Penny’s Cook Strait Crossing 2006

It’s mid morning on the 12th April and we’re on the ferry crossing the Cook Strait between the north and south island of New Zealand. This time we are doing it the easy way. Exactly a week ago we were crossing it in the opposite direction with Penny in the water and myself crewing in the IRB (surf rescue boat or rubber duckie) alongside the legendary Philip Rush.


Our Cook Strait adventure began seven months ago. Whilst Penny has achieved many things in swimming, including representing England (her country of birth) at a junior level, and Australia in the 25k open water, it has always bugged her that she hasn’t swum the English channel. When people find out that you’re an open water swimmer, the question that inevitably gets asked is “have you swum the channel?”. And since she was born in England, and never had a chance as a teenager, this challenge has always been something that she wanted to do. Raising three children and running a small business has created obstacles which made an undertaking like the channel impossible for many years, but we finally decided that 2006 was the year.


We live in Townsville, in the tropics of north Queensland, and whilst our training is all distance oriented, we have virtually no experience in cold water. And Channel Swimming Association stipulates that channel swimming aspirants must complete a six hour swim in cold water. The ocean temperature in our part of the world never falls below 20 degrees C, so we had to look for something further afield. It was then that Penny stumbled across the Cook Strait swim in New Zealand. Being 26 klm across and between 14 to 19 degrees C, it was just what we were looking for. And since I also swim open water, we thought we would both do the swim and combine it with a short holiday. Perfect.

But then we had a closer look at the website. Icy water temperatures. Immense tidal flows. Sixteen nautical miles. One of the most notorious stretches of water in the world for mariners. Suddenly we realized that this would be a serious swim.  


After much discussion, it was decided that only Penny would swim. It was unlikely that I would make it since I have a triathlon/running background and am still fairly scrawny, so hypothermia was a strong possibility. We trained hard and did well in the Rottnest Channel Swim in Perth in February. But looking at the net, the weather in Wellington (the base for Cook Strait hopefuls) looked horrible. Overcast, drizzly and very windy seemed to be the norm. And then a week before we were scheduled to fly to NZ, Philip Rush, the organizer, phoned to ask if we wanted to reconsider coming to do our crossing. Wellington had experienced its coldest summer in over a decade and the water temperature was probably going to be under 15 degrees C. Philip said that the weather had been so bad, the person booked for the previous set of tides had flown back to Australia without even getting wet.


Depressing news indeed, but we had already booked everything and weren’t about to quit without at least giving it our best shot, so we presented at Townsville airport for the trip across the Tasman on 30th March. We had heaps of gear, carbo drinks, grease, swimming gear, clothes etc for our three week trip, and bushwalking gear for our post swim 4 day tramp on the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. We had 40 kilos over our allowance! Oh dear. The check in person started by telling us we would be up for an extra $600. We eventually negotiated the bill down to half that amount. But the supervisor we had to pay was a masters swimmer. He promptly threw the invoice in the bin and wished us good luck. For the rest of the trip, instead of buying souvenirs like most tourists, we were busy throwing out old clothes to get our baggage weight down.


Our first swim in Wellington harbour was not too encouraging. We swam for 15 minutes and shivered for 40. It would take some doing adjusting from the 28 degree C pool and open water temperature we were used to, to the barely 15 degree C in NZ. We ended up training twice a day for the next 5 days leading up to our set of tides, but it was a struggle. The waters out from Oriental Parade were ideal for training. According to locals, there were no sharks, virtually no boat traffic, and several buoys or markers to use for a circuit course. But the wind was almost always there, buffeting us as we did our laps. On the day before Penny’s crossing, winds gusted up to 60 knots and was virtually knocking the goggles off our face.


We met Philip Rush the day after we arrived in Wellington. Philip coordinates all aspects of the crossing, with the help of a small, but very professional support team. Philip has not only done two double crossings of Cook Strait, but he holds the record for the fastest ever triple crossing of the English Channel. The triple crossing is narrated in Des Renford’s book, “Nothing Great is Easy”, and is described as the greatest ever marathon swim. For a living legend, Philip was very friendly and down to earth, but it was clear that he had a wealth of knowledge, and was the ideal person to have in our corner for the attempt. Phil was concerned about our inability to handle the cold, but thought that Penny had enough speed to get her across.


We got the call to go at 9.00pm on Tuesday 4th April. The weather that day had been terrible, but it was forecast to moderate. The weather is so fickle in Cook Strait, that if it appears to be swimable on one day, you go. If you wait for a better day, chances are you will miss out altogether. We awoke to the alarm at 2.00am and were picked up by Philip at 3.00am for the drive to Mana Harbour, north of Wellington.


We left the dock at 4.30am. The crew consisted of Chris the skipper, Byron the deckhand and navigator, with Philip and I to accompany Penny at close quarters in the IRB. Also on board was Dr. Karen Bisley. Karen was doing a research project on hypothermia, and in her slightly younger days had also completed two crossings of Cook Strait, so she was a very welcome addition to the crew. The plan was for Penny to swallow a thermometer pill, and at every half hour drink stop, we would monitor her core body temperature. Dr. Karen would use this information for her research. In exchange for being a guinea pig, Karen would be on the main boat to assist, should Penny have any medical problems. Hopefully that wouldn’t be required.


Strangely enough, it wasn’t until we were out of the harbour and entering Cook Strait, that the decision was made as to which decision we would swim. This is normal, it seems, because weather out in the Strait was often vastly different from that in Wellington. We would go from the south island to the north. Times for south to north crossings were generally quicker than the other way around, so this was good news for us, as it meant less time in the water.


We reached the south island, roughly half way between The Brothers (islands) and Perano point, and after applying liberal quantities of woolfat, we boarded the IRB for the short trip to the starting point. Penny was on her way at 6.54am. Looking from our vantage point in the IRB, the current looked scary. It was running from north to south at right angles to our compass heading of 60 degrees, at what seemed to me to be 4 to 5 knots. We were going far faster sideways, than we were in a forward direction. But Phil and the others had done this many times before, and clearly knew what they were doing. Penny’s job was simply to swim, and mine just to feed, relay information to Penny and assist Philip where required.


Conditions at the start were good. There was virtually no breeze although there was a rolling swell courtesy of the previous day’s weather. It was overcast and fairly cold and the water temperature was 14+ degrees.


As part of our research for the swim, we read Lynne Cox’ book, “Swimming to Antarctica”. Lynne was the first woman to cross Cook Strait and described it as one very tough swim. But she also talked at length about the dolphins. We thought she may have used some journalistic licence, but nevertheless, Penny was really hoping to see some.


Fifteen minutes into the swim, I couldn’t believe my eyes. From several hundred metres away, we could see a very large pod of dolphins heading towards us.  Before we knew it they were everywhere. In front of the main boat and surrounding us and Penny. Then another pod came, and still another. Philip and Chris (the skipper) estimated there were up to 300 in our close vicinity. It was impossible to count them, but I couldn’t argue. They stayed for two full hours and seemed very curious about the strange visitor to their world. Penny saw up to four layers of dolphins beneath her, through the crystal clear waters. And she could hear their constant chatter, although they didn’t seem too happy when she tried to mimick their sounds. Mothers brought their babies directly below Penny. They would roll on their side and look up, always just out of reach.


Being on the IRB was also amazing. I have seen quite a few dolphins around the Great Barrier Reef (close to our home), but never anything remotely like this. I had my camera on hand but the dolphins were so quick, it was very hard to get any decent shots. We also saw several albatross on the trip across and Philip said occasionally they see whales and orcas.

After two hours the breeze slowly picked up and strengthened during the day to 15 to 20 knots at the end. It was always a cross wind and didn’t really hinder Penny, but made things uncomfortable toward the final stages.


The half hours between drink stops went fairly quickly as there was always something to be done. Recording and advising Penny of her stroke rate which averaged 78 to 79 strokes per minute (slowing down a little toward the end due to the effects of the cold). Preparing the drinks and adding hot water to warm them up. And picking Philip’s brains on a whole range of subjects.  It was interesting to hear Philip’s view on Cook Strait compared to the English Channel. He is very firmly of the opinion, that although it is shorter in distance, Cook Strait is the tougher swim. Firstly, the weather in Cook Strait is very fickle and can change dramatically with hardly any notice.The water temperature is usually colder in Cook Strait. And finally, he says when crossing the Dover Strait, you have a large section of land on each side to aim at. So you can be slightly out in the calculations and still make a successful crossing. Not so with Cook Strait. Going in either direction, there is very little room for error and any miscalculation will normally result in an early shower.


There is not much he doesn’t know about open water swimming and it was a treat to hear some of his stories. Often he was making light hearted banter on the two way with the crew on the main boat. But all the while, he was acutely aware of everything which was happening in the water. He seemed to know everything she was thinking and feeling throughout the crossing. I am her husband and training partner, but Phil picked up many things about how she was feeling that I wasn’t aware of. Then at the drink stops, we would record her core temperate. Whilst I passed her the drink, Philip would hold a machine close to her chest which displayed the temperature.


This information was very interesting. Before taking the plunge, it was 37.2. At the first drink stop it had dropped to 35 mid, where it stayed for the next five hours. This meant that the work she was doing was generating sufficient heat to maintain her core temperature, even though she felt cold the whole way. After five hours she started to suffer with the cold and her stroke rate dropped slightly. At the next drink stop, her temperature dipped below 35. Philip asked her to lift her rating, and sure enough, on the next stop, her temperature had increased.


The last 10 klm were very difficult. The tides had been timed to whisk Penny along the coast from south to north to finish at Ohau Point. But they weren’t doing what they were supposed to. If anything they were having no effect, other than to retard Penny’s progress. At times it seemed we had made absolutely no progress between drink stops. Our course, as plotted on Byron’s GPS showed a big dog leg in the latter stages of the crossing.


Upon finishing, we hauled Penny into the IRB, wrapped a space blanket around her and raced back to the main boat. There was no room for modesty on the back deck. After scraping off some excess grease and toweling her down, it was off with the togs, on with several layers of warm clothes, and inside the cabin. Karen, Chris and Byron had set up a make shift bed with lots of old blankets. Penny’s core temperature had dropped to 32 degrees C. After a rest and a warm drink, she was back to normal in an hour.


Penny’s finishing time of 8 hours 26 minutes was slower than we had anticipated (in reasonable conditions, she is quite capable of swimming 25K in 6 hours), but Cook Strait is no ordinary stretch of water. Penny is the 51st person to swim Cook Strait, the fifth Australian (first Queenslander), and the oldest female to make a successful crossing, so we were well pleased.


Cook Strait may never have huge numbers of people crossing it the hard way. There are only six sets of tides per year when it is swimmable, and Philip only books a maximum of two people in per tide. And he is booked up until 2009. If you can handle the cold and have good speed and endurance (wouldn’t we all like to be like that), then Cook Strait is an excellent crossing to add to your resume. And believe me, you won’t find a better guide than Philip.



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Prepared by Chris Palfrey


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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.