On 7th July 2017, Liz Denyer, Matt Duggan, Elliot Newsome and Claire Wilson swam across the Strait of Gibraltar from Europe to Africa. A 16.1 km crossing from Punta de Tarifa, Spain to Cires Point, Morocco. It was a challenging swim and one that is part of the Oceans Seven swim series for good reason. We successfully completed the swim in 4 hours 25 minutes. The water temperature was 20 degrees.
- Name: Strait of Gibraltar
- Location: Border of Europe and Africa
- Route: Punta de Tarifa, Spain to Cires Point, Morocco
- Type: Sea swim
- Distance: 16.1 km
- Swim Time: 4 hours 25 minutes
- Team: Liz Denyer, Matt Duggan, Elliot Newsome and Claire Wilson (all from Red Top Swim)
- Water Temperature: 20 degrees
- Support: Provided via The Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association
- Date: 7th July 2017
The Full Story
The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Europe from Africa. The shortest distance across it is 14.4 km (7.8 nautical miles) from Punta de Tarifa on the south west tip of Spain to Cires Point on the north shore of Morocco.
Due to the influence of the strong currents and winds which prevail in the region, the distance swum when crossing the strait is usually 16 to 22 km (9 to 12 nautical miles). It’s also a busy shipping lane with 300+ vessels passing through daily.
The depth of the strait ranges from 300 to 900 metres and there is various marine life within those depths including orcas (killer whales).
The Strait of Gibraltar Crossing is part of the “Oceans Seven” challenge which comprises of the 7 hardest channel swims in the world.
Getting a Spot
Unlike some of my previous swims, this is not one you can just rock up and attempt. Being a sea swim and a very busy shipping lane it is strictly regulated. The organisation that handles it is called The Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association. They are the official body that regulate the crossings and are the only option if you want to do this swim. They are based in Tarifa, Spain and handle all the admin, obtain the necessary permissions for the swim, provide observers to verify the crossing and liaise with the coastguards. They also of course provide support boats and pilot (guide) swimmers across, using their extensive experience of local conditions and sea currents.
The association handles approximately 60 crossing attempts each year between the months of April and October. Because of the severe weather conditions, there are very few days when the conditions are calm enough to attempt the crossing. Plus the association are limited to one attempt per day as there is only one set of support boats and all crossings have to be made in daylight hours.
Because of the limited opportunities to attempt the crossing, swimmers are usually grouped into a pod of up to four swimmers. Each swimmer will swim the entire distance (a solo crossing), but all swimmers have to stick together (within a few metres of each other) and be close to the support boats for safety reasons. So it is important that all the individuals swimming in the team are a similar speed.
There are a lot of people who want to do this swim and with the limited availability the waiting list can be quite long. Fortunately my swim club Red Top Swim in London have a long-standing relationship with the association, and several teams of Red Top swimmers have successfully made the crossing in previous years. So when a team was being assembled back in late 2016, I jumped at the chance to be part of it. The other team members were Liz Denyer (attempting the English Channel this year), Matt Duggan (Red Top Swim Coach and English Channel swimmer) and Claire Wilson (English Channel swimmer). So a strong team! We were fortunate to also form an able support crew of Andrew Wilson (Claire’s husband) and Trist Denyer (Liz’s Dad).
Unlike some of my previous swims where I’ve organised the whole thing myself, because we were doing the swim through the association, there weren’t really any logistics to take plan. So once we had booked it, we were good to go.
Our swim window would be 9 days from Friday 30th June to Sunday 9th July 2017. The long window maximises the chance of one good day of weather to attempt the crossing. We decided to base ourselves in Tarifa for the duration of the window, with a view to potentially returning home sooner if we did the swim early in the first part of the window. However, the opposite scenario was also possible, and we were prepared to stay longer if required. Last year, another team of Red Top swimmers ended up being there for 12 days before they got their chance to swim. We were all hoping we wouldn’t have to wait around too long before we got a chance to swim, but time would tell.
From my perspective, I’d been training for the swim for 8 months. 2016 had been a fairly relaxed year for me swim-wise. After some big events in 2015 (Swim 3 Lakes in 3 Days and Lake Constance Crossing), I spent most of 2016 typically averaging just one or two sessions and a maximum of 5 km per week. My serious training officially started on 1st November 2016 after an English Channel briefing session with the head coach at Red Top Swim, and English Channel expert, Tim Denyer. I’m doing a 3 person relay of the English Channel in August 2017 – but more on that elsewhere.
After the briefing I started taking swimming seriously again. I built over the next few months and hit my stride in February 2017, when I made it up to my target of 15 km per week. I then maintained that minimum weekly distance from February to June. This meant that in the five months leading up to the swim, I had swam 427 km in total and spent 124 hours (6 days) in the water.
In the four weeks immediately prior to the swim, I planned to peak (“hell week”) and then taper. This co-incided with a Red Top Swim Training camp in Croatia in the first week of June (65 km in a 6 days), which I followed with a moderate week (8 km), a good week (18km), then a moderate week (8km) to taper down. For the final run-up to the swim whilst in Tarifa, I took it very easy and just did a 15 minute sea swim every day to keep the feel of the water. Ultimately, I was ready.
On arrival in Tarifa, we had a briefing session with the president of the association, Laura Gutiérrez Díaz.
She explained that we were to be escorted by two boats, the pilot boat “Columba” and support boat “Duende del Mar” (a smaller “rib”). The Columba would lead us in front and we would be sighting off of it. The rib would move around us and provide our nutrition at the feed stops. Andy and Trist would be on the rib to support and feed us.
Sighting forwards was slightly unusual on a long distance swim, as we were used to swimming with the pilot boat to our side. In that situation, you can simply sight as you are breathing without interrupting your stroke. Having the pilot boat out in front would mean we had do head-up, open-water sighting. As we were all not too used to doing this, the prospect of doing this for what could be up to 6 hours gave us something to think about.
Laura then explained that the route would start at Punta de Tarifa, the south-western tip of continental Europe, and we would travel South East aiming for the north shore of Morocco. The first available landing spot is Cires Point, and then there are a few more to the East along the coastline of Morocco. But there aren’t too many and if you don’t make them, then the current will take you away into the Mediterranean and your crossing would be thwarted.
In terms of the weather, the main thing is that you need a westerly wind, which is not too strong. If there is any wind from the east, it makes it more or less impossible to successfully cross. The weather forecast during our briefing had very high, easterly winds for the next few days. So we knew we would be potentially looking at attempting the swim in the later half of our window. But the unpredictable nature of the conditions, meant that we’d only be able to rely on an accurate forecast 2 days in advance. We’d then get confirmation the day before from Laura if we were on for a crossing.
The water temperature. We were all going to be doing the swim following English Channel rules (essentially, just speedos, googles and swim hat). One of the attractions for me had been the prospect of doing a long distance swim in what I expected to be the luxuriously warm Mediterranean sea. However, I quickly learnt that the influence of the Atlantic Ocean meant that average temperature would be a lot colder than I expected. Officially this ranges from 16 C to 23 C, and other Red Top swimmers had told us they experienced an average of 16 C when they swam it in June. Fortunately, to our team of experienced long-distance, open-water swimmers this would be an inconvenience rather than a problem. Also, the air temperature was expected to be a very pleasant 25 C so this would have a big psychological impact. It always feels warmer in the water with the sun on your back.
Finally, there was the marine life. My expectations when I signed up was that this was a non-issue in the Strait of Gibraltar and in particular, there were no sharks. When researching the swim we learned that orcas are prevalent and frequently seen. No orca attacks have ever been reported on humans in the wild so that wasn’t a concern, but I was definitely told no sharks! Then shortly before travelling over, a friend of mine who happens to have a keen interest in a marine biology took great pleasure in telling me that there are definitely sharks in the strait. And not just any sharks, but great whites. Not ideal. During the briefing, Laura mentioned “the S word” in passing, so I had to bring it up with her. She simply responded that, “there is all wildlife in the strait.” But she reassured us there had not been any problems, and that it is not a feeding zone, so all wildlife would just be passing through. With a depth of up to 900m, it did set my mind off thinking about what could be lurking beneath us. I took solace in the fact there were four of us swimming, so in the very unlikely event of an issue, statistically I’d have a good chance of being ok!
We benefited significantly from having one of the Red Top Swim coaches (Matt) as one of our team. As well as being an accomplished swimmer himself (he swam the English Channel in 2016), he has successfully coached/crewed other swimmers across five of the Oceans Seven swims, including the Strait of Gibraltar. So we were in very good hands.
Matt helped me with my nutrition strategy. The biggest challenge was we weren’t going to be able to feed for the first hour. This is because you have to swim without stopping for the first hour as the current is very strong near the Spanish shore. The advice from the association was this was mandatory if we were to stand a chance of making it across. The team was used to typically feeding on a 30 minute cycle so this deviation was another variation that would make an interesting start to the swim.
My nutrition plan involved cycling though different types of nutrition on each feed. I used SIS, Endura and Gatorade Prime. All gels would be topped up with cold water and I planned to take on 250 – 300ml of fluid per feed. We decided to take hot water with us in case we wanted hot feeds, but only to give us the option. We would determine if we needed it during the swim. Of course, I also used my standard tactic of putting a favourite feed late on the swim so I’d be able to look forward to it. In this case, it was a couple of sachets of Gatorade Prime Fruit Punch.
We divided ourselves between our two crew members based on our speed, so Claire and I would be fed by Andy and Liz and Matt (the faster swimmers) would be fed by Trist. My fellow swimmers enjoyed how thorough I had been labelling up all my feeds, but we had plenty of time to kill whilst we were waiting and I wanted to make the support crews job as simple as possible.
In the briefing, we were told that the weather forecast meant we would definitely not be swimming in the first few days of our window. The earliest we expected to go was the Wednesday and that would need to be verified nearer the time. In addition, there was another group ahead of us in our window, “The Russians,” who would therefore go first when the conditions allowed it.
This meant we had a lot of time to kill in Tarifa, but without doing anything that would jeopardise our ability to swim. So no serious activity! Myself and Matt just kept fresh, swimming 15 minutes a day in the sea and averaging a gentle 800 m each swim. But our other two team mates were training hard each day. Liz continued to do a lot of training as she will be swimming the English Channel in four weeks time. Claire was also training hard as she will be swimming the Tjsugaru Channel (another Oceans Seven swim) in six weeks time.
I personally found it very easy to do very little whilst we waited! We had deliberately booked a nice apartment to hang out in and the biggest decision each day tended to be what to have for lunch and then where to go for dinner. So the first few days of the window leisurely passed, but then things started to build as we started approaching what looked like favourable weather.
The False Start
Whilst out for dinner on Tuesday night, we were unexpectedly contacted by Laura at 9pm. We were told there was a chance we might swim the next morning and to report to the port at 8am. With Wednesday being the first potential day to swim, and “The Russians” being ahead of us, we had all assumed the earliest we would actually go would be Thursday. So this was a little bit of a surprise, and didn’t give us much time to prepare. We were told the reason we were going to leapfrog “The Russians” was that we were a stronger team, and whilst the conditions weren’t looking good enough for them to attempt it, we would be fine. That was interesting information to hear, and it gave us the impression we’d be up against it before we even got in the water. That said, we all knew we were very capable of making the swim and we also knew that technically we could go any day during the window. So this was it. We finished dinner rapidly, did some quick scouting around town to get hold of some final supplies and then got home to pack and prepare for the swim early the next morning.
Whilst the short notice wasn’t ideal, when we got up the next morning we were all up for the swim. We made our way down to the port with all our gear, only for it to then be called off at the last minute! This was because the weather was actually worse than forecast and already too severe for anyone to attempt the swim.
After getting ourselves up for the swim, I personally found this quite disappointing but of course you can’t control the weather. I have to say though, that I think the false start probably gave us the jolt we needed to shift our mindset from what was becoming a relaxing holiday back to the swim.
After the false start we were checking Windguru every few hours to try and determine when we would swim. We were also keeping an eye on the support boats via Marine Traffic. So on the Thursday we knew “The Russians” had gone as we could see the boats tracking towards Morocco. This meant that we were definitely next to go and the weather forecast for Friday was looking favourable. Late Thursday afternoon we got the official confirmation from Laura that it was very likely we would be going the next day. We were told to be at the port at 8am ready to swim.
After the previous false start, I think all of us weren’t 100% sure we would be swimming even though this time the weather forecast was much better. It was only when we arrived at the port early Friday morning that we got the final confirmation that we were on. This was it!
We got ready on the jetty, loaded up the boats and then set off for Punta de Tarifa, a short boat ride from the port. It was a cloudy day with the sun trying hard to break through, but whilst the air temperature was warm there was certainly some wind.
It was only a few minutes out to the start point and after all the laughing and joking on the jetty, everyone fell silent as we focussed on what lay ahead. It was only brief but it was quite meditative to be alone in our own thoughts. We all had our own motivations for doing the swim and whilst we didn’t speak about that moment afterwards, I’m sure we were all doing our final mental preparations. I was personally reflecting on everything that had brought me to this point, and how exciting it was that I was now attempting to swim the Strait of Gibraltar!
We rounded the point and approached the Tarifa lighthouse that marks the end of continental Europe. We were told to get in and swim to the rocks. We were to all touch them and then they’d officially set us off.
One advantage of waiting a week is that we were ready for the water temperature. I’ve done several swims before where you don’t know quite what the temperature will be like until you get in to start the swim. This usually means it’s colder than you were expecting (it’s rarely warmer!), particularly when you first enter the water. This was different, as we had already acclimatised to the water during the waiting period so knew what to expect. And whilst I certainly didn’t find it cold, we also knew the temperature would improve once we got away from the shore. This would also be a good measure of progress.
We all slowly made our way to the start point, stretching out and preparing for what was ahead. It was all very quiet and calming.
We managed to touch the rocks, but the waves were pushing us hard into them so we didn’t hang about. The signal from the pilot boat went off pretty much immediately and with the adrenaline rushing through our veins, we got our heads down and started gunning it towards Africa.
As we started, the water near the Spanish coast was choppy with frequent waves. This made it quite difficult to swim as it was tricky to get into a rhythm. The waves were coming in quite fast and causing forced body rolls which were hard to control. I also swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of water during this initial period, which very unpleasantly forced me stop swimming and dry heave a few times. We all found the conditions demanding and psychologically it made the start quite difficult.
As I’ve already mentioned, we couldn’t stop for the first hour. As we all usually feed every 30 minutes, this was alien to us and it was difficult to appreciate the timing as a result. Naturally, that first hour therefore felt very long. The initial conditions certainly didn’t help, but after what must have been 40 minutes or so, I found myself regularly looking at the support boat to see if they were starting to prepare the first feed on the hour mark.
I have to say that I found that first hour very tough mentally. The swimming was fine, the water temperature was fine, but the dry heaving was unexpected and really knocked me back. It didn’t seem to be stopping and the worse was I didn’t know when it was going to strike again. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to hours of being interrupted in that way, and I even started thinking about how my future swims would always be in the calm of a lake!
When the first feed did come, the stop was very quick. I’m used to relaxed feed breaks, often with a bit of a chat. With this swim being heavily influenced by currents, we couldn’t hang around as we’d drift off course and lose distance. So the first feed felt very quick for me, even though it was only 60 seconds (which I’m told is still too long for channel swimming).
One hour plus
Unsurprisingly, after the long first hour the 60 to 90 minute period went like lightning and the second feed came around very quickly. This also coincided with the sea calming down as we got out into the channel and clear of the Spanish coastline. This made the swimming much easier, and we all started to get into our rhythm as things started flowing.
The water warmed up slightly as we got out into the channel. As we knew that would be the case it was good to know that we’d made it out of Spanish inshore waters.
Big ships and tankers started to appear at this point and some of them were simply immense. Even though the pilot boat made sure they were a safe distance away, it was both daunting and exciting to be sharing the strait with them. The crew saw dolphins playing on the bow of one tanker, but unfortunately we didn’t see them. We did hear what sounded like dolphin clicks under-water though, so knew they were close. I was also very aware of what else might be out there, but as some fear started to creep in, I just decided that I would simply accept whatever would happen and just get on with the swim. That was a very effective, unplanned technique and worked well for me throughout the swim. There was one exception when Liz suddenly appeared abruptly alongside me, and I panicked thinking it was a more unwelcome visitor!
The next couple of hours were glorious. The sun was out, we were in the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar dodging tankers and I remember thinking that this was an absolutely amazing thing to be doing.
We were all swimming at slightly different speeds, and the conditions meant that it was hard to stay very close together. Liz was by the far the fastest swimmer, so she regularly had to alternate freestyle with backstroke or breast stroke just to slow herself down. When I was sighting forward I’d often see her ahead of us treading water looking back, appearing like a seal with it’s head out of the water. Myself, Matt and Claire were swimming at more or less the same speed, but the waves meant we would often go from being within a metre of each other to being 5 metres apart in seconds. Also, if you were in the trough of a wave and would try and sight, you’d couldn’t see ahead above the crest of the wave in front. It would sometimes appear as if everyone had just vanished as they were outside of the trough you were in. But ultimately, despite the challenges, we were sticking together well as a team and there were no issues for the support crew as a result.
What was interesting was that I had planned some mind games to keep me occupied during the hours of solitude, but when I attempted to do them I quickly gave up. With the conditions, I found there was more concentration required than usual on the swimming but also I was simply enjoying the moment of being out in that beautiful body of water attempting something amazing.
I can see the coast!
One of the challenges I had prepared for in this swim was that you could see the destination from the start. The coastline of Morocco is very visible from the coastline of Spain, and from experience I knew that could be a problem. This is because it can seem like it is closer than it actually is in reality. I had made a conscious decision ahead of the swim, not to even look at the Moroccan coast at all, and instead just focus on sighting off the pilot boat. This was very helpful for me personally and it was only after we’d got through the shipping lanes and the tankers were passing behind us, that I started to look at the horizon. And Africa now seemed very close! This coincided with a feed where Andy told us there were a maximum of two feeds to go. So we knew it would be less than 90 minutes to land. In the build up I had done many training sessions of 90+ minutes so this felt like it was going to be a very comfortable finish.
Still I kept focussing on the pilot boat and not the shore, and just kept swimming. I was ready for the water temperature to start to dip but whilst we hit some cold patches, it never really did. The cold patches did make you think we were nearly there, but then you’d swim out of them again. So I quickly just started ignoring them and told myself not to get excited about how near the end potentially was.
Around about this point, the conditions started to worsen. The wind had picked up and the waves started rising. Luckily they were coming at us diagonally from behind, caused by the increasing north westerly wind. It was so strong that whitecaps started forming on the waves, but it did actually feel like it was helping us swim towards our goal.
We later learnt that the wind had actually risen to 35 km/h. This is too strong to even attempt the swim, and we would not have been allowed to start if the conditions had been like that at the beginning. The Spanish coastguard had contacted the pilot and actually wanted us to abort the swim, but by that point we had entered Moroccan waters. Our pilot was confident that we would make it, so risking a international diplomatic incident, he refused to obey the Spanish coastguard and let us continue the swim.
I snuck a look at the coast and it now seemed about a kilometre away, but all of a sudden, the pilot boat moved and revealed a rocky outcrop that looked like it was extremely near. This was actually Cires Point, and when we realised how close it was we all simultaneously broke out into a sprint for land.
At that point I felt jubilant with excitement and achievement. As we swam in, I had the humbling experience of seeing the sand and rocks on the bottom as we neared the land.
We quickly made it to the point and clambered up onto the rocks to clear the water. There were several Moroccan fisherman who first looked at us in bewilderment but then greeted us with a round of applause. After swapping some basic French, Arabic and handshakes with the fisherman, the team warmly embraced. We had done it.
None of us really wanted to move from the rocks, all giddy with what we had just achieved. This was perhaps exacerbated by how quickly the endpoint seemed to arrive. But the boat called us back and we begrudgingly dove back in swam back to the boat, throwing in some cheeky backstrokes to stretch out. We slowly climbed aboard, cracked open a couple of beers and headed back to Spain.
We had swam across the Strait of Gibraltar in 4 hours 25 minutes.
When reflecting on the swim, I asked my fellow swimmers what their thoughts were.
Matt summed up his as follows:
“Although it’s the shortest [Oceans Seven swim] it’s just as difficult as the other big swims with all the challenges compressed into the 16 km e.g. weather, tide, marine life, marine traffic etc.
It’s unique to swim in a pod of four still resulting as a solo crossing. This also has an interesting element of how different swimmers approach / prepare for such a swim and have to work as a team despite swimming (this type of swimming) typically being a solitary activity. The swimming equivalent of big brother.”
Or as Claire put it:
“I think Elliot’s quote of “there is a reason why a “short” swim is in the ocean 7 series” says it all!”
And finally Liz added:
“All very appropriate points. I think we should also add the quote of the week “he has no filter!” And something about mincing!”