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In Senegal, swimming an old slave route

Dakar to Goree Island competition promotes a new future for troubled port.

DAKAR and GOREE ISLAND, Senegal — On a Sunday morning in the 1700s, one would not have dared venture the three-mile swim between what was then the slave trading outpost of Goree Island and the jagged mainland cliffs that today hoist Senegal’s capital city skyline above the waves.

Sharks swarmed these straits for centuries, feeding off that transatlantic trade of human chattel. Tattered logbooks from Goree Island’s dungeons recount regular occasions of escaped slaves diving into the sea with arms in shackles, only to be mauled by sharks and caught between the riptides and the undertow.

But on a Sunday morning three centuries later, more than 1,000 of this country’s aquanauts reverse that storied swim, in an annual event that showcases a lighter, more inviting  side of Senegal’s seas. This year the three-mile Dakar to Goree swim took place on Oct. 2. It was the 23rd annual Dak'Go, as it is called.

The participants include professional swimmers, civil servants, boys from fishing towns, girls as young as 11, French professionals and foreign visitors who come to race. Their trek from one coast to the other offers a cross section of this peninsular city, and an expression of Senegal’s nautical, seafood-and-beach-tourism-based economy.

“The swim is a Senegalese passion,” said Baba Fall, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher with no left leg. For the past six years, Fall has raced with a team of paraplegic men.

“Some people do this for fun, some people do it for sport. I do this to encourage other handicapped people, to show them what we can do,” he added.  “Every year, this is a challenge we face.”

He and his team, he said, have faced it. “At first, this was terrifying, but every year it becomes easier,” he said.

At noon, racers kick off from a Dakar seaside resort and use freestyle or backstroke to cross the channel, as Scandinavian container ships and pirogues of amused fishermen cruise the choppy waters.

The current is dangerous — every year, riptides claim dozens of lives along Senegalese surfing spots — so the boats provide a valuable lookout watch for any Dak'Go swimmers who may run into difficulties.

Sharks do not appear to be so dangerous anymore. They apparently have moved away from the Dakar coast because of its heavy traffic of container ships.