Florrie Berndt is a part of the Robben Island story. She lived on Robben Island, where she was the daughter of a baker, and later a nurse at the island's leper colony. After Henry Hooper in 1909 and Peggy Duncan, she became the third person to complete the swim from Robben Island to Cape Town.
In early December 1926 she competed in the Cape Argus Robben Island race, won by Peggy Duncan, where she failed to finish. Later that same year she tried again, on16 December 1926, known then as on Dingaan's Day. This time she was successful in crossing from Robben Island to the Pier in Cape Town harbour in 7 hours 25 minutes, beating Peggy's time by 2 hours.
In January 1928 Florrie won another race from Robben Island, in terrible conditions, taking over 10 hours to finish the event.
Cape Argus - 11 December 1926.
Cape Argus - 16 December 1926.
53 Degrees debuted at the South African National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2002. It tells the true story of Florrie Berndt, daughter of the Robben Island baker and nurse at the Island's infirmary, and her efforts to become the first woman to swim from Robben Island to the Cape Town harbour in 1926.
Fourteen athletes entered the race Robben Island, sponsored by the Cape Argus newspaper. Only one, 15 year-old Peggy Duncan, completed the race. Berndt was the only other swimmer to come close to finishing.
Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.
Jennie Reznek and Mark Fleishman extensively studied the early history of life on Robben Island and the first organized race when 14 swimmers attempted a swim from Robben Island to Cape Town in South Africa.
While 15-year-old Peggy Duncan was the only woman who completed that race in 1926 in 53ºF water, Florrie Berndt kept swimming for over 13 hours.
Berndt never finished the inaugural race due to exhaustion. She later returned to Robben Island where she was the daughter of the island's baker and nurse, and raised children of her own while nursing lepers. But her legacy lives on due to the efforts of Reznek and Fleishman.