How one man braved sharks and freezing water to set records in the ocean
When Theodore Yach was four years old, his swimming instructor threatened to pull out his teeth with pliers if he didn’t swim properly. The threat was playful, but it worked far more successfully than the instructor could have imagined. With a father who played water polo for South Africa at the Olympics, a sister who swam at senior provincial level and a brother who was once considered the country’s best long distance sea swimmer, Yach went on to follow in his family’s wake with a successful provincial swimming and water polo career. But his greatest triumph was becoming the first open-water swimmer to brave the icy waters of the Atlantic and swim from Robben Island to Cape Town over 100 times.
While participation in water sports ran in his family, swimming in the ocean rather than a pool was considered abhorrent behaviour in the late 70s. So naturally, that’s what Yach wanted to do. “I remember my first Robben Island crossing miserably,” he says. “I lasted about 10 minutes, totally freaked out at what was underneath me and jumped into the boat in a hurry.” Two weeks later, he tried again and succeeded. It’s been 37 years of open-water swims, and there’s no chance of him stopping. “Although it takes absolute determination, being in the water feels like second nature to me,” Yach says.
The swimmer and property developer has also swum 34 kilometres across the English Channel. He completed his 100th crossing from Robben Island, which is 10.8 kilometres from the mainland, in just a speedo and goggles to raise money for a number of charities. “Being in 13-degree water without a wetsuit is a mental adventure,” he says. “I swim more than 22 kilometres 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,” Yach says. “But I believe anyone can push through it if they believe it and if they prepare properly.” After a century of swims from one of South Africa’s most iconic sites, Yach has proved the truth to his beliefs.