PHILOCALY TRAIL SWIM

When a friend of mine sent me a poster advertising the trail, my first thought was that I would swim the 1st leg- Durban to Umdloti. I have been wanting to swim that route for a long time so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. I was finally feeling like I could stomach more than 2 hours in the ocean again after my circumnavigation of Rapa Nui just 7 months ago.

The mental and physical toll a swim of that kind takes on you is huge and I was finally back up to a healthy weight again after losing close to 10kg after Rapa Nui.

As I contemplated swimming the 1st leg, I thought why not do the whole thing? So before I knew it, I had recruited a team, met with Nikki (the organizer of the event) and it was a go.

A huge amount of preparation goes into an event like this. Logistics are somewhat complex and was the biggest stress to me in the build up to the 7 day Philocaly trail.

The team consisted of:

  • Sarah Houston- feeder, seconder, safety swimmer, coach
  • John McCarthy – kayaker, safety navigation officer and route finder
  • Wofty Wild- photographer and videographer and kayaker
  • Angelika Sandri- chef, crew feeder and massage therapist
  • Michelle Slack- Diver and team motivator
  • Emile Pirzenthal- boat captain
  • Jess Escobar- shark guru
  • Linda Ness- second photographer
  • Dean Coetzee- safety swimmer
  • Kirsten Van Heerden- safety swimmer
  • Caron Lloyd- kayaker
  • Jess Nicholson- media

There were going to be 2 extra kayakers as an extra safety measure but as the time grew closer- I was finding it harder to secure to paddlers and was not convinced it was going to be that helpful. The logistics were tough enough and having 2 extra crew members would mean we needed another driver and possibly even another boat to transfer the kayaks. The more people in the water, the higher the risk if things go down.

October is not the most ideal time of year to do a swim of this type as it is the windy season and the rainy season is just beginning. Rain means flowing rivers and dirty sea water, making visibility close to zero and increasing the risk of a curious Zambezi shark coming to investigate us.

The wind switches were crazy in the build up to the swim making it tough to plan ahead. I figured to focus on controlling what I could which was food prep and making myself ready and making sure my team was prepped. The rest we would figure out as we went. That week there was a lot of other stuff going on behind the scenes with Breathe and work that was causing me some stress- I felt like I had taken on far more than I could cope with in the next few months and that with the impending 7 day swim that I really wasn’t physically prepared for in terms of training it was just too much. As a result, day 1 arrived and I had no voice. Not a good way to start a 7 day swim series. I had 130km of unknown swimming ahead of me and I was not starting strong.

Also, John was unable to join us for day 1 due to family responsibilities so we were our chief safety and navigation officer down. Thankfully day 1 was a more familiar stretch of water swimming from Umdloti to Durban. We changed the route to a north south swim due to the wind being a strong north east. Downwind swim here we go!

Day 1- Umdloti to Durban

We met at my house on Saturday morning at 6am for an early start from Umdloti. I had no voice which was not the best way to start a 7 day staged swim. We packed the car and headed to Umdloti where we hung out at my mate Brad and Christy’s house. Emil, our incredibly experienced boat captain was going to meet us in Umdloti’s at 6.30 for an early start. He was driving up from Umkomaas and unfortunately got stuck in a massive traffic jam due to an overturned truck which delayed our start to 8.30

It was not ideal waiting, but it was out of my hands and so I kept myself busy and well hydrated. At the last minute Christy made me an egg to eat as I had eaten my breakfast at 5.30am and it was time to eat again before my swim. Egg downed. Go time.

Sarah and I swam out to backline with the wash and waited for the boat to launch. Conditions were wild and the east was strong.  We saw the boat launch and literally fly into the sky as it launched over a wave. The kayak was offloaded and off we set. Caron was up first on kayak duty and it was awesome swimming next to her again. When I first started ocean swimming, Caron would faithfully paddle next to me for hours on the weekend to help me train for my first channel crossing.

The wind was pretty strong and there was a good push south. I got into a rhythm fairly soon and before we knew it we were in Umhlanga! 90 minutes to swim from Umdloti to Umhlanga! I was flying! I thought Umhlanga was about half way so I was grinning thinking I would be in Durban in 3 hours!

When we reached La Lucia mall I realised I was wrong and had to do a quick recalibration to go a bit longer. My lats had started tightening up at 7km and I had a good while to go still. Just before we reached the Umgeni River Caron whistled to me that she had seen a shark! Hooray! I stopped, looked up and spitted the fin about 20m away from me- it was a small one and a half meters but not interested in me- it swam away towards the support boat and I carried n swimming, smiling that we had seen a shark on day 1 and hoping we would see a few more further north.

After 3 hours of solid paddling Caron tag teamed with Wofty our camera guy and I realised how strong the push was as Wofty struggled to stay with me and not get swept ahead- I was now nearer home and just wanted to head to the beach. Wofty kept whistling and shouting to draw me back to him on a safer route.

The stadium was coming closer and due to the fact that I was not well and still had 6 days to swim, I decided to exit at Bike and bean, country club beach, rather than head another 4km to Ushaka where the walkers had started. I had nothing to prove by doing those extra 4km and by then I was done. With Wofty trying hard  to keep me swimming a little bit more South- I was letting the waves push me closer to the shore and home and the next thing I got picked up by a rogue wave a good 15m before backline and promptly lost my goggles! I could see Sarah and Angelika gearing up to swim me in so I knew I was homeward bound. Sarah tried to get me to swim more north but I was tired and the waves and rip were pulling me to shore so we had a bumpy ride to shore on the waves and walked the last km to bike and bean against the wind.

Michelle was there to greet us with dry clothes and hot food. I changed and ate in the car while we drove the short drive home before jumping in the shower and unpacking all the gear to start prepping for day 2.

Emil motored the boat with the rest of the crew back to Umdloti and Michelle dropped Sarah, Angelika and I at home before going to fetch the crew from Umdloti.

Angelika gave me a much needed recovery massage and dinner was spaghetti bolognaise and salad mostly prep prepped.

I was coughing and my voice was nowhere but I felt ok. I figured an early night and I would be good to go for day 2.

20.5km swum in a strong north east wind 4 hours 39 minutes in 21 degree water. Follow my journey on facebook

Author: sarah