July 06, 2005


Gibraltar is one of the last remaining bastions of the greatest of empires, a reminder of how Britannia truly once did rule the waves, and one of the few specks of red on the world map that ensures that, to this day, the sun still never sets on the British Empire. For Gibraltar, for no less than three hundred and one years, has proudly been a British colony, and to this day continues to revel in their British identity and thumb their noses at Spain, who seethes and rages in her desire to reclaim the Rock.

In many ways, the Rock is a curious mixture of British, Spanish, Portugese and Genoese culture, architecture, and lifestyle. It has the warmth of the mediterranean enclosed in British institutions. The locals may revert to Spanish in their daily life, but in any official business, English is used. The locals may looks and act cheerfully latin, but given the intense nationalistic pride that many of the citizens have, it is more British than Great Britain.

I flew into Gibraltar looking forward to experiencing everything this unique state had to offer a historian of the British Empire, much as Paris Hilton must shiver with delight when walking into the Prada flagship store with her father's credit card. For one week, I snapped photographs of all the remanents of the British, relentlessly quizzed the locals on their identity, and read between the lines in the local newspaper as they reported on their own country.

Along the way, I managed to swim solo around the Rock, too. For I was in Gib. as part of my preparation to swim the Channel, and I never forgot that. As part of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Gibraltar government had invited Oxford to a race around the Rock, and I was going to be there with them.

It was a warm, cloudy morning on the 2nd of July when I stood on Western Beach, facing the Atlantic Ocean. To my right stood one of my teammates from the Oxford University Swimming Team and a swimmer representing the Gibraltar Amatuer Swimming Association (GASA). To my left stood the Mayor of Gibraltar and the Minister for Sport, Youth and Culture, ready to flag us off. It was a three way race: a 12 person mixed relay team (6 men, 6 women) representing Oxford; an 8 man relay team representing Gibraltar; and me. Didn't seem fair, but I was ready to race.

The swim around the Rock is not attempted often due to its very treacherous nature and the great logistical difficulties. The Straits of Gibraltar is a very busy shipping channel. Around Europa Point (the southernmost point of Europe), the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean Sea and produces extremely chaotic and unpredictable currents. Swim too close to the Rock and you will be dashed against the rocks; swim too far out and you will be swept into the Atlantic. The area also teems with jellyfish and the occasional shark. To further complicate matters, a sewer empties directly out of Europa Point and thus any swimmer must swim through raw sewage to pass through. Plus, of course, it is very cold in the Atlantic.

At 10 am the flag came down and into the water we ran. I swiftly outpaced the other two swimmers, and headed out into the Atlantic, circling past the airport runway and heading into the heart of Gibraltar Bay. Leaving both teams behind, I cut into the Port, trading the warmer water outside the port for the slightly calmer water. A jellyfish raked my left hand and stung my armpit, but I ignored it and kept going.

My accompanying canoeist, Norman, kept me on a tight path as we broke out of the port and into the open sea. I shortly passed Rosia Bay, where the HMS Victory was towed after the Battle and Nelson's body preserved in a barrel of rum. Shortly after, I stopped for a quick drink and learned that both teams were in a close fight, 500m behind me. I nodded and started swimming again.

As we approached Europa Point I paused again for a quick conference with Norman. "Shortest possible path around Europa Point," we agreed, trading ease for speed. As I swam into the Europa Point the sea remained generally calm but the currents swirled around me and I could feel myself being pushed mercilessly around. The rocks loomed large beneath me as I spun this way and that, and I felt a moment of worry that I would cut myself on an undersea rock, as I had in the Channel last year- which in turn might attract a blodd-sniffing shark. I pushed my worries aside and swam on.

As we entered the Mediterranean, the water slowly turned murky and began to smell. All signs of life disappeared and all I could see were shredded bits of sewage, suspended in the water around me as if in a colloid. "Don't swallow!" was all I could think of, and I tried not to gag and retch at the stench around me. I focused on Norman, and kept moving forward.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire: the moment we were around the Rock and clear of sewage, the wind was no longer blocked and it whipped up waves around me. I struggled to keep my stroke going as the waves crashed down on me. Norman tried to signal for me to move closer to the land, but I didn't notice, preoccupied as I was.

Just as I began to tire from battling the waves, I felt a cattle-prod to my ribs: a jellyfish had smashed into my side, and I grunted, loudly enough for Norman to hear. My side was on fire, but I forged on and it eventually grew numb.

After passing numerous beautiful caves, a splendid hotel, gleaming white along the shore, and fighting through some fishing lines which threatened to entangle me, I circled around a large outcropping and Eastern Beach lay before me, long and soft and splendid. Unable to see without my glasses, I followed Norman to the finish point, up the Beach, opposite the entrance to Latino's restaurant. I staggered from the waves, sprinted up and passed through the paddles planted in the sand to the sound of applause.

"2 hrs, 52 minutes," said the GASA President. I turned, touched my fingers to my lips, pointed to the sky and then to the Southeast, for my father and for Singapore. Then I gratefully accepted a towel and shook all the hands of the all the excited spectators. Apparently I had set some sort of record.

Shortly after, the GASA team emerged from the waves, followed closely by the Oxford team. It was a terrific event, and the Gibraltarians are a wonderful people, full of warmth and hospitality.

Read on for some photos.

My path around Gibraltar

Norman and I: two men together against the rough seas

My favourite photo: The two of us fade into insignificance next to the lighthouse at Europa Point

If you couldn't spot us, that's where we are

Posted by pj at July 6, 2005 05:24 AM

Wow. And congratulations - defeating Oxford, Gibraltar, jellyfish and raw sewage in one fell swoop. The Channel's bound to be a walk in the park after that lot. Hope you got away without contracting any gastric diseases.

Posted by: Gareth at July 6, 2005 11:07 AM

congrats =)

Posted by: dorl at July 7, 2005 05:46 PM

Well done son,am extremely proud of you...the best is yet to be!

Posted by: Mum at July 7, 2005 06:28 PM

congrats buddy! you're my hero.

Posted by: yeong shang at July 9, 2005 01:18 AM

Unbelievable. Amazing. There's nothing else that can be said.

Posted by: Rich at July 13, 2005 01:52 AM

Wow. Will you ever stop amazing us... Did you find out what kind of record you set, if any?

Posted by: eclectician at July 14, 2005 10:32 AM

As a Gibraltarian, now living in the UK since 1974, I was brought up round Western Beach where I spent nearly all my childhood, I know well the sewage waters round Europa Point where I use to go fishing, but, never swimming! You really did well. Congatulations and best wishes on your cross Channel Swim and for the future.

By the way have you or any of your collaegues ever thought about swimming the Straits of Gibraltar?

Posted by: Robert Almeida at October 16, 2005 08:11 AM

great memories.what will the next challenge be?regards nick thomas

Posted by: nick thomas at January 26, 2006 11:36 PM

great memories.what will the next challenge be?regards nick thomas

Posted by: nick thomas at January 26, 2006 11:37 PM
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