The earliest known open water swim in New Zealand was that of Hinepoupou, a woman of the Ngāti Kuia tribe, who lived in the mid-18th century.
Early one morning her husband and his brother set off by canoe from Kāpiti Island, off the south-west of the North Island, to Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville) Island in the Marlborough Sounds, abandoning Hinepoupou. Bravely, she decided to swim across Raukawa (Cook Strait) to her father’s home on Rangitoto. She took advantage of the tides, and she rested on rocks and islands along the way. On the way she was accompanied by a guardian dolphin, which Ngāti Kuia called Kaikaiawaro, though other traditions believed it was called Kahurangi. The swim took her three days. After arriving safely, Hinepoupou planned revenge on her husband and his brother. They were taken by her father to a fishing ground she had discovered on her swim. While they were busy fishing, Hinepoupou said a karakia (incantation). A storm came up and her husband and his brother drowned.
In the wake of Hinepoupou
In 1990, six swimmers, including former Cook Strait conquerors Philip Rush, Donna Bouzaid, Karen Bisley and Perry Cameron, as well as Christine Harris and Kaine Thompson, retraced the likely course of Hinepoupou’s legendary swim as a relay. It took four days for the team to complete the swim. Keeping to the route was made particularly difficult by the strait’s notoriously complex tides.
Swimming for dear life
On occasion open water swimming could be a matter of life or death. In 1831 Whakarua-tapu of Ngāi Tahu was a captive on a canoe of the Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha. As the canoe neared the North Island he leapt overboard and swam back to the South Island.
At Gallipoli in 1915, during the First World War, the future governor-general, Bernard Freyberg, heroically swam ashore from a troopship to light diversionary flares at Bulair. He won a medal for this feat of stamina, foreshadowed a few years earlier when he had swum 22.5 kilometres along New Zealand’s Waihou River.
Open water distance swimming in New Zealand as a sport dates from the early 20th century, but it was especially popular from the 1960s to the 1980s. There have been solo and group attempts on major courses, such as Cook Strait, and competitions between a number of swimmers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s national open water competitions involved a series of events around the country. In the early 2000s regular open water swims were held by the New Zealand Masters Swimming Association.