Cape Long Distance Swimming Association

The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association map of Robben Island - and their history of the event, written by Eddie Cassar.

Don’t be lured into thinking that a Robben Island crossing is an easy feat. Theodore Yach’s hundred-odd swims can easily lead one to believe the swim is a “walk in the park”. It is exactly the opposite! 

It is internationally rated as a difficult open water sea swim, short maybe, but with icy seas of an average of 12 degrees centigrade treacherous currents and fast changing conditions, it is rated as one of the finest training grounds for English Channel swim hopefuls.

Robben Island swimming has produced some world class open sea swimmers. Lewis Pugh, the human polar bear and ocean advocate, cut his teeth in Table Bay, as did current English Channel world record holder, Otto Thaning. The city heart surgeon is the oldest person ever to swim the 34km swim from England to France. Ice swimmer Ram Barkai and extreme swimmer Ryan Stramrood are still “Robben Island” regulars.

From the early days in the late 1870s, when the first Robben Island crossing was attempted, the swim has always attracted attention and curiosity. In 1909, when Henry Hooper became the first person to successfully swim from the Island to Roggebaai, Capetonians could not believe what he had achieved. Before then it was thought impossible. When the first woman, Peggy Duncan, swam the crossing, 30 000 Capetonians lined the Old Pier and Roggebaai Beach to welcome her. She completed the distance in nine hours and thirty minutes!

Theodore Yach’s escapades may have contributed to making the crossing seem easy. It is, in fact quite the opposite. The Robben Island crossing is respected around the swimming world as a difficult, cold-water swim. Actually, English Channel swimmers from this part of the world are some of the best prepared for the challenge. South Africa’s success ratio for English Channel attempts, rates amongst the highest in the world.

Robben Island swimmers share a passion for open water swimming and they share a willingness to assist others in emulating the feat. A sort of ubuntu exists within the swimming circle.

This is best explained by the folk who assist in getting the crossing organised, officiated and recorded. Dedicated swimmers, like Tony Sellmeyer, a veteran of over fifty Robben Island crossings, has single-handedly assisted scores of swimmers in the quest for a crossing. Tony will swim the crossing with the novice, encouraging him or her all the way.

Peter Bales has officiated hundreds of swims since the late 1960s, as has Tony Scalabrino and Barry Cutler and latterly, Alon Kowen have piloted many swimmers across Table Bay, navigating the shortest and safest passage to land. Bales and two friends formed the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association in the late 1960’s to officiate and record Robben Island swims.

The sport is currently enjoying huge popularity, with scores of swimmers registered to attempt the crossing. In the 1980s, there were 12 attempts a year, in the 1970s, maybe three or four.

The sport’s growth is attributed to the popularity of the Iron Man Ultra Triathlon and annual Freedom Swim, which saw many folk swim from the Island to Blouberg for charity. The ethos of daily exercise has also eventually filtered down to swimming with more and more athletes turning to the sport as an injury-free alternative to running and other forms of exercise.

Swimmers are also better prepared for the challenge. Sharks in False Bay have forced many swimmers into the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. Athletes are also training in professional swim squads, using the sea water of the Sea Point Pavilion as a Winter training facility and, therefore, present themselves on “swim day” in peak condition.

The Robben Island crossing has an interesting history. Originally, Roggebaai was the official end point. When the Foreshore was developed and Roggebaai disappeared, Three Anchor Bay became the official finish line.  The small bay is difficult to enter, especially after swimming 11kms in icy water. The pilot guides the swimmer using Little Lions Head above Llandudno as a beacon, and then turns the swimmer a kilometre off the Sea Point Pavilion. Turn too early and the small mouth to Three Anchor Bay is missed. A fierce current heads towards Milnerton and will sweep the swimmer to the harbour entrance, adding an hour or two to the swim.

In the early 1950s, Barney Cemel of Muizenberg was ready to swim from the Island to Three Anchor Bay. At Murray Basin on Robben Island, his boat broke down.

The SA Navy, who was stationed there at the time, offered a rowing boat and an oarsman as a replacement. The oarsman was quick to state that Three Anchor Bay was too far, but Blouberg was within his ability. Barney Cemel blazed a new crossing to Blouberg that day and the 7.4km swim became a hugely popular challenge.

Robben Island crossings are run by the same rules which govern English Channel attempts. Just a simple costume, a pair of goggles and a single swimming cap are allowed. No wet suits, no thermal caps, no double costumes are permitted. Just bare skin immersed in ice cold water. It’s the swimmer against the elements and that’s why it is held in such high regard.

The Robben Island swim remains an ideal goal for many swimmers worldwide because of the physical challenge, as well as the historical significance of the Island.

Eddy Cassar is a local publicist who has numerous Robben Island swims to his name.

Robben Island - Cape Town

11 km (6.8 miles)
1909 Sep 4 Henry-Charteris Hooper 06:56:00
1926 Nov 6 Peggy Duncan 09:30:00
1926 Dec 16 Florrie Berndt 07:25:00
1934 Oct 23 Astra Winckler 07:24:00
1935 Apr 21 Frank Lotz 04:52:00
1935 May 5 W Slater 09:00:00
1969 Mar 22 Peter Bales 04:25:00
1969 Mar 22 Frank Nielsen 04:29:00
1972 Mar 21 Hugh Tucker 04:10:00

Cape Town - Robben Island

11 km (6.8 miles)
1932 Mar 25 Mercedes Gleitze 09:12:00
1954 Apr 17 Vic Pearson 06:15:00
1955 Mar 13 Beth Wiid 05:30:00
1955 Oct 26 Dennis Pearson 04:45:00

Three Anchor Bay - Robben Island

10.2 km (6.3 miles)
1962 Apr 18 Eva Grant
1969 Mar 29 Amada Basson
1969 Mar 30 Peter Bales
1970 Sep 19 Peter Bales
1970 Sep 19 Corrie Ebbelaar
1971 Feb 15 Corrie Ebbelaar
1971 Feb 15 Hugh Tucker
1979 Sep 3 John Bush
1979 Sep 3 John Bush
1979 Sep 8 Bill Currer
1980 Apr 1 Peter Bales
1982 Jan 26 Derek Yach
1982 Oct 23 Derek Yach
1983 Apr 24 Kevin Fialkov
1984 Apr 11 Derek Yach
1984 Apr 29 Mark Edge
1986 Apr 25 Peter Bales
1986 Apr 25 Tony Bales

Robben Island - Mouille Point

11.5 km (7.1 miles)
1969 Mar 22 John Pagden
1969 Mar 29 Dennis Pearson

Blouberg - Robben Island

7.4 km (4.6 miles)
1969 Dec 21 Peter Bales
1971 Feb 16 Corrie Ebbelaar
1972 Nov 30 Godfrey Mocke

Robben Island - Three Anchor Bay

10.2 km (6.3 miles)
1970 Jan 10 Alister Cameron-Strange
1983 Mar 31 Laurie Fialkov
1985 May 14 Barry Cutler
1985 May 18 Bill Currer
1986 Mar 2 Selwyn Davidowitz
1986 Apr 12 Paul Greenberg
1986 Apr 26 Bill Currer
1986 Apr 26 Derek Yach

Robben Island - Blouberg

7.4 km (4.6 miles)
1972 Nov 30 Peter Bales
1973 Jan 17 Peter Bales
1974 Mar 12 Marie van der Merwe
1974 Nov 2 Paul Smith
1976 Apr 18 Hugh Tucker
1976 Apr 18 Marie van der Merwe
1976 Apr 19 Peter Bales
1976 Sep 1 John Bush
1977 Mar 17 Coreen Swanepoel
1979 Oct 6 Tony Bales
1981 Jan 17 Tony Bales
1981 Feb 14 Derek Yach
1981 Nov 25 Theodore Yach
1982 Apr 6 Mark Edge
1982 Apr 11 Guiseppe Vitali
1982 Apr 12 Mark Edge
1982 Apr 24 David Riding
1983 Mar 12 Dudley Levine
1984 Apr 3 Barry Cutler
1985 Jan 11 Bob Garnham
1985 Jan 11 Jonathan Garnham
1985 Feb 16 Dennis Pearson
1985 Mar 28 Bill Currer
1985 Mar 28 Peter Bales
1985 Apr 3 Barry Cutler
1985 Apr 30 Tony Bales
1985 May 12 Selwyn Davidowitz
1986 Mar 20 Eddie Cassar
1986 Mar 27 Tony Scalabrino
1986 Apr 30 Godfrey Mocke
1986 May 24 Maxine Scalabrino
1986 May 25 Joel Barnett

Blouberg - Robben Island - Blouberg

14.8 km (9.2 miles)
1972 Dec 12 Peter Bales 04:58:00
1973 Jan 17 Kevin Murphy 06:03:00

Three Anchor Bay - Robben Island - Blouberg

19 km (11.8 miles)
1979 Oct 6 Bill Currer 07:05:00
1981 Apr 15 Peter Bales 05:43:00

Robben Island - Three Anchor Bay - Robben Island

20.4 km (12.7 miles)
1983 Mar 18 Derek Yach 07:34:00

Three Anchor Bay - around Robben Island - Derde steen, Bloubergstrand

1985 May 5 Kevin Fialkov 07:54:00