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.
Before reading on, make sure to read Part One of the Cook Strait saga for the full back-story.
The day begins
After a surprisingly good sleep, Sarah and I woke at about 6:30am to prepare for the day ahead. I started the day with the same meal that I had taken down on many occasions prior: a bowl of oats with a large side of beetroot juice. Without much further fuss, we packed our things and left the house. The meeting point for our departure, the Mana Cruising Club, was only a short drive away from our accommodation in Whitby. When we arrived, Philip was looking slightly worse for wear after sleeping an estimated 4 hours. The day prior, he had escorted swimmer Caitlin O’Reilly across the 40-kilometre journey of Lake Taupo, driving down to Wellington immediately after. Ultra-marathon swimming can be an arduous sport for all involved.
Philip invited us onboard the Tangaroa, the legendary escort boat on which most of the history of the swim has been built, and we waited as skipper Chris calculated the best time for the swim start. Without mincing words, Philip warned me that the forecast had unfortunately worsened, with winds expected to reach 25 knots in the early part of the day before calming off to 10 knots by the evening. Philip intimated, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to get “a pasting” to start off with. I couldn’t say I felt reassured, but I certainly felt up for the challenge.
We set off from the marina shortly after towards Ohau Point – the starting point for the swim. Even at this early stage as we made our way down the coast, I had a strong sense that the water was alive in a way that I had not experienced before. I may have given the appearance of calm on the outside, but inside I could feel the steady build of nerves as we built toward the crescendo of the start. During our journey down the coast, a large pod of dolphins stampeded past the boat, swimming toward Mana Island and away from the direction that we were heading. Unfortunately, I missed the display as I pre-occupied myself with relieving my nerves in the water-closet of the boat.
A dose of sea lion garnished with a sprinkling of swell
We eventually arrived at Ohau Point, with the turbines of the windfarm on the hills whirring away in the background. This would be the start point for the Cook Strait swim. It was becoming very real at this stage. Philip instructed me to ready my cap and goggles in preparation to be greased up with copious amounts of petroleum jelly. He was certainly not shy in applying the lubricant. Without ceremony, I clambered onto the inflatable rescue boat (IRB) off the back of the launch and, soon enough, we were on our way toward the start point. I pre-warned Philip that I’d need to take a quick toilet break in the water before we officially started the swim, which he graciously agreed to.
A final stare-down with the South Island in the hazy distance
This was it. Months, years of preparation were about to come to a head. I was instructed by Philip to disembark from the IRB and swim toward the rock which would mark the start point for the swim. I asked, “you mean the rock with the seal on it?”, to which Philip responded absent-mindedly “yea, yea”. I was soon told at some point on my way that this was, in fact, not the correct rock and new bearings were provided. I stopped at the chosen rock and started to prepare myself for a quick toilet break before we set off. Unfortunately, that was disturbed before processions could begin. Soon enough, both Sarah and Philip were yelling at me “Go, go, go! The seal is chasing you!”. Our not-so friendly seal on the rock (a sea lion, as it happened) had indeed slid off his rock and was heading directly for me; I assume to usher me in no uncertain terms away from his territory. The beckoning of my bladder would have to wait. I touched the rock, and I was officially off.
The first 10 minutes or so were reasonably processional – there was chop, but it was neither here nor there. I swam through a thick soup of salp, and moon jellyfish hovered beside and below me as I swam by. Even at this early stage, I could feel the power of the ocean, and it was removed from anything that I had experienced before.
The moderate conditions were not to last.
As we moved further into the channel and away from the safety of the landmass, we became exposed to the full force of the wind and swell. The swell reached heights of two to three metres. On more than one occasion, I was forced into an impromptu backstroke roll as waves crashed over me. My cap was battered off my head with each wave, to the point that it was eventually held on only by the straps on my goggles. Sarah, who was acting as support on the IRB, has often reminisced since on this part of the swim, likening it to a scene from a shipwreck movie. My lasting regret is that there is no video or photo evidence of this period.
The first feed at the hour mark came soon enough, and it was a balancing act to say the least to take on food and fluid while the swell charged through. I stripped my cap off entirely and threw it back onto the boat. Phil told me at that stage that I had already travelled more than six kilometres. I can assure you that, as much as I would like to be, I am not a swimmer capable of reaching that speed naturally. The tide was certainly in our favour.
Doubts naturally surfaced at this stage. Although I had deliberately put myself in harm’s way during my training, I had not prepared for swell of this size. This slice of sea was so immensely different to any I had ever been in. I was truly experiencing a full sense of the power of the ocean. I did my best to dispel any of the doubts that crossed my mind, pushing them back and focusing instead on the elements in my control: stroke left, stroke right, breathe. There is no sense in giving the limelight to any negative thoughts which force their way forward during times such as these.
All choked up
One might have thought that the rough conditions would be suitable enough entertainment. Somebody watching must have thought otherwise. At the 90-minute mark, a new spanner was thrown into the fray. While swimming, I could see that Philip was battling against the outboard motor on the IRB. It would be enlivened only to die off shortly after. Philip tried and tried and tried again; however, every time the motor reached an idling pace it would die off. The swim was brought to a halt and a short meeting held to determine the fate of the swim, with skipper Chris convening with Philip off the side of the Tangaroa as the launch heaved with the swell. I could do nothing but await my fate as I bobbed in the water.
The swim was whiskers away from being called.
Philip lobbied my case – we had already covered a considerable distance in a short period and the swim was proceeding, well, swimmingly. Chris suggested that Philip run the IRB motor at full pace to clear the motor. We held a quick conversation on how this would work in practice, as I continued to bob away in the water. I would swim with the swell directly on my hip, while the IRB would track large circles around me, coming back to my position as often as possible. All of this was taking place against the backdrop of considerable wind and swell. I followed the instruction of keeping the swell on my hip to the best of my ability and, remarkably, this worked very effectively. Every minute or so, Philip and Sarah would come charging back through in the IRB on my left side, with Philip extending his arm, symbolic of an arrow, reinforcing the direction to swim. We continued like this for the next 30 minutes, as I effectively swam alone in the middle of a very rough Cook Strait.
At 2 hours, the wind started to reduce, as did the size of the swell. I felt a slight cooling in my head and asked for my cap, slapping it somewhat off-kilter in a hurry to recommence the swim. Much to our delight, the outboard motor also returned to stability and was able to hold a sustainable idling pace alongside.
A glimmer of hope
The swim was largely uneventful for the next phase. I did face some slight problems with the feeding, not least of which was brought about by an entirely unsuitable feeding plan. The jellybeans that I had integrated proved very difficult to chew, even when softened in warm water. My feeding plan, which has fortunately been iterated on a few times since, included Powerade, jellybeans, Snickers bites, muesli bars, and bananas. An interesting mix if there were ever one, and one that I am sure will bring some amusement to the more experienced marathon swimmers reading this.
Soon enough, during a subsequent feeding break, Philip announced that we had less than 10 kilometres to go. I asked the time, to which Philip responded that we had been swimming for just over three and a half hours. I grinned, saying that wasn’t too bad at all. Philip told me, in no uncertain terms, to “stop smiling and just get on with it again already!”. At this stage, I chanced a look at where we were heading. This was my first look at the South Island since before boarding the IRB at the start of the swim. I had intentionally not looked before this point for reasons of psychological protection. The land felt irresistibly close. Cramp started coming on in my triceps and my stroke shortened up. Philip was mimicking an extended stroke from the safety of the IRB, guiding me to keep my pull long. Pain was a constant friend.
Pain also began building in my lower back at this time, which would remain with me for the remainder of the swim. To assist with counteracting the pain, Philip handed over two mysterious green anti-inflammatory pills, with one of them falling out of my mouth as I tried to take it down in the choppy waters. Sarah had been an absolute star throughout, dealing with the conditions without fuss. However, the rough waters combined with the chicken wrap that she had consumed combined to cause a disagreement with her stomach, and she ended up releasing the contents into the waters of the Strait (and, as it happened, into the path of my swimming).
The final push
The wind continued to ease off as we reached closer to the South Island. It seemed ever within reach, yet the landmarks seemed to be perpetually in the distance. The sun started to break through the clouds, beckoning me into the finish. Coming closer to the South Island, I could feel the water temperature drop noticeably. Freediver William Trubridge, who was attempting to swim the Cook Strait underwater with the assistance of neoprene and fins, later described the temperatures toward the end of the swim as “mercilessly cold”, recording a fresh 14 degrees Celsius on his watch. With only four kilometres to go, Philip pushed me hard for the final stretch. The encouragement from the IRB was lively and effective, with plenty of whistling, clapping and active directional gestures. I am sure that this will be familiar to any other swimmers who have had Philip as support.
Approaching the South Island, with the Tangaroa lurking in the background
It now felt as though we were very close to the finish point. And, this time, it turned out we were. I hadn’t been actively sighting so didn’t have a good grasp on the remaining distance. At a point, I popped my head up and Philip instructed me to go ahead and touch “that rock”. It confused me slightly because, in my mind, I thought I was swimming for a beachhead of some kind. I swam to the rocky shore, grabbed a fistful of thick kelp as the swell rolled through, and swiped at the closest rock. With that, the swim was complete.
Philip gestured me back and I started to swim back toward the IRB. For good measure, and to make sure there were no hand signals or secret passwords to officially mark the end, I shouted “is that it then?”, to which Philip responded in the affirmative. I slapped the water with my hands in a mark of celebration and swam the final distance back to the IRB. Exhausted, I was hauled onboard in a less than graceful manner, but I didn’t care. I was in the boat, and it was done. I had officially swum the Cook Strait. Much to my surprise, I had completed the swim in a time of 6 hours 22 minutes – one of the top 10 fastest times.
Once we arrived back on the Tangaroa, I wiped as much of the residual grease as possible from my body and cycled into my designated after-swim clothes. A hot pie and cold beer were the celebratory meal of the moment, and it could not have been more fitting.
One final surprise
Before long, we had returned to the Mana Cruising Club. We thanked Philip and the support crew and said our farewells. In the car ride back to our accommodation, I half-choked on a Pineapple Lump (a Kiwi delicacy of sorts), which brought on a fit of uncontrollable coughing. My lower back gave me high levels of unfamiliar pain with each cough, but I battled on with the expectation that this was normal post-swim muscular discomfort.
When we arrived back to our accommodation, I soon realised that the pain wasn’t actually concentrated in my lower back but rather my kidneys. This was made clear by the colour of my pee, which was anything but clear; rather, it was a deep shade of red. It was a disconcerting experience to say the least. Needless to say, I drank copious amounts of water that night to try and clear the extreme dehydration that I had obviously subjected my body to. In retrospect, this was all too clear, as I had ingested a substantial amount of sea water without taking in similarly generous amounts of planned fluids through the course of the swim. Fortunately, the colour of my pee returned to normal without any further harm nor foul by the following morning.
On the bus ride up country to Taupo the following day (I was set to run a 10-kilometre distance as part of a relay team later that day), I finally gave myself a chance to reflect on what I had achieved. In 2016 I set my mind to this goal and here I was three years later, following a significant amount of training and sacrifice, having achieved it. I had gone out and accomplished what I had set out to do. It was not easy – it was by far the toughest physical and psychological challenge I had taken on at that point in my life. I let the emotions run, and tears ran down my face as it all hit home. I had completed this amazing swim, and what an adventure it was. I will never be the same person that started on this journey. You can’t do something like this and not have it change you.
I’ll end with this because it is important to say. No matter how well prepared you are, the Strait decides who passes. I was fortunate enough on this day that she let me pass through. I will be forever grateful for this.