Actually it was a beautiful thing that happened. A visiting priest from Catholic Relief Services told the congregation of the great work that his organization was doing in Africa and around the world. The stories that the priest told of the unthinkable strife and suffering that the people are enduring in war torn Africa spoke to my heart. Learning about the aid that Catholic Relief Services provides to these folks is inspiring, emergency aid, medical care, education, infrastructure development and empowerment education brought feelings of pride of being part of that group - Catholics. With all the negative press the Catholic religion seems to get in America, I thought that it would be very worthwhile to tell of a very positive side of the religion.

So there began a marriage made in heaven. I contacted CRS and proposed that I represent them on my swim to Africa. They would publicize the swim as a means to draw attention to the organization and to raise money for their efforts in Africa.

I was interviewed by several newspapers and a Christian radio station. I spread the word about what CRS did with joy and exuberance. With all the interviews and questions about CRS and why I was swimming from Europe to Africa, still the most frequent question was "What about the sharks?" I am not concerned about sharks. Unless provoked, they are not interested in people. So I answered the question with a little humor, "Sharks are not interested in skinny guys from Cleveland".

I learned of the swims existence also by chance. I was waiting for a trolley car at Fisherman's Warf San Francisco. The line to ride was rather long, so I began to look around. Right in front of me was the Dolphin Swim Club - established in 1865. Later I would find an account of several of their club members' Gibraltar swim on their web site. It sounded tough, but doable.

So as I began the swim from Tarifa, Spain at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, I stroked with the prayers and support of family, friends and all those associated with CRS, from the United States to Africa in my heart. It was a great feeling. I am very grateful for all that support. So with so many people interested in the swim, I became a highly motivated person. I wrote in my email message to everyone before I left:

"I am prepared"

"I am confident"

"I am determined"

I prepared a detailed plan to get across the strait. I planned everything from the food I consumed to how many strokes per minute, to what I thought about and when.

In the 4 hours and 16 minutes it took to me cross the straight, I swam to the boat for replenishment seven times. In those seven stops, I consumed three 12 ounce servings of Ultra Fuel carbohydrate drink, a half of a banana, a piece of wheat bread soaked in honey, and two Power Gels. My longest stop was about 30 seconds, the shortest 10 seconds. In the cold water it is important to keep moving so that as little of body temperature is lost during the stop. As I prepared for the swim, the variable that I was most concerned about was the cold water. So my crew, which consisted of my wife of eleven days at the time of the swim, Donata, practiced making those feeding stops until we were consistently under 30 seconds. The technique of food delivery that I prefer and the one we used involved a well placed throw of a plastic container from the boat with food or drink tied to a long line of rope. I consumed the nourishment while I treaded water. After I consumed the nourishment I would simply drop it and continue to swim. Donata would real it in and prepare for the next feeding.

Another preparatory action was to acclimate to the cold water that I expected in the strait. I trained in Lake Erie as often as possible. In the late spring and early summer, the temperatures in Lake Erie are similar to those in the Strait of Gibraltar in September, around 60 to 65 degrees F. As the summer weather slowly warmed Lake Erie, I sought out other methods to get used to the cold water. As many English Channel swimmer do, I did not use hot water for the 90 days prior to the swim. I took baths in cold tap water with ice cubes added. I held the ice in my hands and forced myself to stay in for at least 30 minutes. I shivered and shivered some more, sometimes for 20 minutes afterwards. One weekend Donata and I ventured to Lake Huron, north of Detroit, for colder water temperatures. The water in July in Lake Huron was in the high 60's, just a little colder than Lake Erie. Finally, 2 weeks before the swim, I traveled to Cape Code Massachusetts to test out my cold water preparation. The water was very cold - 57 F. At first I could only stay in for a couple of minutes. But then I thought about what was really happening when I felt cold and got out in only a few minutes. I began to watch what was really happening to my body. I was in no danger - it was just cold. That weekend I built up to several one hour swims. The acclimating in Cape Code was a great success. If I could withstand an hour in 57 degrees, I could certainly withstand 65 for five hours in the strait. Now with confidence in the cold water, I really felt that I had addressed all the variables that were under my control. I was truly prepared and confident.

I also prepared to keep my mind focused on positive thoughts as I crossed the strait. For six months, I began every day envisioning a successful swim. I said loudly and clearly to myself each day "I believe, I believe, I believe". I said it with conviction. I honestly believe that I summoned the positive power of the universe, GOD, for this swim. It is critical to remain positive in an open water swim. The vastness of the water, the cold darkness, fatigue, unexpected changes in the current, delays due to freight vessels, can all cause negativity to creep into the thought process. So on a white board, after each feeding, Donata would write a predetermined subject or focal point. The following is a list of the things I thought about:

First leg - My four daughters: Lauren, Marybeth, Amy, Joanna

Second Leg - I sang "Go all the Way" by the Raspberries

Third Leg - Mom

Forth Leg - The Cuando Cuando Girls (a saucy Spanish dance duet from the 1960's, trying to keep the atmosphere light)

Fifth leg - Catholic Relief Services and all the people that took interest in my swim

Sixth leg - My dad ( who died in 1999 )

Seventh leg - The song "Because We Believe"

Eight leg - the finish line

I also was very conscious to focus my attention on my stroke and how my body felt. My goal was to stay in the moment, stay open and light hearted. One of the things I've learned is that not much good happens in swimming or in life when you are worried about what is ahead (anxiety) or behind (regret). Not much good happens in swimming when one tenses the body. Sinking comes to mind.

The water was a beautiful deep blue. I could see 15 to 20 feet into the abyss. The water appeared to be clean. Although when the multiple giant freighters went by the water became permeated with diesel fuel. Surprisingly the smell in the water seemed to reach me while the ship was still a mile or so away. When the ships went by, first I could hear them coming, then I could see them out of the corner of my eye, then I could smell them. I planned ahead of time to be calm if a 12 foot wake from one of these supertankers came my way. The ships went by, but I barely perceived a change in the 4 foot swells.

My plan was to swim at 60 strokes a minute the entire way across. That would equate to a pace in the pool of 1 minute 30 seconds per 100 yards. So given the swim distance, 9 miles or about 17,000 yards, I swam 100 yards, 170 times on a 1:30 send off with no rest in between 100 yards segments. That is something to think about when doing 100 yard sets in the pool. Donata counted my strokes just as we had practiced then wrote the rate on the white board. My stroke rate reflected a balance between a pace that I could maintain and an effort level that would create enough body heat to keep me form becoming hypothermic. I maintained that 60 strokes pace the entire 9 miles except for the last mile. The water temperature in the last mile before Africa dropped suddenly 4 degrees to 61 F. With my goal in site, and still feeling very strong, I increased my stroke rate to 100% of effort or 66 stokes per minute.

As I progressed across the strait, the African Er Rif mountains slowly came into view. On most summer days the 2500 foot high mountain range is obscured from view by fog and dense haze. At about the five mile mark, the mountain range became clearer. I focused on my stroke, but it was hard to miss the sun bathed rocky mass as it loomed larger and larger. The mythical Er Rif mountain range is the southern pillar of "The Pillars of Hercules". The myth has it that Hercules separated the continents with his mythological strength. The Rock of Gibraltar is the northern pillar. For thousands of years, the Pillars of Hercules marked the end of the earth for people living in the Mediterranean region. Venture past the pillars and one could be attacked by demons or worse fall off the earth.

In the last 4 miles, the wind picked up and the 4 foot swells that came from my right, the Atlantic, turned into a 4 to 6 foot chop with white caps. I was surprised at how much the escort boat blocked the effect of the waves.

In the final 2 miles I could see a beach ahead, but it was hard to tell how far away it really was. I kept swimming, hoping for some communication from the boat. It never came. I was a little frustrated with Donata for not communicating my distance from the finish. I stopped and shouted "how much further?" I could not hear the answer so I swam another 100 yards and shouted again "how much further?' Finally, the guide boat pulled out to the right, exposing my destination, Punta Cires Morocco, Africa. Punta Cires is a very narrow piece of land that juts out about a quarter of a mile from the base of the mountain. I was only 500 yards away.

As I approached the rocks about 50 yards from shore, the boat captain yelled in Spanish, compli, compli, meaning that the swim was over. He was concerned for my safety as the 4 to 6 foot waves were crashing on the rocks. I had read other accounts of the swim being terminated by the boat captain with 50 yards to go due to the rough surf and the rocks. I really wanted to touch Africa if at all possible, mostly for the satisfaction of touching terra firma in Africa, but also for the incredible photo opportunity for me and CRS.

So as planned, I swam to about 10 yards from the rocks to see if there was a way to land without losing a few teeth or a neck. The water was fairly clear as I approached. A 4 foot wave crashed and then receded from the rocks. There it was, a natural ramp worn in the rocks by millions of years of pounding surf. This was my path to an incredible finish.

I swam to the ramp and walked about 10 feet to the highest point I could go before it became too steep. I was in 2 feet of water. With a 4 foot wave 2 seconds away from breaking on me and the rocks, I turned around and faced the strait with arms raised in glorious victory. Then I was pounded off the ramp by the force of the wave's break. I climbed up the ramp again and raised my arms in victory this time for 3 or 4 seconds. Then BAM I was knocked off the ramp again. So I swam back to the ramp and walked up this time for 5 seconds. I raised my arms in victory again. It was a great scene with the grandeur of the 2500 foot mountain in the background. Sly Stone from the movie Rocky please step aside. Donata got a couple of great pictures including some video of the pounding I was taking in the surf. I have no idea how she was able to even get me in the picture as the boat was bouncing up and down in the surf. My feet were starting to get cut on the rocks, so I stood a few more times and soaked in the moment. I estimate that I was in Africa for a total of 90 seconds. After about 10 beatings by the surf I had enough. So I swam the 100 yards back to the boat.

I climbed aboard. I was a little cold but in great shape physically and incredibly satisfied emotionally. Donata helped me cover up. The late afternoon sun still had some warmth so my body warmed quickly. As the boat pulled away from the African coast, Donata took another picture with the mountains in the background - an awesome shot. My elation was exquisite and I am still on a high 6 months later. Achieving my swimming goal and successfully raising awareness and thousands of dollars for CRS was extraordinarily satisfying.

I sat at my father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. about three months before the swim. As I had been very close to my father, I felt his spiritual presence. I felt as though he said to me three things:

1. Donata is great for you.

2. I am so proud of you.

3. The swim to Africa is your shining moment.

I suppose he was right on all accounts.

I encourage all readers and swimmers to dream and to be open to inspiration. Follow it. I leave you now with the lyrics to one of the songs I sang to myself as I swam across the Strait of Gibraltar:

Because We Believe

By Andrea Bocelli

Once in every life there come a time

We walk out all alone and into the light,

The moment won't last

But we remember it again when we close our eyes

Like stars across the sky

We were born to shine

All of us here because we believe.

God bless you and happy swimming.

Stephen Wargo

Stephen F. Wargo copyright April 2008

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