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Foveaux Strait, Part Two: The trilogy completed

In 2021, I successfully swam across Foveaux Strait, becoming just the 10th person to do so. This is the story of how it came to be.

Swimming across Foveaux Strait

Before reading on, make sure to read Part One of the Foveaux Strait saga for the full back-story.

The rubber hits the road

Sarah, my dad, and I flew direct into Invercargill the very next morning from Auckland. Sarah had been able to arrange to take two days off work; as a teacher it was both rare and fortunate to be granted leave under such exceptional circumstances. Having been alongside me for Cook Strait and Lake Taupo, it was special to have Sarah there as I undertook the final leg of the New Zealand Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.

Once in Invercargill, we grabbed our rental car, met with some of the other crew members, and completed a few errands around town. This included grabbing a Shark Shield device which was graciously loaned by Chloe Harris, a previously successful Foveaux Strait swimmer. The shark shield device, while not a necessity, offered peace of mind given the abundant population of sharks that Foveaux Strait is renowned for.

Once all errands were finished, we set off toward Bluff – the southernmost town of the South Island and our resting place for the night. While our rental house had a simple interior and looked well lived-in, the setting was exemplary, with sweeping views of Bluff Harbour. There was not much time now until Simon Olliver, an accomplished marathon swimmer in his own right but the independent observer for the purpose of this expedition, would fly in to Invercargill. I drove into town to greet him, yawning every other moment. A nap would have been nice but, unfortunately, tight scheduling did not allow for such a luxury.

That evening, the dozen or so members that made up the support crew began congregating at our rental house to work through the final briefing. For many, it was their first time meeting other members of the crew. It was the first time that I would meet in person the skipper of the main support craft, Rewi, as well as the Oreti Surf Club lifeguards, who would be supporting alongside the main support craft on a rigid inflatable boat. There was excitement in the air, in what would be our first and final gathering prior to the Foveaux Strait crossing attempt. Some of the finer details of the day were yet to be worked through (such as the start time), and so we used this meeting time to agree on the key milestones for the day to come. Rewi offered invaluable advice on tides and other factors, drawing from his rich experience as a cray fisherman in and around Foveaux Strait. We certainly leveraged Rewi's wisdom in piecing together the run-sheet for the swim.

The meeting closed later that evening and the crew disbanded with the intent to meet the following morning before dawn to set off from Bluff Harbour. We were ready to go.

Sleeping woes

Once the crew left, all attention went to getting as much sleep as possible. I tried to sleep that night. I really did. I meditated, took medicine, and counted sheep (forwards and backwards). After tossing and turning for hours, Sarah suggested placing a wet face-towel over my eyes. This did the trick and, fortunately, I was able to get just over three hours of sleep. This may not sound like much, but there was a point where I was preparing myself for taking on the swim with no sleep whatsoever. Fellow marathon swimmers will understand this quandary with painful familiarity.

The next morning, we assembled at just after 5am to begin our journey from Bluff to Stewart Island. The plan had been to build a sufficient buffer to allow for the boat to be loaded without complication. Fortunately, it was a smooth operation. 40 minutes later, we were on our way out of Bluff Harbour, casting out toward Stewart Island in the dark.

We were greeted by the most beautiful sunrise an hour or so into our passage. The colours came on softly at first before blooming into the most beautiful congregation of reds, oranges, and yellows. There was very little wind, with only a slow and rolling south-west swell meandering through. The swell did add a tinge of green to some of the cheeks of the crew, with some losing the contents of their stomachs overboard. Crystallized ginger was a godsend in easing the queasiness, and I took on my fair share.

Sunrise over Foveaux Strait

The start of a beautiful sunrise as we traversed toward Stewart Island

A magical day

There was a boding sense during the transit across that this was going to be a special day. The journey to Saddle Point on Stewart Island, the starting point for the swim, took just under two and a half hours, and so there was adequate time to grease up and ready our equipment once we arrived. Once everything was in order, I jumped onto the rigid inflatable and, without too much ceremony, dropped off the side and into the water off the rocks off Saddle Point. On this swim, unlike Cook Strait, there was no threatening wildlife in the vicinity of the shore and so I was able to take my time to have a quick toilet break and settle into the temperature of the water before we officially started. The water was a cool but comfortable 14 degrees Celsius.

Saddle Point on Stewart Island

Moments away from starting

I touched the shoreline, the official starting whistle blew, and we were off.

I started off well, holding a speed that was teetering on the line of my aerobic threshold. I took care not to over-reach. I knew that I needed to hold that pace for the duration of the swim, and it would have been counter-productive to go too hard at the start. I had been here before so many times in training: Hold the pace, keep the rhythm, swim from feed to feed.

The conditions were perfect, and my body felt incredible. The starting section of the swim was particularly enjoyable. The water warmed slightly as the day progressed, moving to 15 degrees Celsius or so for the bulk of the swim. Currents through the middle of the Strait carried both cold and warm water, interspersed with such frequency that it became difficult to maintain thermoregulation.

In all, there were no concerns with the cold, and I only ever reached a two out of ten on the self-regulated cold scale. I learnt afterwards that the crew intentionally gauged their concerns of hypothermia during a feed break halfway through, and quickly determined that I was not hypothermic given my very lucid (and somewhat overly direct) education around how I preferred my feeds.

A brief encounter with a curious albatross

Large parts of the swim were somewhat “boring”, as it were, although this was not necessarily a bad thing. My training had been sufficient to ensure that controllable elements, such as fitness and cold adaptation, did not add any unplanned difficulty to the swim. Predictably, my body degraded as the swim went on and muscle aches brought on from progressive tearing made it harder to hold the same speed. This is where my mental training came into its own. I held the pace as well as possible regardless of the pain that I was feeling.

At various feed breaks, I would ask the crew for progress reports on distance. At each marker, I was consistently holding a speed of four kilometres per hour, even after more than 20 kilometres of swimming. As the swim progressed, I had a sense that I had a very good chance of breaking the record. True to my competitive nature, I told myself at various parts of the swim that if I could not break the record with conditions as they were that I did not deserve it.

Close encounters

Visibility in the water was near perfect for the entire stretch of Foveaux Strait, and I could see as far as my eyes would allow. Most of the swim passed by without too much of interest to report. At a point halfway or so during the swim, I swam over a group of about 20 sharks, moving in a deliberate and slow spiral formation well below me. This group of sharks were far enough below that I largely felt curiosity over fear – although, I did yell an expletive to the crew in the rigid inflatable as I breathed during a stroke shortly after seeing them. The shark-shield marine repellent device gave me piece of mind in this, and, as an added extra, an unfortunate electric shock to the torso when I swam into it approaching the rigid inflatable during a feed break. The memory of this gathering of sharks spiraling below me is one that I will not easily forget. It was a beautiful moment and I will treasure it as long as I live.

There was apparently also one finned friend that held near the surface apparently 15 metres or so away from where I swam. It did not prove to be a nuisance of any kind. While swimming, I could see the crew standing and pointing at an object in the distance, but I was not concerned with looking as this would have been a break in rhythm. This shark sighting was not mentioned until after the swim, which was tactful.

The trilogy complete

Eventually, after almost eight hours of swimming we found our way to the mainland and the end of the swim. The crew members responsible for navigation had traversed the tidal flows almost perfectly, although we had to cut against the ebbing tide for the last period of the swim, slightly delaying the finish time. The cliffs at the landing point seemed ever so close over that last hour but seemed to take an eternity to come within touching distance. Swimming friend and support crew member Camille jumped in with enthusiasm as a support swimmer for the last hour, and I was happy to have the company. We swam through a flock of hundreds of titi (muttonbird) in the final mile, with the titi swirling around above us and their discharge churning with an equally strong presence in the water beneath us. It was a surreal moment to cap off what had been a surreal day.

A small glimpse of the flock of titi off Bluff Hill

Riding the swell to avoid being washed onto the rocks, I finally touched the shores of the South Island off Bluff Hill to mark the end of the swim. With that, I became the 10th person to cross Foveaux Strait following marathon swimming rules and, in doing so, completed the New Zealand Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. To make it sweeter still, I broke the speed record at the time by more than 30 minutes.

After being hauled onto the main support boat, I celebrated with a half-cup of champagne (the balance was gifted to the ocean), a hot cup of chai tea and a lamb sandwich. The crew was in fantastic spirits, and I basked in the moment as we celebrated our collective achievement. It would be too simple to say that it was just a swim; it was a journey and an adventure shared that I will not forget for the rest of my life.

Standing on a boat in Foveaux Strait

The end of a great adventure

What a day it was. These are the days that we live for.

The support crew to whom I am forever indebted: Rewi Bull, Paula Bull, Reti Bull, Sonia Rahiti, Owen West, Camille Gulick, Timothy Ball, Scott Crosbie, Sarah Pigou, Simon Olliver, Belinda Donaldson, Breanna Ward, Gordon Ridler (behind camera)


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