In Senegal, swimming an old slave route

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.

After hours paddling through the sea, swimmers in the competition crash across a sandy finish line at an historic inlet on Goree Island.  Slave ships used to dock here but the cove's tragic vibe is displaced, at least for the day, by the festive competition. The gala event attracts Dakar's marketing men who pass out free energy drinks.

Mobile phone carriers — some of the largest, most visible corporations in this new West Africa — inflate blow-up billboards and flutter company flags that leer over the cobblestone bay walls and 18th-century cottages.

Chris Brown and Lil Wayne hits pound from rented speakers, clashing over the kora strums and box drum patters of griots who offer praise songs for the exhausted finishers.

“Normally, I’m a diver, but today I’m doing this for pleasure,” 25-year-old Papa Bari said, clutching a gift bag, a promotional T-shirt and a cigarette. 

Bari is one of at least 200,000 people along this coast who earn a living on the brine. The oysters and mussels he brings to the surface constitute a small catch in the 400,000 tons worth nearly $400 million in seafood that his country exports annually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Senegal is a good place for nautical people,” said Mactar Samb, a lifeguard and member of one of at least 11 swim teams in the capital. “Young men here join swim clubs as a way to socialize and exercise.”

For those young men and their swim teams — and for the hundreds of amateur sea-lovers who make this yearly plunge — this three-mile race between Dakar and Goree Island is the central athletic competition of the year.

“To swim from Dakar to Goree, you really have to train,” 16-year-old Madi Gueye said, after her third year crossing of the open sea. “It can be scary, but if you overcome that it’s really not so difficult.”