Health and Fitness News

NZMS Swimmer attempts Cook Strait

Mike Bodger, NZMS Secretary and Masters Swimmer's desire was to be the oldest person to swim across Cook Strait
Support crew member Kirsten Cameron exclusively documents the event for masters swimmers to read.

The Background

One day, between the 6th and 11th February 2010, Mike Bodger was to make an attempt to swim Cook Strait.  He had booked his swim 3 years ago with Philip Rush (Philip Rush is a two time double Strait crosser and a triple English Channel crosser and an ideal individual to have as a guide and main supporter.  Phil works closely with a highly qualified navigator and in tandem allow for the best probability of success possible. on the understanding that he would wait until he was 60 years old. This occurred on 15th December 2009.  Mike had entertained the notion of a Cook Strait swim for more than a decade when he first started competing in open water swims in Canterbury. Competing twice in 2003 and 2007 in the annual Whale Island to Whakatane swim of 10km and obtaining two second places gave him the confidence to try longer swims.

Since March 2009 Mike has been in training and gradually increasing his weekly mileage (still a word that is meaningful in today’s metric world).  A training log was started on Monday 18th May and within the first 27 weeks (swimming 6 days/week) he swam 748km, averaging 28km/week; highest was 40km, lowest 12km.  As part of the preparation he also had a number of sea swims without a wetsuit, one of 3km in Nelson in October in a sea temperature of 9oC; where he was quoted as saying “it took at least 5 minutes for my feet and face to stop hurting”.  He now can swim comfortably in 14 -16oC in the sea without a wetsuit.

The Day

Over the past week the “Cameron” household has become so-called experts on weather and tides.  All day every day we have been checking the Met Service and discussing intently the possible implications of every isobar on that fabulously unpredictable stretch of water called Cook Strait.  However, after the glorious day on Saturday, 6th February weather conditions were not being ‘quite right’ for a good swim, we had rapidly come to the conclusion we knew nothing about the weather!

At around 7.30pm on Monday 8tth February, Mikes’ mobile phone rings and like every other night since his “window of opportunity” began, we all jumped.  But this time Mike picks it up and says, “your name’s Phil and I’m off.”  This time the response was “yes, be at Mana Cruising Club (a 20 minute drive north of Wellington) between 4.30am and 4.45am tomorrow morning.”

We were on!  The packing and preparation began, honey sandwiches for energy, mixing up the drinks, the warm clothes, all the comforts that us poor sods were going to need on the support boat.  At some point, probably far later than was ideal we got to bed for something that didn’t resemble a good nights sleep.

At 3.45am the alarm goes off, we’re all up, bags in the car and we head off to Mana.  It was a completely calm morning, a bit nippy, but apparently it usually is at that hour!

Once at Mana we waited anxiously for Phil Rush and the crew to arrive.  The crew consisted of Chris whose boat it was, Byron who co skippered and plotted the map, Phil of course, and Paul who was to be Phil’s sidekick on the IRB[2].  Supporters were Mike’s partner Keith, Mike’s brother Pat and me.

We got all the gear loaded onto the boat and we were off, motoring out of Mana and heading down to the Strait.  It was just getting light and the sea was so calm.  Not a breath of wind.  We poked our noses out and Chris and Byron decided a South to North swim was best, so over the Strait we went to Perano head on Arapawa Island.  We arrived there at around 7am – about 90 minutes by boat. The sun was up by now and the sea was like glass, with a wide southerly swell drifting by, about half a metre – the height that a swimmer would barely notice.

So then it was time to get those sexy leopard print togs on!  And just to clarify, they are Brazilian Fabiola MoliniFabiola Molini togs, not Speedos.image002

The Challenge

Before we knew it, Mike says cheerio (not even time to give him a huge hug and kiss much to my disappointment!) and he leaps into the IRB, nearly over shooting it in his eagerness to start swimming.

The IRB shoots over to the cliffs, and Mike is thrown over the side of the IRB into the sea. He swims over to the cliff, touches it and he’s off!  By now those of us left on the boat were just bloody hungry so as soon as Mike was on his way, it was breakfast, and then to contemplate what we were going to do for the rest of the day!

Mike started off swimming really straight.  His stroke looked good, long and strong and he was moving well.  The tide was not pulling him down towards Tory Channel as they would have expected, which is a good thing on one hand, but as it turned out was not so great as when the tide went the other way so much more strongly he drifted too far north.

It was really just so lovely out there.  A bit nippy still – the water was 15.1oC, just glassy with a lazy swell.  The sun burnt off the clouds by around 10am and it started to warm up for those of us on the boat – the water however remained around 15 degrees, although Mike didn’t really notice it.

I had contemplated going for a swim – out the other side of the boat of course!  But I tell you what, if I wasn’t sure that Cook Strait was too cold for me to swim in before this, I am more than certain now!  I actually didn’t take my polar fleece jacket off all day, and I had two woollen tops on under it.


For us on the boat there actually wasn’t a lot to do, there was just enough movement to make doing anything a wee bit of a challenge – especially if you were a little afraid of getting sea sick – little did we know what was to come!

By lunchtime Mike was more or less halfway, and the wind was just starting to pick up.  Nothing too dramatic but we were just aware of it and unsure as to how much it would pick up.  In the midst of the afternoon shift (i.e. having a wee catnap out the back of the boat in the sun) we were rudely awakened by a chopper – TV3TV3 had come to visit!  To view the news article Click here to hear the TV3 interview with MikeClick here to hear the TV3 interview with Mike

The TV crew was a real boost to everyone’s morale.  At this point the wind was much getting much stronger and there were quite a few whitecaps forming, but finding out that he only had 8km to go, we felt really confident that it was all looking great.  Mike was still in great spirits, smiling, completely lucid, enjoying his honey sandwiches, although his stroke had slowed a wee bit.

Then within the hour things had changed completely. The wind had got up to a 25knot northerly, and the swell to a 2m southerly.  Combine the two and it was a complete washing machine out there.  One of the radio stations asked Keith what was hard about the day so far.  He said, “Hanging on.”

We had to back the boat right away from Mike, as it was getting too dangerous for us to get too close.  We had battened down the hatches well and truly and began to just move up and down behind him.  Chris would say, “Ok hang on we are going around again.” And we would take this wide circle battling the waves – up and down, up and down, then a brief respite as we went in a line for a while back down past him, then around we would go and come back up again.

We were still pretty confident he could do it at this stage as the tide was starting to change so we were hoping in the eddy he would get through enough distance to get him close enough to make the last dash.  However the tide turned quickly and started pulling really fast.  By 3pm when Byron took his position, he hadn’t moved forward enough and was being dragged north.

We crossed our fingers as best we could while we were hanging on, and willed Mike on.  Next position was no better, in fact he was now moving due north.  At 4pm Phil told Mike there was a bit of a problem, and after that we felt he had picked up.  But the tide was moving way faster and he was going still further north. With the curve of the coast he went from being 5km away from shore to being 7km away.  Pat and I discussed seriously telling him to swim to Mana – he was heading that way anyway!  At worst he could always hang around Mana Island on the tides for three days like “whatshisname” Hewitt!

We looked at when the next tide change was due. Three hours away!  That would mean Mike had to battle on for another three hours in the hope that when the tide turned he could make a break.  But who knows where he would be by that point, not to mention how much energy he would have left after battling the waves, winds and tides.

The Outcome

Around 5pm, Phil put it to Mike.  He wasn’t too cold, he wasn’t sick, he was just exhausted, to keep battling for another three hours – it wasn’t going to happen.  He said he was coming in.

They pulled Mike into the IRB remarkably easily and back to the boat.  Getting from the IRB to the boat also went remarkably smoothly as it could seriously have been a problem.  He still managed a smile as he came on board.  First thing was to get some warm clothes on him.  Mike had to sit down for a minute and then he started vomiting.  After 9 ½ hours in the water, it would have been very difficult to suddenly be sitting upright on a boat in a heavy swell, so he was brought inside and wrapped up warmly in blankets.

Mike went straight to sleep, flat on his back snoring, while we headed back to Mana – a trip that took the best part of two hours.  By then we were all craving for land.  It was amazing how calm the sea was further north, then before we knew it, we were back, with the TV1 crew and DomPost (Wellington newspaper) waiting for him.

After some chocolate biscuits and back into the togs for some photo shoots, we eventually got away and were home at about 8.30pm with fish and chips for tea!

All in all it was a fantastic day and a fantastic experience.  Ok, Mike didn’t quite get to the finish but in the grand scheme of things when you consider how much he did achieve its more than awesome.  He swam in total 29km.  Cook Strait is actually only 23km.  It is such a fickle stretch of water that not making it across invariably has very little to do with how good a swimmer you are.  And after Tuesday, I can well understand why!  As Sir Edmund Hillary said of Mt Everest, you don’t conquer it, it relents.

I feel really honoured to have been there with Keith and Pat on the boat.  As we all said, now we know how the whole thing goes, we are looking forward to Mike doing it again next year!


Photo:  Mike Bodger, Phil Rush and Kirsten Cameron



Other photos documenting the day follow:


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