History Unfolds Across The Sea of Galilee On October 28th 1944

Courtesy of Guy Cohen and Eyal Schachner, Sea of Galilee, Israel.

October 28th is the 75th anniversary of the first full-length crossing of the Sea of Galilee, successfully pioneered in 1944 by Israeli swimmer Yitzhak Yehezkel.

It is a story and a pioneering challenge worth retelling.

The Davar daily newspaper published a Hebrew-language article in 1948 translated below into English by Guy Cohen and Eyal Schachner. The pair of Israeli channel swimmers also provided additional background information for reference and historical purposes:

The Sea of Galilee, Kinneret in Hebrew, is located in Israel and is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth, about 200 meters below sea level. It is surrounded by mountains – the Golan Heights and the Galilee Mountains – and located in the Jordan Rift Valley, that was caused by the separation of the African and Arabian Plates. It is also the place where many of Jesus’ miracles are believed to have occurred, including his walking on water.

Open water swim events have been taking place within the lake since the early 1940’s. The annual 1.5 km and 3.5 km open water swim event Kinneret Crossing draws thousands of participants each year and has celebrated over 65 years since its launch. It is ranked 10th in the WOWSA list for the World’s Top 100 Open Water Swims in 2019.

Competitive 9 km widthwise lake crossings started also in the 1940’s, but they are not regularly organized anymore.

Crossing the full length of the lake at 20.5 km has never been regulated or officially organized and very few swimmers have attempted this swim over the years. Lately, more and more local swimmers have decided to turn this challenge as a way for preparing themselves for bigger open water challenges such as English Channel or Catalina Channel crossings.

The following article was translated from the archives of the local daily newspaper Davar published in 1948. It tells the story of Yitzhak Yehezkel, the first person to swim across the full length of the lake.

How I Crossed the Sea of Galilee
Published in the Davar daily newspaper on June 4th 1948

The military campaign in the Jordan Valley [note: in 1948, Israel was still fighting its War of Independence against its neighbors], which is endowed with courage and self-sacrifice, has not yet ended. The Sea of Galilee is one of the centers of interest in these days. The Jordan and the Sea of Galilee are engraved in the hearts of the people, and not because of their ancient splendor. Many chapters of the glamor in the history of the nation’s revival in the homeland were written to their shores.

While the name Kinneret rejoiced in the heart of the youth in particular, in the Hebrew sport, the small and mischievous sea took its place with the success of the Crossings of Sea of Galilee – the national enterprise of Hapoel [note: Hapoel is a sports association that was established in the 1920’s as a union of the General Federation of Labor in Israel and its goal is to nurture the body, health and sport culture among the workers].

It is not a sports enterprise for its own sake, but a test of the ability of the Hebrew swimmer in open water. Swimming far away and prolonged width crossings of the Sea of Galilee symbolized the immigration of many of us to the coast of the homeland from the heart of the sea, and our assistance to them.

[Note: Jews, refugees of the Holocaust in Europe, were not allowed to immigrate to Palestine by the British Mandate government that ruled the country in those years. In the absence of a solution, Jewish rescue organizations were working to raise the refugees to Israel by illegal immigration from ships that brought them near the beach in the dark of night. From the ships, they were brought on shore by boats and by swimming to land to then assimilate within the local community.]

In addition to the widthwise crossings of the Sea of Galilee, which the local residents of the Jordan Valley villages were mainly its victors, they also initiated the small group 6 km tandem crossings, which mainly deals with rescue effort swims.

Here we present the experience of a single and first successor, a member of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, who crossed the full length of the Sea of Galilee.

The First Trial

When the Hapoel Center announced for the first time the crossing of the Sea of Galilee on the Ein-Gev – Tiberias line, there was great enthusiasm within the swimmers and youth circles. Tel-Aviv sent four male swimmers and one female swimmer. The pool we had was small (16 x 16 meters), and in order to prepare for the 9 km crossing, we had to swim about 700 laps. My finish time for the first crossing was 3 hours 38 minutes.

My Second Trial

By the second attempt, I had more confidence. This time, I insisted that I have a boat escort, and that my companion would be Haim Rosenberg, the head gymnastic instructor at Hapoel. My goal was to improve my time of the first year, since the technical arrangements were much better.

At dawn, the swimmers arranged themselves on the jetty in Ein-Gev and boarded the boats, leaving the shore 30 meters away and standing at the bow of their boats. To the signal from one of the boats – all jumped into the water.

My good spirits were preserved throughout my swim thanks to my escort – Haim Rosenberg. While we were exchanging some jokes, Haim suggested to me, “What do you think Yehezkel, about crossing the full length of the Kinneret?” To which I replied, “I have already made up my mind to make this attempt, but I do not know who will support this madness.”

I finished the distance and reached the finish line at 2 hours 54 minutes 50 seconds.

Preliminary Thoughts

Soon thereafter, I coincidently saw a Russian pamphlet telling the story of a submarine sailor that had swam 54 km over 24 hours without an escort boat or food. I made a simple calculation: if a person can swim across 54 km on the front line, why cannot I pass 24 km not on a front line and under favorable conditions with food and escort boat?

The second example was the participation of Dr. Wirtz, a 55-year-old woman who swam 9 km of the widthwise crossing in about 6 hours. Why would not I be able to hold out in the water for 9 hours? So I spoke to Haim Rosenberg about the plan. We determined the date of success for October 28th 1944. We had just one week left for technical arrangements. We wrote a letter to the Ginosar Kibbutz and asked them to charter a boat for us.

A week later, we received an answer that the sea was very stormy and not safe to sail by regular boat, only by motorboat. And since their motorboat is in repair, they cannot help us. The answer was received the day before the trip to Tiberias. The tickets were ready and all my gear was packed and the food was also ready for the crossing. It was as if everything turned against us. Nevertheless, we decided to go to Tiberias and carry out our planned mission, no matter what.

The Last Battle

We did not have much time to talk. After the boat had been arranged, and the permit to sail out to sea was approved by the sergeant in charge, I drove to Degania B. It was late and I had little time to rest. Haim had stayed alone in Tiberias to look for a neutral observer, he was helped by Bechor Sasson, a member of Hapoel in Tiberias.

The next morning at 5 am, we reached Kibbutz Gesher. The boat was a little late, but soon it arrived. We climbed and sailed to Zemach. On the way, I began to undress gradually. Haim began to apply Vaseline on my body to protect me from the cold. After I was properly covered, we came to Zemach. There, I jumped into the water. It was 6:34 in the morning. From that moment, my companions began to write the diary:

The Swim Diary
6:34 am – The start. The swimmer is swimming in front crawl style. A strong warrior against the waves. A strong easterly wind. At altitude lies the Sea of Galilee. The boat is rocking. Very strong waves.

6:41 am – A fish began scratching the finger. At the 41st minute we are aligned at Samra – Kinneret location.

6:43 am – Easterly wind. Fighting against strong waves. A very strong wind.

7:44 am – A slight weakness. The waves picked up, replaced the swim style for a short-time with Backstroke, all the time he swam in breaststroke. The waves rock the boat. Wind of Sharkia [note: Sharkia is a dry east wind originating in the desert, hot during the transitional seasons and in summer, and cold in the winter.]

8:00 am – His condition is fresh, he is swimming aligned between Poria and Ein-Gev. All the while waves are strong, increasing from time to time. The wave passes over the side of the boat.

8:18 am – Aligned between Poria – Ein Gev. The swimmer’s condition is fresh and good, the east wind continues, strong waves.

8:36 am – The police boat appeared and warned us that if the wind will not calm down, we will have to stop swimming at Tiberias. Yehezkel’s condition is very good and he wants to continue to Tabcha.

10:02 am – we arrived at the line of Ein-Gev – Tiberias Hot Springs.

10:42 am – Still at the line of Ein-Gev – Tiberias Hot Springs. The swimmer did not advance forward for nearly 40 minutes.

11:00 am – A visit from our friend Haim El-Hadif. He promised to be at 2 pm in Tabcha with the provincial doctor. The weather changed in favor of the swimmer. Northeast wind. Lesser waves are southeastern.

11:15 am – Strong Northeast wind is starting again.

11:50 am – Struggling with the waves which are swinging him back and forth, barely advancing.

12:05 pm – Fighting strongly, but swimming in the same spot. There is a crisis, feeling weak – not advanced for 25 minutes.

12:30 pm – The appetite for chocolate is increasing. He gains strength and progresses nicely. We are aligned between Ein-Gev – the Secret Garden. The swimmer allows himself to tell jokes.

1:15 pm – His condition is good. Swimming leisurely.

1:50 pm – switched over from breaststroke to front crawl.

1:55 pm – Complaining of shoulder pains from the cold.

2:00 pm – We are in-line with Migdal.

2:15 pm – Pale, wrinkles on forehead, red eyes. Swimming leisurely.

2:43 pm – Complaining about being cold. He is disgusted with chocolate. Sucking a clementine willingly.

3:00 pm – Joking and proposing to return to Degania and stock up with the Clementines and then start over.

3:15 pm – Requires candies. Eats two.

3:30 pm – He is feeling colder. From 3:15, the waves rise.

5:13.44 pm – We arrive at Tabcha after swimming for 9 hours 39 minutes 44 seconds.

Signed – Shlomo Hess, writer of the diary.

Yitzhak Yehezkel’s Final Notes:

By the time we were very close to the shore, Joseph Luxenburg had jumped to help me out of the water, but I managed to do it on my own. As I finished my swim, the sea was stormy. When I came out of the water, I crawled on the ground, a wave whipped my face and sand entered my eyes. I went over to one of the nearby rocks and sat down. Then the doctor who had been waiting for me on the beach and his wife approached me.

She asked her husband, ‘Why don’t you check him?’ The doctor answered, ‘Do not you see what his condition is? In my opinion there is no need to examine him. He feels very good.’

He gave me a few drops of medicinal herbs for my eyes and that was the whole treatment after crossing the Kinneret. Other documents were prepared. One from the doctor, one from the observers, and even from the Arab fisherman. After all the arrangements were completed, we returned to Tiberias. It was late and we reached Degania B at 7 pm where they prepared a special dinner for us. Soon the news spread at the Kibbutz that the member of Hapoel Tel Aviv had crossed the full length of the Sea of Galilee and was dining with them. After the meal, I enjoyed listening to the news on the radio announcing about the crossing of the Kinneret. I felt that I had accomplished the task and that I had proved the strong character of a Hebrew athlete.


Additional Notes from Guy Cohen and Eyal Schachner:

Yitzhak Yehezkel successfully completed two more lengthwise crossings of the Kinneret in the years following his first crossing:
• On August 23rd 1953 from Capernaum to Zemach in the north-to-south direction in 10 hours 18 minutes 20 seconds
• On October 9th 1955 from Zemach to Capernaum in the south-to-north direction in 8 hours 33 minutes 25 seconds
• As far as is known, there is no swimmer other than Yehezkel who managed to complete the crossing in the ten years between his first and third crossing.

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