Day 25 - Tangier, Morocco. With nerves frayed after a week’s wait and various false starts, and with sea sickness tablets and malt loaf supplies running dangerously low, I finally got my window of opportunity to attempt to swim the Strait of Gibraltar on Saturday afternoon. Setting off from the Tarifa headland at 12.25pm, on a beautifully calm day for so late in the season, I made rapid progress initially in a strong following current, although choppy conditions along the coast prevented me from finding a nice rhythm and left me feeling seriously out of my depth. Still I ploughed on and with 45 minute drink stops and progress updates from Harry, Mike and the crew breaking up the monotony and taking my mind off a chaffed neck, salt collecting on my sinuses and the amount of sea water that must be sloshing around in my lungs, I continued to make steady progress....
As the swim continued the swell dropped and sighting the boat in front became easier, unfortunately I started swimming head on into a current of up to 6 knots which dropped my speed down to a hugely demoralising 1.5k per hour! I later found out that the captain had grave concerns at this stage about me making it and the crew, between cigarettes and siesta's, were joking about having forgotten to bring their overnight stuff. With Morocco seeming to get no closer, and fatigue setting in as the length of swim continued into unknown territory I was also having my first doubts and I was spending an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on why I was paying to go through such an unpleasant experience and trying to think of things I disliked doing more than swimming – incidentally sitting on an unbroken in leather saddle for 8-10 hours a day for two weeks was the only thing that I could think of to come close! Still, anger at myself for having got into such a predicament and knowing that a lot of people had backed me to make the swim with donations meant there was no chance I was giving up unless a hungry Great White intervened. It was at this time, about half way through the swim, that I unbelievably swam through a pod of pilot whales!! A family group of 5 or 6 whales swam 2-3m beneath me for 10 to 20 seconds, with all fatigue and worries put to the side I even forgot to breathe while I marvelled at the sight. This was a massive spirit lifter and from there on in we had Dolphins almost the entire way to Morocco, although none of them took my distress in the water seriously enough to come within reach for me to grasp a fin and hitch a lift (so much for the tales of dolphins helping out humans in need!).
Fortunately the currents dropped and altered direction and I was able to cut across and get back on course for the coast. From here on in I had an agonising 2-3 hours as I received various, and what appeared to be contradictory updates, through Harry my chief translator from the captain on the distance to go as we had to alter routes according to the currents. One minute it was 1.7km to the coast and then an hour later it was 2.1km - I can't tell you how angry and frustrated I began to feel as I longed to get away from being submerged in cold salty water and stand on dry land once again! Still the anger drove me on and at 7.00 pm after 6hr36 min swimming and approximately 25km I eventually touched Africa - a sheer, sharp and dangerous looking rocky outcrop of it! Faced with one last precarious challenge on very wobbly legs and arms weaker than a baby I managed to climb to a place where I could finally stand in Morocco.... Mission accomplished - I can only describe the feeling that followed as utter relief that the experience was over, quickly followed by a determined vow never to do any long distance sea swimming ever again!
Although physically exhausting I could have definitely swum on for longer, the real challenge in swimming is psychological and as someone who has disliked swimming with an absolute passion up until the last year, when I have learnt to regard it with mild contempt, I really had to push my mental state to the limit. At least the cold early mornings in September spent training in the Cotswold Water Park before work paid off and I'm glad in many respects I didn't complete even half this distance or duration in any training swims so I didn't know the full extent of what I was letting myself in for! With hardship however comes a great sense of accomplishment and I am still on a high from having overcome such a personal challenge. I hope this and the rest of the trip will serve to illustrate a strong belief I have that we are all capable of pretty much anything if we put our minds to it!
Thank you to everyone for their good luck messages it really did make all the difference out in the middle. Special thanks also to Harry and Mike for providing great company in the build up and much needed support on the boat, to Guy and everyone at BlueSeventy for providing a brilliant wetsuit and lastly to Rafael and the rest of the crew for organising and ensuring it was a successful crossing so late in the season and accomplishing a national first in working over a siesta!!
Unfortunately my tongue even now feels like a slug that has been doused in salt and I am still yet to recover the ability to taste properly. This would be a blessing in disguise if I was still in Spain but here in Tangier with Tagine's and other Moroccan specialities to try on my hostel doorstep it is a food lover’s nightmare. Still there is plenty of time and need to eat local cuisine over the coming weeks as I continue on my road southward. Let’s hope Morocco is ready for a horn happy England fan on a swimming high!