Mike Cochrane, Rosie Sharman and Kane Orr at 5 am before the Apolima Strait test swim.
The story of the Apolima Strait test swim 2015
Mike Cochrane, Rosie Sharman, Kane Orr
It was the perfect day for a swim and the worst day. We launched off at 5.23 am, off the ferry terminal at Mulfanua. The aim was to swim to Savaii 22.3kms away. Kane and Mike stuck together for the first hour until daylight and Rosie had a boat to herself. Each had kayak support and I was on the kayak for Mike. Kane had a boat to himself too, and Mike was a floater - actually he shared a boat with Rosie but you cannot contain Mike, he's a stronger swimmer than Rosie and he had me by his side.
On Kane's boat was his wife Narelle and Pauline English who swam to Apolima Island the day before. That in itself is a huge feat. Dave Champion, Pauline's husband, was on the kayak for Kane. On Rosie's boat was Scotty Rowlands and the two boatmen with Shane Taivai Paulo on the kayak for her. Mike and I were on our own pushing on ahead with everyone in sight.
The idea for the swim came from Kane. He is training for his swim across the English Channel. I wanted to help him achieve his goal of swimming to Savaii, but I then realised my timing was all wrong. The last thing I wanted to do after a busy Swim Series and Warrior Race was to spend a full day on the water on an inter-island 22km swim.
The swim was meant for Monday 10th August but bad weather meant it was delayed. Mind you, after a torrid week of SSS events a full cancellation was a welcome relief. But I had made a commitment to Kane and I was going to see it through. It was good Mike and Rosie joined the swim.
Finally, the weather forecast looked good for Wednesday. There was to be light winds all day and right through the day. Up to then everything was marginal - I even posited an alternative coastal 22km swim in the event of a full cancellation. But with the good weather forecast for Wednesday, I made the call for the full swim starting at 5 am. I was up at 2 am getting things ready and was at the swim site by 3.30 am. The two support boats arrived at Mulifanua Lodge where Kane and Mike and crew were staying, those were loaded with supplies. Still we were a bit late, starting 20mins behind schedule at 5.23 am.
The morning was perfect, the sea was flat and a perfect day for a swim. The surprising thing was, Rosie led for the first 8 kms of the race. Mike and Kane exited the Mulifanua channel quite wide and lost ground from the start. Soon after daylight when I became useful Mike and I took off, Kane by that stage very early on in the swim had had several jelly fish attacks. He was in some discomfort. Mike also sustained some stinger attacks and felt numb around his face. Rosie seemed to have escaped it all. Kane fell back as Mike and I surged forward to catch Rosie. Mike's feeding schedule was every 20mins or at about 1.5kms intervals.
From the kayak I directed the swim, and often called on Rosie's boat to ferry messages between the three groups. Soon after the start Rosie's boat veered right and was about a good 1km away and heading toward Russia. Several times I signalled over the boat, by raising the paddle high in the air to give instructions to pull Rosie to the left of the Ferry line - they were well to the right of that line. We kept on the left of the ferry line and kept to that until we caught up with Rosie and her crew. She was amazing and was going strong, as was Mike. Several reports back from Kane's boat indicated he too was going ok after the stinger attacks.
At the 8 km mark we caught up to Rosie and passed her. By then too she was finally well left of the ferry line and in line with us. Mike and I pushed on. Conditions were perfect. The sun was already up. To our left was first the island of Manono, then Apolima seemed to have awoken from a long night's slumber as the sun's rays touched her Cone peaks. We were in swim heaven.
Mike and I are on the left of the ferry line.
Mike reported fantastic underwater scenery of schools of tuna darting here and there, stacked several levels high in the water all the way to the surface. There was a lot of surface breaking by the fish and it made for interesting viewing from the kayak - but Mike had the better view. Mike also reported a huge coral shoot and could see the bottom. Later Rosie reported seeing tuna also, and a school of fantastic mantra rays way down below her. There were no signs of sharks.
At 16.5 km and 6 km to go for Mike - 5hrs into the swim we had well passed Apolima island to our left. Salelologa, our destination was clearly visible and it looked like we will finish at around midday. Rosie was swimming strongly and still veering to the right but the message was loud and clear from me that she was to keep to the left of the ferry line. To help that I called over the boat again and insisted on Scotty Rowlands making the calls on the swim and not the boat captain. Scotty was the swim captain and told him he had to make the calls on direction and navigation. He did that well to the end. Kane's boat by this stage was a dot on the horizon behind us.
Savaii ahead was a dark grey landmass with Mt Silisili the highest peak of Samoa way in the distance. From the 10 km mark parallel with Apolima that was an important landmark. We were to stay left of that, at about 11 o'clock from the top of Silisili. Then soon after the two prominent churches on the Salelologa side of the island were also great landmarks. We were to stay well left of those as well. The direct route was to aim for the headland at Tafua and just north of Apolima. That should get us to within the narrow Salelologa ferry channel for the final push to finish at the terminal.
We powered on. Mike was a machine, and I could see Rosie to my right and rear also going strong. Then 5 km to go, and four, we were doing well. The finish was an hour away. My backside was absolutely sore by this stage 6 hrs into the swim. I called over Rosie's boat again and asked the crewman to take over on the kayak. I had wiggled on my seat for the last two hours and I was in danger of falling in the drink. I crawled onto Rosie's boat and then went back to her and Shane. The sea was amazingly flat and I took a video and photos of Rosie and promptly posted them on Facebook to satisfy the curiosity of friends following the swim from around the world. My rest was brief however, we looked over and the crewman had led Mike to the right and wider than Rosie all in a short time. So we shot over and swapped again, this time with the life jacket as seat cushion. I was vulnerable now particularly if I fell in.
Soon after I got back in the kayak and with Salelologa wharf clearly visible, I could see the channel markers too - then the heavens opened and the rain came down. The wind beat up and the waves rose all around us. I could see Rosie's boat behind us about 2 km away but the land ahead disappeared in the rain cloud and we lost all landing reference. Mike and I were now close to the breakers and even from that distance we could not see land. This was a whiteout. I was a bit nervous. The narrow ferry channel was nowhere to be seen. You can see the finish conditions in the photo where Rosie exits the water. This turn of bad weather was not in the forecast. It came as a total surprise to Mike and me. We both had the same weather readings for the day.
Flat conditions for Rosie we can see the finish.
The sea was now rough and the 5 km per hour wind became 25-30 km per hour. As many know the sea outside the ferry terminal channel is ferocious where the reef acts as protector from the prevailing surging current. It was even more so now. But where was the channel? I kept Mike on sight and paddled left to look for the channel. None. Finally I went back to Mike who was swimming amazingly in the swell and he and I had a meeting. We will wait for the 12 pm ferry to go by to see which way it entered the channel. Fortunately we only waited about for about 10 minutes before the ferry came streaming through from Mulifanua / Upolu. It lined up for its approach to Salelologa and entered the channel. We were a good 1 km away from the channel. How quickly we had drifted. I then paddled and Mike swam behind me for 20 minutes to reach the channel. The sea was a heave-ho. Land could not be sighted still but least we had an idea where the channel was, so I thought. We got there and I took a wrong turn thinking this was the channel. I paddled right through the heaviest of swells and breaking blue waves, had my iPone in my shirt, my camera around my neck and I was totally soaked. I was surfing huge breakers with no lifejacket. How I did not fall in can only be put down to divine intervention. Earlier I had remembered my mother, and sang one of her favourite hymns as I was bobbing up and down behind the breakers - Iesu e, Tautai lo'u Va'a - Lord, You be the Pilot!
Now through the breakers I looked behind me and Mike had made it through as well. Only then did I realise that the channel was further to the left about another 200m. Never mind. We are almost there. The rain now also dissipating and the bright orange ferry building is now in view. We have broken through the mist barrier. The finish was only 500m away. There was a reef to negotiate and still rough sees and strong cross winds between us and the ferry terminal. I couldn't see the other two boats behind us now but not for long. To our left and in the channel Kane's boat came through and quickly, meaning he was not swimming. Then Rosie's boat came into view, she was 30mins back but least she also had made it through the channel. Kane's boat came alongside just before we got to the ferry landing and anchored to our right. It was hard paddling that last 200 or so yards. Mike was just behind me. The 2 pm ferry was loading as we made our approach. Finally we were there. Mike touched ground, got out of the water and looked very pleased with himself. And so he should. He had swum 24kms in just over 8 hours. Epic stuff.
End of the swim for Mike, notice the wind effect on the coconut trees.
Sure enough Rosie was 30 minutes exactly behind us and she powered to the finish. Her boat entered the reef 1 km away from the channel. That is where local expertise counts. Rosie's Her total was 26 KMS distance covered, that's because she was wide early on in the swim. Rosie however had the faster swim rate to Mike but Mike and I covered less ground/water to Rosie. This girl is amazing. She is white gold. She touched ground and exited the water to give Mike a big celebratory hug. By then Kane, Narelle, Pauline and Dave scrambled ashore to purchase tickets to catch the 2 pm ferry back. The three of us and our crews meanwhile were celebrating Rosie's achievement with howls of our own to add to the howling wind and rain. This was a Life moment. She had only just swum her longest swim a week before in the 10 km swim. This achievement is amazing and she deserves every accolade. Is she the first woman to swim to Savai'i ? We're trying to find out, but likely she will have that honour of being the first woman to make the crossing and fittingly so.
I was gutted for Kane, his next goal is to swim the English Channel in Aug 2016. This is how these things pan out, it is not all going to go your way all the time. As for Superman Mike, the guy is a Swim god. When things got rough and we were lost, there was no better person to be in the water with than Mike.
Mike and Rosie on the return ferry to Upolu on the same route they had swum a few hours earlier.
After our celebrations I then asked the boats to drop us off at Lusia's where only a week ago we had had lunch after SSS 2. We were back there, soaking wet, but happy and high in our own euphoria. We had beaten the elements.
After our lunch of fish and chips we then taxied over to catch the 4 pm ferry. The ride back was interesting on the same route the swimmers had swum only a few hours earlier. It was rocking and rolling most of the way - This was a truly Jekyll and Hyde experience - and we survived to tell the tale.
(Thanks to Robbie for the title of this piece and borrowing from Dickens for the opening line).
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