Why you should care
Staying afloat is only half the battle.
I had my concerns.
In the month of September, Goree Island, best known for its dark past as a hub in the transatlantic slave trade, hosts an annual Dakar-Goree swim. More than 500 local and expat amateur swimmers start on the tip of Dakar, which is also the most westerly point of Africa, and end on Goree. But the best way to prepare for the 4.5-km swim (almost 3 miles) is to swim from Ngor to Ngor Island. That’s about 1.5 km, or almost a mile. Considering the effort involved and how strong of a swimmer I was, though? It was like getting ready to be hit by a truck by getting hit by a car first.
But you can test out your strokes against moderate ocean waves while still being able to see the land up ahead and, most important, maybe prepare for all the differences between swimming in the open water and a pool: the salt, the current, the sea creatures.
But I still had my concerns. What about the salt? I was going to wear goggles, but you know you can never trust those things — the number of times they get misty and you can’t see anything. What about the waves? We were going to swim at 7 a.m., and the waves were not expected to be terrible. But what about the sharks? There have been only four shark attacks in Dakar from 1828 to 2004, but still this was not zero percent probability.
Don’t stand. Keep swimming! Swim flat so that you don’t touch the rocks.
And if you were prone to being superstitious, you might have noted that at present Goree Island is home to the House of Slaves with the Door of No Return — a UNESCO World Heritage site. During former President Obama’s time at the Door of No Return, he said it helped him “fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade” and “get a sense in an intimate way” of the hardships slaves faced.
There were five of us the first morning. The sun rising over the ocean, rocking boats by the beach, a nice view of the island we would be swimming to. We started swimming and eventually got into a natural rhythm, even if we were all swimming at different speeds and doing different strokes. I chose to breaststroke, as it was the easiest to breathe with, given the waves coming in from the side. I would have swallowed too much water if I tried to swim freestyle.
Everything was going perfectly, though.
Right up until my friend who had been on this route before warned us, “When you get to the other side, there will be rocks, but don’t worry. They appear much closer than they actually are.”
Twenty minutes later, I got to the rocky part — but the rocks were still far beneath me. With my goggles I got to see small fish swim past. I was swimming, swimming and marveling at nature. I went a bit farther, and, because the tide was low, the rocks were now much closer to me. It was becoming hard to swim, as the water was now really shallow and the rocks were touching my thighs. The obvious instinct was to walk on the rocks.
Which would make a lot of sense until you’re told that the things covering the rocks are poisonous sea urchins. At first I didn’t see the sea urchins. I stopped and stood on the rocks a bit, but at this point, my more experienced friend turned back and told me: “Don’t stand. Keep swimming! Swim flat so that you don’t touch the rocks. There are urchins on them!”
All of which I didn’t really need to hear since, yes, I was getting stung. Quite a bit, in fact.
So now I’m petrified. With no desire to get to the island anymore. You see, we were close enough, but would have to go through more poisonous territory to get there. I decided to turn back and swim to the mainland. By the time I got there, my feet and hands were stinging. My reward? A visit to the doctor immediately afterward and two new resolutions:
For our next swim, we were going to use a slightly longer route that got us to the island via a sandy beach versus a rocky beach.
And also: I was going to eat some sea urchins the next time I went out for seafood — that would be my vengeance.