I joined the boarding queue, just as a vaguely familiar chap joined the queue just in front of me. My suspicion from earlier that I knew him was correct. We chatted, he’d been there on urgent family business. He’d guessed I’d been on early holiday in the popular location, but during the conversation I responded (or as my friend Finbarr Hedderman would say: I blabbed) I’d swum the Gibraltar Strait two days earlier.
“Well, I guess you win the weekend“.
That wasn’t how I felt.
When I have recounted a story, it’s because there’s something out of the ordinary, considering the extraordinary world of marathon swimming. Something that someone might learn from, or enjoy or both. Some swims I’ve done or more importantly have crewed or observed, haven’t made it here. Those swims were important. To me, and more importantly to the other swimmers. They were personal, and sometimes private. I have a number of swims I’ve been involved with that I’ve never mentioned here. My own are fair game. With my own swims, I can, with gained experience or viewpoint, explore this stupid sport a bit more deeply. Most importantly, the original goal remains that you might learn something from my experiences, good or bad or my stupid mistakes. Being a lone swimmer, I can’t exactly blame them on anyone else!
The Strait of Gibraltar swim is sometimes called the most expensive swim, mile for mile, in marathon swimming. That seems like an accurate description. It’s probably only the second most expensive though.
The cost of a solo Gibraltar swim in 2017 is €1950.
If you can figure out what distance it is…well…. figures range from 11.2k according to Nick Adams, through the official ACNEG distance of 14.4k to the Google Earth distance of 15.1 and through to 21k, depending on how much the person wants to impress you or how much sheer hyperbolic bullshit they are willing to throw (of which this is the most egregious example of bare-faced bollocks I’ve seen) in the hope of feeling better about themselves.
In comparison to the shortest English Channel route, using the official distance, that puts Gibraltar at €130 per kilometre, versus an English Channel cost per kilometre of about €87, or 50% more expensive per kilometre.
Unlike any other Channel swim, you can decrease cost by increasing swimmers, up to four, aka tandem swimming (everyone swimming at the same time and matching speed), providing no assistance or drag and staying within 50 metres of each other.
But wait, you don’t divide the cost by four. You must add €550 for each additional swimmer. So for four swimmers, the cost is €1950+(3×550)/4, which is €900 per swimmer, or €1000 for three, or €1250 for two.
The most expensive you ask? The Tsugaru Strait is $8000 for 19.5k, which is a phenomenal €375 per kilometre.
How the hell did I end up in this expensive and stupid sport? I keep returning over the years to Ted Erikson’s famous phrase: “Marathon swimming is a dumb thing“. Rarely were truer words written about any sport. The most obvious overlooked aspect of marathon swimming is not that it (necessarily) takes the best swimmers, but it takes those who can bear the cost. Like many people, I would swim more if I could afford more or had more time. I can’t, so I don’t. And my beloved Copper Coast is always free, and empty and welcoming me.
Helping drive the cost of marathon swimming in recent years is the demand driven by people wanting to tackle the Ocean’s Seven, as first finished by Irishman Stephen Redmond in 2012. The target idea of the Ocean’s Seven has led to organizations with poor capability, capacity and communication skills suddenly being in demand. For example, the North Channel, never a popular swim, has seen more swimmers in a few years than in its entire history.
There was no forethought or community discussion of the idea, no interrogation if some of those swims were adequate or possible. Had there been I doubt Gibraltar would have made the list, being easier than all the others, and some of the organizations might have been able to put the necessary organisational changes in place, like the ILDSA had subsequently to make to handle North Channel demand. Some of the organizations still operate as utter monopolies.
Taking my usual viewpoint as a swimmer, I wonder whose interests are really being served by some of these swims? The Ocean’s Seven exists for one reason only: Clicks, that is to say online traffic, and consequently ad revenue. I am the world’s most naive swimmer and if even I see this, it should be clear to everyone.
But I digress into a different subject.
As I said above, the ACNEG gives the route as 14.4K and the tradition in marathon swimming is to use the shortest official route. All other claims may be personally meaningful, but lack credibility. Nick Adams postulates 11/12k though I don’t follow his logic, but then he’s a maths teacher, and I’m not.
I emailed ACNEG the governing “association” in 2015, requesting a possible swim in 2016. I’d hoped to arrange a four person tandem swim with Ciaran Byrne, Rob Da Bull Bohane, and Finbarr Hedderman, which I’d planned to add once I had a date.
However…I only got a response in 2016…asking which month of three I wanted….for 2018. I discarded doing Gibraltar.
I subsequently wrote a short note about ACNEG’s disorganization on the Marathon Swimmers Forum. And was thereafter contacted by multi-marathon American swimmer Anthony McCarley, who had a slot booked for May and offered me the position of additional swimmer. After some faffing, entirely by me, over a few months, Anthony and I joined forces.
Two weeks before the swim, all my paperwork having been completed and submitted, I received another email from ACNEG. Asking me which month I wanted in 2018. Again. (I admit to wondering when I got there if I would be allowed to swim).
The week before the swim, based on my weather forecasting, Anthony’s lifelong Spanish friend, Santiago Minguela, our chief organiser, experienced Channel boat crew, swim-wrangler and all-round minder frantically tried to get an answer from ACNEG about the only possible swim window of Mon May 1st. Only two days before travelling we finally got a response. This type of disorganisation is common to ACNEG, and very frustrating for swimmers, especially when so much money is required, of which note, a full fifty percent is required up front.
The forecast remained stable, and typical of the Gibraltar Strait: In the windsurfing capital of the world, there were strong winds from the west, then one possible day, then howling Levante winds from the Mediterranean afterwards. Never go to Tarifa for a holiday, unless you a kite-surfer or are studying wind turbines.
But we got out for our swim on May 1st.
As we motored the very short distance from harbour out to the start on the south side of Tarifa Island, I recalled one of my favourite lines from cinema. It’s the most apt line I’ve ever heard for any marathon swimmer. It’s been in my head for years.
I’m not going to bore you with a lot of unnecessary detail about the swim. Most swims are crap and it’s not until we are doing them that we remember, and think to ask ourselves “why the hell am I doing this again?”.
Tarifa Island, the beginning of the Gibraltar swim is almost exactly 1800 kilometres south-south-east of the Guillamene on Ireland’s south-east coast, my home swimming location. On the first of May 2017 the Strait water is over 16 degrees, compared to the ten degrees of Tramore Bay. All the world is in those six degrees. In ten degree water the previous weekend, I was swimming 75 minutes. In 16 degree water, it felt so warm to me that I would have bet Loneswimmer Lighthouse that it was at least eighteen degrees. But then I am more attuned to slight variations of cold.
I perfectly understand that by marathon swimming standards, Gibraltar is not that significant. I wholeheartedly agree that a sub-five hour swim should not cause problems. You could do a 15k training swim and other than your own satisfaction and records it wouldn’t be a big deal. The one thing that attracts those who aren’t Spaniards is the idea that if you’ve swim between two countries, it’s nice to say you’ve also swum between two continents. Honestly, there was not much else than that in for me, except just having another new swim experience, and a swim that didn’t require a year hard-core training or preparation.
So to me, and hopefully to you, the most interesting thing about the swim is how and why I messed it up.
In the next part. And there will only be a second part hopefully. It’s a short swim. If I hadn’t messed it up, we’d probably done by now. But I like getting my mistakes out in public, and since no-one else ever makes any, I have to be my own research material sometimes.