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Nerwich channels inner resources in epic swim



Johannesburg business owner Craig Nerwich described that second he was about to dive into the ocean in Dover and swim to France as a “crazy whirlwind moment”.

Now back home after swimming the English Channel in 13 hours and 16 minutes, he recalls, “When I was swimming, I focused a lot on the position of the sun, trying to work out the time of the day and how long I had been swimming. The one thing that stood out for me is how fast the sun moved. It made me realise how quickly time goes, and that we need to treasure every moment.”

He started the swim at 02:00 British time on 23 August, with a 45-minute boat ride from the harbour. “During that ride, you’ve got time to think about what you’re doing. But then you get a 10-minute call, where they say, ‘We’re going to arrive on the beach, and you need to be ready.’

“So suddenly, you’re starting to prep for the swim, and it becomes a very practical situation. You arrive on this beach, you’ve just been lathered up with ‘Channel grease’, which is a combination of Vaseline and other stuff.”

And then it was time to jump in and start swimming. “There’s not much time to contemplate what you’re doing,” he told the SA Jewish Report, but he was “fortunate that everything went according to plan”.

“I was incredibly lucky because the weather turned from the Thursday [the day after his swim] and there were no swims for five days, so there would have been a good chance I wouldn’t have even managed to swim. Many swimmers train for years only to wait for days and then go home due to bad weather. We get the final call only at 18:00 the evening before.”

He was fortunate that during his swim, “the water was very warm and the surface was pretty calm but the currents were intense”, and it went as well as it could have.

“When it came down to it, I focused on making sure that I kept mentally strong for the last few hours of the swim where, as Derrick says, it’s the business side of the swim!”

Derrick Frazer of BigBay Events in Cape Town has been guiding and mentoring swimmers for years, from Robben Island swims to False Bay, Cape Point, and the Channel, according to Nerwich.

“He understands the immense requirements of the Channel swim, and makes sure we’re 100% prepared. He makes sure we’re comfortable to swim in the dark and cold, and helps us to understand what we’re getting ourselves into. I did my very first Robben Island swim with Derrick [guiding me]. At the start of the swim, I was 100% confident that I was in the best possible hands, and trusted him implicitly to help me get to France.”

Nutrition is a crucial part of the swim, Nerwich says. “We had to stop every 30 minutes, and the boat throws you a bottle that’s a carbohydrate and protein drink. Every now and then, Derrick would throw me what he calls a ‘little treat’ – a piece of fudge, banana, whatever. It was just something to keep you excited because unlike Shabbos meals, those feeds aren’t the most exciting.

“There weren’t really any moments when I thought I wanted to give up,” he says. “I came into the swim confident that I had put in as much training as possible.”

The only thing that surprised him, he says, “was how brutal the last four hours of the swim were. That’s when you get into French waters and the tides are unbelievably strong. It feels like you’re swimming uphill, and your support crew says, ‘You have to swim as hard as you can.’ It’s tough accepting that blindly. But I think having a support crew that you trust helps with that. They have done this before, and if you listen to what they say, you’ll get to France.

“It’s a huge amount of time in the sea, and you need to be able to be comfortable with your own thoughts,” Nerwich says. “I thought a lot about my late brothers, Brett and Dovi, about the fund that we’ve started, about how fortunate I am that I’ve got my health to be able to do something like this.

“I thought a lot about the immense support from community, friends, and family, including my wife, Dani, who always supports me in these crazy things – including getting on a boat, knowing that boats and her don’t always get on! She’s had to sacrifice a lot, and she got to witness what the sacrifices were for. That made a massive difference.”

Nerwich’s brother, Brett, drowned in a swimming accident, while Dovi lived in Durban and “battled with lots of health issues. He passed away three and half years ago. Dovi was a chef who did lots of work within the Jewish community in Durban”, Nerwich says.

A WhatsApp group of more than 500 people followed his progress, and people wrote words of support almost every second of the swim. “I’ve been on the other side of those WhatsApp groups. Being on this side, I was motivated to read the group messages because I know how tense they get.”

Nerwich undertook an intense training regime to prepare for the Channel swim from the beginning of the year, including a six-hour qualifying swim in Langebaan in the Cape, and a triple Robben Island swim. “You can’t actually attempt the Channel if you haven’t done a six-hour swim,” he says. He swam five times a week, sometimes for five hours at a time.

“From a mental point of view, a large part of the prep comes off the backbone of being physically prepped,” he says. “I didn’t go into the swim worried that I didn’t have the physical aspect ticked. I visualised the swim a lot: standing on the beach ready to go, swimming, being bored in the ocean, landing, writing my name on the pub wall that all the Channel swimmers get to write their names on. Visualisation is a big part.”

As for the money raised for the Brett Nerwich Swimming Fund, set up by Nerwich in his brother’s honour, “I think we’re probably on just more than R100 000. A portion will go towards getting involved with the NSRI [National Sea Rescue Institute] and its drowning prevention programme. We want to set up something with it that will be on a continuous basis.

“We’ll also be looking at how we can use some of the money for projects within the [Jewish] community. The community has been sensational in supporting the fund, and we’re going to give back. That’s going take a little bit more time to put something together.”

His wife, Daniella, summed up the experience, saying, “Craig has given us all permission to dream, and has inspired so many people. We have been so humbled and moved by the incredible communal support and love, and feel like we had a village behind us.”

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