The Seli-1 was a Turkish Bulk cargo carrier transporting oil and coal that ran aground in Bloubergstrand, Cape Town in September, 2009. After some lingering environmental issues, including a fire in 2010, Seli-1 was eventually dismantled in 2013 and the remainder sunken down to the ocean floor to be reclaimed by mother nature as an artificial reef.
The Shipwreck swim has been a one-way 5km swim past the Seli-1 for a number of years. Due to being heavily reliant on the weather, open water swimming is seldom predictable and the race had already been postponed until today because of mother nature’s raging tempers. Unfortunately, she was still in a bad mood and today’s forecast saw big swells with recommendations from the organizers that those who were not used to those challenging conditions should not participate. The water temperature was at a very fresh 12 degrees which proves difficult and uncomfortable over longer distances. The route was revised to a 4km triangle from Big Bay, Blouberg for safety considerations. And although the revised route did not swim past Seli-1, it still felt like a shipwreck swim, because it became the truest form of an adventure swim… a survival swim.
The swells swimming out of Big Bay were gigantic. It felt like swimming into vertical walls of water. Each stroke was impaired and each gulp for fresh air was rewarded only with a mouthful of salty sea water. One could not but feel a bit sea sick and nauseous as we were tossed up and down, side-to-side, while making our way slowly against the current. I could not even put my head up too far to look for the buoy because I caught glimpses of the terrifying size of the swell in front of me and so decided to keep my head down and just keep swimming.
As we swum around the course in mild confusion, with the current against us for most of the way, not clear of our direction and not being able to see far due to the high swells, we were not even aware of the number of victims that had been claimed. Fortunately, the race organisers had SUPs and a number of rubber ducks to pull the swimmers out of the water. Some were claimed due to the conditions and for other, hypothermia, was a major factor.
Hypothermia is the most likely risk factor (despite people citing sharks) for all of our swims in the icy Atlantic sea. Having felt mild hypothermia once, where the cold seeps into your internal organs, and you never feel like you will be warm or live again, it is very dangerous. The next level of recovery (from feeling like you are dying) is the shaking where your entire body shakes uncontrollably to warm itself. Drinking hot chocolate or coffee at this stage is virtually impossible as your hands shake too much to hold it up to your mouth. And then finally, after you have spent a few minutes, under blankets with hot water bottles or heaters and in the hot warm sun, you begin to feel normal again although sometimes it takes a few hours to feel properly warm.
Mother Nature won today, with about half of the participants having to be rescued from the swim and not finishing. The rest of us survivors were able to pull ourselves to shore, wondering if we had to find ourselves in these type of shipwreck conditions, whether we would be able to swim ourselves to safety. I enjoy swimming for the sheer joy of being in the ocean, the beauty of the sea life and when I am swimming smoothly, I feel like I am flying. Today was not one of those days. It was not enjoyable. It was tough. But there is something about being tested in extreme mental and physical conditions and surviving that gives you a sense of accomplishment. It makes you grateful for your healthy body that can be pushed beyond its limits and come through for you to allow you to finish. There is also a sense of comfort that you can maintain a calm and clear mind with a determination to finish.
But there is also a lesson to be learnt in knowing your own limitations, while being prepared to test them, which keeps the fine line between being brave and a complete idiot in balance. I sincerely respected all of those who called for help or accepted the decision to bail out of the swim because there were no casualties today. For me, my swimming kryptonite is jellies and blue bottles, and I know if I encounter a swarm of them in a race or crossing, I have to bail because I am highly allergic. It is disappointing and I feel like a failure but it is the better decision and choosing to look after myself at the expense of my ego’s need to finish is the victory in those circumstances. Sometimes I swim for sheer pleasure but more often than not it also teaches me invaluable life lessons about myself and others which keeps me coming back.