On Sunday 3rd April, 2022, I successfully completed the first two-way crossing of Matapōuri Beach to the Poor Knights Islands. This is the tale; a Knights tale.
Tawhiti Rahi: The Poor Knights Islands
The journey begins
I entered the summer of 2022 with the aim of completing a double-crossing of Cook Strait. It was a big, hairy, audacious goal – a challenge which I believed would once again lead me further down the journey of realizing my potential.
It was an arduous training regime in the lead-up, which was what was needed to prepare me physically and mentally. Weekends were often written off, consumed by long pool sessions or ultra-marathon distance ocean swims. I pushed hard during the week at squad sessions, forcing forward my progression in terms of fitness and speed. I tested my ability to endure sleep deprivation by arranging an overnight pool training session, swimming from 8pm to 8am in the morning. I slept, and stretched, and slept some more. I ate – oh, did I eat. And, to prepare myself for the expected cooler waters, with record high temperatures experienced around the Auckland coast, I spent up to an hour in my ice bath at 3 degrees Celsius. In short, I was ready.
It was the end of January. Exhausted but personally satisfied, I entered my 14-day taper period. In 14 days, it would be the first tide window for the Cook Strait double-crossing attempt. All the hours and hours and hours of training and preparation were coinciding for this one opportunity.
Preparation is one thing. Putting your fate in the hands of the wind and tide is another altogether, and it can be an emotional rollercoaster as you wait for the requisite conditions.
I won’t bore you with the details, of how I would look at 10 different weather forecasts countless times during the day to try and predict whether the wind would allow me a window to attempt the swim. Or how, at times, I could hardly concentrate on my work, so consumed by the potential of the swim happening. Or how I had to constantly keep the support crew updated with any of my predictions around potential timing, only for those to be squashed when the forecast once again turned. I won’t bore you with those details.
By the time that the end of March came around, I found myself in the unenviable position of going through this cycle of “will it or won’t it” 3 times over a 6-week period, only to be denied by wind that, once again, was almost, very nearly suitable, but not quite good enough for a double-crossing attempt. Nature can be a cruel and indifferent mistress. Philip Rush, who coordinates the Cook Strait swim, suggested a number of times in the lead-up to have a backup swim in mind. He knows the feeling of being denied by nature, having been in the same situation himself a number of times.
There was now one tide window left, and that was it for the season. One final opportunity.
Building the backup
In my mind, I didn’t want to even consider a backup, lest it bring down some kind of bad luck on the potential of attempting the double crossing of Cook Strait. As the end of the season approached, I threw away superstition in favour of practicality. A year or so ago, I had toyed with the idea of swimming from the Poor Knights Islands, a popular marine reserve, to Matapōuri Beach; a 23-kilometre swim which had only been completed twice in history – once by Meda McKenzie in 1977, and once by Sarah Poplar in 2018. It was a unique swim in a beautiful part of the country, and one which I felt deserved more attention. As it became more apparent that an attempt to swim the double-crossing of Cook Strait may not be possible, I pivoted to a different double-crossing. Why not swim from Matapōuri Beach to Poor Knights and back?
I started making enquiries with whoever I could around how best to pull the swim together. While there is an association that oversees the Poor Knights marathon swim, there is no coordinator as such. All the logistics of the swim are the responsibility of the swimmer. A café conversation with a few friends led to the first iteration of a support crew. From that one conversation, we had a boat, a pilot, one support person, and an observer. A great result! There was one last tide window for Cook Strait commencing in 4 or 5 days, so we agreed that the idea of the Poor Knights swim would remain dormant until it needed to be activated.
Soon enough, it was clear that this final tide window for Cook Strait was also going to come and go without an opportunity to dip my toes into the water, with winds reaching upwards of 40 knots. I activated the crew, on what would eventually be one week prior to the Poor Knights double-crossing attempt. The long-range forecast looked reasonably good, but we would only be able to make a call on the precise date closer to the time. I started pulling together the plan, using my experience of previous swims alongside the bits of information that I could gather.
The next week, almost everything that I had planned had to be thrown out.
A spanner in the works
It started with the pilot, who was also the owner of the boat. He was not confident in undertaking this adventure. I respected his honesty and candor and found a replacement with relative ease from within my network. Unfortunately, the replacement pilot bowed out not long after, this time due to COVID isolation requirements. It was only days out from the swim at this point, but I had been here before with a previous swim and was confident (what choice do you have otherwise?) that it would all come together. A few messages later and the problem was solved. I had a pilot, this now the third iteration, and, thankfully, still a boat.
However, I wondered whether the original pilot had pulled out due to the nature of the boat and made more enquiries down that channel. In my desire to bring this swim together, I had conveniently overlooked a number of the more important details. I received a photo not long after displaying the boat, which was a 4-metre inflatable. In my mind, I had built up an image of a 16-foot rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with a centre console – how your imagination can carry you if you are willing to have it be so! Clearly, a 4-metre inflatable was not going to be suitable for the open water which we would encounter.
And so it was that I was temporarily boatless for this undertaking. To say that I was concerned with the risk that this presented to the swim attempt was an understatement! Bill, who was undertaking the role of pilot at this point, suggested I call a mutual friend, who conveniently also owned a reasonably sized RIB. Thankfully, he was on board and eager to support with only a phone call or two. At this stage, I had one boat, two pilots, one observer, and one support person. All is well that ends well.
Unfortunately, this is not quite the end of the story.
My friend, who was taking on the role of observer, suggested I needed a larger support craft in addition to the RIB (this one did have a centre console, and was very robust) in case of any medical event or problem with the RIB. This, unfortunately, was a very good suggestion. I returned once again into hyper-drive, calling every man and his dog, and casting the net far and wide on social media in an attempt to find a suitably sized craft. I literally ended up calling somebody’s dentist – an open-water swimmer based around Tutukaka and who owned a boat – such was my desperation. The best bet was a boat-hire company, who had availability on the Sunday. But there was one hitch: The boat could only operate during daylight hours. This was not going to be suitable, with the swim planned to have some overlap with the dark.
The next morning, mere days before the target date for the swim, I had somewhat of a stroke of genius. Perhaps the hire boat can’t operate during daylight, but what if it were to meet with the RIB once the swim had commenced, and then part ways at the end of the swim if the swim looked like it could entreat into darkness after dusk? After sense-checking this with the pilots and the crew, all were on board with the suggestion. I locked the boat in for the Sunday, and so too the support crew.
We finally had the makings of a plan!
The last piece in the puzzle was convincing Sarah Poplar, a previous swimmer of a one-way crossing and the lead for the Northland Open Water Swimming Association, to come on board. Thankfully, it really did not require much of my influencing powers, and she was happy to sign on as support crew. I did make sure to mention my intentions clearly: “I told you I’m going for the double, right?”, just in case I had missed that (minor) detail previously. As it happens, my communication must not have been very effective in the lead-up, and so I’m glad that this was mentioned before the day.
The rubber hits the road
We left Auckland on Saturday morning, driving up with the RIB to meet with the other members of the support crew at the house we had rented at Tutukaka. The first order of service on arriving was to conduct a reconnaissance of the start of the swim in the RIB – a 30-minute or so drive over water from Tutukaka marina to Matapōuri Beach. The next time we would be passing through the same water it would be covered in the still dark of the early morning, and so it was important to visualize the starting point ahead of time in full light. The water along the journey was full of life, and we sighted more than one work-up (concentrated fish feeding activity) next to the coast as we performed our reconnaissance. I could already tell that this was a special body of water. It truly was alive!
The night before the swim was largely uneventful. The support crew shared a nice meal at a local restaurant, going through the final details for the logistics of the day to come. On return to our house, we set about getting everything ready for the following morning, preparing all food, equipment, clothing, and other necessary items in advance. If there is one thing that I have learnt from my years of marathon swimming, it is to tie off any loose end before you go to sleep – unless you fancy that thought bouncing around in your head for the entirety of the night to come.
Carbs, carbs, and more quick carbs
Alas, it was not resoundingly successful in removing the blockages to my attempted rest. To aid my sleep efforts, I had turned off my phone hours before, consumed herbal tea, self-massaged my body, and taken natural sleep medication. I don’t think I could have been any more relaxed, but sleep was not quick in coming to me. After a few hours of lying peacefully, and not falling into deep sleep, I took up the offer from Jacquelyn, one of the support crew and a trained Osteopath, to perform some body work in the aim of hopefully, finally, reaching that coveted place of deep sleep. Unfortunately, that too was not entirely successful.
I may have achieved 3 to 4 hours of sleep at most that night, at a guess. Such is the life of a marathon swimmer, and something I have come to accept as somewhat normal in the lead-up to a challenge of this nature. Regardless of your efforts to detach your thoughts from your mind, it is difficult to bluff your body before the beating it is about to take.
A day to remember
We woke at 3:30am and began readying for the day ahead. Breakfast was the main focus, to allow enough time between digestion and the swim commencing. With all our equipment readied, we left the house at 4:30am for Tutukaka marina. It was a beautiful night and, although we were sheltered from the open ocean in the harbour, we could tell that the wind was almost completely still. This was made clear after we cast off in the RIB, weaving our way to the coast using the chart plotter and beacon lights to guide our path. Once we exited the safety of the harbour, the wind remained silently still, and we had only to contend with the swell as we traversed up the coast to the start point. I could not help but be fully immersed in the moment, reveling in the light of the stars in the sky and taking in full breaths of the sea. I was enjoying myself and could not help but be excited.
On reaching the waters of Matapōuri Beach, crew member Marcel covered me head to toe in a Zinc Oxide based cream and slathered me in petroleum jelly following that in common chafing areas. The last order of service was to fit my cap, goggles (complete with a flashing light on the strap), and wave me on my way as I dived into the warm, Northland waters. It was still entirely dark, with a spotlight shone on me by the crew to reassure me as I made my way into the beach. Cath, land-based support crew, was on hand to wave me in and greet me before I officially started. The official starting signal was, believe it or not, a cowbell which Jacquelyn had on hand. We hadn’t anticipated the sound of the waves breaking on the shore and it quickly became abundantly clear that the sound of the cowbell would not travel.
Covered in Zinc Oxide, doing my best impression of a Geisha
Cath called the boat crew. The answer on the other end of the line almost finished the swim before it began.
“We’ve been hit by a wave and the boat has taken on water. The chart plotter isn’t working. We’ll call you back soon.”
Remaining calm, my mind immediately leapt to possible outcomes. One option was to end the swim there and then. Another option to fly blind through the darkness, plotting a chart relying on eyesight alone until the other support craft could launch and catch up. Or we could wait until sunrise, but this would mean precious time lost. They were all bad options, in a less than ideal situation.
Cath’s phone buzzed. The crew had managed to remove all the water that the RIB had taken on. Not only this, but the fuse for the chart plotter had been replaced using the fuse of the spotlight. All was working again as expected. Relief. We kept the line open so that the start of the swim could be signaled. No sooner had I started, skipping through the waves and out past the breakers. The water temperature was fantastic, and I felt incredible. Due to the delay at the start of the swim, I ended up swimming only a short period in the dark before the sun crept up.
Early on, I was joined by salp, jellyfish, and a sprinkling of bluebottles. This would remain the trend for the duration of the swim, with incredibly large clumps of salp and jellyfish peppering the open channel. The visibility was incredible, and I could see almost endlessly into the deep blue below me. There was only a very slight wind during the early stages of the swim, combined with a rolling one-metre swell from the east. While I could feel the swell as I ascended and descended its roll through the ocean, the support crew on the water felt it all the worse, causing a number of the crew to become sick and lose the contents of their stomach.
Approaching the Poor Knights, with hardly a ripple in sight
The first lap of the swim, from Matapōuri Beach to the Poor Knights Islands, was largely uneventful. The larger support craft met with us approximately one hour into the swim, around the first feed. My triceps strangely and uncharacteristically started cramping at about the 3-hour mark, but I had no choice to push through the pain until the cramping stopped. I experienced some digestive issues from about halfway through the first lap; while there was no vomiting, I could certainly feel that my gut was not in the best of moods. Perhaps this was due to the increased dosage of the fuels I was taking on, in the aim of achieving the targeted calorie intake. I maintained the same feeding plan regardless, preferring consistency and compliance against the original plan to any unplanned deviations.
As we neared the Poor Knights, the fish life became much more apparent, with snapper and other species greeting me into the islands in droves. Given the protected nature of the island as a marine reserve, the fish, abundant as they are, are completely calm around humans. It was a nice change to the normal skittish nature of fish encountered in the wild, which move with immediacy and speed for the sake of survival. We swam into Riko Riko cave, the largest sea cave in the world, which marked the end of the first lap and the turnaround point for the swim. On most marathon swims, it is not only customary but required to touch the natural part of the shore to demarcate either the end of a swim, or the end of a lap of a multi-leg swim. However, in this case, it was not possible as the islands are tapu (sacred) and to even touch the land would invite legal prosecution. The start, finish, or midway point for the Poor Knights marathon swim (depending on direction and number of laps) is instead marked by entering or exiting the cave.
Riko Riko cave: The world's largest sea cave
On reaching the cave, I was passed over a pre-planned Cherry Ripe chocolate bar, which had been built into the feeding plan as a way to celebrate reaching the halfway point. It was glorious! Rather than turning around then and there, I also took time to have a snorkel for a few minutes, playing with the snapper and kingfish which casually paraded around the borders of the cave. Knowing that the wind would start coming up at about midday, we did not dally much further and left the serenity of the islands for the start of the second lap.
Reaching a mid-point and turning around is not the easiest thing to do psychologically. It is an easier pill to swallow to swim point to point, total distance held equal.
It did get harder for me on the return lap. The wind came up and stayed so for the rest of the swim. Everything was in pain. I took a novel approach to keep my mind in the game, creating an incentive structure based on diminishing feed breaks. I calculated the number of feeds that I would be expected to have remaining, and obsessively counted back this number through the course of the second lap. If I was not counting back the number of feeds, I was playing back songs in my head, or scenes from Lord of The Rings. I made sure not to look where I was going on any of the feeds, as to do so invites psychological destruction. Unless you are chasing a speed record, I find it is often better to swim on in ignorance for the sake of your mental health.
If only I had followed my own rule, the last part of the swim may not have been as difficult as it was.
With the wind chopping up the surface of the water, and down to only one feed break remaining, I asked the crew “How much further to go?”. The answer was not what I was expecting or hoping for. Six kilometres. Six long, painful kilometres, that I would feel through every muscle in my body. At this point, I committed the cardinal sin of looking how far away I was from land, and it broke me ever so slightly. Immediately, I chastised myself for the slip in discipline, and got back to the only thing that would get me to land – left stroke, right stroke, breathe; left stroke, right stroke, breathe.
Wind, chop, and a dose of mental fortitude
At this point, the light began dimming, and I knew that I would be finishing the swim as it had started: in the dark. We changed goggles back to the clear lenses as twilight fell away and the blackness of the night set in. Frustratingly, my goggles were fogging over, with the gauge of distance from the RIB marked only by a few navigational lights. In my confusion, I weaved in and out from the starboard side of the RIB, not knowing whether I was one metre or 10 metres alongside. Eventually, I had a stroke of genius (note: this should have happened much earlier) to simply lick the insides of my goggles, which solved the problem immediately.
We eventually reached the heads of Matapōuri Beach, which was a glorious moment. It marked the start of the end – a mere 700 metres to the finish line. The RIB escorted me to the back of the breakers until it was safe for the RIB to go no further. This was a moment of joy and, mostly, relief, as I swam toward what was both the starting point and ending point for the swim. I swam toward a cluster of headlights and bike-lights shining from the beach; lighthouses guiding the way. My fingers and hands lit up with the bioluminescence in the water with each stroke. It was magical.
Finally, after 45 kilometres of swimming, I touched the sandy bottom of Matapōuri Beach once again. I walked out, slowly, past the waves, with the bright light of the torches held by the crowd to greet me in shining in my face. It was done. I was tired, dizzy, and confused, but satisfied. 13 hours and 20 minutes after first starting, we had successfully completed the first double-crossing of the Poor Knights marathon swim. It was the physical and mental challenge that I had sought, and, more importantly, it was an adventure shared with both the support crew and the wider swimming community.
For that, I will always treasure this as a day to remember.
Sore but satisfied
Support crew, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude: Jacquelyn Schirmer (Observer), Sarah Poplar (Observer, Support), Marcel Loubser (Support), Bill Connor (Pilot), Chris Kidd (Pilot), Cath Connor (Land Support)