Friday, October 8, 2010

Lost at Sea

Goree Island Swimmers

I’m briefly seized by panic. I’m about two kilometers from the nearest point of land and I’ve already been swimming for about an hour. A sustained wind is pushing white caps over my head as I try to catch a breath. I look around to get my bearings. Freighters lie at anchor on the horizon, awaiting entry to the port of Dakar. I know Goree Island, my destination, is somewhere to the right of the big ships, but I can only see it when a swell scoops me up. A tuft of green atop hard angles tipping into the sea, details obscured by the distance. I drop back into a lonely trough, put my head down, and start swimming again.

This was roughly the experience of 500 people this weekend as they passed the midpoint of the Dakar-to-Goree swim race – a 5-kilometer traverse (slightly longer than the swimming stage of the iron man competition) from Dakar’s industrial zone to an island that earned its notoriety as Africa’s westernmost slaving station. This year’s race marked the event’s 50th anniversary, and amazingly, no one during any of the competitions to date has been reported lost at sea.

I say that because it is a bit of a free for all. Swimmers of all abilities gather on the beach the morning of the race and are let loose with little guidance at the stroke of noon. Veteran swimmers know to head in a direction about 90 degrees to the left of the island to counter the strong current, and novices like me tend to follow. I’ve been told drowning is a serious possibility for those who head straight at Goree. A few wooden boats cruise around to herd people who go too far off course, but it seemed to me an impossible task in the vast swath of ocean. During the first half hour or so, it is fairly easy to keep within sight of your fellow swimmers who act as guides. But as the minutes tick slowly by, the groups diffuse across the water and pretty soon, almost everyone is alone.

Luckily, I only had the one mild panic attack during my swim. It helped me to remember the young man on the starting beach who tied his wrists together with a rope, “to remember the slaves” he told a crowd of his fellow swimmers. I imagined him struggling bravely a half-hour ahead of me, tied up like a pretzel, and I toughened up.

After a monotonous stretch of swimming, the island grew larger. I got to the edge and began swimming along its coast to the beach and finish line. This was the fun part – not just because my lovely wife and a cold beer awaited me a few hundred meters away – but because I could now see the ocean floor with my mask as I crossed the reefs. I saw a giant puffer fish directly below me. I saw a school of minnows that looked like air bubbles moving sideways instead of rising to the surface. I saw piles of boulders, and stretches of peaceful white sand. Then I saw the edge of the rock pier and the slope of bottom rising toward the finish line. It was a welcome sight after hours of nothing but darkness below. I took a big breath and dove down to swim along the bottom for the last little stretch. When I came up, I was done, and the quiet of the sea was broken by music and cheering onlookers. Swimmers, who had all completed their solitary struggles, collided together at the finish and happily stumbled up the shore.

After the swim with a Gazelle on the table

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