Swimming Robben Island, A Lotus Rises Meets Natasha Dyer

Natasha Dyer is a London-born and based open water swimmer, working as a communications specialist for international development, focused in Africa. She is passionate about social justice and ensuring people have equal access to quality education. She’s currently conducting research into the drivers of conflict behind xenophobic violence in South Africa.

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On May 4th 2016, she swam 11.3km around Robben Island, becoming one of less than 10 women to have completed this swim. This was her first swim over 10k and in challenging temperatures of between 13 and 16 degrees.

A Lotus Rises spoke to Natasha to find out what it takes to break through the 10k barrier, acclimatisation and the story behind her inspiring swim!

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Natasha and her swim crew!

What’s your swimming background?

I always loved swimming, especially in the sea, but had never considered taking up open water as a challenge until I moved to South Africa in 2010 and was looking for ways to fundraise for the educational charity I was working for. The first South African to ever swim the Channel Peter Bales, suggested I swim the 7.5km crossing from Robben Island to Cape Town (Big Bay). I initially thought he was crazy but then I met the rest of the Cape Town open water swimming community and never looked back! I completed that swim on my second attempt (1st go I was pulled out 500m before the shore due to hypothermia) but when I moved back to London I let my inner fish lie flat for a while, while I did other things. Luckily, last year I joined the Serpentine swimming club, a collection of weird and wonderful people, and my swimming took off again! 

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Why did you choose a circumnavigation of Robben Island?

This year I set a goal for myself of swimming over 10km in open water. As South Africa was where it all began for me, and I knew there were several 10k+ swims around Cape Town, I wanted to do it there. Robben Island is of course a very significant landmark, as its where Nelson Mandela and many other struggle heroes were imprisoned for almost 30 years during apartheid. It was quite something to contemplate while swimming around it. Definitely provided motivation, as did swimming towards Table Mountain! 

 I was in town to be a bridesmaid for my swim buddy’s wedding and with all the celebrations had given up hope that I’d get a swim in before leaving. Especially as the crossing I’d planned to attempt – from Robben Island to Three Anchor Bay – was off the cards because of a recent storm damaging the landing area. However, the day before my skipper Derrick Frazer – head of Big Bay lifesaving club  and the man who had pulled me out when I was hypothermic during my first crossing (and thus saved my life) – suggested swimming around the island, so I jumped at the chance! It was all pretty last minute, but I think that’s the way to approach it as you can never be sure a swim will actually happen. I was pretty nervous about the temperature and whether my mind was up to the challenge, but everything happened so serendipitously, I knew I had to make it! 

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The water temperature ranged between 13-16 degrees. It’s also famed for having a few exciting inhabitants. How did you prepare to swim in those temperatures and were you nervous about sharks at all – if so how did you overcome that?

The sea life on the day was amazing. On our way out to the island we met a pod of more than 100 dolphins. It was such a thrill to see them jumping in and out of the water at breakneck speed! During the swim my crew also saw penguins, seals and a couple of whales! People always think of great whites in the Atlantic, and they are there, but are hardly ever seen around Robben Island as they prefer the warmer waters at Seal Island and around Fish Hoek where the seals, are found. Occasionally they mistake surfers for seals in the waves, but human attacks are pretty rare. We just hear a lot about them when they do. People like to hype up the shark element to Cape Town swimming to make it sound impressive, but the truth is that the cold is the biggest challenge. 

Saying that, the thought does sometimes enter your mind that you might meet something, so you have to push it out and carry on. At the beginning of my swim, I had to skirt quite a lot of jellyfish which freaked me out at first. But I soon realised they weren’t stinging, so I focused on avoiding the kelp (thick sea weeds) instead! 

In terms of training, I swam at the Serps during the winter, where the temperature got down to 3 degrees at one point, so I felt fairly acclimatised to the cold. I’d done a half an hour sea swim the week before however and felt pretty shivery, so I was still nervous. And on the day, it definitely was cold! 

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Was the swim difficult to organise independently? What logistic considerations were there? Who were your support crew and what role did they play in this swim?

I was lucky, as I already knew the people who could make it happen quickly. I had submitted my forms to the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association who verify the swim, but my skipper organised the logistics. If you’ve never done a swim like this, its wise to connect with an experienced skipper who can help beforehand and brief you to make sure all you need to worry about on the day is swimming! 

You can’t underestimate the importance of having a good support crew. As said, Derrick was my skipper and my second was my great friend and newlywed Zani Taitz, who swam the second half with me. It was a great boost, as I was definitely cold when she got in and its always nice to swim with someone, especially friends. Looking up at dear people that had helped me get into the sport, cheering me on and enjoying it as well was such a thrill. Also the thought of how good I’d feel at the finish and how happy I’d be to tell my Serps teammates, with whom I’ve signed up to swim across the Channel and Lake Geneva this year. So I (literally) gritted my teeth and just kept swimming!  

What advice do you have for any other swimmers wanting to break through the 10k barrier?

A month or so before, I’d gone on a swim camp organised by Nick and Sakura Adams, very experienced open water swimmers who do an enormous amount to prepare aspiring Channel and other open water swimmers to succeed. During the camp, we’d done a 10km straight session in the 25m pool which, although brutal, had shown me that I could swim the distance in one go. 

Having done other sea swims before also helped, especially because the sea is very different to river swimming. The salt water dehydrates you and makes your throat quite sore and you have to learn to swim in the waves. Completing other swims had also showed me I could stay in for a while and cope with the cold, though I knew it’d be tough. I just thought about how far I’d come from that first Robben Island crossing. There’s no magic formula however, just time in the water, learning from other experienced swimmers, gritting your teeth and enjoying it! 

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What next?!

As mentioned, in August I’m swimming in a relay across the Channel and in September another across the 69km Lake Geneva. Next year I’m considering swims around the bottom of Africa at Cape Point (where sharks are more common), between the Fjords in Norway, crossing the Gibraltar straits or swimming at Alcatraz! But I haven’t decided yet. For me, a huge part of open water swimming is not just about testing my limits of duration, distance and mental strength, but also getting to explore different parts of the world and its nature through swimming. 

As you know, at A Lotus Rises, we are working in partnership with the International Institute for Swim Cake Studies on a groundbreaking research project to answer the question “What is the best cake for optimal swim performance?”. What is your preferred Swim Cake and why?

The best swim cake I’ve had so far is the Guinness chocolate cake fellow swimmer and butterfly swim nutter Sam Mould made for my birthday. It melts in your mouth and is absolutely divine. What a great study! Please invite me to try the shortlist.

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Thank you Natasha!

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.

Many more inspirational stories, advice and adventures can be found on our Blog, and Facebook page and please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or  alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!

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