Death (and survival) on the cape

Rounding Cape Trafalgar about 800m. in to the swim before I was challenged by the big currents – photo Antonio Bellido

21 June 2020. For many years there stood a placard at the foot of the rock strewn headland that leads in to the turbulent waters below Cape Trafalgar “Don’t risk your life! People here have drowned” it shouted in English and in Spanish “Peligro de Muerte. Corrientes peligrosos”. The sign wasn’t official, nobody from the coastguard or the town hall had ever considered a sign here, swimming is not a part of local culture and who would ever consider going in those “aguas bravas” anyway so the rationale seemed to go. As I came down the wooden planked trail running through the dunes the sign was the first thing I looked for, just to remind myself that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had. I wasn’t too proud to turn back and go home for a quiet breakfast under the grapevine.

The original sign from 2008 – photo Juan José Marquez, Diario de Sevilla.

In 2008 Naslihan and Perihan Arslan, 23 year old twins from Hamburg decided to go for a swim in the cool calm waters under Trafalgar lighthouse on a hot July day. On going in to the water Perihan was stung by a jellyfish and came straight out. She never saw her sister alive again. Four days later Naslihan was washed up dozens of miles away on a beach near Cádiz. The drowning prompted her brother Özkan to place the warning sign at the foot of the cliff, the sign that is no longer there.

Cape Trafalgar has seen more than its fair share of deaths. On the beaches to the west of the Cape hundreds of bodies were washed up drowned or shot to pieces after the great battle of 1805. Corpses were littered amongst broken ships timbers and fallen masts that to this day support roofs and pergolas in nearby villages. The recent history of drownings is usually immigrants boats washing up on the rocky headland and divers. It is common while walking the dunes to find piles of clothes and still sodden shoes where hapless transients have shed their wet clothes after disembarking on the nearby beaches. The Trafalgar lighthouse may be a warning beacon for ships but it is also a homing beacon for the ruthless smugglers and their human cargo where men, women and often children and babies are pitched overboard not quite on the beach. Many die within metres of the shore, bereft of lifejackets and unable to swim. In 2019 alone 53 immigrant drownings were reported on the Cádiz coast, statisically the most dangerous of all the Morocco to Spain crossings.

Photo – Voz de Cádiz 06.11.2019

Cape Traflagar is notoriously dangerous not just for swimmers but equally for marine traffic. There is a great force of water surrounding the cape due to the shallow water and reef banks that run many kilometres out in to the ocean. Add to this the strong winds, the powerful Levante from the east or the Poniente from the west both create turbulence and waves of tremendous power. Lots of good reasons not to try and swim around the cape.

Banco de Trafalgar (36°08'N., 6°07'W.), a shoal composed of stones, has a least depth of 6.6m and lies 5 miles SW of Cabo Trafalgar. There are overfalls on this shoal and it is inadvisable to pass over it in heavy weather. At such times, the water in the vicinity is of a yellowish color.

Placer de Meca (36°11'N., 6°06'W.), a rocky shoal, lies 3.2 miles W of Cabo Trafalgar and has a least depth of 5m near its SE end. This shoal is covered with a thin layer of sand and the sea breaks over it in heavy weather.

Bajo Aceitera (36°10'N., 6°04'W.) has a depth of 1.2m and lies at the outer end of a dangerous rocky ridge which extends up to 1.7 miles SW of Cabo Trafalgar. A passage leads between the shoal and the cape, but it should not be attempted. Broken water extends across this shoal and a tidal race in its vicinity is caused by the unevenness of the bottom. - Western Mediterranean Sailing Directions © COPYRIGHT 2017 UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT

Kite surfing here is always frought with the element of danger that if the wind drops we could get sucked out to sea in to that ‘boiling water’ that is mentioned in the 1849 Trafalgar marine chart. Nobody strays beyond the point of the reef to the east of the lighthouse for the fear of those currents. However I took the view that if I had the exact combination of tide, wind and swell it might just be possible. I wasn’t going to place anybody else’s life in danger so I didn’t call my swim partner Rafa. It’s one thing taking responsibility for my own actions but if something went wrong I didn’t want to be responsible for somebody else. This would be a singular moment in my experience as a swimmer and without a support boat I would need to focus all my attention and energy on not letting myself be sucked out to sea.

Bolted to the side of the original 15th.c. watchtower is this memorial – ‘In memory of Santiago Gonzalez ‘Tati’ and to all those who have lost their lives in these waters – 18 September 2004′

My plan was to swim at ‘slack water’ that period when the tide is not moving either in nor out. However my knowledge of tides is nowhere near complete as I realised later in the day when I did some belated research in to phenomenons of tide movements. I should have paid more attention in my physics classes at school. “In many locations, in addition to the tidal streams there is also a current causing the tidal stream in the one direction to be stronger than, and last for longer than the stream in the opposite direction six hours later. Variations in the strength of that current will also vary the time when the stream reverses, thus altering the time and duration of slack water. Variations in wind stress also reflect directly on the height of the tide, and the inverse relationship between the height of the tide and atmospheric pressure is well understood (1 cm change in sea level for each 1 mb change in pressure) while the duration of slack water at a given location is inversely related to the height of the tide at that location.” – Wikipedia.

Launch point – photo Antonio Bellido

I dived in leaving a bemused fisherman looking at me slightly perplexed and aimed for a gap between two jagged rocks trusting that if my timing was right the waves wouldn’t push me on to them. My heart was pounding not just with the effort but with the adrenaline rush of the chase. This was due to be a fast swim, I’d calculated 40 mins. to swim the 2km. around the cape from West to East. In the end I took 53 minutes and got stuck in a ferocious current that tried to suck me out to sea, with at least ten minutes of frantic front crawl trying to maintain my position.

The point of Cape Trafalgar was a relative breeze with the slow wash of easy waves rushing over me. I kept as close as possible to the coast, my lifeline if I felt the pull too strong. I didn’t appreciate the view of the bottom and it’s myriad fish no doubt darting around, I was far too preoccupied controlling my technique and breathing. As I moved forward the suck of the waves rushing back off the shallow rocks in to the sea was increasingly disconcerting, my breath getting harder as I tried vainly to both move forward and stay close enough to the sharp rocks without getting washed up on them. With my head down the height of the waves stopped me from plotting my course and before I realised it I was washed between barnacled rocks and the jagged shore of the promontory. Fearful of being smashed I pushed ahead with a Herculean effort and broke through the waves between the rocks. With absolutely no breath left I clung to the reef that in low tide is exposed all the way around the headland and clambered up to regain some energy. I gave myself a couple of minutes then dived back again. On reflection that was probably a mistake. Antonio told me afterwards he piloted the drone back to change the battery and assumed I’d given up. He was ‘muy sorprendido’ to see on returning the drone that I was back in the water. I’d covered a quarter of the distance by this time.

Rounding Cape Trafalgar – photo Antonio Bellido

Meanwhile the shore around the point of the Cape was basking in the calm of the morning and the sea from the drone above looked glassy and still. I swam quite oblivious into a major current surging around the headland just after the photo above was taken. When you hit a head on current it’s curious how time stands still. My breath is constant, my stroke as long and efficient as possible keeping my heart rate down. Best not to fight it, just move forward inch by inch. I could see bits of weed and particles in the water flowing past me but contrasted against the rocks below it wasn’t that I was moving forward, everything around me was conspiring to push me backwards. A fisherman sat on a rock oblivious to my plight, the harder I tried the more bored he looked wondering I imagine if I was going to swim in to his lines. The struggle continued minute after minute but after about 10 minutes I realised there was no way I was going to break through this surge and was considering deviating my course on a diagonal tangent back out to sea, my rationale was that closer to the shore the current would be stronger. My heart rate I could feel going up, my breath getting shorter, abort now or be pushed back.

Quite suddenly I was free of the tentacles of the current, for no apparent reason I was released and with my energy flagging I suddenly found myself clawing back the lost metres and within minutes I’d completely rounded the headland and was in the sheltered calm waters of the Playa de Marisucia. Relief! My heart rate dropped, my breathing restored to its regular rhythmn. I swam over the shallow reef enjoying the fish darting below me and crabs scuttling along looking for hiding holes in the rocks.

My very own battle of Trafalgar. Done! Admiral Nelson sadly didn’t have the opportunity to say never again but I promised myself that would absolutely be the last time I battled with the Cape.

The end of the swim – photo Antonio Bellido

With many thanks to my friend Antonio Bellido for accompanying me on this adventure and for providing both moral support and his fabulous aerial photography. https://www.antoniobellido.es/

This article was published by the wonderful Adventure Journal (issue 22 – September 2021) with edits by Steve Casimiro.

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