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From beginner to Robben Island swimmer in four months

Neither John Gunn nor John Paul Matthews (JP) had much open water experience. In fact, four months ago they were struggling to swim front crawl. So they decided to set themselves a little challenge. Could they swim from Robben Island to Cape Town, a distance of 7.7km in cold (12-14 degrees Celsius), shark-infested water? This is John Gunn’s report on the attempt.

So where to begin? On Monday 28 October, we took on one of the world’s most extreme open water marathon swims; Robben Island to mainland Cape Town, the culmination of four long months of training and grim cold water acclimatisation. The following is an account of the day and one of the most harrowing but rewarding physical and mental challenges either of us have ever completed.
After a sleepless night, we woke up on the appointed morning, opened the curtains and looked out over a thick, white mist, engulfing the Cape Town coast. Our hearts immediately sank – swimming in such conditions would be near impossible – yet we were filled with adrenaline and just wanted to get it done with. A text from Derrick, our pilot confirmed as much. We were forced to play a waiting game with updates on conditions coming through every hour. These first few hours of the morning were probably the toughest of the whole day as our nerves were in shreds; would we be attempting the challenge of a lifetime that day, or would we be sentenced to more sleepless nights, waiting and worrying? With no clear change in conditions by 11am the swim was unofficially called off as we prepared to head down to the bay later and get in a practice swim instead.

Robben Island Swim Pic 1

We immediately crashed out for an hour as the adrenaline left our bodies and woke up to what we’d been praying for all day – clear blue skies. A quick text to Derrick and the swim was back on, but we didn’t have much time! Racing down to the bay, we arrived at Blouberg Surf and Lifesaving Club and started to prepare for the swim.  JP’s dad had flown out to Cape Town to support us and he was going to be on a second boat (a huge comfort!). We quickly loaded our bags onto the boat and made up our feeds for the swim. Wearing only our swim gear and a jacket we walked through the shallows and jumped onto the pilot boat for the trip across to Robben Island. At first feel, the water was ok, 13c or 14c, which was seriously cold but hopefully within our capabilities.

Remembering Dan Abel’s advice to keep as warm and as dry as possible before starting the swim, we crouched down into the small pilot rib as Derrick powered up the engines and started to steer through the breaking waves. We managed to stay warm and dry for the best part of 25 seconds, before we were hit and nearly knocked off the boat by a huge wave. Already shivering, we set off for Robben Island, glancing up at each other as we motored across the dark water, both trying to fathom what we were about to do and experience.
Unbeknown to us, the other support boat had spotted a huge fin half way across but decided it was probably a giant sun fish. As we approached Robben Island, Derrick explained that we would need to swim 100m to the island and climb to shore before starting the swim (dictated by CLDSA rules), to do this we would need to navigate through tens of metres of kelp forests and the two support boats would be waiting for us about 200m out to sea on our return. With the range of the shark shield maxing out at 50m, I was dreading the long swim back to the boats…
In silence, we applied each other’s Vaseline and kitted up for the swim. This was it! Very rarely in life do we face such primal fears in an intense and isolated situation, and with a thousand thoughts flashing through our heads we slowly slipped into the cold water and started swimming towards Robben Island.
The water was startlingly cold, but we had confidence in our ability to withstand the temperature. We slowly swum to the shore, through the eerie kelp forests and after a small argument about what officially qualified as Robben Island (I was trying to convince JP that a set of off-shore rocks qualified as ‘the island’ but was over-ruled) we gave the boat a wave and set off back towards the mainland. Navigating our way through the shallow rocks and weeds just offshore was one of the most challenging aspects of the swim. One cut on a foot or toe would end the attempt as it’s not a great idea to swim through shark infested waters with an open wound. After about 10 minutes it was a relief to reach open ocean as the sea-bed morphed into a murky darkness; a simultaneously liberating but terrifying experience. We kept telling ourselves that no one had seen a Great White breach in Big Bay, but it certainly plays on your mind, especially after Angela (our mentor for the swim) had her attempt aborted after the appearance of a huge Great White.
After 30 minutes of swimming it was time for our first feed as we stopped by the side of the boat (being careful not to touch it – again against CLDSA rules) and took a few gulps of Maxim. We were making good progress, but the water temperature seemed to have dropped and it felt like we were swimming in 12c/13c, a huge difference and a struggle mentally. At times we both genuinely considered whether we could keep swimming through the cold. After an hour and our second feed, Derrick leaned over the side of the rib and informed us that we had already covered 2.75km. Great news! We were swimming quickly and being helped by a light wind. With a smile on our faces we set off again, feeling for the first time that we may actually complete the swim.

Robben Island Swim Pic 5

Time continued to tick by as 30 minute feeds merged into  each other, but every now and then, when we allowed ourselves to look up and over the horizon, the coastline seemed that little bit closer. We were going to make this!

However, once we hit the three hour mark we both began to struggle; we were seriously cold and exhausted at this point and with 1km to go, we found ourselves swimming into a smack of jellyfish. We were both stung five or six times and the stings were extremely painful. Derrick and the rest of the support team, as well as JP’s dad were fantastic at this point, shouting and screaming encouragement and letting us know that giving up was simply not an option so close to home.

Robben Island Swim Pic 6

Our pace dropped as we struggled through the last km and then came the moment we’d both been waiting for since we first booked our flights out to South Africa in July. We touched sand with our feet and staggered onto shore, in a daze of complete elation and exhaustion. We had made it; we had successfully swum 7.7km through cold, great white shark infested waters and most importantly we had achieved what we set out to do all those months ago. Derrick and the team rushed us into the recovery room in the lifesaving club as we set about increasing our core body temperatures.

Swimming from Robben Island really was the challenge of a lifetime and it feels great to join an elite group of marathon swimmers who have completed the swim. Both Angela and Theo Yach gave us a call after the swim to say congratulations, and our thanks go out to the both of them. They have been inspiring mentors before and after the swim and we certainly couldn’t have done it without them. A huge thank you to JP’s dad, and to Derrick and his team who were brilliant support on the day. We felt in great hands throughout. Finally, thank you to all of you who have supported us over the last couple of months, we have been astounded by the amount of people who have taken an interest in our swim and who have helped us raise £5000 for two fantastic charities. You guys made this all worth-while.
It may be a couple of weeks before we strip down to our speedos once again, but after 24 hours of well-earned rest and a couple of beers, we’ve already starting thinking about our next challenge, maybe minus the sharks this time. Meanwhile, if you want to contribute to our fund-raising for this swim, please visit:

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.