A Long Swim to Freedom

In April 2015 I embarked on my biggest personal challenge ever, The Freedom Swim, 7.5km in cold water from Robben Island (where Mandela was prisoner) to Mainland South Africa.

Why on earth was a 48 year old mother of 4 contemplating swimming in waters frequented by apex predators, including Great White Sharks?

I guess it’s because I love a challenge & anything a bit out of the ordinary (my husband says it’s because I’m relentless) but it’s probably also because I’m a bit bonkers...

My swimming history? It’s very short actually. 7 years ago I couldn’t swim, yet all my life I wished I could. I yearned to be able to do front crawl and glide through the water like ‘proper’ swimmers did, not bob about, arms & legs flapping as I did with my own self taught version of breast stroke.
7 years ago my youngest son was being taught how to swim by John Lester, a great swimming instructor, at a swimming pool near Alnwick.

Now I can talk a glass eye to sleep (according to my hubby) and as I was chatting away at one particular lesson, I tongue-in-cheek asked if he could teach an old dog new tricks. He reckoned he could. I’d paid for a block of 10 swimming lessons for Danny & ended up nabbing most of them for myself. It was a slow process but I’m very determined and slowly but surely I mastered the art of front crawl.

I was never going to be a record breaker but I loved swimming. I joined some friends who swam in the open water & there was no turning back. I was totally hooked. Even though the North Sea was freezing cold, I got a real buzz from the freedom of the open water. It’s different every time you get in. Sometimes it’s bumpy, sometimes it’s flat, sometimes it’s crystal clear, sometimes it’s like ploughing through liquidised kelp. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s bloody freezing, sometimes there’s jellyfish, occasionally there’s seals, sometimes its sunshiny, sometimes it’s not... but it’s always totally amazing & I always come out smiling even if I get in grumpy. There’s no describing open water swimming – you just gotta try it & you’re hooked.

I progressed & did a triathlon or two, a couple of Great north swims (1 mile & 3 miles), The dart 10k (10km in swimming is considered a marathon swim). Then a group of swimmy friends & myself swam from the Isle of Eigg to the Isle of Muck off the west coast of Scotland to fundraise for a brain tumour charity after young Matthew Phillips sadly lost his battle with a brain tumour aged only 5 years old.

Typical me, I found myself doing the freedom swim almost last minute. We booked a holiday to Capetown to visit old friends (we lived there temporarily 1995-2000) and I realised the freedom swim was on the day we flew home – I had heard of the freedom swim, knew it was a mahoosive extreme swim in cold waters (10-12’c) and I knew that there are great white sharks living there – yet I had an inexplicable drive to attempt this crossing.

I knew folk that had done the channel but I was drawn to this swim more & I knew I had to give it a go.

Now, if you are going to risk life & limb doing a challenging swim, I figured it was worth raising sponsorship.

As a volunteer marine mammal medic for British divers marine life rescue – I regularly assist orphaned & injured seals along my coastline &’I’m trained to assist & help refloat stranded cetaceans including porpoise, dolphin & whale.

BDMLR is a small, relatively unheard of charity & I wanted to help them raise awareness & funds to continue with their excellent efforts – so I set up a just giving page – I wanted to raise £1000 & thanks to the amazing support of my fantastic friends & family, I was over half way there before I even embarked on my swim – this was a massive incentive to buckle down & train – if folk were good enough to support me, I wasn’t going to let them down.

I swam 10-12km every week from December to April – mainly in the local swimming pool because it was winter in the UK &’the sea was only about 6’c. I couldn’t cover the required training distances in the extreme cold – hence I clocked up the distance in the chlorine

I was very concerned about the length of time it would take me to swim 7.5km in 10’c water. I didn’t believe I could last up to the three hours required to complete the distance in such extreme cold so I entered the race as a wetsuit swimmer.

Then I thought, crikey, I’ve had 4 kids... I’m fading into an elephant... & I might look like a seal in a black rubber suit... & Great Whites eat seals... & I might end up being great white sushi!!! – so I contacted Deano from HUUB design (he makes THE most amazing wetsuits – for the Brownlee brothers as an example & in the world of triathlon, his suits are the mutts nuts) and because he’s such an amazing bloke he agreed to sponsor me by designing a bespoke shark proof wetsuit.

What a relief that was, it helped my confidence no end & when it arrived it was the most stunning wetsuit I’d ever seen in my life, the fit was amazing – it was my second skin. 

So, I flew to Capetown, I spent 2 weeks catching up with amazing friends, I continued to train and I had to complete a qualifier before my big swim.

The qualifier was called ‘around the rocks’ extreme swim – and it was a 2.5km swim in the sea opposite Robben Island and the place where I would finish my freedom swim 2 weeks later
I did this swim in a black wetsuit (my shark proof one hadn’t arrived at this stage).

Everything was going well, the water was murky but had some visibility, the temperature was comfortable & i was swimming well... then I saw something – about 1800m in & just before I turned the last corner around the rocks into big bay.

About 5-10m below me, I saw a dark grey shadow, about the size of a large coffin moving slowly beneath me, in the opposite direction to my swim. OMG!!!! My heart started to pound “that’s a shark, that’s a f###ing shark!!!” Said my voice in my head.

I was petrified, I looked up and saw 3 swimmers ahead of me, I sprinted as fast as I could to catch up with them – as I was flat out, something else darted at high speed beneath me (I was crapping myself by now) then it darted underneath me again. WTF was that? Then it breached in front of me!! Then my fear switched to relief – as it breached i saw that it was a juvenile Cape fur seal – I love seals, I rescue them, I’m more than happy to swim with them!!! Plus I’d reached the 3.swimmers I was following – safety in numbers, I positioned myself in the middle of them and felt the fear slip away.

The young seal swam underneath me two more times, it corkscrewed onto its back and stayed directly beneath me, it was exhaling & it’s air bubbles were breaking on my face – what a truly magnificent experience.

Then it disappeared (maybe it knew I saved seals? More likely it thought I was one big momma seal!!) I could see I only had another 400m or so to swim so I buckled down & finished

I can honestly say it’s one of my best swims ever... then, 2 weeks later, I did my absolute best swim ever – the freedom swim.

Now nothing I do is ever straight forward – I booked to do a swim on the day of my long haul flight home – but that was okay – my swim was at 9am and I didn’t need to be at the airport until 3pm right?... wrong.

So I woke up at 6, registered at 7 & sailed to Robben Island at 8 for a 9am swim.

Problem – the water was exceptionally cold, so cold that there was a thick fret. We were told we couldn’t swim until the fog lifted & if it didn’t lift, we would sail back to mainland & the swim would be postponed to the next day.

WHAT??? I sooooo needed to swim that day or incur huge expense altering flights

Also, because of the exceptional cold water, everyone doing the swim for the first time had to do it as a relay – no first time solos – nightmare.

Now, being British & having swam skins all winter (including taking part in the Chillswim in lake Windermere in February) I managed to convince the organisers I would cope because I’d already done my risk assessment & entered as a wetsuit swimmer.

Then, miraculously, at 10:30am the fog started to lift & we set off swimming at 11am (me as a solo).

The race started with the blow of a horn. We had to jump off the harbour wall into the sea – it was full of sardines – so I jumped into a massive school of sardines which dispersed – we had to swim out of the harbour & find our cover boats – quite a task as there were 100 people taking part – my lovely friend Harry found me (he was on a kayak ) & he led me to my boat – storm register was my pilot – what a lovely lovely bloke – time to put my head down & swim. The water was lovely, cold, flat, clear but not clear enough to see into the depths – this was it – the day had arrived &’I was doing my freedom swim & it felt fantastic.

I heard Harry talking to me, “Jane, are you ready for a drink?”
“No! I want to swim for half an hour, then drink”
“But Jane, you’ve swam for half an hour already & you’ve covered 2km,”
”Bloody fantastic, I’ll have some Lucozade!”

I drank & I swam some more. It was totally stunning, every time I turned my head to breath to the right I could see table mountain in the distance – what a sight – too beautiful for words. And when I breathed to the left I could see Harry on his kayak looking totally chilled & enjoying his day.

I did get spooked a couple of times, I saw a big blue jellyfish & told myself to relax, it’s only a jellyfish, there’s plenty more in this water, like sharks!! Then I had to tell myself I wasn’t allowed to think about sharks & if I didn’t stop thinking about sharks I would have to count in my head until i did stop thinking about them (I do recall making myself count to 600 2 or 3 times. No idea where 600 came from but I did anyway).

I did feel cold at times & I felt tired too but I had trained & I’d got people sponsoring me & my hubby & kids were at the finish line so there was no way I was giving up.

(Relentless, he’s right!)

I kept on & on & on until I reached the rocks & entered big bay, the boats weren’t allowed in the bay – it was the last 500m & it was the toughest, the sea was ripping out of the bay and it took all I had to beat it & get in to the shore – I was pulled backwards & tossed forwards in the big waves, I could see surfers catching the waves that I was swimming in – but i bloody did it & it was totally amazing , I was met by my lovely family & all my wonderful Capetown buddies – they were all cheering for me & it was really emotional. I was tired, cold, hungry & elated.

I was escorted into a changing area where everyone had me signed off by a medic. I explained I was in a rush & needed to dash off & catch a plane but when they took my temperature it was 31.8’c so I got wrapped in blankets & put under a lamp cursing jovially that I would miss my flight. The guys that organise this event are something else – it was absolutely brilliant, fantastic, marvellous, super.

I was the first female wetsuit out of the water & 3rd female overall.

Not bad for a 48 year old mother of 4 in her 8th year of swimming.
Thanks to every single person who was part of my journey, I met some amazing people.

Open water swimmers are the best. xxxxxxxx

This post is written by Jane Hardy and copied from her website here: Jane Hardy

The wetsuit is a custom HUUB Axena