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Theodore Yach completes 100 Robben Island swims: interview

At just over 7km from the mainland and visible from Cape Town the possibility of swimming from Robben Island has attracted interest since 1909 when Henry Charteris Hooper made the first crossing into old Cape Town harbour. The swim has since become more significant as Robben Island gained huge political, cultural and historical significance in South Africa as the place where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 18 years. While relatively short by marathon swimming standards the crossing is challenging because of the temperature – typically around 12 degrees Celsius – and the very real presence of great white sharks. The name “Robben Island” comes from the Dutch and translates to “Seal Island” and the seals, of course, attract the sharks. The main routes are from Robben Island to Blouberg (7.4km) and from Robben Island to Three Anchor Bay (11km).

Completing the swim once is a significant achievement on a swimming CV but the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association maintains a long list of people of who have completed the swim multiple times – yet none more so than Theodore Yach who on 22 March this year completed his 100th swim.

H2Open: When did you first have the idea to do 100 crossings? 

Theodore: The idea of a hundred crossings was in my mind from approximately my 20th when I took over from Peter Bales – President Cape Long Distance Swimming Association – as having swum the most crossings in the late 90s. As it was such a ridiculous idea, I kept the thought to myself until I had reached my 80th crossing ……

H2Open: What attracts you to repeating the same swim over and over compared to seeking out lots of other interesting and challenging swims?

Theodore: I have actually swum many iterations of the swim: Robben Island to Blouberg , Robben Island to Three Anchor Bay, Camps Bay to Robben Island (18km), Llandudno to Robben Island (22km and freezing!)*, Three Anchor Bay to Robben Island and back to Three Anchor Bay (22km), Three Anchor Bay around RI and back to Three Anchor Bay (30km and arguably my best performance on a Robben Island swim**). Each swim is unique and interesting. I now have a collection of pictures and videos of dolphins, whales , penguins and sunfish that is spectacular. Due to the harsh conditions that prevail, each and every swim is a challenge in itself. I have never exited the water and said “hmmm. That was easy!”. That said, my English Channel crossing in 1996 was probably the toughest swim I have ever completed and I would like to do more overseas swims in the future.

H2Open: How many unsuccessful attempts have you made – and what caused those to be stopped?

Theodore: I have had four Robben Island failures: one due to a nosy great white shark in 1994 and three due to conditions turning against me, especially water temperatures dropping below 10 degrees!

H2Open: Have you got better with practice? Does it ever become routine? 

Theodore: My nutrition changes over the years have enabled me to increase my base speed in the pool with the help of Professor Tim Noakes. For the uninitiated, Tim is arguably the foremost sports scientist in the world. Instead of eating chicken sandwiches and drinking Coca Cola on the swim, I now have a much more scientific dietary approach.

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H2Open: What were the coldest and toughest conditions in which you made the swim?

Theodore: In the mid-90s, I swam a Robben Island to Three Anchor Bay crossing (10.4km) with Greg Bastick, who has also swum the English Channel. We knowingly started our crossing in 11 degrees and ended in 10 degrees some three and a half hours later. I never thought we would make it all! It took me days to warm up…..

H2Open: Have any of the swims been particularly memorable?

Theodore: My Loop swim – Three Anchor Bay around the island and back to Three Anchor Bay in 10h39m for 30km in 2009 is probably the most memorable after my two overseas swims (the English Channel in 1996 and Sea of Galilee in 2014). If my crew had got the line wrong, I would have taken several more hours to complete, which in great white territory in the dark is not a good option! On the other hand, we had dolphins, one nudging me every so often, and penguins the entire route!

H2Open: Obvious question but what next?

Theodore: A time of reflection and gym work for the next few months to see what I want to pursue next in the open water. My focus will most likely turn to some epic overseas swims.

H2Open: Please remind us of the date of your first swim.

Theodore: November 1981, and it goes with a story. I met my wife of 31 years, Michelle, one week before my first successful crossing (I had already failed my very first attempt). Only years later did Michelle reveal that she told her friends: “Not sure about this Yach boy. I think he is delusional. He thinks he is swimming to Robben Island!” Open water swimming was regarded as aberrant behaviour in those days! My time for my first swim, which was the 7.6km route from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand, was 1h54m and I swam alone with Peter Bales as my pilot and my friend, Jeff Glazer, as observer. Thirty-five years later, Peter Bales was also pilot for my 100th crossing!

*Theodore holds the record for this swim, set on 8 April 2014, of 7hrs 3minutes.

**And another record: 28 November 2009, 10hrs 39minutes

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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.