How Mindaugas and Nikolaj conquered Gibraltar: Part 4

2019 12 18 · 5 min read
Authors: Mindaugas Gaurys, Nikolaj Anikejev

Mindaugas’ story:

Neda el Món had a window for its 6 swimming teams from 1 September to 17 September. Since we were in Team 5 out of 6, our preliminary swimming window was between 12 September and 17 September. We had taken care of all the trip arrangements in advance, so now we just had to wait. The first team swam only on 9 September, due to bad weather. Then the second team was sent home to wait for their swim between October and November. I was getting anxious and I asked Mark about the start date for our team, and whether it was not too early to arrive on 11 September. Mark assured me that it was necessary to arrive on the 11th, as there would be a briefing in the evening and a swim on 12 September. There were no further questions. We had to accept the fact that, after a tiring journey of 10-12 hours, we would have to swim the next day. On the other hand, we would have a few days to rest afterwards. We arrived at Tarifa on the evening of 11 September, after an 8-hour journey. Everyone else from the 5th and 6th teams arrived as well, almost at the same time. The briefing was delayed until late in the evening. At the ACNEG headquarters, we also met the 4th member of our team, Ezequiel from Mexico.
Key points we learned during the briefing:

  1. The first hour of swimming is very important. You need to swim as fast as possible, as the Gulf Stream is strong and carries you to the east. If we swam slowly we’d probably find ourselves in Malta, joked Laura, President of ACNEG.
  2. The last hour of swimming is also very important, since in this location currents opposite to the direction of swimming are predominant. At their worst, the currents may be so strong that it is impossible to reach the shore.
  3. During the first and last hour of swimming, the water will be approximately 2 degrees cooler than in the middle of the track. On the relevant days, the average water temperature was 18 degrees.
  4. You may not swim during low tide because it has very strong currents. You need to swim either before or after low tide. The tidal cycle is approximately one week. For example, on the first day of a high tide you can start at 8:30, the next day at 9:30, then at 10:30 and so on. The latest possible start is at 14:00.
  5. Swimmers must swim in one group. The distance between the swimmers must not exceed 100 metres. If a swimmer swims too slowly or endangers the team’s ability to cross the Strait due to other reasons, that swimmer is disqualified.
  6. The white boat sails 20-30 meters ahead, showing the way, measuring the currents, watching the aquatic life and communicating with the other ships that pass by.
  7. The orange boat sails on the left side of the group, close to the slowest swimmer.
  8. The orange ship also supplies food. The food is supplied from hand to hand. You should not touch the orange ship. Touching the orange ship means disqualification.
  9. If the captain requests that you board the boat, there shall be no questions or objections, and the request must be executed immediately. Here are some reasons why this might happen:
    a) Vessels passing are not communicating with our captain and therefore present the risk of a collision;
    b) There are dangerous sea creatures nearby;
    c) You are disqualified.
  10. You must not swim in fog when you cannot see the opposite shore.
  11. You must not swim if the wind is stronger than 4 knots.
  12. You must not swim if the wind is blowing from the east. Such winds can cause vortexes on the water surface, because the wind blows in the opposite direction than the flow of the Gulf Stream. Swimming at this time is also forbidden because an agreement is in place with the Moroccan authorities, and the easterly wind is predominant in this part of the world. That is why only 50 to 60 swims are done here each year.

After the briefing, we realised that we were not swimming anywhere tomorrow. The next two favourable opportunities to swim were allocated for Groups 3 and 4. We had to wait for them finish their swims. We had a brief chat with our new swimming partner from Mexico. He had been waiting for his swim in Tarifa since the end of June, including some breaks. He said he had caught a cold, so he had a cough and a runny nose. He was spending his days in a hotel room, suffering from boredom, anxiety and stress. My anxiety intensified even further. But tomorrow was a rest day. And not just tomorrow, but also the day after tomorrow and the day after that.

The days began with an alarm clock that woke us up at 7 A.M. For breakfast, I ate oatmeal with hot water and yogurt. After breakfast, Nikolaj and I walked around, passing by the port and going to a local cafe where I ordered a cup of Café con Leche. At 9:00, all of us would gather at Playa Chica for a training session. We swam 30 to 40 minutes to Isla de Tarifa and back. During the training, I suffered from a chafed neck. I didn’t understand why the method I had already tried against neck chafing no longer worked. There was no magic involved: for some people the method is useful and for others it is not, depending on your skin, the water, etc. Our friend Joaquim from Team 6 suggested we throw our Vaseline away and use a 100% lanoline ointment made by his daughter. I tried it during the next session and, amazingly, my neck no longer felt any chafing. On our first day, we travelled very close to Playa de Valdevaqueros, a paradise for surfers and kite surfers, where the Kite World Cup takes place every year. On the next day, we drove to the town of Barbate to visit the tuna restaurant El Campero. The following day we drove to Gibraltar, the overseas territory of the United Kingdom. We saw their unique airport, the Rock of Gibraltar and the view from the top of it, monkeys, stalagmites and other rock formations, and also checked out a local telephone booth, ate fish and chips, and drank no beer. For lunch or dinner, we always ate fish. When it comes to Spanish food, it can be difficult at times. We ordered food that could be shared with others, and every meal absolutely had to end with a dessert, which you no longer wanted, but you still had to eat – for example, el muerte por chocolate. After dinner, we would stroll around town for another half-hour and then go to bed somewhere around midnight.

Finally, the morning of 18 September arrived. It was beautiful and windless. At breakfast, I saw how Nikolaj and Hector’s legs were trembling. “Nervous?” I asked. “Nope, we’re shaking in tune with the music.” Around 13:00 we met at the harbour. Everything started to happen very quickly, unbelievably quickly, which is not very typical for the Spaniards. We received a quick briefing, a quick photo session was done, and 10 minutes later we were already waving to our colleagues who remained ashore. The boat took us to the southern part of Isla de Tarifa, where we jumped into the water and swam to the rocks, which were our starting point. You had to swim to the rock and touch it, then raise your hand and wait for the referee’s whistle. The start signal was given. The white boat Columba was sailing at the front, while on the very left was the orange boat Duende del Mar, followed by Nikolaj, Hector, myself and Ezequiel. During the first hour, we swam quickly, according to our instructions. The pace seemed to be OK but I kept worrying about the awaiting cold, difficulties, cramps and other trouble. I was nervous, and my stress grew only larger due to the unsynchronised swimming next to Ezequiel, as our hands or torsos often bumped together. I finally lost my patience and pushed him to the right side, where he would have plenty of room to swim in zigzags like he had been doing until then. I continued to swim and tried to calm myself by believing that everything was going to be fine, that we were swimming fast, and that everything was certainly going to be fine. Then I raised my head, took a breath and was hit in the face by some weed. God, that was scary! I was spitting and cursing for another 10 minutes before I was able to calm down again. An hour had passed, when we heard the referee’s whistle. Everyone swam in a line to the orange boat, trying to reach a bottle of water, an energy gel and a salt capsule. This was harder than it sounds. As you drink your water, the boat drifts 3 metres forward. You swim to it again, take your gel, and it drifts another couple of metres. So you need to catch up with it yet again to take the salt capsule. But it seemed that my trainer Mark didn’t even understand what sort of capsule I wanted and where to find it. I tried to explain, without screaming at him, repeating the same words for the fourth time: “give me the capsule from that transparent bag”, “from any bag”. Finally, I got my capsule. As we were wasting precious seconds trying to eat, I got a cramp in my leg, which lasted for a short while. I hoped the salt capsule will help me, as it had helped me during training and camp sessions. The catering really unsettled me, as I didn’t expect it to be so chaotic. During the second hour, we swam as quickly as during the first one. It took a while for me to calm down after the eating experience. I looked back to see how far we had swum… and it didn’t look far at all. The Spanish coast could be seen clearly, yet the African one looked distant. The water should be warmer in this zone but somehow you could not feel this, although I wouldn’t say it was cold either. The second snack after 1 h 40 min was even more interesting: the orange boat was going round in circles and we followed it, barely managing to manoeuvre to avoid a collision with it. I tried to get a capsule from Mark’s hand, again succeeding only on the second or third attempt. It seemed to me that we were once again wasting a lot of precious time. As our journey continued, the pace was noticeably slower. Somehow, I don’t remember what I was doing between the second and third hour. I was probably looking out for large freight ships, checking how far away we were from the coast, and trying not to look at my watch too often. I looked very carefully at what was going on under the water, but could not see more than two or three metres deep. I believe that a dolphin passed by under me. By 3 h 08 min the fourth meal was late. I asked the referees why they weren’t giving us food. They looked around, mumbled something, and said that we couldn’t stop because we had to allow a ship to pass by. I pretended I hadn’t heard this excuse, since it didn’t seem very plausible to me as there were no other ships around, maybe just one quite far away. A few seconds later, we heard a whistle. Hurray, we were about to get our food! I think that during this break Mark asked Nikolaj to pick up his pace a bit. You could see the fatigue in Nikolaj’s face. We began swimming further. We swam slowly – I would have only needed to take a couple of large strokes to get in front. I could see the African coast, but I couldn’t understand if it was far or close. It seemed to be more visible than the Spanish coast, so this seemed OK, as that was what you would expect.

At around 3 h 30 min, we swam into such cold water that I felt very uneasy. I thought to myself, if we have to spend one more hour in such cold at such a pace, we will be frozen. But that was a false alarm – as the next minute it was warm again. Going from cold to warm and to cold again was the new normal for some time. I tried to shorten my strokes – but I totally lost my rhythm, so I stuck with long slow strokes. We received another serving of food just before the fourth hour. Mark asked Hector and me to draft Nikolaj a bit. Drafting is swimming no more than 20 cm in front of a slower swimmer, thus raising splashes and currents that will help him/her to swim. It sounds nice in theory, but it was almost impossible to implement in practice. I shifted to the leftmost position and, while swimming in front of Nikolaj, tried to somehow kick my feet, but then I realised that I had to do much shorter strokes with my arms because my legs were swimming too quickly. In my quest to find the right speed and the balance between my legs and hand work, I noticed that I was no longer able to follow my swimming trajectory because I was looking more at Nikolaj than at Columba. I did not manage to do this for a long time and eventually retreated to my former position. I ask the referees what distance was left, and they told me that it was about 40 min, or 2 km. Wow, I thought – 3 km/h during the fourth hour and the 13th kilometre of swimming was a nice pace indeed.

The African coast hadn’t changed for quite a while, so it appeared that we were not moving. My right shoulder started to ache. Also, the referees’ arguments didn’t seem persuasive to me. After 40 minutes, the view of the African coast still didn’t change, and I thought we were standing still. My head was chaotic, filled with many disturbing thoughts: why isn’t that coast getting closer, how else can we help Nikolaj… I had no other choice but to work on myself mentally and drive away all bad thoughts. I repeated this prayer: “Common, Nikolaj, common, Nikolaj, swim, swim, not much further”. And repeated it over again, hundreds of times. I don’t know if it helped Nikolaj, but it certainly helped me. For some reason, I dared not to ask the referees why we hadn’t received food at 4 h 30 min. Our swimming trajectory became similar to a zigzag: you swam straight for several hundred metres, then you quickly turned right. We had to maintain such a trajectory because we were targeting Punta Cires, the nearest point on the Moroccan coast. During the 5th hour, my right elbow joint, lips, nose and tongue started to ache, I felt thirsty, I had an unpleasant sensation in my stomach, and I started feeling more and more sick. I had to endure such physical and mental suffering for 45 more minutes. I could hardly believe it when I began seeing the bottom, with the stones below us, and the rocks in front that could be seen more and more clearly. Only a few hundred metres more. We swam up, touched the rock and heard the referee’s whistle. And that was it – the challenge was completed. We had reached Africa – we swam across the Strait of Gibraltar! We had covered 15.2 km in 5 h 46 min.

So many coincidences occurred before we set this goal, we had to wait so much time for news from Spain, and the training and the actual swim were so hard… everything was so complex that it was difficult to understand how we managed to complete this goal at all. Nikolaj and I became the first Lithuanians to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Nikolaj’s story:

Going to the pool had become boring already. The programmes didn’t change because there wasn’t much more to train, as we were already training every aspect we could. All our swims were the same, and even going to a lake no longer seemed attractive, since we were going to the ocean!

Our flight was scheduled to depart from Riga on 11 September. As we wait at Vilnius Airport, we received a message from Mark: “Can you get a doctor’s confirmation of your medical statements and the form requested by ACNEG?”. What?! Are you serious? I remembered the medical certificates required to take part in Bosporus, so would the same be true for Gibraltar? It turned out that every time, a full medical examination was needed, although the form of the document didn’t matter. The Turkish Olympic Committee sent its form to be signed by each doctor in the commission and the chair of the commission. The ACNEG had its own form, but Neda El Mon confirmed that a medical examination by the commission and any type of confirmation would be sufficient. In order to pass the examination, we had to visit 4 doctors (I was the healthiest patient my local cardiologists had ever examined!), give blood, wait for the responses, collect all the signatures and stamps, then scan everything and send it to Neda El Mon. After this, we had to wait for the APPROVED responses, as well as a similar message on my way to Tarifa.

The flight was calm. People were going on vacation, and we were too, in a sense. Yet in our case, the preparation for the vacation had lasted 2.5 years. After arriving at Malaga, we took a taxi and asked it to go straight to Tarifa. The entire 2-hour trip was along the coast. After a while, we saw the coast that we came here for: Africa!

The first evening we were terribly hungry, but didn’t know how things operated around here. Even if you wanted something simple as a burger or a pizza, you could get it only after 20:00. We had to eat chips and wait 1.5 hours for dinner. Then, we met Hector and our other group teammates, as well as the people accompanying them. The Spaniards showed us what a truly Spanish dinner meant. I later read that everything here was based on the “ship” principle. It was like living on a ship sailing to Africa. The crew lived together, worked together and relaxed together. It meant that everyone got an equal share of everything, both the good and the bad. This included training at sea as well as paying the bill in a restaurant. Later, we had the ACNEG’s briefing. We met our fourth teammate, a Czech, after which we went to bed.

The Spaniards didn’t allow us to get bored. We would go somewhere different every day. We visited a kite surfers’ paradise, a luxurious tuna restaurant, and even a part of Great Britain, i.e. Gibraltar, where I ate Fish’n’Chips. During my time in Tarifa, I ate meat only once because the fish and seafood were fabulous there! On Day 15, we were told that tomorrow it would be possible to swim. The nervousness kicked in. We ate plenty of salads, pasta and desserts. We were so full. However, I could sleep for only a few hours because I would wake up thinking about the next day: what would it look like, what if I get seasick… No way! During my training in the sea, everything had been fine. Would I get a cramp? No, I hadn’t got any cramps for over a year. Maybe I would be stung by jellyfish? I had already experienced that and nothing happened – I was still alive, it was just painful, but bearable for a long time. Ah… OK then, it was time to get some sleep. One hour later… “So how will everything happen, can anyone explain it again?”

On Day 16, I put all my equipment stuff on the bed, took a picture of it and sent the photo to Mindaugas to check. Then, I uploaded it to Facebook. Then I played Eminem – Till I Collapse – on repeat and left feeling fully confident that my training was complete. That day, we didn’t swim because of the wind. We left our stuff at the hotel and went to release some of our energy in the sea. We swam for maybe 40 minutes. The weather was hot, but that didn’t make things any easier. Everything started revolving around the fact that we might no longer be able to swim this season, i.e. we had the opportunity to swim between 1 and 17 September, but we didn’t swim on the 16th, and the forecast for the 17th was bad. We talked about this with the members of our group, Mark, and the group again. We didn’t go anywhere. We were spending our time by the water, talking about everything. On Day 17, we had a meeting with Mark in the hotel’s reception, where he only confirmed the bad forecast. Group 6 was going home to wait for a possible swim in October or November. We had one last day available – the 18th. Group 6 said their goodbyes. It was sad and three of us – Mindaugas, Hector and I – went for a walk around Tarifa, visited the beaches, and later went for dinner. Aleksandr from Moscow didn’t want to go without Jaomi, so he dined with us. Late in the evening, we walked to the Tarifa port gate to howl like a band of wolves. Every one of us probably had their own message to the universe, which was encapsulated in this sound.

On Day 18, at 13:00, I wrote to my parents only saying that I was going to the port. The start was exactly as I had wanted. Fast and clear. We jumped into a boat, sailed away and I dived into the water (the beauty there was something out of this world!). As I touched a rock, we heard the whistle. Hurray! We were swimming! The first hour went quickly. I thought only about our successful start, about how I should check the Colombo boat every 7th stroke, and about the strokes themselves, which one had to start over there and which over there. A whistle signalled the food break! Mark had a hard time feeding us, especially the salt capsules, but nevermind. We lost slightly more time than was necessary, but everyone was feeling hyped and supported each other. Another whistle – and another food break. I looked around: Tarifa could still be seen, but Morocco was hazy. I saw no freight ships, and my watch indicated that we had already swum 5 km. I asked the others what distance remained. After comprehensive feedback from my teammates, it became clear that the question was a waste of time.

I breathed in on my right side, so if you asked me what I saw throughout the swim, my answer would be only my swimming teammates: Hector and Mindaugas. And sometimes the Czech. The sun shone in my face the entire way. It didn’t take too long (or so it seemed to me) for us to see a Moroccan flag raised on Colombo. It was a sign that half of the route was completed.

The second half was more interesting. After some of the food breaks I wanted to rest on my back, because I thought someone was still eating. Then it appeared that everyone was waiting for me. I received some criticism (not physical, gladly) and continued swimming. Africa could already be seen without the haze, but it wasn’t drawing any closer. I felt only the waves from large ships, currents, different temperatures and our work. During another scheduled food break, Mark asked me to draft behind Hector and Mindaugas. It didn’t help. When you are swimming in open water, you are not doing almost any work with your legs, which means that you’re not forming any bubbles, so drafting behind is of little help. My strokes grew shorter and I was not even thinking of making them longer.

During the last eating break, we were told that only one hour remained. The Moroccan mountain could already be seen very clearly, but I heard the captain’s comment to go “to the side”. No, no, no! That would mean more than one hour.

45 minutes later, my body was begging for food. One hour later, it was asking for at least a drink. Then all thoughts abandoned me. All of them! I saw only Colombo against the Moroccan background. I started to look at the boat too often, because I was afraid of losing sight of it. For a third or maybe a fourth time, I attempted to use all the energy left in me because I knew I was losing my second wind.

I had been looking at the coast, the port, the columns and even some kind of a road for a very long time. At that moment, Colombo began moving aside and the boat Zodiac appeared in front of us. A couple of minutes later, I saw white foam from the waves beating the African shore! This was real! We had made it! We were the first Lithuanians to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar!

I would like to end this blog post by thanking the people who helped and supported me throughout this challenge:

My parents, wife, brother and my entire family – thank you for your patience and understanding. I know it was not easy.

Mindaugas Gaurys – the best swimmer, coach (when we are training without a coach), swim partner, bantering pro, very interesting person and friend.

My BA family – you are amazing! Your support and drive, all your smiles, comments in the kitchen, criticism, Facebook comments and more – all of this allowed me to ENJOY IT throughout the challenge.

Vytautas Kaminskas – sometimes it seems that you’re just killing me, but this forces me to get up and train harder.

Thank you!