Wow. On Thursday, 25 March 2021 I swam Cook Strait – Raukawa Moana. Or rather, she let me cross her. It was an adventurous, hard and humbling swim.
Like so many things in the last year, this swim started with COVID-19. On 25 March 2020, I found myself in the surreal place of having one last swim before New Zealand entered a five week hard lockdown which prohibited all forms of swimming.
Reflecting on my last blog post around that time, this wasn’t a fun time. However as New Zealand got on top of it and regained its freedoms it became clear that for the foreseeable future all adventures and goals would need to be local.
Pre-COVID-19 I had plans to swim the English Channel in July 2021, a swim I had committed to while living in the UK before pushing it out when I decided to return to New Zealand. Post-COVID-19 I knew that I would need to postpone this swim again.
Around the time I made the decision to postpone the Channel, and buoyed by the success of Bre and my tandem Taupō swim, fellow swim buddy Corrina and I started to have conversations along the lines of “Do you think Phil would be up to us trying a tandem of Cook Strait?”.
I think Phil is usually a bit reluctant to take tandems across the Strait as it brings a bunch of additional variables into the mix. (And he might be a bit more reluctant in the future after this swim). But we tested the idea and he didn’t say no. He was supportive of both of us. It was still winter at that stage so we had plenty of time before we had to get serious.
Looking back on the training, I think I got serious about the swim in October/ November. We decided to enter the starship swimathon in Auckland about this time, the first of the big training swims, swimming about 25 km over a 12 hour period.
The swimathon was great for getting back into the long distance but also sowed a couple of doubts. Corrina had trained more over winter and was swimming faster. I thought to myself I need to up my game if we’re going to make this tandem thing work.
We had a good catch up with Phil at some point pre-Christmas. He was upbeat about the swim and told us that we would swim 4kmh pace (quite fast). I remember thinking hmm Phil might need to adjust his expectations of us a little. Accurate or not it gave us a good pace goal for training (probably the intention).
As training progressed and with a repeat of my cram the kms in over the Christmas break strategy, I picked my pace up and started to get in a good space with the training. It was great that through our peak training period in January we were able to hold pace and push one another through our long training swims. We were ready.
The nearly swim
Normally we wouldn’t have had a hope of securing a Cook Strait window. There are so many international swimmers who want to do the swim as part of the ‘Oceans 7’ that windows are booked out far in advance. The few local swimmers usually end up being ‘floaters’, ready to go in case an opportunity comes up second on the tide.
With borders closed and no international swimmers, we were given a window in the middle of summer over the Waitangi long weekend. Perfect. But as this window approached, the reality sunk in that the weather now needed to cooperate with our plans.
You can’t beat Wellington on a good day! The problem is getting the good days. And Wellington is not the Strait!
Quickly it became apparent that the swim would only be possible on one of the days in our window – 7 February. The forecast was looking good until it wasn’t. A late change was for seas to get rough in the afternoon. The swim was off.
After all the excitement, we were now ‘floating’ and faced with the task of maintaining the training in case we got an opportunity. This part was a bit of a chore at times – fitting swims in around work and having no idea when or if we’d get to swim.
Our opportunity finally came on Thursday 25 March, almost two months after our window. Stunning conditions on the Tuesday meant that Phil got two swimmers and boats out on the water – one successfully making the swim. (Another swimmer went out separate to this adding to the action).
While we now had the possibility of swimming in the window, average forecasts lowered expectations and made me very jealous of the Tuesday swimmers. But forecasts can change for the better and that’s what happened.
Phil contacted us on the Wednesday afternoon to let us know that there may be an opportunity the next day. We weren’t allowed to get too excited. Phil and Chris the skipper had to be confident that the forecast would hold and do what it said – that there would be a dying wind.
There was a possibility that the swim would be cancelled Wednesday night, Thursday morning before we left for the marina, at the marina, or once we were actually on the water! If we did swim, Phil warned that the first few hours might be ‘adventurous’. We kept the swim stealth until we were underway with all this uncertainty.
I allowed myself to get excited onboard the Tangaroa heading down the coast from Mana. We had an awesome team ready to help us – support crew John and Tracey, skipper Chris, navigator Ray, and Phil and Cory who would be in the IRB next to us.
Before we knew it we arrived at the start (south of Makara) and were soon being greased up and ferried into shore by IRB. It was a late morning start, with the swim starting around 11am.
Not an ordinary swim
Jumping into the water my immediate thoughts were this water is alive! We swam a short distance against the tide to get to the starting rock and you could feel the power of the water. This wasn’t going to be an ordinary swim.
Sure enough, that first hour was fast. When we stopped to feed we got told that we were flying and had swum 7km. We’d caught a strong tide and a decent swell. I imagined this taking us all the way across the strait and had to remind myself that it never works like that. In fact the tracker shows that we had made much more progress heading south than actually going across the Strait.
When we did slow down we spent some time in a rip swimming more or less on the spot. The water was a bit messy but it never felt like we weren’t making progress. Our flying start wasn’t to last. That was ok.
I started to settle into the swim and found my rhythm swimming next to Corrina. At one point it reminded me of a rather silly training swim we did where we got a friend of ours to swim to the lighthouse in the harbour and ‘be Phil’. He navigated us and Corrina and I focused on swimming alongside him and one another.
As we were heading north the North Island actually looked closer which was a bit disorientating. The conditions also remained swelly and choppy throughout most of the swim. But I didn’t seem to mind either. I remember saying to Corrina and the team we’re in the middle of the Cook Strait right now! – taking in what we were actually doing.
At some point we got a visit from a pod of dolphins which was very exciting. They were quite big and swimming under us. Very cool. Just disappointing that they didn’t hang around too long once they sussed us out.
We were feeding every half an hour, after the first hour. In addition to the all important fuelling, these feeds were an opportunity for Phil and Cory to check in with us, and give us the occasional update on how we were doing. When we got the update that we were half way across I had to adjust my expectations – this was a big swim.
Things coming undone
It started to get late in the day. On the water I could see Phil and Cory putting on their jackets ready for the evening. In the water things weren’t quite right.
I had been starting to pull ahead of Corrina who was also doing a rather rubbish job holding a steady line next to the IRB. I remember trying to analyse this – maybe she’s not looking at the IRB and Phil needs to switch sides… maybe I’ve got faster. I quickly worked out that I hadn’t magically got lots faster. I’ve never known Corrina to feel the cold so it didn’t occur to me that it could be that.
We had a few warm feeds around this time and Phil would have seen more of what was going on from on top of the water.
With the speed difference now slowing me down we had to change tact. I started to do a bit of a zig zag, swimming a short distance away from the IRB and then returning so I would keep my pace up (and keep warm). I think I was prepared to do this all the way to the South Island!
As it got dark and the lights came out we started to get serious Phil. I wasn’t allowed to do my zigzagging anymore and Corrina got some quite serious words about needing to do what Phil told her. It was tough as I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Soon after this she made the call to get out which was the right thing.
At this point we had also got quite close to the Brothers (northern islands in the Strait and about as far north as you can get on a successful swim). Apparently there had been some suspense on the boat as the team worked out the best navigation to take. Before the tide started to slacken they were going to send us between the islands.
Corrina getting out was a bit scary. I think I also felt the cold at this point after the stopping and starting and remember thinking what if that happens to me. I wasn’t afraid of swimming at night though.
Phil told me that I had about a couple of hours to go (I think it might have ended up around three) and that I had to keep doing what I was doing. I remember thinking this is going to be a longer home straight than Taupō but I can manage. (The home straight in my Taupō swim started about 5km out and seemed to go forever).
Putting any fears to one side, once I got into this solo leg of the adventure I was fine. I knew that I wasn’t getting cold when I kept my pace up. The swim had also got a bit easier (as strange as that seems) – we had got that dying wind and all I had to do was focus on swimming next to the IRB. The tide also slackened off and allowed us to turn towards the South Island.
I barely stopped for a break in this last stretch. I think Phil had decided that it was better to keep me swimming. I was mostly ok with this but did find myself starting to think about what I wanted to eat – a sign that I was probably hanging out for the fuel.
Eventually we were 300m from the beach (I actually thought Phil had found a beach when he told me). But I didn’t want to believe we were there until we were actually there. The IRB stopped away from the rocks while I swam in and put two hands on a large rock with a bit of torch light on it.
I had done it. All that was left was the unceremonious haul into the IRB and a return to the big boat.
Our wonderful support crew
After not seeing John and Tracey the whole day, I soon got to see them in full action. Getting changed was a team effort which was very funny. John was on fishing out the clothes and helping with sleeves duty (sleeves are not easy after a long swim!). Tracey meanwhile had multiple towels on hand for me so I had some privacy.
After a very efficient change I was soon bundled up in my dryrobe and blankets next to Corrina on the floor of the boat. Corrina wasn’t too flash after going through the full hypothermia experience but was on the mend by that time. I definitely didn’t have any concerns about hypothermia – I couldn’t stop talking and proceeded to eat almost a whole container of lollies.
The crew had been great at keeping everyone on shore updated on the swim – although they did get a bit distracted after Corrina got out and then lost reception which kept everyone in suspense. Apparently this suspense was added to when the GPS tracker cut out a couple of km from the finish, under the cliffs.
Tracey and John had been scheming with my parents who were on a North Island trip. My parents ended up coming down to Wellington early so they could greet me at the marina which was a lovely surprise.
Corrina had picked up halfway back to the marina and was a bit more normal which was good. We left it a couple of days to catch up properly and exchange stories over a maranui milkshake. While this swim started as a tandem we ended up having two very different and challenging adventures. (She’ll have a bit more drama to share in her blog!)
This has ended up being a long read! There’s quite a bit to try and capture. In the end a big swim is about the journey, not just the day. It’s been incredible and I’m super grateful for Corrina for sharing this journey with me.
A big thanks to Phil, Cory, Chris and Ray and all their experience and expertise for helping make this happen. John and Tracey for going above and beyond as support crew. The fantastic and supportive ocean swimming community, particularly here in Wellington. And special thanks to mum and dad for coming and looking out for me in those few days after the swim.
My time was 12 hours 13 mins. I swam almost 40km in a piece of water that’s 23km at its narrowest.