Fahal Island Swim Challenge – Would You Swim From Shark Island?
This passed weekend the founder of the adventure platform ub-cool, Medina Ilyassova, took on a whole new challenge and pushed herself to face her fears and take the plunge – literally!
The Fahal Swim Challenge
The 29th installment of this very popular annual challenge was set: Swim unassisted for a distance of 4.5km in open water from the Al Fahal Island, off the coast of Muscat Oman, to the white sandy beaches of the PDO club.
Sounds easy enough but with strong undercurrents and the island locally known as ‘Shark Island,’ this packs the pressure and terror onto the swimmers attempting the challenge.
We speak with Medina about her experience and then, for another perspective, I explain how the challenge unfolded from the eyes of the support kayak (me!).
The infamous Fahal Island, locally known as ‘Shark Island’ | Photo Credit: Heather Duncan
Medina Ilyassova tells of sharks & the strong current!
“Self discovery comes when man measures himself against an obstacle…” – Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
ub-cool: How long have you been swimming for?
Medina: I learnt how to swim properly only 8 months ago, and in December one of my friends showed me photos and told me about Fahal Island Swim challenge. The idea just stuck in my head; life is very short… and I believe that we should try everything now – not “one day.” So, I decided to try.
The night before the challenge, I couldn’t sleep – I started panicking. We reached the location at 6:30 am and then the excitement and adrenaline did their job. I wasn’t scared anymore.
Ready to take the plunge? Time to dive in | Photo Credit: Heather Duncan
ub-cool: How was the swim itself? Did you face any difficulties?
Medina: We were badly bitten by jelly fish, and unfortunately one person had to withdraw because he was allergic to their stings. Fahal Island is also known to have a lot of sharks, and I saw a few of them myself. The poor sharks were more scared of us, than we were of them.
The current was pretty strong so unfortunately we couldn’t stay in one place and rest as it would immediately start taking us away from the beach. I was asking myself many times during the swim: “why am I doing this challenge…?!”
And then I understood something which can be implemented into our real lives:
“We shouldn’t be the same in our lives; being the same means going backwards. Every day we need to be a better version of ourselves and move forward. So, that was the lesson I learnt – we cant be the same or life’s current will take us backward…”
Medina swimming at the Fahal Swim Challenge | Photo Credit: Heather Duncan
ub-cool: What got you through it? What were you thinking about while out there?
Medina: I don’t think I would have been able to complete the challenge without Heather’s smile. Every time I was badly bitten by jelly fish or swallowed the sea water, she was smiling and telling me: “Medina, you are doing well… there are people who already gave up… You are half way … Good job!”
ub-cool: Will you compete in the 2019 Fahal Island Swim challenge?
Medina: Such challenges as the Fahal Island Swim are only vehicles to explore what we can really do. I came the 2nd last and my timing was 3 hour and 9 minutes, but it was an experience of a life time and I’m already thinking about next year’s challenge!
The joy of the accomplishment joined by her son Mohammed | Photo Credit: Graham Speller
Heather Duncan explains what the “support crew” does during the Challenge
When Medina approached me and asked me to support her in her challenge and be her support kayaker, of course I agreed. Kayaking is already a hobby of mine so I knew that I was competent; but, as Medina and myself have already worked together on many projects, I also knew that we make a good team.
Early Morning Start
After a busy few weeks in the world of ub-cool, the race day fast approached. With an early start our boat was loaded with kayaks and departing from Al Mouj Marina at 6.10 am headed for Fahal Island.
The sun was just rising casting a beautiful golden glow across the horizon. My fellow eaarly risers and I discussed how thankful we were for calm waters, despite the humidity; it should be a good day for our swimmers to attempt the challenge!
Sunrise over Al Mouj Marina, Muscat | Photo Credit: Heather Duncan
Fahal Island – also known as, “Shark Island”
As we reached the large chunk of rock dominating the ocean, we transferred from the comfort of the boat into our kayaks and paddled towards the meeting area marked by large orange buoys. The atmosphere was jovial and chatty as kayakers recognised each other from a distance.
Shortly before the start time of 7.30 am the mayhem began as the boats from the shore carrying the competing swimmers powered towards us. The swimmers were hollering and shouting for attention so that their support teams can find them.
You have to follow the rules!
In the rule book, every swimmer must have a support member in a kayak or on a SUP board by their side or else they will be disqualified. For those competing seriously it was very important that they find their support quickly! The competitors were jumping up and down on the boats and waving their arms to be seen – the atmosphere was charged and tense.
As I paddled through the chaos of coloured kayaks and shouting men in Speedos, I found Medina by chance still on board her boat making her last preparations. All swimmers took up their starting position on the beach of Al Fahal Island and awaited their starting orders. The kayaks parted to form a free swimming channel in the middle to give the competing swimmers a clear path and the best start.
Support kayakers eagerly await their swimmers | Photo Credit: Heather Duncan
Ready, Set, Go!
As the klaxon sounded the mayhem really began!
The competent swimmers furiously powered their way through the open water and through the channel; the kayakers keen to catch them by the required 400m point were hot on their heels. The throng of paddlers and swimmers became confusing and fast paced with shout. I located Medina in the middle of the pack and we set off on our challenge.
During the arduous challenge, support boats approached us a few times checking on our progress and our health; we were doing well so declined their assistance. By the 3km mark Medina was fatigued from swimming hard against the undercurrent which was still sweeping us off path. The support boats asked that she come on board and they would drive her ashore. She flatly refused and told them that she could do this. This is one tough lady!
Down to the Wire!
The cut off time of 10.45 am was fast approaching and I feared that we may not make it in time. I shouted encouragement to Medina to keep her going. That combined with something in her head seemed to do the trick and, on the homestretch, she really focused on the task and technique and made up good time.
With family members, her kids on the beach and others wearing their ub-cool shirts, Medina stepped ashore on the beach to a cheering crowd. It was a lovely moment to witness from the water and know that I got her there safely. Reaching the beach at 10.39 am, 6 minutes before the cut off time, she achieved her goal.
Anyone need a support team? I’ll be ready! | Photo Credit: Graham Speller
We at ub-cool lead by example
Swimming in open water looks horrendous to me and not fun at all. The fact that she even started the race was impressive to me. But having the the determination and will power to keep going, now thats something pretty impressive!
And, one thing that is very cool about being involved in ub-cool, we lead by example. We also take on adventures, challenges, and push each other to achieve more.
Feature Photo Credit: Graham Speller