Exclusive to The Desert Review.
Ross Simmons laughed when he’s asked about his travels to Spain last month.
“I needed to get a few things ‘strait,’” he replied.
During the last week of August, Simmons crossed between the continents of Europe and Africa by swimming the Strait of Gibraltar. A Central Union High alumni, Simmons formerly served as general counsel of the Imperial Irrigation District and is currently scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 4070 in Imperial. He and his son, Hunter, are authors of “The Proper Standard,” a column on flag etiquette published by the Desert Review.
The Strait of Gibraltar
The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, and separates Peninsular Spain in Europe from Morocco in Africa. Its name comes from the Rock of Gibraltar, a British-held promontory jutting into the Mediterranean Sea located south of Spain. Designated as one of the so-called “Ocean’s Seven,” swimming the Strait of Gibraltar is considered to be one of the seven great open water crossings worldwide. As recently as last year, less than 600 people had successfully completed the swim.
The shortest distance across the Strait of Gibraltar is 7.8 nautical miles (approximately 9 statute miles), although crossings are typically longer — sometimes significantly so — in view of currents and weather conditions. The interplay between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and their respective currents, tides, and evaporation rates, often produce chaotic conditions in the relatively shallow Strait. Also, this passage carries up to 300 commercial vessels daily, in addition to local ferries, fishing vessels and pleasure crafts. The single most significant complication of the crossing, though, is the prevalence of unpredictable winds and the turbulent surface conditions they can unexpectedly create.
A Former “Sundiver”
“I had a decided advantage,” says Simmons, “since I’ve been swimming as long as I can remember. I’d been ‘training’ for this crossing my whole life.”
His parents, Willie and the late Betsy Simmons of El Centro, determined that each of their five children would be “water safe.” So, Simmons learned to swim as he was learning to walk. Growing up, he swam competitively with the El Centro Sundivers, and was a four-year letterman for the Central Spartans.
Thirty-five years later, Simmons has evolved into a prolific, open-water swimmer. In July, he finished an 11-mile “tune-up” event in Portland, Oregon, although he finished dead-last among male competitors. “I was just there to complete the course,” explained Simmons, unfazed.
Windows Open and Close
Simmons was joined by his sister Terri, also a former El Centro Sundiver. She was tasked with being her brother’s coach and crew during the crossing. The two are particularly close siblings, having been born on exactly the same date, just two years apart.
The siblings arrived in Tarifa, a small town on the southernmost coast of mainland Spain, in mid-August, the day his assigned nine-day “window” opened. Strait of Gibraltar crossings are facilitated only by the Asociación Cruce a Nado Estrecho de Gibraltar (the “ACNEG”), which assigns candidates “windows” where they are required to be “on call,” to cross when and if weather, tide and current conditions allow.
The ACNEG advised only one swim crossing per day was likely, and that two teams, a solo Brazilian and a team of four Spaniards, were ahead of Simmons, or “El Americano,” as he was referred.
Optimism reigned early on; nine days is a long time, after all, and the beauty and charm of southern Spain provided many distractions. But day after day after day, the “wrong” winds continued, and after six days of unfavorable conditions and no swims, Simmons’ dream appeared to be slipping away.
The Road to Morocco
But fate would not be so easily denied. As his “window” began to close, the ACNEG introduced him to Brazilian Adherbal Treidler de Oliveira, who was first in line to swim the Strait, suggesting that Ross and Adherbal swim as a team to improve Simmons’ chances of crossing. The only condition was that Adherbal and he must swim together, to accommodate the support vessels, were they to team up.
Adherbal was looking to complete the Strait of Gibraltar as the third of his Ocean’s Seven crossings, his prior two being the Santa Barbara and English channels. A major in the Brazilian military, his 2015 English Channel crossing of 8 hours and 49 minutes was that year’s fastest overall, faster than the 23 other Brazilians who have crossed, and the first crossing ever by a military swimmer.
It would be an odd pairing, akin to the proverbial tortoise (Simmons) and the hare (Adherbal); complete strangers from foreign lands, without a shared language and differing abilities. Adherbal would have to slow down, Ross would have to speed up—or something in between. Against all odds, and in a moment of true sportsmanship, Adherbal agreed.
Still, the drama continued. Although Adherbal and Ross were first scheduled to begin on August 25th, and then on August 27th, both dates were postponed due to weather conditions. Adherbal was scheduled to depart Spain on August 29, Ross on August 30. Their windows continued to close.
That is, until August 28. Finally, that Monday morning began with a quiet, peaceful sky and calm clear waters. It was, entirely by coincidence, Terri’s and Ross’ birthday. Ross, Adherbal and their support vessels and crew began off the coast of Tarifa, and finished at Almansa Point in Morocco, 10 miles and four hours, eight minutes later. Just clear skies, warm water and an epic afternoon of swimming from one continent to another. Chasing the Brazilian, the 2.5-mile-per-hour pace was a personal best for “El Americano,” and as he conceded, one he may never repeat.
For his part, Adherbal Treidler de Oliveira completed the third of the Ocean’s Seven crossing, but without records or personal bests, something Ross thought about a lot. He said it made the swim that much more special.
“I’ll forever wonder how Adherbal would have performed without me, had he simply said “no” to my joining his crossing.” Ross reflected. “He stepped back from his goal so that I could achieve mine. Me, a complete stranger. No one will see that in the record books. It’s just silent testament to his character.”
Swim with Mike
Ross has used his swims, including his Strait of Gibraltar crossing, to bring attention to the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund. Now in its 37th year, “Swim with Mike” is an annual swim-a-thon held to raise money for physically-challenged athletes to assist them in overcoming catastrophic accidents or illnesses. Established in 1981, the swim was originally scheduled to be a one-time event organized by friends and teammates on behalf of Mike Nyeholt, a three time All-American swimmer, who was paralyzed from the chest down following a motorcycle accident. With that event’s success, Mike used excess contributions to form the fund, which has contributed to 199 scholarship recipients at 97 different schools.
For more information about Swim with Mike, or to recognize Ross’ swim across the Strait of Gibraltar, go to https://www.swimwithmike.org/campaigns/ross-g-simmons-fundraiser/.