Blankenhorn connects continents with Gibraltar swim

The original article by Barry Punzal is posted (with pictures) on PresidioSports since Sunday, August 1, 2010

It’s the gateway to the Mediterranean; a passageway between two continents; an opening between two major bodies of water and one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.

When Santa Barbara waterman David “Chip” Blankenhorn was planning a family vacation to Spain, he thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar?”

Well, Blankenhorn has quite a story to tell about what he did during his summer vacation of 2010.

After visiting spectacular sights in Barcelona and Sevilla, the 40-year-old father of three traveled to Gibraltar to do the swim of a lifetime. On June 14, he swam from Tarifa on the Spanish shore across the strait to an area known as Lanchones on the Moroccan coast.

He completed the 17-kilometer crossing that separates Europe and Africa in 3 hours flat, the fastest time recorded this year.

Eleven days earlier, Australian Penelope Pelfrey set the women’s one-way record of 3:03. The world record is 2:16 set in Aug. 24, 2009 by Georgios Charcharis of Greece.

According to the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association, who organized, monitored and validated the swim, Blankenhorn became the 255th person to complete a one-way crossing of the strait. The association has records of crossings going back to 1900.

“This is definitely the longest and coolest open-water swim that I have done,” said Blankenhorn, whose ocean swim resumé includes the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, Semana Nautica 1-, 3- and 6-mile events and Santa Barbara Ocean Ducks 10 miler. “Yes, I would say that completing (the strait) is definitely the proudest moment in my open-water swims.”

He got the idea to do the swim last fall while discussing with his wife, Kim, what they should do to celebrate their 40th birthdays. He turned 40 on June 2.

“Neither one of us had been to Spain and had heard good things, so that’s where we decided to go,” he said. “I initially wanted to go to northern Spain to do some surfing, but we found out that the weather and surf were not so good when we wanted to travel in early June.”

They changed their itinerary to travel in the interior of the country and along the Mediterranean coast.

Since surfing was out, Blankenhorn decided he could do some swimming in the sea.

Blankenhorn is not a sit-by-the-pool-all-day kind of vacationer.

“I do like vacations where I have access to an activity that I enjoy such as surfing, swimming, hiking, biking, fishing, et cetera,” said the deputy managing director for the Western Division of Cardno Entrix, a natural resources and environmental consulting firm in Santa Barbara.

As he was doing some research on the water temperatures in the Mediterranean and where there might be some open-water races in Spain, he came across the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association Web site (Asociacion Cruce a Nado del Estrecho,

That’s when the light bulb went off in his head and the preparations got under way to swim across the water way that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Blankenhorn contacted Rafael Gutierrez Mesa from the association in Spain and — after several email snags for nearly four months (“It seems that Rafael’s email was blocked by my spam filter.”) — sent in all the necessary paperwork for approval.

His biggest worry while still stateside was he fit enough to complete the challenge.

“I usually swim four to five times a week with the Santa Barbara Swim Club morning masters group at Los Banos Pool, but (if not for the communication delays) I would have been training more if I knew I was going to do the swim,” he said.

After mulling it over for a couple days, Blankenhorn decided to go for it.

“My support group leading up to the swim included my family (Kim and kids Ben, 10, Grace, 8, and Lily, 5) and friends, including the Santa Barbara Swim Club morning masters group at Los Banos and the noontime group,” he said.

The next obstacle was finding a day where the conditions were right to do the swim safely.

“They like to have a five-day window since weather conditions can be tricky (wind, fog, etc) and make it unsuitable and/or unsafe to make the crossing,” Blankenhorn said.

In Spain, Blankenhorn got in some ocean swims near Barcelona and found a pool to train in while staying at Sevilla.

He was in Sevilla when he got the OK from Mesa that the swim was on for June 14.

In Tarifa, Blankenhorn met Mesa for the first time and was immediately impressed with his organization and attention to detail.

“He’s a great guy and very well organized with a focus on safety,” Blankenhorn said. “There was an approximately 25-foot guide boat that served as the lead boat that I followed and an inflatable Zodiac-type boat that served as my support boat and was pretty much next to me the whole time.”

John Markham, a friend from Santa Barbara who traveled to Spain, and members of the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association, were Blankenhorn’s support group on the journey across.

Blankenhorn said there is a procedure the swimming association requires to make the swim official. At the start, he had his picture taken touching the Spanish coast and at the finish another photo was shot of him touch the Moroccan coast.

“Basically, the starting point is fixed in Tarifa, but where you end up is dependent on the currents, weather conditions, and your swimming ability,” he said. “When I asked the boat captain where we landed in Morocco, he said, “Quien sabe?, who knows? Accordingly the distances of the swim vary since the end point is not fixed.”

Blankenhorn was fortunate to have good weather on the day of his swim and the water temperature was a tolerable 64 degrees. He did not wear a wetsuit, just a swimsuit, goggles and a cap.

Another issue for swimmers crossing the strait is the heavy ship traffic.

“There is a significant maritime traffic along the strait consisting of tankers, cargo ships, cruise ships, yachts and other small boats,” he explained. “I was very impressed with the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association’s attention to this issue. The boats that assisted me were in contact with the maritime traffic and were in constant communication to notify the vessels of my presence.

“When we got into a shipping lane, the boats tightened their space around me to make sure that I was safe. I thought it was really cool swimming in the shipping lane and seeing these huge cargo ships and tankers go by. There were a few instances where the vessels passed relatively close and I had to swim through their 3- to 4-foot wake, which was also pretty cool.”

The swim went about as smoothly as it could go.

“First of all, I had mentally planned that the swim was going to take at least 5 hours, so, when I heard on my water break at 2 hours 15 minutes (I took a water/food break every 45-minutes) that I only had about 3 kilometers left (about 45-60 minutes), I was very surprised,” Blankenhorn said.

He finished up on an uninhabited stretch of rocky shore, where two fishermen came out of their hut to see what all the fuss was about.

Then the feeling of accomplishment set in.

“When I finished, I lingered in the water and soaked things in for about five minutes,” Blankenhorn said. “I checked out the coastline, the fish and underwater habitat, the fishermen who came out of their hut, and the whole scene. It was a really cool feeling to swim from the European continent to the African continent. After about five minutes, I jumped into the lead boat with John and we motored back to Tarifa. When we got back to Tarifa, John and I got some lunch, had a few beers, and then drove back to Marbella to meet our families.”