Theodore Yach’s passing leaves shockwaves in its wake
About 25% of people who have a PE will die suddenly, and that will be the only symptom. This is what happened last Wednesday to the 60-year-old extreme sportsman, businessman, community leader, civic activist, and philanthropist. His passing has left many people in Cape Town, South Africa, and around the world reeling.
“He had been admitted to hospital for tests as he had been battling chest infections for a couple of months, despite being extremely fit and healthy,” says his heartbroken wife, Michelle. The two had been married for 33 years, and met just before his first swim to Robben Island.
She planned to spend the day with him at the hospital on Wednesday, but at the last minute, he felt it wasn’t necessary, so she dropped him off. That would be the last time they would see each other.
An hour later, he told nurses he wasn’t feeling well, and the next moment, his heart stopped. He was put on life support as doctors battled to restart his heart, but by the end of the day, they told the family there was nothing more they could do – he had been felled by an undetected clot in his lungs.
A gentle giant of a man, Yach was famous for his feats of open-water, cold-sea swimming. He crossed the English Channel in 1996, and conquered the 10.8km swim between the Cape Town coastline and Robben Island 108 times in just a Speedo and goggles. This is more crossings than any other human being, and his contemporaries said they expected him to continue well into old age. He completed his 100th swim in 2016 to raise money for a number of charities. It was a landmark moment for him and the city he held so dear.
“Being in 13 degree water without a wetsuit is a mental adventure,” he said at the time. “I swim more than 22km a week to train my body. It is the mind that holds the power. The cold is just one factor. There’s also the threat of sharks. You never know what’s coming with the next wave or swell.” But he felt that anyone could push through if they believed it possible, and if they prepared properly, a philosophy that guided his sport and his life.
In addition to his superhuman strength at sea, Yach was a legend on land. He was the Cape Divisional Head of Zenprop, a commercial property development company, and the founder of the Cape Town Partnership, which led a R25 billion rejuvenation of the city’s CBD.
“He said we cannot let the city centre degenerate… It was his driving force that put the Central City Improvement District together. He really was a nation-builder, a cohesive social force across all kinds of boundaries,” said Western Cape Premier Helen Zille this week.
Indeed, at his funeral on Sunday attended by hundreds of people from all walks of life, his sons Daniel and David spoke of his “relentless pursuit of altruism”, and said they wished all children could have a father like him. As the men and women in the crowd wept openly, they shared how, “we were the centre of his universe, but his universe was huge”. His universe included mentoring younger swimmers, raising millions for charity, and being deeply involved in both the Jewish and wider communities.
His connection to youth was evident in the number of young pallbearers at his funeral – part of four sets altogether. There, Rabbi Dovid Wineberg of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation described his passing as a true tragedy, telling the family that he had no easy answers. He shared that Moshe Rabeinu was given the name “Moses” by the women who found him as a baby floating on the River Nile, and that it means “from the water”. But what was Moshe’s name before that? It was Tuvia – Yach’s Hebrew name.
The rabbi also described how Yach loved his Yiddishkeit – going to shul every week and having a deep affinity with Israel. One of his toughest swims was the 22km stretch across Lake Kinneret in 2016, which Yach found difficult because he was more accustomed to the icy temperatures of the Atlantic. He was also an active user of Twitter, where he unashamedly defended Israel at every turn.
Yach came from a deeply philanthropic family, and he carried this through in his own life. In a column about Yach’s passing titled “The King is Dead”, blogger David E. Kaplan describes how Theodore’s grandfather, Morris Mauerberger, established the Mauerberger Foundation Fund in 1938, which his son-in-law and Theodore’s late father, Solm Yach, went on to head.
His mother Estelle chaired the foundation for more than twenty years, thereafter passing the reins to his sister, Dianna Yach. Theodore was a past director of the foundation and a key player in his family’s philanthropic work. He has also been a trustee of Highlands House Jewish Aged Home since 2011, and Rabbi Wineberg spoke about his deep care for senior citizens.
“When an individual dies unexpectedly, especially at a young age, it is tragic and devastates those around them. When an icon that has achieved so much and has done so much for others and in so many spheres dies, it sends ripples throughout the community and beyond,” said Cape Board of Deputies Chairman Rael Kaimowitz.
Yach may be gone, but he left a record of his oceanic adventures in his book In My Element, filled with photos and descriptions of his training, his achievements and failures, his favourite swims, encounters with sea animals, and mentoring others. It also details the swims he still planned to do, such as the 36km from Hout Bay to Robben Island.
This week, swimmers who wanted to honour him met at Clifton beach and made their way into the waves, where they gathered around a boat to talk about the three things he loved most – swimming, his family, and the city of Cape Town. In Johannesburg, swimmers gathered at a pool where they made a formation in his initials.
At the graveside, Rabbi Wineberg reminded the mourners to take note of Yach’s last lesson – that life is fragile, unpredictable, and senseless at times, but this should not make us fearful. Rather, it should alert us to make the most of every moment – as he did – for we never know when it will be our last.