Peter was the first South African man (after Peggy Duncan in 1930) to complete a Channel crossing in 1969, and is the founding life-long Honourary President of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, which organisation pioneered open-water swimming in South Africa and lobbied internationally toward the 10km open-water race eventually getting IOC recognition as a fully-fledged Olympic swimming event.
Peter Bales, a global open water swimming legend, shares some of his insight gleaned from decades in the sport.
1. What made you decide to take up swimming?
I had a pool swimming background at school in Johannesburg and when opportunities of open water sea swimming presented themselves decided to try and immediately became hooked.
2. What would you regard as your greatest personal swimming achievement and why?
My greatest achievement is definitely swimming the English Channel, in 1969, as the first South African man. I was very inexperienced and undertrained but with wonderful overseas support proved that mind is more important than ability.
3. What are your three most significant swimming milestones and why?
My Significant milestones were my first Robben Island swim in 1969. I realized that if I could swim four and a half hours in cold water with no goggles and little training there was a lot of room for improvement. Another milestone was the English Channel six months later. Very memorable but also unpleasant was the ten and a half mile Lake Windemere in 1973, six and a half hours in cold choppy fresh water.
4. What has been your toughest swim and why?
Definitely the English Channel. The pure distance of 34 kilometers in 16 degree water was frightening and made me realise that was my absolute limit.
5. What is your next swimming goal?
Possibly just one more Robben Island Crossing
6. Why did you choose open water over the pool?
Pool swimming lacked the challenges of open water and although I competed in the pool at Masters galas for 20 years, my first love is open water. My lack of speed in the pool was also a factor.
7. Have you ever encountered sharks while swimming or piloting other swimmers? Tell us about it?
On very rare occasions I have spotted sharks, once off Three Anchor Bay, Derek Yach had to abort a Robben Island double when a dorsal fin approached and in the same area, I left the water in a hurry when a large shark swam directly under me.
8. How do you overcome fears of the ocean, including sharks and other sea creatures?
Best advice is just don’t think about them and place your faith in your boat crew.
9. How do you handle swimming in the Atlantic which sometimes dips to as low as 9◦C? Do you have a “strategy” to swim in cold water?
Only way to handle cold water is to train in it. You eventually learn to enjoy it and at the point it becomes horrible you learn to ignore it.
10. Why are South Africans becoming so famous for cold water swimming – what sets us apart?
Most S.A endurance open water swimmers train and do their swims in Cape waters which are cold. Events in False Bay are limited because of shark activity so everyone swims on the cold Atlantic side.
11. How do you rate SA open water swimmers compared to the rest of the world?
We are up there in both racing and endurance swimming and improving all the time. South Africans have one of the highest success rates in the world for swimming the English Channel.
12. Who are your swimming heroes and why?
A difficult question. Obviously I admire the highly talented swimmers who are top of the sport but equally my heroes are the less talented swimmers who achieve amazing personal goals through dedication and perseverance.
13. Is swimming an evolving sport? If so, how and why?
As in other sports the seemingly impossible keeps getting achieved as more and more people become involved. I believe the sport will continue to evolve but what the ultimate limits are, nobody knows.
14. What advice would you give to novice open water swimmers?
Don’t set limits and always have a next goal to motivate yourself. Listen and learn from those more experienced and you will be amazed at what you are capable of.
15. How many Robben Island crossings have you piloted and tell us about one or two of your most interesting experiences.
I have probably piloted close to 200 Robben Island swims and could write a book on all the characters involved from the "super fast" German Christof Wandratch, who broke both Robben Island records in one week, to Tony Scalabrino who took six and a half hours in 12 degree water for a short crossing.
16. What is the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA) and what does it do?
The CLDSA was formed in 1969 to officiate and keep records of all open water swims in the Western Cape. There are a strict set of rules similar to those of the Channel Swimming Association. Medals and certificates are presented to successful swimmers at a yearly awards function. For those interested our website is www.cldsa.co.za.
17. Anything else you would like to tell South Africans?
Whatever your role in open water swimming, keep at it. We are well known and respected in international circles and have made huge advances in every facet of Open Water Swimming over the past few years in this fast growing sport.
Peter Bales, A Navigating Giant Of South Africa
with local hero Carina Bruwer
Michael Oram (English Channel), Rafael Gutiérrez Mesa (Strait of Gibraltar), Quinten Nelson (North Channel), Greg Elliott (Catalina Channel), Captain Mizushima (Tsugaru Channel), Bob Andrieux (Santa Barbara Channel), and Charlie Gravett (Jersey) are well-known mariners of the world's most challenging open water swims.
Their legacy of care, expertise and experience are renowned and their services highly sought by marathon swimmers around the world.
Similar to the piloting giants of the channel swimming world (David Whyte, Reg Brickell, Sr., Reg Brickell, Jr., Ray Brickell, Captain Leonard Hutchinson, William J. Long, Duncan Taylor, Brian Meharg and John Pittman), Peter Bales of South Africa is another renowned escort pilot of the open water swimming world. The chairman and one of the founding members of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, he has been piloting around South African waters since the 1970s.
Bales wears a number of hats, all very well. In addition to his piloting duties, he has served as a support crew, observer, administrator and organizer of many open water swimming events in South Africa and continues to play a major role in the most challenging solo swims in Cape Town and other areas in South Africa.