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The swim that launched a police helicopter

Let me tell you about a story involving me, a very rough swim, and a police helicopter.

A police helicopter hovering above rough waves

It was October 2021, and I was in the training build toward an attempt to swim a double crossing of Cook Strait. The spring wind was howling at 25-30 knots easterly and gusting stronger. In other words, it was perfect conditions for a training swim. If I wanted to prepare to swim a double crossing of Cook Strait, I had to train in anything. When bad conditions came around, I praised the weather gods. When good conditions came around, I praised the weather gods. In ultra-marathon swimming, you have to learn to disassociate your desire from the conditions. You need to be prepared for anything.

I met my good friend Mark Lenaarts, who was training for an attempt of a crossing of Cook Strait that summer, at Mairangi Bay. On meeting in the car park and seeing the conditions for the first time, we both just laughed; that hysterical, knowing laughter. We had been in worse, but the conditions we were about to willingly subject ourselves to were near as wild as they came. The swell was high; the waves were steep and ugly. There was one other car in the car park – a bystander who had seemingly come to simply watch the sea in all her powerful glory.

Mark and I started to get changed into our swimming gear. We disrobed down to our togs, donned cap and goggles, inflated our tow-floats, and started to make our way from the car park to the beach. The lady in the car alongside now realised what we were doing. She opened her window only slightly, so as to not let the rain in, yelling out of the gap: “You’re crazy!”. I’ve had this plenty of times before. It’s became almost a badge of honour. For me, to be acknowledged as going against the grain is reaffirming. Once again, Mark and I simply laughed. We continued our walk down to the water.

Our swim started innocuously enough. We tussled our way out beyond the shore breakers, about 300 metres offshore to be safe that we would not be in the path of a breaking wave once we eventually turned to swim parallel down the coast. Our plan was to swim for about two hours. We started to make our way north. We made it a kilometre or so past the point off Murrays Bay, and then turned around and headed back south. Mark was dealing with a bout of nausea brought on by the conditions and he intimated as much to me. Our training swim would unfortunately need to be cut short.

We made it back in line with Mairangi Bay and started to head into shore, about 45 minutes after casting out. Although my eyesight is less than perfect, I saw clearly enough that there was an ambulance in the car park of Mairangi Bay. I joked to Mark that it was there for him.

As we made our way back to shore through the crashing breakers, a man with a high-vis rain-jacket made his way to our predicted landing spot. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary civilian, but a policeman. In a state of genuine concern, he asked us “Are you guys okay?” as soon as we landed. I thought to myself, why wouldn’t we be? We made the short walk to the car park, where the ambulance was parked, and the story started to unravel.

The lady who we had seen at the start of our swim had watched Mark and I swim through the breakers and past the point. She had seen our tow-floats go from being clearly visible to being no longer visible. Given the conditions, she was concerned for our safety. Extremely concerned, as it happened. She was concerned enough to make an emergency call into the police. A squadron of half-a-dozen police cars raced up and down the coast looking for two lost swimmers. A police helicopter was launched. And two ambulances waited hopefully at Mairangi Bay for any sign of would-be survivors.

Needless to say, Mark and I were deeply embarrassed by the trouble that had been caused. A policeman debriefed both of us after landing and soon after left the scene with ambulances in tow. I’m thankful to the lady who had our best interests in mind, although it wasn’t necessary on that particular day.

The moral of the story? One person’s comfortable is another person’s crazy. Make your own version of comfortable.


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