53 Degrees

From Openwaterpedia

53 Degrees is a play based on the life of South African open water swimmer Florrie Berndt. is a South African open water swimmer who inspired a play called story when she attempted to swim from Robben Island to Roggebaai in Cape Town, South Africa on 8 November 1926 in 53ºF water as an 18-year-old. After over 13 hours, she was pulled from the race due to exhaustion.

53 Degrees debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2002 and tells the story of Berndt, a daughter of a Robben Island baker and nurse at the Island’s infirmary, and her efforts to become the first woman to swim from Robben Island to Cape Town. The play ran from 17 March to 5 April 2003 in a multi-media physical theatre performance in Cape Town. In addition to her Robben Island attempt, the play provides insight into the life and living environment on Robben Island.

14 athletes entered the first Robben Island swim, sponsored by the Cape Argus newspaper. 15-year-old Peggy Duncan completed the race while Berndt kept swimming for over 13 hours.


53 Degrees was directed by Mark Fleishman.

53 Degrees was sponsored by the National Arts Council and Pro Helvetia (the Arts Council of Switzerland) and was supported by the University of Cape Town.


Jennie Reznek, an acclaimed physical performer, theatre educator, partner in Magnet Theatre, and mother of two, played Florrie Berndt in 53 Degrees. Gosekwang Poonyane and David Johnson (Grahamstown) and Gary Naidoo (Cape Town) also perform in the play.


53 Degrees weaves three different narratives together that are connected by the same theme of bondage and freedom, entrapment and liberation. There is Florrie Berndt who is trapped in an icy cold current as she tries to swim from Robben Island to the mainland in the first Robben Island swim. There is Makana/Nxele/Links – a 19th century Xhosa prophet who tried to free his people from the tyranny of British rule. He was imprisoned on the island from where he attempted to escape, but drowned off Blouberg beach, eternally trapped in an icy grave. The piece celebrates and foregrounds both the little and big achievements of these 2 women while at the same time placing their struggles in the context of the broader liberation struggle in South Africa.

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