Crossing Gibraltar Strait: A Journey to Joy
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on October 31st, 2013

On October 11, I swam across Gibraltar Strait, with  TI colleagues Lennart Larsson of Orebro, Sweden and Tommi Patila of Helsinki, Finland. We swam 18km (11+ miles) in 5 hours 18 minutes. Water temperatures started at 18C (64F) near the Spanish coast, rose to 19 in mid-Strait, then dipped to 16C (60F) as we approached Morocco.

Synch 1

Those are the basic details of our swim. The International Marathon Swimming Association adds other qualifiers such as no wetsuits; you may not touch your escort boat, or be assisted in any way—anything that could make the swim easier. We also observed those rules.

I’ve taken  almost three weeks to chronicle our swim partly because I’ve been traveling almost nonstop through Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and Sweden since then–visiting TI coaches and leading workshops.

But also because I hadn’t found an adequate way to express how uplifting an experience that swim was for the three of us. Until I got an update from Barry Shore, about whom I’d written in August 2011.

How Total Immersion Changed My Life—Barry Shore

Barry ‘s story and personality are as inspiring as anything I’ve encountered in 50 years in swimming. In 2004, he’d been left completely paralyzed by Guillain Barre syndrome. Over the next several year, he used  the combination of water and TI as a source of psychic energy and physical rehab to resume living an active—and joy-filled—life.

barry shore

Barry ‘s message said: I just completed 4,000 miles . . . all due to the genius and love of the Total Immersion system . . . the yoga of swimming. I’ll celebrate this milestone by writing a short essay on the joy and ecstasy of such an amount . . . and in process to the larger goal of 10,000 miles. Being at one with the water is a marvelous experience and the ability to be ‘totally immersed’ in the aqua world for 3+ hours daily is a truly out of body experience.

While our route map says we swam from Spain to Morocco, in reality it was a Journey to and through Joy because of it was a collaboration rather than an endurance test.

Swimming with Friends

In Sept 2012, during a TI Open Water Camp in Turkey, Lennart proposed that we swim Gibraltar together. I agreed and he proceeded to book our slot with the organizer Asociación de Cruce a Nado del Estrecho de Gibraltar (Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association.)

Several months later when we were again at a TI Open Water Camp at Maho Bay on St John, USVI, we began talking to Tommi about joining us. What I enjoy most about those camps is that for hours each day I get to swim with dozens of fellow enthusiasts–including Tommi and Lennart that week.

I’ve done numerous solo marathons, swimming as much as 9 to 12 hours (and up to 28.5 miles) next to a boat, nearly always feeling solitary. But because my greatest source of pleasure in open water is interacting with other swimmers, the attraction of such swims has paled for me.

However I’ll happily swim almost any distance with companions. And not only do the swim but share in the preparation and anticipation . . . even if they happen to be in Sweden and Finland.

The one thing that takes my enjoyment to its highest level is synch swimming, which provides both a rigorous skills challenge and deep satisfaction when you get it right.

At Maho Bay, it occurred to us to attempt the first-ever synchronized swim from Spain to Morocco. Open water synch-swimming takes special skill because swells and chop make it harder to keep a constant course and maintain a visual on partners

But  synch swimming in open water brings a unique reward too—the satisfaction of adding man-made artistry to a setting of great natural beauty.

People who have seen groups of TI campers swimming in calmly-ordered packs at Maho Bay have commented we look like a ‘school of humans.’

This post from a year ago, Creating Beauty—Getting Speed in Return describes such an experience during a 3k swim at a TI OW Camp in Ciralu Turkey. It includes this video:

While crossing Gibraltar we swam three abreast in close ranks about 90 percent of the time. I recall these aspects most of all:

It was timeless. Our 45-minute intervals between feeds sometimes felt more like 15 minutes so complete was our absorption with being in synch. And all of us admitted to feeling reluctant to interrupt our reveries to feed.

Synch1a

It was nearly effortless.  Though I swam  only 9km per week for two months prior to our swim–exceedingly light preparation for a marathon swim–I felt fresh for nearly the entire 5-plus hours and 18km. This is partly due to effortless TI Technique. But even more I felt I drewg energy from Lennart and Tommi when we were almost touching and in synch. They felt the same: Synch-swimming seemed to recycle energy among us.

Tommi, Lennart and Terry bottom to top

Tommi, Lennart and Terry bottom to top

Magic Moments Each morning before the sun had quite risen we swam for an hour on the Atlantic side of Tarifa—protected from the prevailing (often howling) Levante winds. We swam the entire time in synch, changing positions from right to middle to left. As the sun rose, if I happened to be on the far side, I could see Lennart and Tommi as backlit silhouettes. Their TI form created beautiful sleek lines.

As we approached the Morocco shore, the current turned against us and the water turned colder, requiring us to dig deeper to make it to shore. However, I was fortunate to be swimming on the left side, meaning the sun was setting behind them. Once again I got to observe the beautiful lines of their backlit silhouettes which kept me in a state of intense joy even as we were faced with greater challenges.

Sunset Synch

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll share other insights and transcendent experiences from this swim, but Barry’s message gave me the impetus for the first post I wished to share about it.

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13 Responses to “Crossing Gibraltar Strait: A Journey to Joy”

  1. Moira says:

    A beautiful read, makes me want to swim!

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  2. Matt Judge says:

    Congrats Terry,
    Great story and pics….I want to swim the Strait in 2015.
    Take care,
    -Matt

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  3. Tom Sensabaugh says:

    What a great story within a story! Congrats to Terry and his pod of 3 making the 11 mile trek to Gibraltar and much joy and continued happiness to Barry Shore on his amazing efforts.

    I had the pleasure to swim with Terry and his coaches a few years ago at a TI swim carmp. Not only are the memories ever pleasant to recall, but it set the stage for a budding triathlete who’d not swam more than 400 pool yards to completing a 3 mile open water swim by the end of the week. I use the lessons learned every time I’m swimming. I loved Barry’s comment about being totally immersed in the aqua world…I know that feeling and my enjoyment with swimming grows to this day.

    Thanks for sharing these positive stories, Terry.

    -Tom Sensabaugh

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  4. bob wilkinson says:

    Terry,
    Very inspiring story and it excites me to keep on swimming even when my spirits might be a little low right now. Possible knee surgery after a tear playing tennis earlier this week. Had a premonition tennis might hurt.
    Anyway, thanks for the story and you continually keep raising the bar for the rest of us.
    Best to you and your family,
    Bob Wilkinson

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  5. Fantastic, I really so enjoyed reading this magnificent feat of swimming in synch. I can imagine the pleasure you must have all derived from this truly enjoyable swim.

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  6. Patrick Quinn says:

    I envy you Terry and your companions. There is something magical about the straits. I first dreamed of Gibraltar when I was eight yrs old., but have never yet been there.
    A most interesting point about the Sync swimming in open water. It had not occurred to me before but it makes great sense.

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  7. Deirdre Robbins says:

    This is amazing. I love the fact that they do this as a group,I agree swimming is a lot more fun with friends than solo

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  8. Bernardo Blanco says:

    Beautiful account, Congratulations! You may have guessed that Spain is an exceptional place to swim, we not only have beautiful locations, we also have very nice wather almost all year.

    We have lots of recommendable open water swimming races, Come back soon!

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  9. Grant Molyneux says:

    Hi Terry, Awesome, I remember our sync swimming up at the lake this past spring, that was a very transcendent experience for me, the energy just flows! It looks like you had a great time and this is a great message to get out there. It shows that you can train reasonably for longer events and if you pace and get into that effortless zone you can go forever! My hats off to you!

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  10. John Bohannon says:

    That was an awesome story Terry You are an inspiration to us all. Eat, sleep, swim.

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  11. Ben Lawrence says:

    Terry,
    Surely the dolphins in the area were jealous that you, Tommi, and Lennart had outdone them with style, grace, and power :)
    Your messages about swimming and life continue to resonate. Thank you for sharing them and congrats on the marathon swim!
    -Ben

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  12. Mariah Burton Nelson says:

    Hi Terry,

    Very inspiring indeed. I’m intrigued by the concept that synch-swimming transfers energy back and forth among the swimmers, easing the burden for all. It brings to mind ANTS, believe it or not, who work as a team, and share a collective consciousness, without any one of them leading or having a larger perspective on any given situation. It also (more directly) brings to mind other team sports, and even swimming relays, whereby the individuals achieve greater levels of performance than they otherwise would, playing off the energy of their teammates. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story about this impressive swim.

    I met you at John Flanagan’s masters workout in northern VA many years ago (I’m a sportswriter) and lately I’ve been studying your tapes and teaching myself TI. VERY exciting!

    I also made this tape about Mom’s swimming career, including HER passion for TI (at 89). Includes some other (cute, inspiring) parts of her swim story beyond TI, but perhaps of interest. In any case, THANK YOU for your work! I’m in the process of totally changing the way I swim, and totally enjoying your method.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCG8uWRl5GA

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  13. Mariah I would LOVE to share a synch swim with you. Next time I’m down your way.

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