Round Rarontonga Swim
The idea of a circumnavigation #RoundRaro swim had crossed my mind on previous trips to the Cook Islands and promptly been ‘shelved’ as too big of a project. . For me realistic #RoundRaro plans started to form in the middle of the Cook Strait crossing in March 2017 in an IRB with NZ Hall of Fame swimmer Philip Rush and swim coach Chloe Harris in the water. It’s a busy schedule coaching in the UK and running FitandAbel in New Zealand #RealSwim. Philip Rushs advice was… “there will never be a good time, just needed to commit to it and do some consistent work and get the job done”. That advice also included commiting to an English channel swim. It was a daunting prospect but at the same time exciting thinking about the opportunity to complete two different, yet two amazing swims in a relatively short period of time.
For the #RoundRaro swim I would be following in the footsteps of NZ Hall of Fame swimmer Meda McKenzie. She along with Don Carlaw (Cook Islands) are the only two swimmers ever to complete this swim. Meda and Don accomplished their swims in 1985 and both took over 17 hours to complete. The unknown factors (tides, wind, track to follow, marine life etc) made this swim scary and exciting at the same time. Understanding that all money raised from the swim went directly to Autism Cook Islands , provided the motivation to get the job done.
Some background … 7 September 2017 I arrived back in New Zealand after flights London – LA – Auckland – Christchurch and a good 30 hours of travelling. I had seven days to see friends and family, help with summer staff induction, front our summer launch, keep my training going and then get on a plane 14 September and head to the Cook Islands. There was enough time to achieve all of this … just.
I arrived in the Cook Islands ahead of the support team in order to allow a few days to acclimatise. We knew this was important. Air temperatures and water temperatures were well above what I was used to and I also needed time to recover from all the travelling. I had a very focussed summer in London and a successful English Channel swim which was completed under full training load. This gave me confidence the hard work was complete. My priorities were now to keep my body relaxed and to meet as many locals as I could to help increase our understanding of the swim conditions; including speaking with legend Don Carlow, and traditional healer Pa Teuruaa, many vaka paddlers including Cook Islands top paddler Rueben Dearlove, local fishermen and swimmers. Thoughts on currents and the best execution for the swim were divided.
I used the time to get acclimatised to the water with light swims each day. The marine life is unreal at times, we heard humpback whales singing…amazing. I found the water very warm especially compared to England and Christchurch! I was glad we were attempting the swim in early summer season as the water temperatures hadn’t had a chance to heat too much. Even so, I knew hydration during the swim was going to be vital.
The support crew were now all in the Cook islands. . Local fishermen and safety boat operators Rob and Kyle Matheson to pilot our two boats (for safety and also for the tactics – checking conditions ahead on the day), Shannon Saunders from CITC our official observer and the island’s pharmacist, not a bad person to have on board if things go pear shaped. John Beasley of Varo media who was our cameraman and free-diver to ward off unwanted visitors. My coach Chloe Harris and IT/tactical support Mike Cochrane had also arrived from New Zealand. Mike took time off work to travel and support the cause. Like any marathon swim the support team is key. When we met for our full team get together on 16 September I knew we had assembled a gun support team and it gave me confidence.
Research into the swim revealed a number of factors. The warmer water temps 24-26 degrees meant the usual hydration for colder water swims would need to be adjusted. By how much we didn’t know. We had to contend with tidal currents and ocean currents. It’s more common than not to have wind on Rarotonga. Swimming around an Island meant at some point we were going to have these working against us, the challenge was ensuring we got the most wind/current in our favour. The currents themselves are miniscule compared to the English Channel but over the period of time I was expecting to swim this can add up to literally hours and hours of extra swimming. Based on the weather forecasts and the majority of information I sourced from local water people we decided to conduct our swim in the opposite direction to previous swims.
The weather forecasts were constantly changing – no surprises there. We had an OK weather forecast at the start of our swim window and a really good looking forecast on the last day. Rather than putting all our eggs in the basket on the last day we decided to make the most of our early opportunity. The plan was to swim in daylight hours only… but we would have continued in dark if needed. Swimming over and around reefs and dealing with marine life in the dark was not an ideal option.
At 6.15am on Monday 18 September I entered the small beach off Trader Jacks to begin a a clockwise swim of Rarotonga. The first attempt in over 32 years. Joining me in the dark as we prepared were my support crew and my dad (Bruce Big Dog Abel) who flew over to see me swim. I had wind and current in my face which wasn’t too bad for the first 30-60 minutes but then for the next two hours meant that at times I could look down at a rock and count 1,2,3, 4 plus strokes and not have gained ground at all. It was demoralising and at a couple of points I wondered if we had made a mistake. My crew continued to look positive and this gave me confidence in our decision to continue.
The wind and current meant plenty of tiny jellyfish were sent in my direction and I was stung numerous times on the face, arms and torso sometimes simultaneously. Not fun. I saw up to five turtles this leg, the visibility was amazing and a welcome distraction. In the first hour my cap had decided it wasn’t going to stay on today and was annoying. Given the warm water temps I checked it was OK with the crew and then threw it onto the boat. Unfortunately this meant exposing my un-zinc-ed fore-head and scalp to the sun.
As we came around the East side of the Island the swell picked up and some big waves came through. The support crew instructed me to swim along the side of the reef while they sat a little further seaward and monitored the swells. The swells dissipated and the stingers went away but I was still inhibited by current. I had fun riding up and over the swells. Mike reckons they got pretty big. I didn’t notice how big and the team said that the footage taken really doesn’t compare to what we were experiencing. I was focussed on navigating and just swimming.
Finally we started to get some wind up our tail. Mike told me we were coming up on the first passage (channel in/out of the inner reef similar to a rip) I could tell because the visibility in the water decreased. I was a little nervous as well because I knew there was more marine life (sharks) around the channels. I could hear the excitement of my support crew as they saw whales inward of where I was swimming.
I made a conscious effort on the feeds to keep the fluids up. In my English Channel swim I had around 50 – 200ml per feed. Our records show that on this swim I had over 500ml at times. Note that my feed plan separates hydration from ‘fuel’. I’m allowed to take what I want on the hydration while the nutrition portion we monitor a little more tightly. Liquids for all of it for the first five hours in this swim and then my favourites are peaches (thanks Simon Murie of SwimTrek for putting me on to those) and I have soggy day old peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Although these ones were also a little sun-baked and chewy. My observer, Shannon, was also responsible for noting when I urinated as – part of our hydration check. My job was to call out when I was going for a wee, the glamourous side to the swim.
We planned some point to point swimming to ensure we swam the direct line… on the south side of Rarotonga which meant the crew took me out into the deep blue and man was it blue. Amazing. Mind blowing beautiful deep blue where I could relax and feel the wind and swell helping me out. A deserved reward after the smashing on the first leg.
I saw two rays swimming slowly in perfect formation across perfect white sands on the bottom. The image will last with me forever. At times Johnny the cameraman would be in the water or under the water checking my surrounds and shooting footage. Mike also made the odd appearance in the water. At times one boat also disappeared to check currents but I’m also told to go and visit with whales… slightly more interesting swimmers of the ocean than me! At about the six or seven hour mark Dad made a stunning entry with Flynn Price of Raro Watersports the local jet-ski operator. This gave me a lift. I was approaching eight hours and still feeling strong. A good sign, but you just never know so never let the guard down I reckon. I always come back to stroke, technique, feeding and I also work hard to try and appear positive to the team. The energy they then feed back to me is gold.
As we approached the south western side of Rarotonga I started to get wind on my nose. I was confused. A round island swim is so disorientating. You can always see the island but the sun is also in different parts of the sky. I asked the crew about the wind, unbeknown to me an un-forecast northerly component had arrived, at least there weren’t currents to match.
In one feed I came to the boat to find my support crew dressed as Wonder-woman and Spiderman. It’s so crazy what makes the difference in a swim. The support crew take care of the important stuff but they don’t just feed the swimmer with nutrition they feed them with enthusiasm and support, with care and with fun. It makes the difference and the entire crew gave their all.
As we started the final portion of the swim we changed my feed plan slightly and I started to lift. Swim coach Chloe Harris had predicted I would back end the swim and Mike’s data shows that I was able to increase my intensity in the final stages . My stroke rate is always pretty low, starting out around 47/48 in the swim and remaining the in the 50’s when I was working hard.
There was more reef as I swam past the airport, amazing fissures with fish life aplenty. More marine life than I’ve ever seen on a big swim. Support boats started to turn up; vaka (outrigger) paddlers, SUP’ers then Bat woman on a jet ski with Flynn and Dad again and then the crew told me the boiler was in sight. The boiler is a famous land mark, a 100 year old shipwreck off Trader Jacks restaurant and bar our start and finishing spot. In the last 5km we had three to four whales escort us, occasionally breaching and tail flapping which I could not see but the crew enjoyed. I could see emotion on Shannon’s face as we swam the last leg and it lifted me. Then I could hear the drums and saw a crowd gathered at Trader Jacks. A stunning contrast to the subdued start. I had tears in my eyes as I swam to shore. I crawled out of the water to make the swim ‘safe’. I stood. An amazing feeling and I wanted to share it with the crew who had given so much. I met Don Carlow who came to the beach to shake my hand and congratulate me. That was special. Then the Vodka mums from the Hibiscus Coast in Auckland a special group of young ladies on holiday who decided to support the swim. It was so much fun meeting everyone, shaking hands and talking about the swim.
Throughout the day the crew were updating me on the fundraising tally. Fundraising for Autism Cook Islands was special. I had notes from around the world, one on the morning of the swim from a mum whose son has Autism, who had had a particularly tough day. She said my swim had lifted her and her note had lifted me. The message is that if you are affected by Autism you are not alone. And for the people of the Cook Islands you now have funds available to develop your Autism support and education. The swim is complete and will remain in my memory as a special, special day for a long time. You can help me celebrate by giving generously to Autism Cook Islands, thank you so much for all those that already have donated and for all the kind words that came with the donations.
Meitaki maata to Maritime Cook Islands, Cook Island Canoeing Association, Varo Media and CITC Pharmacy, www.bluewater-adventures.com . To my crew Chloe Harris, Mike Cochrane, Rob Matheson, Kyle Matheson, John Beasley, Shannon Saunders, Flynn Price, and my Dad. To my local advisors and all the other wonderful people of the Cook Islands who took an interest and supported us on the day.
Thank you to our RealSwim sponsors for your continued support for Dan on this swim and every other training swim that has lead him here. He wore SwimEars / drank PureSportsNutrition/ used Zoggs Predator goggles/ AloeUp sunscreen / Suunto watch tracked the swim