The Robben Island Swim

12 degree water, jellyfish, seasickness and endurance: two swimmers share their experience of this South African challenge

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island, and the 7.5km stretch of water between it and Cape Town has become an iconic swim. Two swimmers share their adventure.


After four days of waiting the wind finally dropped to a gentle breeze. The sun shone as we headed down to the pontoon to meet our boatman Roger Finch – an epic swimmer who has himself conquered a number of marathon swims, including the Channel, Manhattan Island, Gibraltar Strait and, of course, lots of Robben Island crossings – and his wife Lindsay who kindly agreed to be our official observer.

We enjoyed a beautiful boat ride out to the Island with whales surfacing right in front of the boat before Roger directed our attention to the control panel which indicated water temperatures of 12C – much colder than we’d anticipated!


Queenie jumped in first and let out quite a squeal. While the Robben Island Swim Challenge is known for cold waters, it was much colder than we expected which sent my anxiety levels off the chart as we swam through a kelp forest to reach the shore. There we both stood up – careful not to cut our feet on the stones and attract any unwanted predators – before Lindsay sounded an air horn. We were off!

A mixture of anxiety and saltwater meant I spent the first few hundred metres retching and could only swim breaststroke as both Queenie and the support boat pulled into the distance. There was no way I could swim five miles in this state.

A few weeks before our swim, Queenie had told me about a technique which involves counting to 100 with each breath – every two strokes for her and three for me – before doing 10 breaststroke pulls as a treat to make sure you still enjoy the surroundings. So I started doing this and amazingly it worked.

The water was crystal clear. I could see a bloom of jellyfish below me – and lots more dark shapes which I tried to ignore. Epic views of the Table Mountain helped take my mind off the unknown.

People talk about hitting walls on endurance events. I hit several. I remember one point – convinced we must have done about two thirds of the swim – when I felt exhausted and couldn’t really swim any more. My breathing technique was all over the place. My little fingers were so cold I couldn’t even cup my hands. Then Roger yelled from the boat: ‘You’re halfway there. Another 2.5 miles to go!’


When I dropped into the water right at the start of the swim, I landed awkwardly and pulled my hamstring. I joked at the time that it didn’t really matter because I wouldn’t be needing it for the next few hours – and soaking it in cold water was probably just the ticket. Which it was. For the next three hours, I swam with a strong rhythm, stopping only for two quick water and banana breaks.

But as I set off moving again, I suddenly felt cramp in my left calf, then my right, then my quad, adding to the pain in my hamstring. In a moment of clarity I realised what I had to do. ‘I think I’m going to get out,’ I told the others. ‘Yes, that’s it, I’m getting out.’ Matt didn’t need me; he was swimming well. So out I got. And discovered that the water had dropped to 11C. That’s pretty cold!



I was so tempted to join Queenie when she got out, but I’d dreamt about this swim for 20 years. Ever since 1999 when I lived in Cape Town, the Island had become an almost mythical symbol for me. So I had to push on, even though I could barely count at this point.

The beach didn’t seem to get any closer in that final hour or so. The rocks offered false promises that I was almost there. And even when the beach did finally seem achievable, enormous waves started crashing over me so that I found myself underwater and struggling for the surface.



I would love to say I was able to support Matt and make the most of the beautiful views across Cape Bay and Table Mountain, but in actual fact I spent the rest of the trip shivering and lying on the floor, trying to fend off seasickness.

Did I regret my decision? No, not at all. And I was able to get back in the water for the last 200m so I could swim to shore with Matt. This might not have been my day but it was his. Congratulations Matt on your epic achievement!



Once we got back on the boat, the special moment when Roger and Lindsay gave me my Freedom Swim medal was somewhat spoilt by the sound of Queenie throwing up over the side. But I’m so glad she was there with me. My teeth were still chattering as we set off back but I soon warmed up in the South African sun in the knowledge that I’d finally accomplished a lifetime goal.

Thank you to everyone who supported our swim and donated to Rowcroft Hospice!


Matt Newbury & Queenie Martin