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



  1. Congratulations! Jon, Arnold and I are very proud of your successful swim, great job.

    Glad you didn’t end up in a Moroccan jail.

    We wish you and the family a great trip and safe return. Edith

  2. HURRAY!!!!! Congratulations Jon and Phillip! Well done. What an amazing experience. I can’t wait to see the pics and hear more. I loved reading your accounts. You guys are the talk of the pool back at home.



  3. Awesome, Jon!! You should be very proud. The WM morning crew can’t wait to congratulate you in person.

  4. Jon, Everyone is so proud of you. What an awesome accomplishment. Great job.

    See you back on land,

  5. Wow Jon. Reading your description of the swim; sounds like an amazing experience. Congratulations.

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