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Cook Strait, Part One: The journey of a thousand miles

In 2019, I successfully swam across Cook Strait for the first time. There were highs and there were lows. But this is a story not of success and failure - but of becoming.

Cook Strait was the first of the epic, ultra-marathon swims that I had undertaken. For so long, the idea of completing this swim had seemed a distant dream. The journey in the lead-up to that swim, and that single day, changed and shaped me in ways that I could not have anticipated. This is the story of the journey that landed me at that fateful day.

The journey begins

With delicate care, I slowly dragged my body onto the shore of St Heliers beach. Every fibre of my body complained in pain, but I didn’t care. I had done it. I had finished my first ever marathon swim – a grueling 10 kilometres along Auckland’s east coast. If you had placed me on top of Mt Everest at that moment, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was on top of the world.

Reflecting in the days that followed, I thought: If I can do something like this, what else can’t I do? I started research on New Zealand-based swims of a distance longer than 10 kilometres and, one way or another, came across the website for the Cook Strait swim. I had heard of crossing the Cook Strait as a swimming challenge, but it was all still very much unknown to me. I had no network of experienced marathon swimmers to draw on and understand what the logical path would be to a swim of this nature. Naively and in a moment of brashness, I emailed the coordinator for the Cook Strait swim, Philip Rush, stating my intentions to swim the Cook Strait. It was the middle of 2016 and with a date of the 2018/2019 season offered by Philip, there was a considerable wait ahead. At this stage, I had no concept of waiting times, booking protocols, and other nuances that came with creating an agreement with a boat pilot. In October 2016, I paid my deposit. It was a hefty amount of cash to dish forward at the time. With this financial commitment made, I was in.

For a year and a half or so, I didn’t do much to advance my swimming fitness in the pursuit of this epic goal. At the time, I was actively involved in Brazilian jiujitsu with a sprinkling of judo. These two martial arts taught me the value of discipline and created in me an enviable base of mental and physical strength. There is nothing that forces your calm so much as a man weighing 20 kilograms more than you attempting to force your body into an unnatural position through pressure and pain. At the beginning of 2018, I decided to start my training for the Cook Strait with intention, having fully recovered from a broken ankle which I had sustained during a sparring session at jiujitsu. This was it – the start of the journey.

My multi-coloured broken ankle/cankle

I signed up for the Rick Wells swim squad, which was run out of the Olympic Pool in Newmarket. This was the first time that I had swum with a group since I was very young and, even then, it had not been a swimming squad as such (more aptly, it was a group of children learning to swim). Rick told me everything that I needed to buy in preparation for swimming with the squad. I went about purchasing the requisite swim gear with enthusiasm. Up to this point, I had not used paddles before, and I still remember the experience of trying these for the first time. It was certainly an odd sensation.

Initially, I was placed in the slow lane on starting with Rick’s squad. At this stage, I may have been holding a 1:40/100m pace at a generous estimate. I quickly ascended the ranks of the slow lane, and before long I was testing the patience of the lane veterans as I passed by swimmers unceremoniously, bumbling and tripping across trailing feet. Eventually, and thankfully before my poor behaviour resulted in coming to fists, I was given an invitation by the coach to join the fast lane. It was a proud moment for me and also incredibly daunting. I was quite frankly left in the wake of the faster swimmers as they went about their work. I had no choice but to keep up, and it served as a turning point for my swimming speed. If you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people that are better at that thing, whatever it may be, and then give it your all to keep up. You have no choice in that situation but to evolve.

A love-hate relationship forms

Winter soon came, and I knew that I needed to take this opportunity to build my cold-water adaptation. At the time, I had very little experience swimming through winter and none of it had been as a “skins” swimmer. In fact, it was only the end of 2017, not 6 months ago, when I had decided to ditch the wetsuit entirely in an effort to become more familiar with the style of swimming I needed to adopt. I had gathered from Philip that to prepare for swimming the Cook Strait, I needed to focus on 3 key elements: fitness, speed, and cold adaptation. These would be the areas that would either make it or break it for me. While these three areas prove generally true for most swimmers, providing that structure was a godsend for me. I still had very little in the way of a network of experienced marathon swimmers to lean on. I researched and read every forum post that I could, absorbing the lessons of my, unbeknownst to them, online teachers and mentors, attempting to assimilate the wisdom and lessons shared into my own training journey.

I was only swimming 20 kilometres or so per week at this point. The focus on volume would come later. For now, it was all about establishing a base level of fitness, alongside exposure to cold water. Every Saturday, I would start the day with one hour of training with the swim squad. This would then be followed by 90 minutes of jiujitsu and, immediately after, a further two hours of judo. This combination really was fantastic for my endurance. Sunday, however, was exclusively reserved for cold-water swimming. Remuera-based at the time, my swim route of choice was swimming from St Heliers beach to the Tamaki Yacht Club and back; a distance of approximately 6 kilometres. As I neared the beach during my transit down Tamaki Drive, I had a tradition of queuing up “m.A.A.d city” by Kendrick Lamar and blasting it full noise with windows open (I’m sure I gathered more than a few stares). This served as a mental trigger that it was game time. It was the only time that I played this song, and it completely worked. By the time I arrived at St Heliers beach each week to start my swim, I was ready to fly into the ocean.

Every entry into the water during these Sunday winter swims was difficult. Every swim was arduous and at the limits of my capability. Somewhat foolishly, I swam on my own during these weekly Sunday cold-water swims; come rain, shine, or mighty swell. I say foolishly as there was no question that I was beyond moderately hypothermic during each swim. At the time, I had a tradition of taking with me a few bottles of hot water for afterwards – a treat of sorts for when I finished each swim. On exiting the water, I would walk to my car from the beach, open the car, grab the bottles, and have a hot “shower” on the pavement. Each time I finished my weekly cold-water swim, I was a shivering wreck. It took all the energy I could muster to dry myself somewhat with my towel, put on a top layer, and jump into the car with towel wrapped firmly around my waist and togs still on, all of which happened in record time. As I drove my car, music would play at a faster tempo, such was the distortion of my senses. My legs would shake uncontrollably as I made the return drive to my flat. Once I reached home, I would make my way to the shower as my first port of call, where I would stay for the next 20 minutes soaking under its glorious heat until I had returned to a somewhat stable temperature. Fortunately, I have since learnt a thing or two about how best to bring my core back to its preferred temperature.

Each week seemed impossibly difficult, and I both dreaded and looked forward to the following week when I would once again face off against my familiar foe. In retrospect, I grew immeasurably during this time. If you can build into your daily or weekly routine some form of planned hardship and hold discipline around this, I promise you that you will grow.

A new season of focus

Winter came and went, and with the new season it was time to begin the volume build. I met with Philip in a café in Auckland in the early part of Spring. We talked all things from training philosophy to weight building to gear requirements for the Cook Strait swim. I had no concept of the impact of how tides would impact the swim, which was certainly an eye-opening topic of conversation. To highlight the point, Philip took a salt-shaker and pepper shaker and placed them at a distance to each other; props to indicate the North Island and South Island. Marking with his finger an S-shape between the two, he indicated a typical channel swim route. A simple but certainly effective display, and one that I remember to this day.

I soaked as much of his fantastic breadth and depth of knowledge as I could. How far should I swim each week? What weight do I need to be? What should I eat during the swim? Philip challenged my conceptions of what I was capable of, pushing me to target a pace of 4 kilometres per hour, guiding my training to focus on speed alongside endurance. At this point, it seemed like an unachievable task – how on earth would I be able to sustain this pace over an 8-hour or more period? A simple sentence, thrown off-hand in a café, can change forever your perception of what you believe is possible. If you are audacious enough to translate ambition of idea into reality, the potential is almost limitless. The meeting ended with guidance around the tide window that I would be swimming on. In January 2019, I would be taking on the Cook Strait. It was now very real.

Volume ramped up considerably. I went from 25 or so kilometres per week at the end of winter to, eventually, 50 kilometres per week in the lead up to the impending tide window. Weekends were consumed by training; a consistent pattern of swimming, eating, recovery, and napping. I had no energy for social activities. On weekday mornings, I would often find myself dozing at the traffic lights on the way to work after another hard pre-work pool session. Volume was only one part of the formula – eating and recovery consumed as much of my focus. I took extremely seriously my duty to build natural insulation as part of my ability to deal with the cold water that I would inevitably face.

A brilliant shot, which eventually made its way to the NZHerald, taken during an 18-kilometre training swim

My target weight was 7 kilograms above my starting weight, and it proved difficult to take on this additional bulk while swimming large volumes in the heat of summer; a season where your body tends to naturally shed excess weight. Once again, I had no pathway to follow, and so I once again turned to my reliable sources of internet forums and social media. I saw that Ross Edgley was eating substantial amounts of cheesecake in the lead-up to his upcoming swimming adventure, and so I followed suit. I would often sit down and eat entire cheesecakes in one sitting, which would leave me feeling extremely bloated. Truly, a first world problem if there were ever one. Cakes, cookies, pizzas, and muffins were no match for my overly active metabolism. I ate like there was no tomorrow and, in the end, it worked. I reached my target weight.

The over-eating was not without its complications. As my normal diet was topped up with largely unhealthy and sugary foods, I became subject to the energy hills and valleys that follow sugar consumption. Not only this, but inflammation became a familiar companion. I certainly learnt a thing or two. While the natural insulation may be useful for warding off the cold, I would not recommend to anybody to undertake the diet that I did during the build up to the Cook Strait. Not only was I presumably pre-diabetic, but the over-consumption of unhealthy foods also served to harm my holistic preparation and certainly impacted on my training. Based on my personal experience, I would now recommend a balance – a small amount of additional yellow fat is certainly useful, but the greater benefit comes from building brown fat through exposure to cold water alongside building fitness to generate warmth through movement.

With volume, cold adaptation, and speed training proceeding well, it was all coming together. Although I was often in a state of fatigue and low-level muscle pain, I was getting stronger and fitter with each week. I felt as ready as I ever would.

The rubber hits the road

The tide window was now only days away from commencing. Sarah and I drove from Auckland to Whitby, an 8-hour drive or thereabouts, staying with my auntie only a short drive from the intended launching point of Mana Cruising Club. It was clear based on the wind forecast that there was not going to be an opportunity in the first few days of the window, and Philip communicated as much. It was an anxious period of waiting, hoping, and waiting some more. I did not want to put any form of stress on my body and so there was plenty of time spent on the couch during this time. The tide window was 6 or so days in total, and we took it day by day. A call would come through from Philip each day: “Sorry Jono, it’s too strong. We can’t go out. Let’s see how it goes over the next couple of days. I’ll be in touch” There had been no space in my mind for anything but attempting the swim and with each day, the probability reduced more and more.

There was one day left in the tide. I had been watching the wind forecast and refreshing incessantly, attempting to make my own judgement on which way it would swing. The following day looked like it had potential. I received a call from Philip at 9pm in the evening. The news was not what I was hoping for. There remained some doubt around the wind, and the tide was transitioning from a neap tide to a spring tide. The higher volume of water flowing through the channel casted doubt on whether it would be possible to get across without being swept either toward Australia or down the east coast of the South Island. Philip had seen strong swimmers be bullied around Cook Strait on similar days. We ended the call agreeing that the swim attempt would not go ahead.

As simply as that, it was over.

Sarah and I drove back to Auckland the following morning. The water along the west coast as we left the Wellington region was beautifully flat, and the skies had opened to a wonderful summer sun. I was devastated, but I had to trust in the experience of Philip. I would now sit on the first spot of the standby list. If there were two suitable days for swimming on an upcoming tide window, I would be given first preference. Practically speaking, this meant that I was back into a short-phased cycle of training until such time as I received the call beckoning me back.

Waiting, waiting, waiting

The first backup tide window came and went without any opportunity. A swimmer from South Africa, who had flown in specifically for the swim attempt, managed to successfully swim across on a suitably brilliant day. The wind forecast turned for the worse immediately following, with wind speeds reaching up to 45 knots over the coming days. There was a small glimmer of hope at the beginning of the window when Philip had called saying that I may be in for a shot, as he had lost his phone and with it his contacts. Fortunately for the South African swimmer and unfortunately for me, Philip managed to track the swimmer down not long after.

Following this false hail, doubts began to swirl through my mind. Had I trained enough? What if I have overestimated my ability to complete a challenge of this magnitude? Was I truly ready for the cold? Ultimately, failure was not an option. I held firm in my mind that there was no choice but to succeed. I returned to training fervently. The balance between maintaining fitness and recovery was one of the most difficult aspects during this period. The other, most certainly, was the waiting. The anxiety, brought on by the lack of certainty, was unlike anything that I had experienced previously. Preparing mentally or physically for a day that has as high of a chance of falling tomorrow as it does several days in the future is a fool’s game. If there is one thing that I have learnt since it is to, as much as possible, just let go – you can’t control the wind and you can’t control the tides, so there is simply no point in suffering in an attempt to somehow force these factors to your benefit.

The second backup tide window commenced, and I entered a short taper. On the very first day of the tide window, a Monday, the assigned swimmer was given the opportunity to attempt the swim. I watched the tracker intently from the safety of my computer. The swim attempt was unfortunately abandoned within only a few hours of starting, brought on by seasickness leading to hypothermia. Philip called me later that day to let me know that we had the rest of the window left for an attempt if the weather conditions allowed. The following day, the Tuesday, was clearly not suitable for wind and that call was made there and then. Soon enough, it was also clear that neither Wednesday nor Thursday would be suitable, and these days were dismissed as options. Thursday came and the weather forecast for Friday, now the following day, did not look terrible. In fact, based on my limited experience, it appeared that it may just be swimmable. Another bout of nervous waiting ensued. My palms sweated with the anticipation. I was intensely distracted and anxious. To say that there was not much productive work that was happening at this moment in time would have been an understatement. I was moments away from messaging Philip when my phone dialed.

I knew in my heart that this was it. This was the call that I had been waiting for.

Only several hours later, Sarah and I were on our way to the airport for the 9pm flight to Wellington for an attempt of the Cook Strait the following day. A dream that was hatched years earlier was about to become a reality: I was a short sleep away from attempting a crossing of the notoriously treacherous Cook Strait.

Coming soon: Cook Strait, Part Two: A dance with Ruakawa Moana


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