Posted by: jlenchner | October 11, 2009

Before, During and After

A few days after the swim – Patricia and Philipp making silly faces for the camera:


We were celebrating the birthdays of Joan, my dad and Denise – which fall, respectively, on August 26th, 28th and 30th.  By unanimous consent we went to our favorite Tarifa restaurant, Souk – which serves some of the best Moroccan food on either side of the Strait.

The Rock of Gibraltar:


There are many misconceptions about the Rock.  It does not sit out in the Atlantic but is actually attached to the main part of Spain on the Mediterranean side.  It is a little ways around from the southern-most tip of Spain, which is Tarifa where we started our swim from.  It was considered to be one of the two Pillars of Hercules by the ancient Greeks, with the other pillar either being Jebel Musa in Morocco or Mons Abyla (a.k.a. Monte Hacho) which is part of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta – on the other side of the Strait.  The territory of Gibraltar, which includes the Rock, is British-owned and has its own currency.  We all took a one day excursion to Gibraltar after the swim.

Jebel Musa in Morocco – possibly the second of the Pillars of Hercules, as they were known to the Ancient Greeks:

Tarifa and Later 010

For a long time it seemed like this rocky escarpment would be our landing point.  We didn’t appreciate that it was Jebel Musa until later.  Reaching to almost 3000 feet of elevation, Jebel Musa was readily visibile from our villa on clear days.  In the vicinity of this photograph the current picked up to two knots and our ultimate landing point turned out to be considerably further east (to the left in the photograph).

One or both of us swimming; Patricia, Maddy and Jesus in the feeding boat, and the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance:

Tarifa and Later 012

My favorite still shot from the swim:


I am on the left and Philipp is on the right – Philipp is riding up on a small swell.  The Tarifa Lighthouse is on the far left.  We are probably only ten-fifteen minutes into the swim and showing good form.

Paul McClintock and me at the Westwood Pool in Thornwood, NY:


Paul has been active in all aspects of Wetchester swimming over many years, including meet organization, coaching, refereeing, governance – and he is still an incredibly fast swimmer.  Last year he was inducted into the Westchester Sports Hall of Fame.  Paul’s son Craig holds most of the University swimming records at Pace – the pool where I swim.  On the morning in which this photograph was taken Paul, wife Fritzi, and Craig hosted me at Westwood for a 10K tune-up the weekend before I left for Spain. Paul swam the first 5K with me.

The regular Westchester Masters early morning swim crew on the morning before I left for Spain:


Left to right: Noel Clusaz, Dick Grose, me, Brad Polhill and Martin I. M. Burkhardt.  Carrie Dillon and Steve Yates were away on vacation.

Posted by: Philipp | September 22, 2009

More Fotos

Posted by: jlenchner | September 21, 2009

Some Videos

  • Pre-swim: Moments before we take the initial plunge. Nervous energy. A rocky sea.
  • Beginning of the swim: Philipp dives in. Jon is already in the water. We swim out to the bluffs of Tarifa Island to get our pictures taken for the official start of the swim. Concern by the crew that we will get bashed against the rocks.
  • Mid-swim: The big push is on! Morocco is getting closer. We feel like we are almost there.
  • End of the swim: Jon’s final tired strokes. Africa at last!
Posted by: jlenchner | September 14, 2009

Questions about Feedings

Many people have asked me about feedings, something that I forgot to discuss much in my “reflections” posting. During the main part of the swim, Philipp and I stopped three times to feed, at intervals of one hour, or a bit more. At the first stop I had Accelerade, at the second stop, hot soup, and at the third stop, Accel Gel. Accelerade is like Powerade or Gatorade with a little bit of protein, and Accel Gel is a gel formulation of this same drink. The company makes varieties with varying amounts of caffeine. I prefer the caffeine-free varieties. In the middle of the swim I am just able to drink about 3-4 ounces at a time of the drink, while I can easily suck in a whole gel so the gel gives me more calories for the invested effort. During the swim there is a need both for calories and for fluids to ward off dehydration – a concern that is magnified by the fact that we were swimming in salt water.

Unfortunately the soup at the second feeding was not very hot – I believe the top-locking mechanism came loose when Maddy threw the thermos in the water and a little bit of sea water seeped in. It took some quite good tosses to get the residues from our feedings back in the boat because of the boat’s high side rails. On one occasion I missed the boat (I think when I was trying to throw back the thermos) and had to swim after it, not wanting to litter the ocean. At the very end of the swim, when we got a bit separated, Philipp may have stopped once or twice more to feed. I think his preference late in the swim was for Coca Cola. As for me, I was getting too cold to stop. I did, however, have a full bladder and would have dearly liked to pee (if only for the warming effect) – but unfortunately, as both Philipp and I remarked afterwards – we were incapable of peeing while swimming.

Posted by: Philipp | September 7, 2009

A few fotos

I have selected a couple of fotos from the tons that were taken with my camera. The picture are sorted from left to right and then in each new line so it might be able to document the actual swim a little better. I am sure there will be more picture from Jon during the next days. Also we have had a video camera with us. It will probably take some time to cut a neat little video from all that footage … more to come.

Posted by: jlenchner | September 2, 2009

A Sad Epilogue

It is with sadness that I report that we were not able to meet Youssef after the swim. Upon his arrival in Casablanca Youssef learned of some difficult personal/family news and ultimately he decided that he needed to stay in Casablanca to take care of these matters. Our hearts go out to Youssef in this difficult time.

Posted by: jlenchner | August 31, 2009

A Good Day to Reflect on the Swim that was

[This entry was actually written on August 28th, but this was my first chance to post it.]

The wind is again howling out of the east/southeast like it was for the first few days after we arrived here – not a good day for a swim.

Today is my father’s 86th birthday. He is here with us, to share in the experience, along with his girlfriend Joan. Originally when he told me he wanted to come he said that he intended to go in the guide boat so that in case I got into trouble he could jump overboard and help me. I had no doubt that he would have done just that, but even though my dad is in great shape for 86, my brother Michael convinced him that going in the guide boat would not be a good idea – in the event that an 86-year old man became sea sick it could jeopardize everyone’s safety.

On Wednesday, the appointed day of the crossing, dawn’s first light broke through around 7:15 AM. I was already half-awake, trying to convince myself to get a bit more sleep, but there were just too many thoughts racing through my head for sleep to win out. At least I’d gotten a good night sleep the night before and managed to relax enough on this eve of the swim to doze off for an hour here and there. By 8:00 there was full light outside and I was checking and re-checking my bags of gear to make feedings as simple as possible. I noticed Philipp also lurking about and together we made Accelerade from the Accelerade powder I’d brought from the States – first mixing it into a large beer-mug shaped thermos and then divvying it into little bottles for individual feedings.

By 9:50, the agreed upon time for our first shuttle down to the harbor, Philipp and I were ready along with Patricia, Rachel (my 16 year-old daughter) and Maddy (my 14 year-old daughter) – and I drove this first group of us into town, dropping everyone at the arch marking the entrance to the old part of town, and returned for the second group. From there the first group meandered down to Turmares, a local whale and dolphin watching company situated across from the Tarifa harbor, to meet for the last time with Rafael and get confirmation that the swim was on. Turmares doubles as Rafael’s office and we would normally find him there or at the coffee shop/bar next door. In the meantime, I headed back to get our second group consisting of Denise, Dad, Joan and Tova (my 11 year-old, yougest daughter) and we all managed to get to Turmares ten minutes or so before our scheduled 11 AM meeting with Rafael – so we waited in a corner of the store, nervously making preparations and trying to relax. I decided to wear two bathing suits instead of three because three seemed too constricting and two silicone bathing caps instead of two silicone and one latex. By far my major concern about the swim now was keeping warm. I was confident about the distance and moderately confident about my ability to deal with a turbulent sea, but in each of my training swims I had been very cold. Could I actually manage four-plus hours of such cold?

11 AM came but there was still no sign of Rafael. About 11:15 another fellow came into the store wearing a Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association polo shirt – the same shirt Rafael had worn on the first day we had met with him – this fellow shorter and slighter than Rafael – so I asked him about Rafael. He told me that Rafael had harbor patrolling duties that day and would not be coming. However, he was Antonio and the skipper of the main boat that would be leading us across. He had a sobering look on his face as he indicated that the wind was strong and we would have to watch the weather and wait until at least 1 PM to start the swim. Philipp and I knew how hard it was to swim in rough conditions from our practice swims so I was quite content with the possibility of having to put the swim off for one or more days. Within half an hour, however, Antonio gave us confirmation that the swim was on and that we should meet at the end of the second pier in the harbor at 12:30.

Upon getting this confirmation, my mind and body went into “execute” mode. Philipp and I applied zinc oxide as a final layer of sun block followed by different types of grease to help our bodies retain heat. Philipp applied a uniform layer of petroleum jelly to his entire body, while I used lanolin (branded as Lanolash and typically used by lactating mothers) that I had picked up from a Babies R Us store in the States, focusing on my groin, underarms, and midsection. After another 45 minutes or so of waiting and attempts at relaxation meditation, we went out to the pier to meet with our support crew. My wife, Denise, and Joan snapped a few departure pictures of Philipp, Patricia, Rachel, Maddy and me. Patricia was in charge of Philipp’s feedings while Maddy was in charge of my feedings and Rachel was charged with keeping a photo and video record from the main guide boat. Denise had not been feeling well so decided to stay on shore, along with our youngest daughter Tova, Dad and Joan. Patricia and Maddy went into a boat, slightly smaller than the main boat, to be used for feeding and monitoring the swimmers. I introduced myself to Jesus, the skipper of the small boat, who spoke almost no English. I had been told that the support boat would be an inflatable zodiac but in fact the support boat was just a smaller version of the main boat with high-ish side rails that would later make throwing food back and forth between the swimmers and the boat a less than simple matter.

Next Philipp and I climbed into the guide boat and I divided my supplies between the two boats – feeding rations and thermoses of hot water with Maddy and everything else in a big blue duffle bag in the main boat. In another moment the two boats idled out of their births and we were off to the tip of Tarifa Island and the start of the swim. Before we knew it we were overboard swimming out to the tip and had our photos taken to mark the start of the swim by the skipper, Antonio. The water was extremely rough so we had to take great care not to get bashed against the rocks. I remember in the initial seconds how the water felt cold but definitely bearable and little by little actually became comfortable. The first hour passed very smoothly. Philipp and I swam side by side, with me on the right taking the waves since they were breaking on my non- preferred breathing side (but Philipp’s preferred breathing side) making it much easier for me to take on this job. I got into a good rhythm and the waves did not bother me too much. For the first two to two and a half hours I really enjoyed myself. I had trained really hard and the pace was comfortable. Also the water temperature was absolutely fine. I am not sure if it was the adrenaline inside me that kept me warm, or if perhaps it was the caked on lanolin, but the thought that we were finally making this swim from Europe to Africa and that if felt so natural to be swimming easily for a long time through the open ocean put me in a euphoric state of mind.

I recall spotting the Rock of Gibraltar for the first time and calling out to Maddy to look back at the Rock. Of course she had noticed it quite awhile earlier. Then a couple of dolphins swam under me and in my amazement I called out again to Maddy. Later Maddy told me that she just wanted to tell me to keep on swimming – they had been seeing dolphins all day long!

About one hour into the swim I was feeling so good I did six or seven butterfly strokes just to feel a bit of what it is like to be a dolphin in the open ocean. Little did I know the troubles that were awaiting us. Morocco seemed to be getting closer and closer so it was hard to imagine that there was any problem at all. In fact after about an hour and a half Jesus indicated that we were about half way – putting us on pace for one of the fastest crossings ever. However. after two and a half hours, the main boat swung around and told us that the current had picked up and that if we didn’t swim hard we would miss the main land entirely! I couldn’t believe it! There was no way after so much preparation I could accept such a possibility. For the next hour I pushed as hard as I could. Philipp fell back a bit so I was doing all the citing of the main boat, which was not easy as the sea became more turbulent and the main boat became obscured by the waves. About 25% of my strokes were taken with my head looking forward trying to cite through the crashing waves. Not wanting Philipp to fall too far back, I suggested that he try to swim in my slipstream. I was not aware of it, but not only did Philipp have to deal with the crashing waves on his preferred breathing side, but he was also having problems with his goggles. Swimming in my slip stream worked quite well, however, as every once in awhile I would feel the reassuring touch of one or another of his outstretched hands against my feet.

I don’t recall the exact sequence of some of what followed. I remember hearing that we had 4 miles to go and being very disappointed, thinking that Morocco was just in front of us and surely much closer. It was not long after that that Antonio yelled that we had three nautical miles to go. In my head I calculated that to be about 5700 yards – OK, I told myself – I could manage such a distance: it meant I was about an hour into one of my normal two and a half hour morning workouts. At some point after that I started to feel really cold. Philipp was no longer riding my slip stream, but was falling a little bit behind. Every few hundred meters I would stop for a few seconds to let him catch up. I was probably swimming a bit faster than usual just to keep warm because our natural speeds are almost identical. The starting and stopping was catching up to me in terms of my ability to keep my body warm. Also, by then the lanolin had surely lost its effectiveness. At some point I heard that we had one mile to go.

Like it was for Philipp, this mile proved to be the longest mile swim of my life. The current kept washing us out to sea. I became extremely cold and extremely frustrated, and pushed as hard as I could both to keep warm and to bite into the current to make it into the beach area in the distance. The houses up on the shore were getting bigger but not at the rate I expected. Then finally I started seeing the bottom and many small fish. After looking into a deep dark sea for many hours what a joyous site that was! As freezingly cold-to-my-core as I was, I would make it! At this point I was swimming beside the main guide boat and the boat could go no further. I thought I should swim into the beach area but Antonio said to swim over to some rocks. It was not a very scenic landing – some lichen covered boulders beside a barbed-wire fence. But it was easy to get a purchase on the rocks and clear the water for the photo documenting the end of my swim. Greeting me on the other side of the barbed wire fence was a Spanish guard in military fatigues with a machine gun trained at my head. We had landed just on the Moroccan side of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. I was too exhausted to be nervous. As Philipp noted, the guard thought we were Moroccans trying to flee Morocco by swimming. Antonio and the guard had some heated words and I swam back to the boat. Philipp touched the same rocks a moment later and let out a big whoop. He joined me back in the boat and we hugged each other in celebration.

The dispute between our skipper and the Spanish guard did not seem to be resolved completely, but we started back. I was shivering uncontrollably, and after changing out of my bathing suits and into my sweats needed the warming hugs of both of my daughters for nearly an hour for the shivers to subside. Between the vibrations of the boat on the water and my shaking hands I could not manage to drink much hot water or soup from the thermoses. Philipp later told me that I looked like a shriveled up old man on the drive back – a drive which took about two hours. Mid- way through, our small boat was boarded by the Spanish coast guard verifying that we were not in fact escaping from Morocco, as the boarder guard had suspected.

Once I finally warmed up, it was nice getting to properly enjoy the jumping of many dolphins and a nice relaxed view of the Rock of Gibraltar, then Tarifa’s Lady of the Harbor, the Tarifa Lighthouse and finally Denise waving to us on the same pier from which we had left. We had already radioed her the news of our triumphant crossing and could hear Denise as she exclaimed “they made it!” to the rest of my family.

Many more words than even Philipp – but hopefully worth it! -Jon

Posted by: Philipp | August 27, 2009

It’s done !!!

Now, where to start ? I guess I ll just write a little note about our sucessfull attemp to cross the strait and leave all the poetic stuff to Jon on a later article. So here is what I think sums it up very quickly.

We got to the harbor at about 11 o clock when we were told that Rafael wouldnt show up that day. We met with the skipper and found out that it was going to be pretty windy out there and we probably couldnt start before 1 o clock. So waiting was on. When we finally got on the boat I didnt know what to expect from that swim. I couldnt tell how far 16k in the ocean would be and what else would happen. It was so rough that we barely could touch land on the spanish side before starting our swim. Then all went quite quickly. The skipper took a photo of us and we started. The pace was ok, but the waves were shaking us like a washing machine. We made good progress for the first 2 hours and thought all will be good. The water was nice and warm for me, even without a wetsuit (19 C), but freezingly cold for Jon. Then the skipper came towards us and said we need more speed. I thought we were going quite fast already but obviously not. I didnt know why we would need to go faster and that made me feel nervous. Apperantly the current had picked up and became massive, it was going to take us down all the way to cyprus or greece if we didnt speed up. At that time we missed our landing point and the skipper choose a different landing point farther east. That time I was feeling mentally down. I swam in Jons slipstream to make it easier to navigate coz the waves were so high that I barely could see the guiding boat. I thought, if I am gonna miss his feet once I would have to drop off and give up. Jon put up an incredible speed. I kept swallowing salt water coz I breathed into the direction of the waves. For about an hour Jon would go crazy in the water and just push it really hard. We stopped drinking and eating coz we thought we couldnt stop or otherwise it would take us to far down. By that time we had totally missed our original landing point and the skipper headed for Ceuta which is the last possible landing point before hitting the wide open of the mediteranien sea.

Land came closer and for the first time I thought we could do it. I was wondering if we could slow down a bit and take it easy then. But the guy on the feeding boat was urging us to more speed and Jon was getting cold so we kept it up. Jon swam ahead of me and I didnt manage to stay in his slip stream. We were about 1 mile to the shore when I thought all would be good. However a strong current would come against us taking us out into the strait again. I would swim there and not making any progress (Wait for the movies). Patricia told me to pull myself together and give it one more go. That was the longest kilometer I ever swam.

I could make up the houses on the shore and we kept pushing it, and then I saw the ground beneath me. Fish were swimming under me and at that point all went very good. I enjoyed the last couple of metres and headed for a stone wall. When I cleared the water a guy with a mashine gun would say something in spanish to me and the skipper was urging me to come back to the boat. We landed at the border between morocco and the spanish enclave of Ceuta, directly at the boarder fence with all the guards. The spanish military thought we were moroccans trying to enter spain by swimming …

I jumped on the boat, Jon was already there. We congratulated each other and I started to feel way better. On our way back we saw dolphins all over the place. It took us almost two hours to go all the way back by boat.

That swim was definitely the toughest thing I have been through mentally. Physically I wasnt to exhausted, it just blew me up in my head. Much more difficult to focus on than finishing an Ironman.

We feel great today. Will get a haircut today and have some cervecas … Well that wasnt short at all, but worth a few words.


Posted by: jlenchner | August 25, 2009

Eve of the Swim

A beuatiful mild day here at our villa. Stunning view across the Strait to the Spanish territory of Ceuta and the rugged Moroccan terrain between Ceuta and Tanger. The first day we got here all we could see was the faintest outline of Morocco, but day by day Morocco has come into sharper view culminating with today.

On the one hand, our villa is eight to ten kilometers out of town, so inconvenient since we have to take turns shuttling back and forth in our 7-person rental van. However, by virtue of being out of the hustle and bustle of Tarifa, the villa is incredibly restful. It is also much cooler than Tarifa since it is perched near the top of a little mountain. On the way here we saw a wild boar! The villa itself has fig and lemon trees as well as red grapes. We have partaken of the figs and grapes but not the lemons.

I am trying to keep my mind in a quiet, meiditative, state so I get some rest tonight which will be the eve of the swim if the weather cooperrates. We meet with Rafael at 11 for the final decision, with a likely departure of noon to 1 PM if all goes according to plan.

Posted by: jlenchner | August 24, 2009

We are next

Spent a sleepless night in our villa getting bitten by all sorts of things and lathering myself up with Benadryl lotion. Got up at 8 AM, with a nasty looking swollen eye, to go shopping for everyone with Philipp but the earliest any supermarket in town opens is 9:15. Managed to shop and get down to the harbor to meet with Rafael by about 11. Uncanny lull in the wind today so perfect swimming conditions. We met the Greek swimmer and chatted briefly with him. He has done a 35K in the Greek Isles as preparation but, like us, is concernred about the cold. He went off at 11:30. We are still scheduled for Wednesday but the time has moved up from 1 PM to Noon.

After the meeting with Rafael, Philipp, Patricia and I took my girls to a sheltered area out by so-called Tarifa Island, which is not a true island but a rocky mass of land connected to the main part of Tarifa by a narrow, walkable, spit. As the kids played, Philipp and I headed out for a swim around the island, which turned out to be a lot longer and rougher in spots then we thought. At the roughest patch we met up with a fishing boat and the lone fisherman, who spoke only Spanish, urged us to come aboard, which we ultimately did. It turned out he was explaining that we were fighting a 2 knot current, so making very slow progress. He took us a few hundred yards and we jumped overboard to finish our swim. The most worrisome part of the swim for me was that I got extaordinarily cold.

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