In May of 2023, I successfully completed the first crossing from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, a near 100-kilometre effort. But this was more than just a swim - it was a Swim4TheGulf. This is the backstory.
Credit: Joshua McCormack
An idea sprouts
I first wrote about swimming from Great Barrier Island to Auckland in 2019. It was only two months since I had successfully completed a crossing of Cook Strait, and for some reason I had the daring thought that I could be the first in history to complete this route. To put this into perspective, the straight-line course from Great Barrier Island to Takapuna is 85 kilometres, there or thereabouts. In comparison, my tidal-adjusted route of Cook Strait was approximately 26 kilometres. To say there was a gap between the two would be somewhat of an understatement. In looking back, I’m extremely proud of my past self for being so incredibly audacious.
As the saying goes, the seed was planted.
To go about closing the distance between where I was and where I wanted to reach, I continued down the path that I was on, leaning into challenges that scared me. I completed the length of Lake Taupo in 2020, urged on by my fear of completing a swim of that distance. I crossed Foveaux Strait in 2021, driven by the trepidation wrought by the frigid waters and abundant shark population. And in 2022, I completed the first return crossing from Matapouri Beach to the Poor Knights Islands; a backup swim of sorts for a postponed Cook Strait double-crossing attempt. After years building a very solid base, I had no further interim goals and it was time to switch focus to the Great Barrier swim.
But this would be more than just a swim. I wanted to make it bigger than me. I wanted to do the swim for a cause that meant something to me; to create a platform to garner attention and, hopefully, meaningful action. I had seen the degradation of the Hauraki Gulf first-hand, and had become increasingly passionate in my desire to be a voice for the voiceless. It was this ambition that led to a meeting with my swimming friend, Olaf, in the middle of 2022.
Olaf was well connected in the world of marine conservation, and we had previously discussed how we could combine our shared passion of open-water swimming with this cause. The Great Barrier swim felt like the perfect opportunity to bring these two worlds together. I met Olaf for a beer and intimated both the idea for the swim (at this point, Olaf was the only person that I had told other than my wife) and shared my desire to partner with Live Ocean, a marine conservation charity founded by sailors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke. It was both exciting and daunting to put the idea for the swim into the world, albeit in a very controlled manner.
A beautiful partnership develops with Live Ocean / Credit: Gareth Cooke
It was becoming real. The seed was starting to sprout.
One bite at a time
In August of 2022, I met with Sally Patterson from Live Ocean and James Frankham from New Zealand Geographic. Incredibly, both Sally and James were behind the idea and were willing to support with the logistics required. For any swimmers who have put together a significant independent swim, the planning elements and pulling together of equipment required for a multi-day continuous swim can be as arduous as the training. However, more encouraging was the alignment of using the swim to raise awareness for the plight of the Hauraki Gulf.
It was also at this point that the idea of a 100-kilometre swim came into the frame. I had been extremely inspired by the recent efforts of swimming legends like Neil Agius, Sarah Thomas, and Cameron Bellamy – living and breathing pioneers in the world of open-water swimming. Carrying this inspiration, I decided to take the swim to the next level. 100 kilometres had a nice ring to it, and that soon became the target distance. It also scared me to no end, but I knew for that reason that I had to chase after it.
The original route concept, with areas of strong tidal flow roughly highlighted
The audience of the idea, while still very much confidential, had now grown from two to four.
With the idea beginning to grow legs, I now needed to prepare my body and mind for the challenge that lay ahead. How do you prepare for a task of such enormity? The thought of it was daunting. However, as one of my favourite sayings goes, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.” To reach a place where I was suitably prepared, I had to break the training build down into edible portions. There was no blueprint to follow, no book that I could buy or podcast that I could listen to that would give me all the secrets needed to attain my goal – there is only a small group of swimmers across history who have reached the 100-kilometre mark. Being self-coached, I came up with a training program that I saw as suitable based on my research and experience. Largely volume based, it saw my mileage gradually increasing across a 6-month period, reaching a peak of 100-kilometres per week for three weeks before commencing a short taper.
I started the training with gusto in August. A regular week would see me swimming Tuesday to Friday in the pool and then longer swims in the ocean over the weekend. I eventually built up to 10-kilometre swims in the pool on weekday training days, gaining special access to the pool to enter early. As you can imagine, it was a balancing act alongside work. I would wake at 4:30am every morning to arrive at the pool at 5am, exiting the pool at 8am before making my way to the office for the day ahead. Evenings would be consumed by cooking, eating, and stretching before making my way to bed to do it all again the next day. Although the schedule was demanding at times, I kept focused on the end goal.
It was all going fantastically, swimmingly even, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.
I had completed a successful weekend of training, finishing first in the non-wetsuit category in the Rangitoto channel swim on Saturday and backing this up the following day with 26 laps of a one-kilometre buoy course at an event at Mairangi Bay. The wind was blowing in spades on Sunday, adding to the complexity of the swim course. I left the weekend feeling satisfied with my efforts, rounding off a 75-kilometre week. On attempting to back this up with another solid week of training in the pool, my left shoulder had other ideas. There is no simple way to describe the sensation, other than it felt as though my shoulder simply gave up.
Breaching at the finish line of the Rangitoto swim
Initially, I refused to believe that I was injured, instead believing it only to be a short-term niggle that would quickly pass. After weeks of slow improvement, it was clear that professional attention was needed. I booked in with a physiotherapist, who diagnosed me with bursitis. This did not completely ring true and, as it eventuated, it was not a case of bursitis after all.
I remained steadfast that the injury would correct itself in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately, the injury would sit with me for well over two months. As it came to pass, I carried the remnants of the pain, although manageable, until the start line of the swim. One of the most important parts of injury recovery is accepting that you have a problem. Initially, I simply did not want to accept this fact, believing that if I fought against it that I would bounce back quicker. This culminated in an extremely emotional birthday at the start of January, and one which I would sooner forget. With my shoulder recovery seemingly stagnating, I entered deep into the valley of despair. How on earth was I to do this massive swimming challenge if I couldn’t even swim?
While perhaps I couldn’t train the way I wanted to during this time, I adapted my training to doing things that I could. I did so much kick with fins that my phalanges became bruised. I spent hours on end on the stationary bike, lodging six hours during one session until my legs could take no more. I destroyed myself on the assault bike. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
One of the many stationary bike workouts undertaken while injured
In the middle of January, I visited a sonographer to perform an ultrasound on my shoulder. The results were heartening – there was no visible bursitis. This was positive, but the shoulder pain was still evident, and so I left with this diagnosis equally confused and optimistic. At the beginning of February, and with pressure mounting to make a decision to either continue marching forward or postpone the swim for another season, I went out on a limb. I had done a few shorter swim sessions with some pain, but it was manageable and seemed to be dissipating with each week. Now it was time to really put my shoulder to the test. I undertook a 3-hour ocean swim and, surprisingly, my body held up well. We reset the window from the end of March to the end of April and the training resumed.
I now had just over two months to build my body back up for the monumental challenge ahead.
The build resumes
It wasn’t quite as simple as picking up where I had left off with my training plan. I had lost two months of training time and, although I was relatively fit from cross-training in the gym, I had to throw out my original plan and go down a different route entirely. The adjusted program under this second phase saw me undertaking two dryland (strength and conditioning) workouts a week, two pool sessions, and two long ocean swims (or pool swims, if the weather were not suitable). The dryland sessions became critical to my recovery, as I built my body to be robust for both the long training swims and the eventual challenge that was to come.
I also adopted a philosophy that Neil Agius had applied for his previous endeavours, gradually building back-to-back long training swims in the ocean. This saw me build from two 3-hour back-to-back swims over the weekend to, ultimately, three 8-hour back-to-back swims over Easter weekend. Toward the latter stages of the training build, I would often be found swimming at Takapuna beach in the very early hours of the morning, both to avoid the sun and to become accustomed to swimming at night. Over Easter weekend, the final block before the taper commenced, I undertook an 8-hour swim starting at 2am in the morning – after already completing two back-to-back 8-hour pool sessions in the days prior. Prying your fatigued body out of your warm, dry bed at 1am in the morning to enter the cool, dark waters of the ocean, on your own, is not an entirely appealing proposition, no matter how hardy you are. These long training swims were both entirely mental and completely physical.
The start of one of the night swims, with the glow of Auckland city in the backdrop
Naturally, time became a rare currency. Training and recovery consumed up to 40 hours per week on the heaviest training weeks. A normal working week would be somewhere in the region of 50 hours per week, not including the daily commute. This is not to mention the effort required for planning and media as we came closer to the window commencing. As you can imagine, this didn’t leave much time left over for other activities and obligations. Social events fell by the wayside. House errands were squeezed in after long training sessions. Plenty of takeaways were consumed. I’m indebted to Sarah, my wife, for picking up some of the slack during this period.
As with all difficult endeavours, the hardest part of the training build did, eventually, come to pass. At the end of it all, I was proud of myself for staying on the path, and I knew I would thank my past self for it in due course.
It was a relief to finish the training build, although there was still plenty of excitement to come. I entered into a well-earned taper, and with it the media build began.
Out in the world
To achieve the impact and awareness that we were looking for with the now-called “Swim4TheGulf”, there was a body of work that went into engaging with media in the lead-up. My preference traditionally has been to let my actions speak for themselves, undertaking any media interviews that may naturally flow following the successful completion of a swim. This case was quite different, and justifiably so given the cause that the swim challenge supported. Swim4TheGulf was publicly launched at the beginning of April, firstly with Seven Sharp and then with various other media outlets over the weeks that followed in the build to the tide window.
We even got branded caps! / Credit: Gareth Cooke
In short order, the number of people that knew about the swim grew from a few handfuls to an immeasurably higher number. Initially, I had kept the swim secret to protect anybody else from undertaking it first. This risk was no longer apparent at the beginning of April, and so any rational reasons that I had for holding it close to my chest were no longer a barrier. The media exposure provided, as a side effect, a strong accountability structure – it was now very much out there for all to see. The pressure to perform was high, although I tried to ignore this as much as possible.
Radio interviews and TV appearances continued up until the week prior to the tide window commencing, with Live Ocean driving the media push and adding a level of professionalism that I was extremely grateful for and simply could not have realised on my own accord. At the same time, digital billboards went live across Auckland, which was incredibly surreal. There was certainly a buzz building about the swim. I tried to act cool about it, but in reality, the anticipation was getting to me. I had to remind myself of the bigger picture – this swim was about more than me. Coming closer to the window commencing and with one eye firmly on the weather, I put a pause on any further media engagement. My head was all over the place, with the wind forecast changing constantly and anxiety levels increasing.
A digital billboard in Auckland city advertising the swim
The tide window was due to open on the 25th of April, and it was drawing ominously close.
The tide window had been largely pegged around the neap tide, with a day or two added either side as a buffer in case of inclement wind. In reviewing the tidal models in the lead-up, there was no benefit to be gained from the tide during the course of the swim – we would likely encounter at least five tidal cycles throughout the course of the swim, traversing laterally across the first of these, thus neutralizing any advantage as the tide ebbed and flooded both against and with. However, I didn’t fancy swimming against an ebb tide that was rushing well over one knot per hour, as we would likely see on a spring tide. With the tide window set, it was now down to crossing our fingers and toes for the right wind.
I began watching the wind forecast approximately one week prior to the window opening. The agreed governance structure meant that I would make the call on whether to go ahead alongside the co-skippers of the main support craft. With everything else in place, we now only needed the wind to now play ball. Unfortunately, the summer trend of strong tropical winds was to continue into the start of April. The forecast was incredibly fickle. One day it seemed as though the wind may be lining up; the next day this hope was snatched away.
I checked multiple wind forecasts multiple times each day, hoping that my continued attention may somehow influence the outcome. It only served to increase the levels of anxiety I was experiencing. I have written about this in the past, but it bears repeating – the total lack of control that you have around wind conditions aligning is one of the least enjoyable parts of the marathon swimming journey. You can do everything to prepare, but it means very little if Mother Nature does not come to the party. I maintained belief that the swim was meant to happen. I clutched onto optimism for it was all I had.
On Friday the 28th of April, it was becoming clear that the best window may see an attempt starting the following Tuesday. The forecast was dicey, with a window of relatively stable wind up until midnight on Wednesday morning before it turned for the worse. But it was all we had. I couldn’t hold the crew on standby forever – a crew of 16 people who had put their lives somewhat on standby during the course of the tide window. I sat on it for two more days, until Sunday the 30th of April, 48 hours before swim commencement.
It was Sunday morning and I lay on the massage table with my body being worked over, waiting for the call from Dougal and Hamish, the co-skippers of the main support craft. The call came and we talked through the wind forecast to come. It had not changed significantly since Friday – the wind speed was dying down precipitously on Tuesday morning after yet another tropical storm and then picking up with the same levels of fervor, to the detriment, early on Wednesday morning. Winds in excess of 20 knots were forecast for the majority of Wednesday. It was very touch and go.
Knowing that we were unlikely to see conditions more favourable for the remainder of the tide window, I backed my ability to navigate the conditions and gave my “all clear” to move forward. The skippers agreed, and with that the swim was officially a go. I went about hurriedly activating the crew with a planned departure on Monday morning to Great Barrier Island, making call after call after leaving the massage clinic. Fortunately, there was only one casualty in the 16-strong crew, which was able to be backfilled with minimal fuss.
On making the decision to move forward, anxiety almost immediately transformed into excitement. After years of building to this point, the dream of the Swim4TheGulf was soon to become a reality.