Long Distance Marathon Swimming

Long Distance - or Marathon - swimming 'officially' began (in England) in 1810 when the Englishman Lord Byron swam across the Darnelles - crossing from Asia Minor to Europe at Constantinople, which is a swim of about 5 km, in 13 degrees Celsius water. That has become a popular swim today.

In 1822 Byron swam across the bay of Portovenere in Italy to visit his fellow English muse, Shelley, who was residing in the village of San Terenzo. Today the Byron Cup swimming challenge held in August, commemorates Byron’s swim. In 1875 Matthew Webb swam across the English channel, setting the challenge for generations of marathon swimmers to follow. In 1930 Peggy Duncan became the first South African to swim the English Channel.

In South Africa the most iconic swim is from Robben Island, which was officially first achieved in 1909.  The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA) was set up to manage these swims.

Other marathon swims in South Africa include False Bay and the Orange river.

Today there is also a growing enthusiasm for this kind of 'extreme swimming', with swimmers diving into the waters of the Antarctic Ocean as part of an excursion, or swimming the 'Ice Mile'  - in water under 5 degrees Celsius.

Famous swimmers like Lewis Pugh and Theo Yach provide lots of publicity for these events, with people coming from around the world to complete the Robben Island swim. The tourist element has generated an international business, promoting the Most Challenging swims.

Some marathon swimmer's stories

Since Henry Hooper became the first modern swimmer to cross Table Bay from Robben Island, many others have followed. The late Theo Yach did it 108 times, and in 2018 an 11 year old girls swam across to Bloubergstrand. 

Many South Africans have swum the English Channel, and completed other challenging swims including Catalina Island, Rottnest, Alcatraz, as well as the Straights of Gibraltar and Messina.


Robben Island

The most iconic open water swim in South Arica is crossing Table Bay from Robben Island - either to Cape Town or Bloubergstrand, which is a lot shorter. In 1909 Charteris Hooper is said to have been the first the achieve this, but the Dutch East India Company reported a convict named Johannes Rijkman van Weij escaping from the island in 1690 - by swimming! 

On the 8th November 1926 a race is swum from Robben Island to Roggebaai - sponsored by the Cape Argus, it includes 6 men and 6 women - the youngest being Johannesburg schoolgirl Peggy Duncan, aged 15, who was also the only swimmer to complete the distance. Florrie Berndt, daughter of the Robben Island baker and nurse at the Island’s infirmary, also competes in the race but fails to finish.

In 1932 Mercedes Gleitze did the double swim between Cape Town and Robben Island over two separate days. Other Robben Island swimmers include Astra Winckler (1935), Frank Lotz (1935), W. Slater (1935), Beth Wiid (1955), Eva Grant (1962). In 1969 a number of swimmer did a crossing on the same day. 

English Channel swims

South Africa boast 36 solo crossing of the English Channel. After England, USA, Australia, Canada and India, it is the 6th highest number of any country.  In 1930 Peggy Duncan of Cape Town became the 6th woman to complete the swim.

Warmer water, great white sharks, jellyfish, south easter wind are features of the 35km False Bay crossing. So far about 25 swimmers have attempted the challenge…but only five have completed it. They are Dutch swimmer Annemi Landmeters in 1989 who was the first, Steven Klugman (SA) in 2004, Carina Bruwer (SA) in 2006, Barend Nortje (SA; speed record – 9h33) in 2007 and Ned Denison (Ireland) in 2012.In 2014 Roger Finch attempted a False Bay crossing.