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Foveaux Strait, Part One: A dream brought into reality

In 2021, I successfully swam across Foveaux Strait, becoming just the 10th person to do so. This is the backstory.

Leaning into discomfort

I had not long completed the length of Lake Taupo and the gears of my mind were starting to turn toward the goal of finding the next challenge. At this point, it was clear that I needed to lean into the things that scared me – in intentionally undertaking and subsequently overcoming the things that I was afraid of, I had repeatedly found the highest version of myself. Foveaux Strait was a natural extension of this philosophy. It was also a logical choice, given that it was the last swim in what is known as the New Zealand Triple Crown of Open-water Swimming, a challenge collectively made up of Cook Strait, Lake Taupo, and Foveaux Strait.

Foveaux Strait is known for two things in particular. Firstly, as the body of water that lies between Stewart Island and the southernmost tip of the South Island, it is cold. In the height of summer (as at the time of writing), the average water temperature in Foveaux Strait is around 15 degrees Celsius. Secondly, it has a very abundant population of Great White sharks. Over time, I have come to develop a deep respect for sharks as not only apex predators but also for their vital place in a thriving marine ecosystem. However, prior to taking on Foveaux Strait, like many I still held a high degree of fear of sharks. Jaws, and other depictions that have originated from Hollywood, are to be held largely responsible for this widespread fear.

Great white shark

The Great White shark: An amazing animal

One of these risks I could control and prepare for; the other, I had to accept.

As with all swims that had come before it, I committed to the idea in my journal. This has traditionally been a strong signal of my intent. Once it is in writing, it is extremely likely to come to pass. I now needed a way to transform the idea into reality.

Pulling a dream into existence

It quickly became apparent that there was no piloting association responsible for coordinating swims across Foveaux Strait. If I wanted to swim across Foveaux Strait, I would not only need to train for this swim and the specific challenges presented, but I would also need to drive the logistics. As time passed, I would come to realise that this latter component was almost as much of a time and energy burden as the physical and mental preparedness. To gain an understanding of what was involved, I searched out people who had done the swim before me. There were only a small handful readily contactable with, at the time that my planning commenced, only eight people who had successfully completed the swim in line with marathon swimming rules; the first successful crossing was in 1963 by John Van Leeuwen.

I made contact with two swimmers who had successfully completed a crossing of Foveaux Strait and who had done so relatively recently: Simon Olliver and Chloe Harris. Both swimmers had similarly, through necessity, pulled the logistics of the swim together independently. Both swimmers were also enormously helpful in sharing the wealth of knowledge that they had gained in pulling together the logistical elements of their attempts, and I remain grateful for their generosity to this day.

Through an independent channel, I gained access to the phone number of the boat pilot that Simon and Chloe had used for their swim attempts – an oyster boat skipper who worked in Foveaux Strait as a day-job. Clearly, as an experienced local fisherman, he knew his way around the waters. It was also a significant advantage that there was a skipper who had dealt with swimmers before. This may sound like a given, but it certainly was not when it came to the Foveaux Strait. I called the skipper two times a day for two weeks with no response. It was becoming apparent that finding a pilot would be harder than anticipated.

It was at about this time that I connected with Belinda Donaldson (nee Shields) who had successfully completed a crossing of Foveaux Strait in 1984, becoming only the second woman and third person to do so in history. To say that Belinda was of help would be a significant understatement. In the latter stages of 2020, Belinda sacrificed her personal time to take me on a tiki tour of the deep South, departing from her home in Wanaka all the way to Bluff Hill overlooking Foveaux Strait and all without asking for anything in return. We finished our trip with a serving of blue cod (an abundant delicacy) at the local fish and chip shop. Belinda proudly told the owner of our mission, and the owner promised a free meal if we later returned with success in hand.

First look at Foveaux Strait

Staring down Foveaux Strait, with Stewart Island looming in the background

In the background, I continued to drive efforts to connect with and secure a pilot for the main support boat. I reached out to the skipper of a charter boat, who I maintained contact with for several months and seemed interested until, well, he wasn’t. Although he ultimately pulled away, he graciously connected me with a fisherman who displayed interest and commitment. The fisherman hadn’t a clue about what was involved with a marathon swim, so it was my responsibility to educate him as best as possible. I separately connected with the Oreti Surf Club, who were entirely and completely on board with the idea and showed great enthusiasm for the crossing attempt, offering an IRB and crew as a secondary support craft. The surf club had supported the most recent attempts across Foveaux Strait, which injected a level of experience and, with it, a great deal of confidence.

The pilot dilemma aside, I still needed to figure out many of the other elements involved with pulling an attempt together: the support crew, the weather, the route, and shark protection, to name but a few of the pieces of the puzzle. Ultimately, as I found in bringing the Foveaux Strait attempt together and as I have found since, if you have a strong enough will and you can connect with the right people, anything is possible. All the pieces of this puzzle would, eventually, come together, but not without a few last-minute adjustments to keep things interesting.

Cold, cold, and more cold

I had strategically abandoned my wetsuit in 2018 in the lead-up to Cook Strait, which was the first of the long endurance swims that I had undertaken, in a bid to develop my cold tolerance. Cook Strait is certainly not known for being tepid, but Foveaux Strait is another dimension of cold. In the lead up to Foveaux Strait, I needed to take my levels of cold adaptation to the next level. At the time of preparation, I assumed that I could be subject to a temperature of approximately 12 degrees Celsius for eight hours or so. To put this into context, unconsciousness due to hypothermia is a risk within as little as one hour of being in water with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius.

Effectively, to force the cold adaptation required meant long, ocean swims in the middle of winter. It was brutal, but completely necessary. I remember one training session in particular, I had committed myself to not only a multi-hour winter ocean swim but to also swim the first part in the dark. The rationale here was that there was a chance that I would be starting the Foveaux Strait swim in the dark, and so I needed to be adequately prepared for any conditions.

After being woken by a very early alarm, I drove out to Castor Bay on Auckland’s east coast, in a state of zombie-like stupor, slowly waking while ignoring any thoughts that forecast the reality of what was to come. On making it to Castor Bay and in walking towards the water's edge, the rain was coming into my face directly, such was the force of the wind. It became clear, on making it to the beach, that the conditions were quite extreme. I had a final thought before entering the water, a voice not my own, that told me to stop, turn around, and drive back to my warm, cosy bed. Never was there a more sensible idea.

But I knew that if I wanted to achieve my dream of swimming Foveaux Strait that it would not be from the comfort of my bed.

I turned that voice off, and I walked into the water. Three hours later, in a state of mild hypothermia and somewhat worse for wear after a run-in with a reef, I exited the ocean to complete that training swim. There were many, many occasions such as this in the lead-up, that ultimately hardened, shaped, and prepared me for what was to come.

The quest for cold also meant a new innovation – building my own ice bath from a chest freezer. At the time, the idea of a chest freezer ice bath was still very new within the New Zealand swimming community (or even outside of New Zealand, to my knowledge). I didn’t know of any other swimmers who had tried it before. The motivation came about through a rather practical line of thinking. I was spending significant amounts on bags of party ice, which I would tip into my bath combined with cold tap water. It came to a point where, with the number of ice baths I was undertaking, this was no longer economical.

I researched online and came across the concept of the chest freezer ice bath. After reading a number of different guides and watching many, many videos on Youtube, I decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and purchase my own chest freezer for modification. Through a number of iterations, I finally arrived at the version that I have today. In the final months leading up to Foveaux Strait, with ocean water temperatures in excess of 20 degrees Celsius in Auckland, I found solace in the chilly interior of my chest freezer ice bath. While I received a number of sideways looks at the time, the hours that I invested sitting in my ice bath helped enormously to maintain and improve my cold adaptation and mental resilience.

Dipping in a chest freezer ice bath

One of many ice baths in the lead-up to Foveaux Strait

A dose of COVID-19

It would be remiss of me not to mention the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the intention to swim across Foveaux Strait. Although now, as I write this at the beginning of 2024, we have come to accept COVID-19 as a part of our everyday life, it was not too long in the distant past where New Zealand, either parts of the country or in entirety, would be locked down to stem the rising tide of cases. Similarly, my dream to swim across Foveaux Strait would not be immune from the impacts of this pandemic.

It was Sunday evening, and I was watching a movie at home, winding down before the week to come. Little did I know (I avoid mainstream news, hence my ignorance), but an emergency media conference had been called by then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, breaking the news to New Zealand of a community case in South Auckland. The link to transmission was unknown and so, in precautionary fashion, Auckland was to be moved to Alert Level 3 lockdown as of midnight that night and the rest of the country to Alert Level 2. I became aware of this only through a friend who had contacted my wife. Selfishly, it was the manifestation of my worst nightmares.

This could be the red card that stopped it all.

The tide window for the Foveaux Strait swim attempt was due to start that coming Thursday. Given historical precedent, there was very little chance that the lockdown would be lifted in any form of short order. Anxiety set in, quickly. I messaged Caitlin O’Reilly, another New Zealand marathon swimmer who was coincidentally due to be taking on the Foveaux Strait within the same tide window. She also did not know what to do. My immediate response was resignation to the fact that this event was outside of my control, and that I would ride the tide of this knowing that all the training and careful logistical planning may be put to waste.

I decided to fight that inclination.

At times, it is right to go with the flow and open your sail to whichever way the wind carries you. At other times, it is wiser to force an alternative path. A few friends suggested leaving Auckland. It was a novel idea, but one that I shelved as an extreme measure. I called my father and spoke with him about the myriad of emotions I was subject to as well as the potential idea of fleeing Auckland. He listened well and offered small pieces of advice but did not give clear direction either way. In retrospect, that call was an emotional dump and not much more. It played its part.

I eventually made the decision to leave. Caitlin messaged and said that she, too, was leaving Auckland, which validated my decision. So began a 30-minute period of furiously packing to get everything that was needed, which entailed a great deal of not only equipment required for the swim but also clothing and supplies for the week ahead. My wife Sarah assisted by both gathering my items and setting up accommodation at her grandmother’s place in Cambridge. We threw the bags in my car and, at 9pm, I was on my way, fleeing Auckland and the lockdown that was to come. It was an emotional drive, during which I cried tears of relief and joy. This swim clearly meant more to me than I knew.

The next few days in Cambridge were anxiety ridden. I refreshed the wind forecast about 20 times each day. I contacted the skipper of the boat to get his thoughts on a possible target day. He suggested that coming Wednesday or the following Monday would be best. I thought the coming Thursday may have some potential. The sense of missing out was incredibly strong. Caitlin had all her plans together but, here I was, scrambling and handwringing with no definitive plan in place. Meanwhile, I was also continuing to manage a small team remotely, working 12-hour days while doing so. Manic is one way to describe the state of affairs at that time.

Eventually, I made the call that I would not be pursuing an option in the current week, driven primarily by time pressures. As soon as I gave up on any thought of pulling together a rushed attempt for Wednesday or Thursday, the anxiety that I was experiencing lifted. An attempt the following Monday was much more comfortable, providing adequate time for planning.

Wednesday came, and I watched with eager interest through the day as Caitlin started her swim. The conditions were majestic. I had a twinge of jealousy that perhaps she had nailed the perfect day, and by so doing this had reduced the chances of lightning striking twice. I should have known better that somebody else’s success does not exclude my own, but it is a long and winding road to enlightenment.

Wednesday also brought with it the fabulous news that Auckland would be downgraded to Alert Level 2, after only a few additional cases of COVID-19 surfaced. I packed my bags, said a very big thank you to Sarah’s grandmother, and left Cambridge to return to Auckland on Wednesday evening. It was a light that gave hope that maybe, just maybe, things were starting to turn for the better.

A date with destiny

To my delight, the forecast for Monday was becoming more favourable with each day. Originally forecast for a headwind of 12 knots in the morning and reducing as the day went on, the wind forecast had since improved to 6 knots northerly in the morning and 2 knots variable by midday. This was surely the day we had been waiting for. I made an attempt to contact the boat pilot to lock in a Monday attempt, and I gave the green light to the support crew, who all responded promptly in the affirmative and began making their respective arrangements.

Two days came and went, and there was no response from the boat pilot in spite of numerous attempts. On the eve of undertaking one of the most significant swimming challenges of my life, this was not good. But like a force of nature, I believed with all my heart that this swim was destined to be. Like a force of nature, it could not, would not, be stopped.

I finally heard from the boat pilot on Saturday afternoon, less than two days prior to the planned day for the attempt. He had run into mechanical issues with the boat and would not be able to support my swim attempt. He apologized and provided an alternative contact. Surprisingly, rather than panic, frustration, anger, or all other range of emotions that I could have felt, I experienced peace. There was now only one day to bring this together, but at least there was closure. I called the new boat pilot shortly after. He was onboard without too much of a sell. Fortunately, as a cray fisherman, he was outside of the crayfish season and looking for something to do. As it happened, I certainly had something that he could do! We held a quick-fire education session around all things marathon swimming. He obviously had a strong understanding of the water, with years of experience working on and around the Foveaux Strait.

We signed off the call, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The dream was coming together. It was actually happening.

Coming soon: Foveaux Strait, Part Two: The trilogy completed


Bruce Hopkins
Bruce Hopkins
Jan 15

Brilliant. I really enjoy your style of writing Jono. The story/journey that you portray is one I am in awe of. I have been ocean swimming without a wetsuit all year round in the waitemata for close to 14yrs now. I am also originally a 4th generation rakiurian, stewart islander. Every time I go back to the island I make sure I get in the ocean no matter what time of year, in part to honour that for me, that is my home even though my Ma & Pa moved us north when us kids were very young. However your endeavours, even the 3hr winter session in the hauraki gulf off castor bay, put my adventures into a real perspective.…

Jan 22
Replying to

Rakiura is an amazing part of the country, Bruce. What a fantastic heritage you have. Thank you for your kind words. I love your story around how Ed Hillary inspired you to keep going. We all need a bit of that. Keep going with the swimming! ~J

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