By David E. Kaplan
Legendary SA ocean swimmer known as the “King of Robben Island’’ dies suddenly in Cape Town
“Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy,” he once said of his favourite pastime. “There are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”
Having faced off the perils of the open sea from dangerous currents, Great White sharks, poisonous giant jelly fish and sheer exhaustion, it was a routine check-up in Cape Town on the 17 October for asthma that surprisingly struck down South Africa’s legendary ocean swimmer Theodore Yach at the young age of 60.
Holding the record for the most crossings to Robben Island – hence his nickname in the ocean swimming fraternity as “The King of Robben Island” – Yach made quite a splash in Israel in 2016 when he swam across the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) “not the width like most long-distance swimmers but the LENGTH – 22 kilometres from south to north,” says Stanley Milliner from Kfar Saba Israel who has been a friend of the Yach family since childhood.
“It was a tough swim because he was more accustomed to swimming in the cold temperatures off the Atlantic Cape coast and not the 26 degrees of the Kinneret and thus took him over 8 hours,” recalls Milliner. “There was great excitement at the time as members of the Israeli Swimming Association joined him for sections along the way.” Apart from the famed St. Peter’s fish, “He appreciated the human company.”
“It’s been such an unexpected shock for his friends and fans. He was a titan in the water and an example to future generations of ocean swimmers.”
Away from the water, the Yach family name on terra firma is synonymous with philanthropy supporting causes both in South Africa and Israel.
A leading member of Cape Town’s general and Jewish communities and an inspiring role model of philanthropy, Theodore Yach’s mother, Estelle has been a devoted friend of Israel and the Hebrew University whose benevolence significantly advanced the University and enabled hundreds of its students to pursue a higher education.
It all began in 1938, when Theodor’s grandfather, Morris Mauerberger, established the Mauerberger Foundation Fund, which his son-in-law and Theodore’s late father Solm Yach went on to head. His mother chaired the Foundation for over twenty years; thereafter passing over the reins to his sister, Dianna Yach.
Since the 1960s, the Mauerberger Foundation has lent its support to a wide range of projects at the Hebrew University, including the Mauerberger Medical Bursaries, the Morris and Helen Mauerberger Chair in Agricultural Entomology, research projects in diverse areas and, notably, numerous research fellowships and scholarships for Israeli and international students, many from underprivileged backgrounds.
Africa Israel – A Pulsating Partnership
Africa is benefiting today from the launch in 2017 of a prize by Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology together with the Mauerberger Foundation Fund in South Africa. Each year, Israeli scientists now compete for a $500,000 prize for suggesting ways of addressing a major development priority in the African continent – and in doing so, also advance the role of women in science.
Dianne Yach called on scientists to collaborate in tackling impediments to the full development of people and societies, while Technion president, Prof. Peretz Lavie committed the Technion to fostering Israel-African partnerships “with purpose and impact.”
The new prize builds on 80 years of the Mauerberger Foundation Fund support for those areas in Israel and South Africa that include the initial support for the Technion’s Soil Engineering Building in 1955; chairs in nursing, preventive cardiology and neurosurgery at the University of Cape Town; and the advancement of public health at the University of the Western Cape.
Theodore’s grandfather and founder of the Fund first visited the Technion in 1955.
Today, the Helen and Morris Mauerberger Soil Engineering Building is home to ‘Engineers without Borders’, a programme that the fund continues to support, and that enables Technion students to initiate community projects in Israel and abroad and promote the University’s goodwill in Africa.
In Cape Town, Theodore Yach with his expertise in property development, was one of the key strategists behind the Central City Improvement District, “which helped the city avoid the inner-city decay that has affected so many other cities in South Africa and across the world.” In keeping with the family tradition of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew: “repairing the world”), Theodore Yach has over the years, raised millions of Rands for various charities.
During office hours, Yach was a divisional director at Zenprop, one of South Africa’s top property development and investment companies. He has also been a director of his family’s philanthropic Mauerberger Foundation and supporter of the Cadiz Open Water Swimming Development Trust.
The Cadiz Freedom Swim is an extreme 7.5 kilometres open water swimming race from Robben Island to Big Bay, Bloubergstrand. It takes place annually close to Freedom Day – the 27th April, the date of SA’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, marking the end of Apartheid.
The Cadiz Freedom Swim is recognised as one of the world’s most extreme sea races due to the extremely cold water characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean, unpredictable sea and weather conditions, and the presence of the Great White Shark.
Legacy of a Legend
Deserving of the moniker “The King of Robben Island”, Yach had at the time of his passing, 108 Robben Island crossings to his name – more than any other swimmer in the world. He has also swum across the English Channel, and he is the first person to swim from Cape Town around Robben Island and back, taking 11 hours. Despite the freezing temperature of the water, the area is popular for sharks, including the Great White. This never deterred Yach who always took the necessary precautions.
Yach comes from a family of swimmers and his love for swimming was nurtured from an early age.
In His Element
Theodore’s late father Solly, himself a champion swimmer, “told me as a kid to keep a record of my swimming achievements, which I did,” and led to his internationally acclaimed autobiography.
Titled, ‘In My Element’, it is an inspiring story that brings alive the sport of open water swimming and reveals how the boy matured to a man with every stroke.
“I planned a simple paperback book until my editor looked at all the photographs and material I had, and she convinced me otherwise,” he reveals in his preface to the book.
The world of ocean swimming in South Africa is not for the faint of heart. “It requires guts, training and a sense of adventure, all of which characterized Theo,” says Milliner. “It was no wonder,” continues Milliner, “that his book was nominated in the ‘World Open Water Swimming Offering’ of the year category,” which recognises innovative products or services that have made a positive impact on the world of open water swimming.
Set in the backdrop of the wild waters off the South African coast, In My Element is filled with photographs, memories and personal highlights of his often-risky open water sea-swimming exploits undertaken since the 1980s, including stories about swimming with sea life such as sharks, seals and dolphins.
The autobiographical book sets out to motivate other swimmers and offers training advice.
An unrivalled pastime
“Swimming in the ocean is my ultimate joy; there are no boundaries, no lane ropes to constrain me and very few people to disturb me.”
Long distance open water swimmers are always exposed to the threat of hypothermia, jellyfish stings, bluebottles and the ever-present danger of sharks, yet Yach enjoyed every opportunity to get into the water.
“The best part of swimming in open water is that it isn’t structured. I don’t want structure in my leisure time,” he said. “I like the solitude and the fact that I am in the middle of nature and I like the possibility of a Great White that can come visit!”
But he was never reckless. He always swam within two metres of his support crew and with a shark shield that hung off the boat. The device created an electronic force field around him that kept sharks away.
He maintained that open water swimming was a tough sport that involves as much psychological preparation as physical endurance.
“The mental aspect of ocean swimming is more important than physical preparation because you are dealing with the sea, the cold water, currents, sea life and the fear of what is under the water.”
“Hypothermia and heart failure are biggest risks for open water swimmers – even more than shark attacks.”
Yach noted that South Africa was becoming the preferred destination for top open water swimmers to train, “as the water on the Cape coast is so cold.”
He explained that training in water with optimal temperatures was critical for open water swimmers who were preparing for races. “A swimmer’s ability to cope with cold water is essential and this is why they train in our waters for races such as the English Channel.”
The cold water of the Cape has lost its warm friend.