Open water distance swimming differs from other swimming competitions. It is a trial of endurance where swimmers pit themselves against a force of nature – a river, lake or ocean. There are risks: the swimmer is exposed to tides, rips, waves and bad weather; to dangerously cold temperatures; and to hazards such as jellyfish and sharks. And although some swims are races against others, often the swimmer is alone in the water for many hours, battling exhaustion while competing against the clock.
To be successful, open water swimmers must be able to withstand hours in very cold temperatures. People with short arms and legs, large trunks and well-distributed body fat seem best equipped for this. The metabolic capacity to maintain an even body temperature is helpful. Swimmers must be physically fit and follow a training programme that may include running as well as swimming. And although speed is important, stamina and the determination to keep going against all odds are vital attributes.
Open water swimming is an international sport governed by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA). Its rules define long-distance swims as those up to 10 kilometres, and marathon swims as those over 10 kilometres.
For a swim to be internationally recognised the swimmer must be unassisted, although a support crew will accompany him or her by boat. Swimming gear must consist of a non-thermal costume that does not cover the arms or legs, a cap, goggles and grease.
Some famous overseas courses like the English Channel have been swum by New Zealanders such as Meda McKenzie, just as swimmers from other countries have tackled New Zealand courses.
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 Kapiti Island, off the west coast 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 1990, six swimmers, including former Cook Strait champions Philip Rush, Donna Bouzaid, Karen Bisley and Perry Cameron, and 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.
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 swam 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.
The best-known marathon courses in New Zealand are Cook Strait, Foveaux Strait and Lake Taupō.
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.
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.
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.
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
Baldwin, Olive. A great New Zealand adventure, 1990: retracing the legendary swim by Hinepoupou from Kapiti Island, across Cook Strait to D’Urville Island via the outer Marlborough Sounds. Paraparaumu: Fields, 1990.
Bisley, Karen. ‘Physiology of cold water immersion in marathon swimmers – a literature review.’ New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine 27, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 36–40.
Dean, Penny Lee. Open water swimming: a complete guide for distance swimmers and triathletes. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 1998.
MacIntyre, David. Cook’s wild strait: the interisland story. Wellington: Reed, 1983.
Focusing mainly on the English Channel course, this website has useful definitions, rules and some background information on long-distance swimming.
This site provides information for those who want to attempt a Cook Strait swim. It includes a full list of people who have completed the crossing, and information on recent swims.
This website of the Fédération Internationale de Natation includes some useful definitions relating to open water swimming, and also lists international events.
This is the website of the New Zealand Masters Swimming Inc., the organisation for ‘past age-group champions and non-competitive swimmers’. It lists a number of competitive open water swimming events.
The New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame site links to short biographies of Barrie Devenport, Meda McKenzie and Phillip Rush, who are all inductees.