Expect the unexpected

Extreme swimmer Ryan Stamrood has just completed his 100th Robben Island crossing, the iconic 7.5km swim from Blouberg, Cape Town to Robben Island infamous for its cold water, strong currents and marine life. Howard James caught up with him just before his century swim to talk about whales, 10 degree water and his hopes for the development of open water swimming in South Africa.

How did you first get into open water swimming?

I was getting fat and unhealthy on the couch, so eventually got up and joined a little swim squad to change my ways. As I stuck with that a bit, eventually I found my way to the open water and was encouraged to set the ‘impossible’ goal of a Robben Island crossing… and so started the journey.

How old were you on your first Robben Island Crossing?

I was 31 years old – and this was the first ever significant sporting achievement for me.

How is each crossing different?

As Lewis Pugh and I always joke: “There is no such thing as an easy Robben Island crossing”. Every now and then, the stars align and there are no surprises. But more often than not, especially when you are expecting plain sailing, there will be a current pushing you off course, an unexpected wind whipping the water up, water temperature being 2 or 3 degrees colder than predicted, a million jellyfish come to visit and so on. Expect the unexpected.

What marine life have you encountered?

On 100 crossings I have encountered lots of wildlife: seals, sunfish, dolphins, yellow tail, penguins and whales.

My favourite encounter – I was swimming from Three Anchor Bay to the island once with the late Theo Yach [who holds the record for swimming Robben Island 108 times]. We had started very early in the morning’s twilight and were enjoying calm, chilly water with a high visibility. About 2km off the coast, now in the deep waters and settling into my stride, I looked down into the deep, into what should have been the abyss, but realised somehow I was only 2m above a large coral reef. It gave me a fright as I certainly did not expect to see this and I know very well there is no coral reef between Three Anchor Bay and the island. After taking a deeper than usual next breath, I stared down at the reef and realised I was actually staring at a huge whale swimming slowly just below us. It had coral growing on its back. With that, its huge tail swooshed right up to my face bringing with it the icy waters from the deep. The support crew where none-the-wiser until suddenly the whale surfaced on the other side of the boat about 30m away. Eerie, memorable and a true blessing knowing this gentle giant had come to take a look at what the hell we were.

Note that after 100 crossings, not one shark sighting (which is the first question on everyone’s lips).

Has there been a most memorable crossing?

Many, many, many memorable crossings – the whale encounter being one of them. But 60 stands out as it saw me and a few lucky others swim late one afternoon from Blouberg Beach to Robben Island, but instead of heading home straight away, we had the unbelievable privilege of climbing out the water and walking the 100m up to the colonial old guesthouse, lighting a large fire and staying the night on the island looking back at the lights of Cape Town. This is not available to the public, so it was very special. We also had our own private tour of the island. Next morning, we were up early, walked the 100m from the guesthouse back to the water and swam back to the beach. Amazing and deep experience knowing its extremely rich history.

What has been the warmest temperature?

18 degrees is about as good as I have ever gotten it!

What has been the coldest temperature?

I completed a crossing in 10 degrees once. ‘Once’ being the operative word. Not much fun.

What is it about this swim that has made you return to it time and time again?

The unpredictable, often choppy and cold waters between Robben Island and the mainland present the best training grounds for me when I take on bigger open water challenges. It throws all the elements at once and is therefore good for cold water conditioning and fitness. So, besides being an amazing swim, rich in history and under the shadow of Table Mountain, it is my prime training route.

How will you celebrate your 100th crossing?

I will celebrate this milestone by using the small platform I have created for myself to raise funds for those who need it the most and to try to provide a sustainable resource for my chosen cause. Thereafter, I will celebrate with good mates and all those who have been a positive part of an amazing journey.

Will there be more crossings?

Yes indeed – you won’t stop me swimming this route anytime soon. I love it. And there are so many I plan to help achieve their first crossings.

Open water has a strong following in South Africa especially Cape Town, Why do you think this is?

A couple of reasons. First is that we have some of the most incredible oceans surrounding us, bit cold perhaps, but accessible none-the-less. Then we have so many legends of the sport – Hugh Tucker (Hall of Fame); Pete Bales (first male EC for SA); Tony Sellmeyer; and many more who have given so much of their time to grow the sport under the CLDSA (Cape Long Distance Swimming Association). We have the awesome BigBay Events under Derrick Frazer, who has made many exciting swims more accessible and safe. And also the (slightly) younger generation who actively grow the sport, create some fun and bring personality to it. All attracts growing numbers.

What would you like to see happen within the sport in South Africa?

My heart lies in initiatives which help children to learn to swim, stemming drownings and getting them excited about the open water. I am supporting one of these and I’d love to see more of this happening.

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.