Sighting Senegal: Furthest Point West Sighting Senegal: Furthest Point West

Sighting Senegal: Furthest Point West

Imagine gearing up for a 5,000km (3.1 miles) Atlantic Ocean swim, your first international swim event in the world’s second largest continent. Emotions swell: hope, trepidation and a deep reverence for the journey you’re about to take. Unlike any swim you’ve ever done before, at the start line we’re surrounded by a swathe of Senegalese swimmers chattering in a mix of Wolof and French. Despite your English thought processing, we are all connected by purpose: we’re ready to take on the passage of our ancestors and swim 5km from Dakar Beach to Gorée Island.

Anniversary swim

On 25 September 2023, Nathaniel Cole and Peigh Asante, co-founders of Swim Dem Crew, a London based community swim group, took part in 34th annual run of the Dakar-Gorée crossing. Their experience is documented in the inspirational film Furthest Point West, which marks Swim Dem’s ten-year anniversary (directed by Israel Peters). Recovering from an awful cold, I was keen to attend the film’s premier held in November 2023 at Dijonss, just off Brick Lane. I heard about Swim Dem’s Senegal swim when I bumped into Nathaniel and Peigh in September after we competed in Swim Serpentine, a 2-mile swim in Hyde Park, one of the Royal parks in London. A couple of things grabbed my attention as Nathaniel dropped that they were jetting off to Senegal:

  1. The Friends were flying to Senegal to do an organised long-distance swim. This made me think that I hadn’t participated in an open water swim event outside of the UK.
  2. The swim would take place in Senegal. Although I had some awareness about European swims, I had yet to hear about a swim taking place in West Africa (call me ignorant).
  3. They speak French in Senegal. I’d been learning French.
  4. The Friends were recording their swim journey for a film. I had to make sure I was on that invite list for the premier!

So, two months after our Serpentine Swim and a noticeable drop in temperature, I knew I had to show up and get my piece of the Dakar-Gorée crossing, even with a rubbish cold bogging me down.

Swimming is normal

Often the conversations around Black people and swimming centres around our inability to swim, barriers to swimming and low rates of participation. Now until we see more Black and Brown people swimming and safely participating in aquatic activities, we need to keep on having these conversations, but Furthest Point West tells a different story. It’s a story I hadn’t seen shared on screen by two men who could be my brothers. I must admit that it was a bit of a relief not to hear the usual depressing statistics around the lack of Black and Asian swimmers in the UK… For once, there was no need to flag this to the audience because Nathaniel and Peigh are both swim instructors and experienced open water swimmers. More importantly, the annual competition takes place in country where swimming is normalised. The Friends swam with Senegalese swimmers who had trained for the event as individuals or with their swim club, and looking at the speed and ferocity of the professional swimmers who threw themselves into the water in the first wave, they all took swimming incredibly seriously. I really liked this simple premise: two Black British men joining a sea of Senegalese swimmers to compete in an annual tradition.

Historical significance

Furthest Point West isn’t just interested in the mechanics of the swim and The Friends’ preparation for it (the film shows an earnest attempt by Peigh to make a morning smoothie for everyone on race day), the film also highlights the roots of the swim. Gorée Island, a Unesco World Heritage site, was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast during the 15-19th century. Enslaved people would be forcibly transported 3.5km (2.2 miles) from Senegal’s capital Dakar, to Gorée Island - meaning “Good Raid” - sold to European slave traders, before being transported by ships that took months to arrive in America, Brazil or the Caribbean.

Before embarking on their swim, The Friends take the time to learn about Gorée Island’s history. The swim isn’t just another sea swim or a challenge like many of the swims the Friends, you and I have participated in. It is a swim of significance. I felt it was a demonstration of the swimmers’ respect to the individuals who made the crossing from Dakar to Gorée Island – without a choice. The annual race, which started in 1985, is a tribute to the captured individuals who attempted to swim back to Dakar with kilos of painfully attached shackles weighing them down. The swim is an acknowledgment of the history of the passage and those who did not make it home to their loved ones. 

The power of swimming

To say The Friends took on a swim with meaning is too mild in this context. It was an ancestral sea passage that offered all the challenges anyone would face when swimming in the Atlantic Ocean: large waves, reduced visibility and current pull. The difference in the 21st century is that all swimmers completed the swim by choice - even the 7-year girl who swam the 5k distance this year. The Senegalese have reclaimed the water, reclaiming the memory of their ancestors who were taken and lost to foreign lands. The swim is also a demonstration of their swimming prowess today.

As I watched Nathaniel and Peigh try to seek each other out in the Atlantic waves, I knew I had it in me to do the 5k swim. I saw myself there. For a moment, I thought back to the 3k Big Welsh Swim I just about managed to complete in July 2023 and considered our mutual swim struggles. Smacked in the face by intense winds funnelling relentlessly towards me the entire swim, the Big Welsh Swim was hands down the toughest swim of my life (I felt like I was starring in my very own extended episode of “SAS: Who Dares Wins”). It was physically hard and mentally exhausting - I lost count of the number of times I said, I can’t do this, I need to get out.  As I listened to The Friends discuss the water’s power, I pictured myself in the water with them, committed to the distance and committed to honouring those who swam for survival.

Dakar to Gorée 2024 

Furthest Point West will inspire you whether you swim or not. Watching the love and admiration between Peigh and Nathaniel as friends, co-workers, teammates, and swim buddies, warmed my heart and it will warm yours too. If you’ve ever contemplated swimming outdoors, participating in your first (or fifteenth) open water event, the film is likely to put some fire under your derrière and get you signing up for a swim – hopefully Dakar to Gorée 2024. Even if all my hype doesn’t get you running to your nearest swim spot, the film will empower you with the knowledge that there are many Black people out there swimming: swimming for history, swimming to be the fastest, swimming for connection and swimming simply because WE CAN swim.

Furthest Point West is scheduled for the Festival Film Circuit. Follow @SwimDemCrew for further updates.

Running time: approximately 20 minutes

Director: Israel Peters

Production: Swim Dem Crew

Photography: Ash Narod

Film photography: @peighspointandshoot

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