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Berman’s Robben Island triple swim just preparation for ‘the big one’

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Johannesburg-born swimmer Jarrod Berman is proud to be the third documented swimmer to complete a Robben Island triple.

On 3 March this year, it took him six hours and 52 minutes to become the first person to swim the 23km distance in almost a decade.

He completed three lengths of the swim between Robben Island and Blouberg Beach, Cape Town.

According to the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, the two other swimmers to achieve the feat are Steven Klugman in 2003 (six hours and 12 minutes) and Tyron Venter in 2012 (five hours and 56 minutes).

Berman swam the Robben Island triple just to get a long-distance swim under his belt in preparation for his ultimate goal, swimming 34km across False Bay at the end of this month.

Armed with swimming about 130km a month recently, Berman started at Robben Island at 06:00, just before the sun came up. “That was quite challenging,” he says. “I’ve never experienced swimming in open water in the dark.”

Even so, “It was a fascinating day,” he says. “A bit of wildlife greeted me on the way. Some dolphins joined me when I left the island. Some seals came to say hello. I saw sunfish – a huge monster fish.”

Having completed a double Robben Island swim in November last year, he found it daunting that when he got to Blouberg Beach, he had not one, but still two laps to go.

“It’s one thing to be physically fit, but this was a mental challenge,” says Berman. “The Atlantic Ocean is wild. Sixteen degrees pretty much all along the way. When I turned around to go back to the island, the southwester was blowing. The current was quite strong. It took me an extra half an hour to get back than it did to get to the beach. You can see your time, so that was a challenge. You should have finished the lap, but you aren’t getting there. It wasn’t pleasant, but at the last turn, it was quite relieving. Getting to the beach was even better.”

The first person reportedly to experience the feeling of swimming from Robben Island to Cape Town was an escaped convict in 1690.

In 1909, Henry Charteris Hooper became the first person to officially complete the swim. It took 17 years for someone else to follow in this South African-born amateur swimmer’s footsteps. That was 15-year-old Peggy Duncan, who won the Robben Island race, having run away from her convent school in Johannesburg to compete in the event.

As with most of his swims, Berman swam the Robben Island triple solo. “Around 2018, a group of us used to swim together. We all swim at very different paces. In that cold water, you don’t want to stop and wait for someone. It’s not fun.”

A qualified electrical engineer now, who studied engineering after matriculating from Crawford College, Berman swam regularly in primary school.

“Then I stopped swimming until about 2017,” he says. “I got back into it as I just thought, ‘I want to swim Robben Island.’ One thing led to another, and I haven’t stopped swimming since the first one.”

He has swum around Cape Point and 40km up and down a river. “With a few friends, we swam from Durban to Umhlanga one year. I don’t even think 10 people have done that swim.”

Berman trains six days a week in the Old Eds club’s outdoor pool. “I train outside pretty much 12 months of the year. I haven’t swum in a warm pool for probably the past four years. It’s the only way to prepare yourself for the cold.”

He wakes up at 04:00 each day to swim. He then fetches his kids and drops them at school before heading off to work. “My days are full these days, so swimming is the only sport I do.”

The English Channel swim has been in his sights for some time. It’s roughly the same distance as swimming across False Bay. “The English Channel has been such a, ‘You can go, you can’t go. You can go, you can’t go.’ You’ve got to book about three years in advance. I was supposed to do it in 2020, then ‘beautiful’ COVID-19 hit, and they locked us down.”

His next challenge is to swim “the big one” – False Bay – at the end of this month. “Close to the end of last year, I decided I wanted to do it. The Robben Island triple wasn’t really planned. It was just like a ‘by the way’. I just wanted to get something in before I do the big one.”

After that, he might pursue swimming around the world. He might even consider swimming the Seven Seas. In 2014, well-known British-South African endurance swimmer, Lewis Pugh, became the first person to complete long-distance swims in each of the seven legendary waterways.

However, Berman prefers not to plan too far ahead. “As it comes, so I’ll do it,” he says. “If I can get to Israel, I’ll swim the Galilee. If I can get to New York one day, I would like to do some big swims there. If somebody says, ‘Let’s do this’ and I’ve got the time to do it, I’ll go do it.”

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