Since Henry Charteris Hooper completed the first Robben Island swim in 1909, many South Africans have braved the cold waters of the Atlantic swimming to, from and around the Island. Others have swum across False Bay - much warmer but also a longer swim, and also around Cape Point. In Port Elizabeth there have been swims up the Zwartkops river, and more recently the Bell Buoy Challenge in Algoa Bay - 8km from Hobie Beach to the Nautical Bell Buoy, situated some 2.5km off shore and 3.5km from Hobie Beach, and back. East London has seen swims in the Buffalo River, where the SA one mile championships has been held. The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association thrives in Cape Town. On 3 March 1974 Marie van der Merwe becomes the youngest swimmers to complete the Robben Island crossing.
These pages record a tiny part of the history of long distance swimming in southern Africa.
Some of the earliest heroes of South African Open were Margaret 'Peggy' Duncan, who also swam with Mercedes Gleitz, and completed the English Channel crossing. Peggy's channel swim was the first since 1928, and the only until 1933. The American press reported it quite extensively because she almost broke the record held by their own heroine Gertrude Ederle. Click here to see some of the press articles of Peggy's swim.
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 - a play called 53 Degrees is later written, based on her story. 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), Amanda Basson (1969), Correen Swanepoel (1977) and Dudley Levine (1983). In 1956 Beth Wiid also swam the Straights of Gibraltar in June 1956 but failed in her English Channel bid in the same year.
The history of long distance swimming is replete with stories of heroic achievements. A poet called George Gordon, known as Lord Byron, swam across the Bosporus in 1810, accompanied by William Ekenhead, who beat Byron to the other side by 5 min. Perhaps the most famous (English) long distance swim is the Channel crossing completed by Matthew Webb in 1875, who, like Byron, used a side/breast stroke to cover the distance. See articles on the Histories for more details of swimming history.
Peggy was the first South African to swim across the Channel in 1930. The next South African across the Channel was Peter Bales - 40 years later in 1969. In 2001 a teams of girls from DSG in Grahamstown completed a team crossing.
Carina Bruwer was the first South African swimmer to round Cape Point.
Follow the links to see more about these adventurous and hardy swimmers. The cold waters (and Great White sharks!) of the Atlantic probably makes any long distance swim attempt in those waters seem more heroic.
A typical Cape Town open water swimming image - taken off Bloubergstrand.
Another South African challenger on the 7th February 1930 - South African swimmer Patricia Retief, aged sixteen years old. (there is no record of her succeeding). Her costume badge is from DSG in Grahamstown, seen with famous channel coach Jabez Wolffe.
|1969||Peter Elwin Bales||13||38|
|1993||Hirsch Swim Team||10||58|
|1999||Bobby Jo Bassingthwaite (Namibia)||13||10|
|2001||Benoni Northern Mixed||14||49|
|2002||Lewis Pugh Fan Club/Cape Long Distance Swim Assoc.||13||7|
|2005||Epping Forest Flotsam (4-Person Relay Swim) - UK/South Africa||13||17|
The recorded history of long distance swimming in southern Africa probably started at the Cape, where the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association manages such events today. Henry Hooper is best known as the first swimmer to complete the Robben Island crossing. The motive for such swims was often gambling, as gambling on swimming feats was an old tradition in England - although this aspect is not always reported.
In 1988 Belgium swimmer Annemie Landmeteres completed the first crossing of False Bay.
Another legend of Cape Long distance swimming is former Western province butterflyer Steve Klugman, who also crossed False Bay and also holds the records for a number of Robben Island crossings. Below with Barend Nortje on the right.
Barend with Steve Klugman
Man breaks record for 34km False Bay swim
A Cape Town swimmer has broken an 18-year record for the swim across False Bay from Rooi Els Point to Miller's Point and become only the fourth person to have completed the 34-kilometre distance.
Barend Nortje, 33, finished in 9 hours and 17 minutes, breaking Belgian swimmer Annemie Landmeters's record of 9.56, set in 1989.
Nortje, who has swum the English Channel, braved difficult weather and the sharks of False Bay during the swim, said Peter Bales, chairperson of the Cape Long Distance Association.
He had been "waiting for weeks for suitable weather", Bales said.
"It was an outstanding swim - he was looking very good."
The swim has been attempted 20 times, with Landmeters being the first to complete it. The others were South African swimmer Steven Klugman in 2004 and Carina Bruwer, of Cape Town, last year.
Since 2004, the association has used the electronic Shark Shield, attached to the swimmer's support boat.
Today the most internationally famous long distance swimmer from cape Town is undoubtedly Lewis Pugh. He wrote the following about swimming around Cape point:
The fact that the Cape of Good Hope has two very different waters on either side – icy cold and often unforgiving on the Atlantic, and warm and generous in False Bay – makes it the most perfect place in the world for an endurance swimmer to train.
One of my most memorable swims was the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope I did with three friends in 2004. Tony Sellmeyer, Gillian Atwood, Kevin Andersson and I swam the 12 kilometers from a little beach called Neptune’s Dairy, around Cape Point to Buffels Bay. It took us just over 3 hours, and just after the start we were buzzed by a Great White Shark. I say ‘buzzed’ because of the energy we all felt as it torpedoed by underneath us – I’m not sure that the creature even registered that we were there, but we were certainly acutely aware of him! We could have chosen to give up the swim then and there, but we elected to push on. And stick very close to each other.
Yach pak 30km se yswater aan
Theodore Yach, een van Suid-Afrika se legendariese kouewater en langafstand-swemmers berei hom tans voor vir ‘n 29.5km dag lange swemstryd in die ysige Atlantiese-seewater van Kaapstad.
'Madman' conquers False Bay
Cape Argus - February 16, 2004. A Cape Town swimmer braved choppy seas and strong winds to become the first South African to swim across False Bay.
Steve Klugman, 39, of Sea Point, has already swum to and from Robben Island and crossed the English Channel. Yesterday he completed the 34km between Rooi Els and Miller's Point in 14 hours and 15 minutes.
And why did he do it? "I am mad in the head. I am insane."
This is only the second time that anyone has completed the swim from Rooi Els to Miller's Point. Belgian Annemie Landmeters completed the swim in the 1980s.
Klugman began swimming when he was six years old, but started taking long-distance swimming seriously about three years ago. "I've wanted to do this for for a long time. I thought yesterday was a good day, but it was actually the wrong day to do it."
Conditions were "atrocious" because the sea was choppy and the strong wind disorientated him.
"It was not that bad when I started, but after four and a half hours the conditions deteriorated. I should have given up then."
He said if he had attempted the swim on a good day it would only have taken nine and a half hours.
Despite the tough swim, Klugman was elated when it was successfully over.
"It is fantastic and I am glad I've done it."
And would he do it again? "Never. For those who are looking at doing it, good luck!"
The swim raised funds for the Red Cross Children's Hospital and was made possible by Master Currency.