Story: Open water swimming

Page 3. Major marathon courses

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The best-known marathon courses in New Zealand are Cook Strait, Foveaux Strait and Lake Taupō.

Cook Strait

Cook Strait, 22.5 kilometres across, has always been the biggest challenge because of its treacherous tides and weather patterns. Following the first, and unsuccessful, attempts by R. G. Webster and Lily Copplestone in 1929, various people tried but failed to conquer it. The first successful crossing was made by Barrie Devenport on 20 November 1962. American Lynne Cox was the first woman to cross, on 4 February 1975. The first non-stop double crossing was made by Philip Rush on 13 March 1984. The current time record is held by Casey Glover, who swam the strait on 13 April 2008 in four hours 37 minutes.

Sink or swim

Marathon swimmers often get very hungry, but solid food is not always practical. Barrie Devenport kept himself going on a mixture of vitamins and orange juice from a baby’s bottle on his epic 1962 Cook Strait swim, while Sheryl McLay sipped a mixture of flat lemonade, baby food and glucose during her 1982 crossing. During Perry Cameron's 1972 swim, he drank Complan (a meal replacement drink) and ate a banana. But a newspaper report claimed, incredibly, that he had consumed energy drink, six raw eggs, 12 oranges and two large meat pies.

Foveaux Strait

Wider by 3.2 kilometres and colder than Cook Strait, Foveaux Strait is less often attempted. The first person to swim it was John van Leeuwen on 7 February 1963. The first woman to cross was Meda McKenzie on 20 March 1979. The speed record is held by Chloe Harris, who set a time of 8 hours 30 minutes 5 seconds on 1 February 2016.

Lake Taupō

The first person to swim across Lake Taupō, a course of 40.2 kilometres, was Margaret Sweeney on 30 January 1955. The first double crossing was made by Philip Rush on 14–15 January 1985. He also holds the time record of 10 hours 14 minutes 58 seconds, set on 10 March 1985.


Some marathon swimmers experienced many failures before succeeding on a course. A classic example is Sandra Blewett, who attempted Cook Strait five times before conquering it in 1984. She credited her eventual success to sheer persistence, saying ‘I just kept plugging along.’ 1

  1. ‘Sandra’s swim was full of woe, but she’ll be back.’ Evening Post, 29 March 1984, p. 7. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Open water swimming - Major marathon courses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 September 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Feb 2016