The Monte Cristo Escape Swim
Inspired by the Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Elliot Newsome decided to recreate the escape of Edmond Dantes from the Chateau d’If island prison off the coast of Marseille by swimming to Ile Tiboulen de Maire.
I read the The Count of Monte Cristo in early 2016. It’s an old book that was first published in 1844. In the book, the protagonist Edmond Dantes is wrongly imprisoned in Chateau d’If. After several years of imprisonment, he finally escapes by switching places with a dead prisoner, whose body had been placed in a bag and was thrown into the sea. Once in the water Dantes decides the safest option is not simply to head to the Marseille shore for fear of being seen, but instead to swim towards the uninhabited islands of Tiboulen and Lemarie despite them being “at least a league [5.5 km] away:”
He completes his escape by reaching Tiboulen and thus begins an amazing tale of revenge on his enemies. I’d strongly recommend the novel, which I’ll state for clarity is a work of fiction.
Inspired by what I’d read in the book, I decided to investigate the swim further. Looking into it, I came across the annual Le Defi de Monte Cristo swim. This is an annual event and it turns out some of my fellow Red Top club swimmers had done it previously. However, this swim didn’t follow the route described in the novel but takes swimmers directly from Ile d’If directly to the mainland.
My view was that if I was going to do this swim, I was going to do it right.
According to Google Maps, the distance between Ile d’If and Ile Tiboulen de Maire is approximately 7.5km. At this point I had no idea about the influence of tides or currents but with my experience of previous long swims I was confident this was going to be do-able.
Whilst the book was written 170 years ago, I couldn’t find any record about anyone attempting this swim before. Given the popularity and age of the novel, I can’t believe no-one has done it but the fact I was potentially pioneering this swim was definitely an added incentive. As I was going to be on holiday in the south of France in August anyway, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to attempt the swim. But first I had to find a local support boat and obtain any necessary permission for the swim.
I managed to identify a support boat using the rental company Boaterfly. They are an intermediary who place boat owners with people who want to rent a boat and were very helpful. The only challenge was the language barrier as whilst I speak some French, it was difficult to explain the complexities of what I wanted to do.
As for permission to do the swim, Boaterfly directed me to the Harbour Master, who in turn told me to speak to the Prefecture de Maritime. The bureaucracy was beginning to look insurmountable and at this point the boat rental company suggested I just do the swim regardless. This was a concern as I didn’t want to be hauled out of the water by an angry coast guard before completing the swim, but given the difficulties I’d faced trying to obtain permission I decided to take the risk and go with this approach.
The next issue was the weather. Having not actually been to the location of the swim before, and having no local insight, the weather and resultant water conditions was a complete unknown. What I did know was that the Le Defi de Monte Cristo swim had been cancelled just a couple of months earlier due to bad weather, so I knew that there was a risk I wouldn’t be able to do the swim due to poor conditions. With that in mind I had given myself a two-day window in Marseille to attempt the swim. I was in France for the week prior and as we approached that window the weather worsened significantly. The day before the swim there were very strong winds (45 km per hour) which would have made it impossible to attempt, but fortunately the forecast was showing a large reduction in the wind to approximately 8 km per hour on the first day of my window. This was the best I was going to get and that confirmed Monday 22 August as my day to attempt to the swim.
The night before the swim, I couldn’t sleep and literally woke every couple of hours. There were a lot of things that could go wrong and as I lay in bed with howling winds rattling the windows I was concerned that the conditions may make the swim very difficult or even not possible, especially given my limited training this year. So after a very restless night, I got up at 7am to prepare for the day.
I always struggle to eat much before a big swim but I forced some breakfast down. In terms of nutrition for the swim my plan was to feed every 30 minutes on half a bottle (250 ml) of Powerade each feed plus alternate between a power gel and an Ovaltine bar.
Arriving at the location in the morning I was delighted to see calm conditions in the bay, with hardly any wind, very little swell and not a cloud in the sky. Importantly, having only seen the islands before on a map it made a big difference to actually see the distance between them with my own eyes. It was definitely do-able and it was at that point I knew I’d got this.
My skipper Samuel arrived and in French confirmed that there wouldn’t actually be an English speaker with us on the boat. However, he called an English speaking friend of his and I was able to relay all my instructions to them, for them to translate to Samuel. After we’d done that we got on board the rib and set off for Ile d’If.
As we drove out to it, after all the planning and with how much I’d looked forward to the swim I was incredibly excited. We were unable to get too close to the island so I dove off the boat and swam the remaining 50 metres to the island, climbing up onto a jetty via a metal ladder. Finally, standing on the island, looking out towards Tiboulen “at least a league away” was a brilliant feeling. I clearly piqued the curiosity of a number of tourists visiting the Chateau d’If as they were all looking down at me wondering what I was up to.
I leapt into the sea, put my head down and started gunning it towards Tiboulen. The water was glorious. A brilliant blue colour and very clear. The water temperature was 21 degrees which was an absolute pleasure, particularly with the sun on my back and an air temperature of 26 degrees. As usual it felt a little chilly when I first entered the water but I knew that wouldn’t last and any cold feeling disappeared well before the first feed.
I wanted to go hard for the first hour to break the back of the swim. I was very happy to have done 2km when I hit the first feed at 30 minutes. This left 5.5 km to go so after a quick feed I set off again, pushing hard to get as far as possible in the first hour. When I hit the second feed at the hour mark I was even happier to have done 4.3 km leaving 3.2 km to go. At this point, the skipper Samuel proclaimed that I was “un professional” which I was delighted with.
Even though I’d made excellent progress, I was unsure what conditions would come into play as I continued so just got my head down again and set off for the next 30 minutes. Shortly after setting off, I was aware of several yachts suddenly in the vicinity. It turned out there was a large flotilla of about 30 sailing yachts passing us on route to Toulouse. As they didn’t have motors and weren’t as easy to control, Samuel said it was very dangerous for me to be in the water and insisted I got on the boat until they passed. Samuel had GPS so once they had passed after about five minutes he was able to deposit me back in the water in the exact same place I got out. We’d paused the clock whilst I was on the boat, so we re-started it as I resumed the swim.
During this stage of the swim, my pace slowed as I was obviously tired after my initial exertion in the first hour. So after 90 minutes I had done 6 km and had 1.5 km to go. I was really pleased to have got so far (perhaps with some tidal or current assistance) so relaxed and took it very easy to savour what was left of the swim. During the next stage Tiboulen seemed to be so close but so far, something I’ve experienced before on other swims. I wasn’t sure if this was because the tide had turned or perhaps some sort of mind game. But I just kept swimming onto the next feed and at the 120-minute mark I had done 7.1km so had just 400m to go.
Then I gunned it again to get in and complete the swim. At this point I genuinely felt like the Count of Monte Cristo about to complete “my escape” which was really exciting. Ile Tiboulen de Marie is uninhabited and is pretty much just a rock in the sea so I was unsure how I would actually land on it but I was determined to climb out of the water to officially complete the swim. I spotted some steps cut into the rock just above the water line so made for them. When I got there, I was about a metre below them so with some difficulty scrambled up the rock cutting myself in several places in the process. But it didn’t matter as I stood on Tiboulen and threw my hands in the air in celebration. I had successfully completed the Monte Cristo Escape swim in 2 hours and 5 minutes and I was very, very happy.
Read Elliot’s original blog about his swim here: https://myswimmingadventures.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/monte-cristo-escape-swim/