We’re excited to post this guest blog from Bret Barasch. He swam solo across the Strait of Gibraltar and chose Ocean Conservancy as the recipient of his fundraising efforts – thank you! Congrats to Bret on this amazing accomplishment. You can still donate to Bret’s fundraising efforts today.
This past October, I set out to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. The strait connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Spain from Morocco (and Europe from Africa). It’s about 10 miles across, but the strong current that flows in from the Atlantic almost always ensures you’ll end up swimming farther.
A little background on how I got to this point:
While I swam competitively throughout my teen years and even lifeguarded for a few summers on the South Shore of Long Island, N.Y., I really stopped any serious swimming once I got to college. Fast forward about 20 years (without much athletic activity to speak of) and I suddenly had a desire to get back out there and get active again (like triathlons or something). Knowing my swimming background, a friend sent me a link to the Top 100 Open Water Swims around the world.
Going through the list and all the different types of swims, I knew I had found something challenging. While I was never a distance swimmer in my younger years, I felt that with the proper training, I just might be able to do this.
I started my training in May of this year and slowly increased the distance of my swims from about two miles all the way up to eight miles come September. (In retrospect, I wish I had trained a bit more, because the conditions on the day of my swim turned out to be more difficult than expected… more on that later).
Doing my research for the swim (including blogs of other swimmers who had successfully crossed the strait), I came across lots of interesting information. First off, due to the fact that the strait is a very busy shipping lane with many container ships, the association that oversees the swim only allows one cross per day. That cross can be a solo attempt (like mine) or as a relay team. Also, due to the varying weather conditions (fog, current, wind, waves, etc.), each swimmer gets a window of one week to pick the best day to make their attempt.
Luckily, the marine life in the strait tends to be friendly with dolphins and pilot whales being the most common.
I arrived in Tarifa, the southernmost town on the Spanish mainland, a couple of days before my window. All of the forecasts pointed to the best conditions early in the week, so I was told within 24 hours of arriving that I’d be going ‘first thing tomorrow’ on Tuesday, Oct. 1.
I arrived at the dock the next morning at 7:30 to meet my boat crews. Due to regulations with the maritime authorities, each swimmer (or relay team) must have a guide or lead boat that charts the best route for the swimmer to follow, as well as a safety boat that just focuses on the safety of the swimmer.
We headed out from the marina just before sunrise, with the sky still a very dark blue. About two minutes before I was to jump in the water and swim to the Spanish coast for the start, the safety boat had a fuel line problem and the engine wouldn’t restart. The boat had to head back to the dock for quick repairs. (In hindsight, I’m actually grateful this happened when it did, instead of half an hour into my swim!) The fuel line was quickly fixed and it was back out to the start. This time, I swam to the coast and waited for the whistle to begin.
I will not bore you with the play-by-play of a six-hour-plus swim, but I will tell you that the first half went… well… swimmingly. I had reached the halfway point of the strait in a little less than three hours and was feeling good.
During the course of my research, I discovered that the perceived wisdom was to stop every 45 minutes for a ‘fuel’ break (electrolyte drink, energy goo, etc.). During these breaks, I wasn’t allowed to touch the boat, but they could throw me the drinks and goo packs, which I would consume while treading water. In my training, my breaks were two minutes long, but due to the strength of the current, I was constantly being encouraged to not stop longer than 30 seconds (which felt like the blink of an eye).
As I continued toward the Moroccan coast, I noticed the waves getting larger, the current getting stronger and, most worryingly, the temperature of the water starting to drop.
The last two miles were the toughest and I quickly realized why I was struggling so much. My safety boat captain informed me that due to the increased strength of the current, I had already swum 13 miles (about two more than I had planned for the entire swim) and with all the combined factors working against me, and my body weakening, I was questioning whether I could finish.
The best analogy I can come up with is if you were running a marathon and then unexpectedly had the last six miles up hill and in brutal heat (‘unexpectedly’ being the key word).
I decided to skip my last break and just put my head down and finish. Somehow I made it through and I was able to reach the Moroccan coast in 6 hours, 26 minutes (having swum a total distance of 13.5 miles). I remember the mixed feelings very well – physically my body close to broken, but mentally an amazing sense of euphoria, knowing I had just swam from one continent to the other.
As with any event like this, I wanted to choose a worthy cause to raise money for and I decided on Ocean Conservancy. Its mission, and inspired yet practical way of achieving it, resonated with me and seemed to fit with my swim perfectly.
I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me through this great adventure. It’s been an amazing and truly humbling experience.