Lake Taupo 2009

Taupo x 3

By any standards, Lake Taupo is big. Located in the centre of the north island of New Zealand, the lake was formed by a massive volcanic explosion which made an enormous divot in the landscape, eventually filling with fresh water. Roughly 40 klms long, and almost as wide, our boat skippers said with some pride, that the lake covered the same area as Singapore.

The idea to do a relay swim across the lake came about back in September, 2007. Penny had just swum the English Channel (EC) through the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), and Julie Bradshaw (CSA secretary) sent her a congratulatory email. Julie has organised some long distance relay swims and asked whether Penny would be interested in doing a relay at some stage. Penny was keen and Julie said “what about doing one in Australia?” But she had a thing about sharks and jellyfish so the ocean was out. And there weren’t any readily accessible lakes in the country which were large enough for our purposes. We then suggested Taupo, having heard about it from Philip Rush, when Penny swam Cook Strait back in 2006.


Since the relay was going to take a bit of organising, we wanted to make it worthwhile by doing something which hadn’t been done before. Philip Rush had told us previously that there had been a small number of solo and relay crossings of the lake. I emailed him saying we wanted a “First”, and asked whether he would be prepared to organise a two way crossing for us. He came back saying he would be pleased to take us on, but it wouldn’t be a first as he had already swum a solo two way (whilst training for his famous English Channel triple crossing). I said OK, how about a triple crossing of the lake? And the wheels were set in motion.


All of Julie’s relay swims had been with all girls teams. And by this time I was hooked. I am a good participator but a lousy spectator. So I said bugger it, I’ll just organise my own team. Getting the teams together was harder than Penny and I thought. Julie had two relay regulars, plus Penny made four. Penny asked her friend and fellow EC graduate, Amber, from San Francisco. Amber agreed without hesitation. After a bit of thought, we decided to offer the final spot on the girl’s team to Barbara Pellick from (near) Perth, WA. We had struck up semi regular email contact from our regular encounters at the Rottnest Channel Swim. Barb is something of a legend in WA, having swum Rotto 22 times and counting. She has also done the EC, Manhattan (MIMS), as well as an EC triple crossing six person relay. She would be as solid as a rock and a great member of the team.

That was the girl’s team sorted (or so we thought, more on that later). Between work and other swims, I was starting to get a team together. First to join me was Dougal Hunt. Penny met Dougal in Dover in 2007 when he also did a successful EC crossing. He did the channel in great style (on a disgustingly small amount of training) and raised $64,000 for cancer research. Dougal hails from Shepparton in Victoria, but was working in Ireland as a pharmacist. Penny thought very highly of him and that was good enough for me.

Next to join the men’s team was Steve Junk from Perth. Steve was another very strong swimmer who we crossed paths with at Rottnest. He also swam Gibraltar in 2005 and was kind enough to give us some pointers prior to us doing that crossing in 2006. Steve had a very big year in 2008. He swam Rottnest solo in the annual race, and then did a two way crossing a month later (in a quick time). He followed that up by finishing 2nd male at MIMS and then did a good Catalina crossing in unfavourable conditions. We had a coffee with Steve the day after MIMS and told him about our relay idea. He joined us on the spot.


After MIMS, I was starting to worry where we would find the others to join my team. Six days after Manhattan, we were back home competing in our local event, the 8klm Magnetic Island to Townsville swim. After the race, we got talking to a kiwi lady, Heather Osborne, who had flown across the Tasman to do our swim. It turned out she only lived a couple of hours drive from Taupo and had swum in a couple of relays across the lake. She swam strongly and was keen to join us, and I needed swimmers, so it appeared that the men’s team had now become a mixed team.


Since I had become busy (understatement) at work, I asked others to help fill the remaining spots. Amber’s partner, Mitch, from San Luis Obispo on the California coast, was a good swimmer (though not big on open water) and he agreed to join us. They would combine the swim with a holiday.

And Steve Junk asked Mark Cockroft to join us. Mark lives at Wanaka, in the beautiful south island of New Zealand. He went to Perth for 12 months and ended up staying for 13 years. Like many in Perth, he was right into open water. We had never met Mark, but knew from Rotto results that he was a very good swimmer. He was keen on the idea of the Taupo relay, but was slightly hesitant about joining us. Since moving back to NZ two years ago, he had taken up triathlon, and he had entered a full ironman race a mere 1 ½ weeks after our swim. Certainly not ideal preparation for that torture test. He said he would be happy to join us if we couldn’t find anyone else. But time was ticking by and I wanted commitment, so I put him on the spot, and said we need you and you’re in. Mark told me later that I made the decision for him.


Finally, we had our six person teams sorted and we could concentrate on other things. Philip was taking care of the boats and IRB’s (inflatable boats for guiding swimmers at close quarters), one for each team. And being a true professional, we knew these aspects would be well covered.


We determined rules for the swim. This was very important as, since we were going to a lot of effort, we wanted to be sure that the swim would be recognised and that no one could ever question its authenticity or our integrity. We looked at the CSA and CS&PF rules for relay crossings and basically adopted these. Briefly, the rules were:

  • No wetsuits. Swimsuits must be FINA approved.
  • No artificial aids.
  • No external assistance to the swimmer. The swimmer cannot be touched (except on the relay changes) or be supported whilst swimming.
  • Relay changeovers to occur each hour. That is, one person swims for one hour, and then has five hours rest, repeating the sequence until we finish.
  • Each relay change to occur by the fresh person swimming up behind the retiring swimmer, tagging hands above the water and then taking over.
  • Swimmers to remain in their designated order.
  • Swimmer to clear the water at the end of each lap and immediately return and recommence swimming.

 Everything was looking good on the organisational side until we hit a few snags. First, one of Julie’s swimmers dropped out. Julie was able to call in Michelle Macy (of Oregon, USA) through her CSA contacts. With very good swims in the English Channel, MIMS and Catalina under her belt (and training for another EC crossing), Michelle would be a very strong addition to the girls team.


And then, just five weeks out from our swim, Amber suffered a grand mal seizure. Medical personnel instructed her not to swim, which put her and Mitch out. Poor Amber. We hope you make a full recovery very soon.


We put the word out far and wide to try to get two last minute replacements. But it was a big ask, trying to get people at short notice who were fit and capable of swimming this distance.


By coincidence, I received an email from Stephen Spence of Brisbane. I knew Stephen from the Magnetic island swim, and we had stayed in occasional contact. He emailed to ask my opinion of a Sydney open water swim which I had done a year earlier. I replied with….”oh and by the way, would you be interested in this swim we are doing?….” after several emails and a phone call, Stephen was in.


Stephen’s story is inspiring. He is a very strong masters swimmer in his early forties. And in the past few years, he has been dabbling in open water, in distances up to 8klm. He was swimming well in late 2007 and training for the 2008 FINA world masters championships in Perth. But he started feeling slow, lethargic and out of sorts. So he consulted medical personnel who, after performing tests, diagnosed him with leukemia. Stephen underwent chemotherapy and months of painstaking rehabilitation before he was allowed back in the water. I knew Stephen was a good swimmer, but I was a little concerned about his medical condition. He assured me that he was 99%. He had also never swam over 8klm or done any night swimming, but, knowing what he had gone through with his illness, I was certain he had the right attitude for what we were attempting.


So we had 5 males and 6 females for our swim. We decided that Heather should switch to the girls team, which would make things easier for all concerned, being in close quarters on a boat for the best part of two days.

Our group filtered into the town of Taupo, at the northern end of the lake, between December 31 and January 3. And Taupo itself was bustling, being a favourite holiday destination for the Kiwis. Being in the centre of the north island, it is a good place from which to take day trips. Many people were there to indulge in water sports, or for trout fishing, tramping, or just lazing about at lakes edge. And then there are the many “extreme” activities which appear in the NZ holiday brochures – bungy jumping, sky diving, jet boating, etc. Although I think our little activity was a bit more extreme than most. When locals asked why we had come to Taupo and we mentioned we were swimming the lake, the response was always “…You’re what??”. There didn’t seem much point in saying that we were doing three laps.


Meeting, swimming and chatting with our group prior to the swim was great fun. We were all relaxed and looking forward to the trip, and we spent hours swapping yarns, advice and general gossip. It is difficult to do this at races, as everyone is normally focussed in their own little world. There was also great camaraderie between the group and a sense of oneness. Even though we were essentially separate teams of boys and girls, we supported each other and all wished for success for each team, as well as ourselves.


We had a final team meeting on Sunday January 4th. And Philip gave the final briefing. The water temperature was 18.5 degrees C, and the weather forecast was good, so we would swim the following day. There was a feeling of excitement as we did our final shop and prepared our gear. We met at the marina at 2.00am on Monday January 5th, loaded the boats, and started our journey to the southern end of the lake.


The plan was to start at first light from near Tokaanu, at the southern most point of the lake, heading roughly north east past Motutaiko Island, cutting close to Rangitiri point, before finishing on the beach in front of the sailing club (next to the starting point of the Waikato River, which is fed from Lake Taupo). The distance by GPS for one lap was 40.2klm. The second lap would retrace our course back to the starting point and the final lap was a repeat of the first. The idea of starting early was to have only one night of swimming, as we thought we might take anything from 36 to 40 hours to complete the journey, depending on weather conditions.

 Both teams had structured their order from fastest to slowest.

The order for the girls was Penny, Michelle, Barb, Heather, Julie and Lucy (the other British swimmer). We didn’t know anything about Lucy prior to the swim. But she was full of surprises. Whilst not a fast swimmer, there was nothing wrong with her ability and she certainly deserved a place on the team. And the girls all commented that she was a great team player, always encouraging whoever was in the water. But her talents didn’t end there. It turns out she was an amateur boxer (undefeated in four fights). I stopped giving her cheek when I found out. And two days after the swim, a few of us tramped the mountainous “Tongariro Crossing”. She took off like a mountain goat and left us for dead. We found out later, she had walked, amongst other places, to Everest base camp.


Steve was to lead off for the men, followed by Mark, Dougal, myself and then Stephen. Stephen was faster than I, but it was decided that I should precede him based on experience.


Conditions were good as we motored down the lake, and some of us even managed a tiny bit of sleep. We reached our starting point at 5.00am. There was no time for dilly dallying as the water was calm and we did not know how long the good conditions would last. Steve and Penny quickly prepared and were ferried to the shore by IRB for the start. There were loud cheers from each boat as they got underway at 5.33am.


It was said many times in the lead up, that this was not a race, and that we were one group, embarking on a shared challenge. But beneath the surface, we were all athletes with strong competitive natures. And this was evident right from the start as Penny gained a slight lead, then Steve upped his stroke rate and caught up. Penny eased her pace slightly and they swam for 40 minutes side by side, which we thought was nice, and symbolic of our swim. They managed 3.9klm in 57 minutes, very respectable considering that the lake was considerably slower to swim in than a pool or salt water. Mark and Michelle were next up and even though they (like the rest of us) had said they didn’t want to go hard, early on in the journey, it was clear that neither swimmer wanted the other to gain an advantage.


Several of us had never done a team swim before and we were finding this very different. In a solo marathon crossing, most of us would probably start out at a steady, even conservative pace, and try to measure the effort so as to finish strongly. The team thing added the element of wanting to perform well so as not to let the team down. And then there was this final unique element of not wanting to let the other team get an ascendancy.


Mark established a slight (20 metre) lead on Michelle, and they both did 3.9klm for their one hour rotation. We were changing over at 6.30, 7.30, 8.30 etc to keep it simple. Up next was Dougal and Barb and he managed to give the boys a 100 metre advantage, doing 3.8klm in his hour.


Heather and I were up next. I have had a niggling shoulder injury for a few months so I had resolved to take it steady, as I was concerned that if I went silly, I might not make the distance. I surrendered the lead and handed the girls a 100 metre advantage. And I was disappointed at only managing 3.5klm for my rotation.


Julie and Stephen were up next. I don’t know what sort of a pep talk the guys gave Stephen before he jumped in, but it was clear that he was a man on a mission. He did an impressive 4klm in his hour and gave us back a 200m lead.


Steve Junk was next (against Lucy…or Razor, as she was affectionately known in the ring) about to start his second rotation. At about this time, it occurred to us blokes, that we actually had a chance of beating the girls, although the swim was never meant to be a race. Penny, Michelle, Barb and Heather were all very good swimmers, but the English girls were unknown quantities. But based on their reputations, I thought the men would finish well behind.


Anyhow, we now realised that we were going to have some fairly close rivalry, so the boys all lifted the pace considerably. In the first five one hour rotations, we managed 19.1 klms, and in the second five hours we achieved a very impressive 20 klm exactly (quite fast considering the fresh water). But the girls, to their credit, were never far behind. Our fast swimmers put a gap on their slower swimmers, but their faster swimmers, lead by Penny, clawed it straight back.


The men, with Steve in the water, finished the first leg of 40.2klm in a time of 10 hours 22 minutes, just before 4.00pm. The girls, with Heather in the water, were a mere 6 minutes astern.


This is where things got even more interesting. In the course of the early afternoon, a light breeze had developed from the south. So we enjoyed a slight push along for the last 1 ½ hours of the first lap. But as we started retracing our strokes toward the southern end of the lake, we now had to punch into a light, but strengthening headwind. For the first hour of the second lap, it was a 5 knot southerly breeze (we were heading roughly south west). Then the wind increased to around 10 knots from a WSW direction. And that is how it remained until around 3.00am when we reached the lee of the land at the southern end of the lake.


Before the swim, Philip warned us that the lake can get “very rough”, with a steep, wind driven chop. We never had anything like that. We only had at worst, a 2 foot chop, which simply made us work harder. In our first five hour rotation after starting the second lap, we covered 18 klm, compared to 20 klm for the latter half of the first lap.


My swim from 6.30 to 7.30pm was notable because I surrendered the lead to the girls, with Michelle in the water. At that point, with the breeze, and the sun sinking low on the horizon, it was becoming quite cool. And after fourteen hours of swimming, we were all starting to feel tired, not to mention a few stiff and sore bits. Even though I swam pretty well (Michelle just happened to be faster) I was depressed as I thought it was game over. But Steve, who was standing next to me, ready to take over from Stephen, assured me that regardless of whether or not we finished in front of the girls, we would certainly get the lead back.


I didn’t dwell on it. My next shift in the water was the midnight hour (11.30pm to 12.30am). I made myself a sandwich and a warm drink and then slept for 1 ½ hours. When I arose at 11.00pm, I couldn’t believe it. I would hop in with a 600-700m lead. I would need every metre of it though, as I was up against Penny. We train together so I see the awesome sets she does day after day. But it was dark, very choppy, and we were swimming off the IRB, and this was the real thing so I went as hard as I could. It was not about trying to beat the other half (and nor was Penny trying to do the same to me). We were just doing our best for the team. We could all see the fantastic efforts our team mates were putting in, which made us lift and give it our all.


Swimming at night was actually quite enjoyable. There was a ¾ moon which gave some natural light, there was nothing to fear from predators, and time seemed to tick by much faster than during the day. Although we did have a couple of problems. Our IRB ran out of fuel whilst Mark was swimming. He had to tread water for a couple of minutes whilst Paul (our observer/safety officer/IRB driver) refuelled. We also went off course near the end of the second lap and had to do a 90 degree turn. I thought this might actually cost us the lead. And on the girls’ boat, Penny lost a couple of minutes at one stage, when their IRB had trouble.


When I got out, we still held a slender 150m lead on the girls, which we held until the end of the second lap. Dougal, for the men, cleared the water back at our original starting point, just before 4.10am. We had covered the second lap in 12 hours 15 minutes which was very good considering the headwind. It reflected the extra effort we were all putting in.


The girls finished their second lap a mere 4 minutes behind us. Theirs was a super effort to claw back 2 minutes, in the challenging conditions. At no stage did either team ease off to stay with the other, or let them catch up. Because we were 5 vs. 6 and people of different speeds were up against each other at every change, you could never afford to slacken off.

Whilst the swim was not a race (yeah, I know I already said that), the rivalry was as intense as it was fascinating. Whenever anyone went below deck for a snooze, the first thing they wanted to know upon surfacing was “..where’s the other boat?..”


For the first hour of the third lap, the water was flat due to the protection afforded by the hills. But half way through my shift, from 4.30 to 5.30am, a slight 5 knot WNW headwind started to develop. Give me a break, I thought we had finished with that. Stephen and Steve, who followed me, had the same thing, but then the breeze died and the lake became glass like.


By mid morning, the blokes had all done five, one hour rotations at ever increasing amounts of effort, and we were starting to suffer. And the girls were either nipping at our heels or enjoying a slight lead.

At the start of my sixth rotation at 9.30am, the two slowest swimmers of each team were pitted against each other. It was Julie up against me, followed by Lucy vs. Stephen. We knew we had to build a lead on the girls, as after that, it was Penny up against Steve. And whilst Steve was doing great, Penny was putting in blistering efforts for the girls.


When I took over from Dougal, we were abeam of Motutaiko Island, about half way through the last lap. The water was calm and I was swimming just in front of the bow. I could see the girls boat 250 metres to our right and about 30 metres in front. I could even see the splash from Julie’s stroke. It was all or nothing. I switched from breathing bilaterally to just breathing on my right side, so I could see Julie with every stroke. With the island behind the girl’s boat, I had the perfect orientation to gauge whether we were making or losing ground.


For the first 20 minutes, we made nothing. If anything, we had lost a few metres. But then gradually, I could see their boat start to drop back behind the island in the background. This only spurred me on as I felt this was my opportunity to make amends for a couple of my early swims. When Stephen took over from me, we had a good 200m lead. We all feared Penny, so Stephen was also gunning it. And whilst Lucy (though being a great team player, and an excellent all round athlete) was clearly giving it 100%, Stephen was definitely making more ground.


It was so exciting, we found it hard to go below to try to sleep.


When Steve and Penny took to the water for their final burst, the blokes enjoyed a 600m lead. One hour later, when Mark and Michelle went into battle, our lead was cut to less than 50 metres. Steve did an incredible 4.5klm in his hour, on his seventh rotation, and we almost had to drag him out of the water. So that meant Penny must have covered 5klm. In fresh (slow) water, after a day and a half, with very little sleep and the accumulated fatigue, that was quite extraordinary.


Mark and Michelle had previously been very evenly matched, and with only around 10klm to go, it couldn’t have been closer. For around 30 minutes it was neck and neck, with no change in positions. But then, as we approached Rangatiri point, we started to inch ahead. We were about 100m closer to the point and our skippers, Rod and Steve (we definitely had too many Steves on our boat), wanted to cut as close to the shore as possible.


On the western side of the town of Taupo, the Waikato river, which drains overflow water from the lake, begins its journey to the sea. And these waters flow from the lake proper, into Acacia bay and then into the river, often creating a slight current around Rangatiri point. Our skippers hoped that by going close, we might pick up any such current. Michelle said later she could see us slowly pulling away, but couldn’t lift another gear.


We had a little over 100m lead when Barb and Dougal started their final rotation. We only had 6klm to go, and could see the sailing club building, where we would finish our epic journey. Barb had been swimming very strongly and was renowned for her almost endless string of solid marathon performances. So we were definitely not confident yet. But Dougal was a real surprise packet for us. He had only been swimming as an adult for a few years, but had a beautiful stroke, and his 50 strokes per minute belied the power he generated beneath the water.


I was hoping for a lead, as Heather and I would be doing the final 2klm sprint to shore. At the last change, Dougal had given us a 200m lead. Heather had previously been faster than I, so I went as hard as I could. Every few minutes, I snuck a quick peep under my shoulder, but my confidence was growing as I could see their boat wasn’t getting any closer. And then finally, I swam past the channel markers at the river entrance, and could see the bottom. The guys on the boat jumped in and swam the last 200m with me.


Standing and running up the sand was an amazing feeling. We were sunburnt, very sore and physically spent, but almost overwhelmed with our accomplishment. We raised our arms and cheered Rod and Steve (skippers) and Paul (safety officer/observer) back on the boat.


Heather hit the beach a mere 2 minutes 39 seconds behind, and the other girls also swam in with her. There were hugs, kisses and handshakes all round as we huddled together, to the amusement of the local beachgoers.


WE DID IT!!! After 120.6klm, Philip advised our finishing time at 33 hours 31 minutes and 15 seconds. The girls did 33 hours 33 minutes and 54 seconds. After all that time, it was amazing that we were so close. I don’t think it would be possible to find two teams so evenly matched. Every swimmer on each team put in a fantastic effort, and the memories of our friendly rivalry will stay with us for years. Special mention must also be made of Barb’s partner Pete, and son, Michael, who supported both teams and did lots of sundry running around for us.


Our splits were :

                                    Lap 1         Lap 2       Lap3


Boys                            10.22         12.15        10.54


Girls                            10.28         12.13        10.53


That night we found the best steak house in town and enjoyed a good meal, a few drinks and each others company.


A month before our swim, we became aware, via that a world record for a relay lake swim had been set in Florida, in September, 2008. In that event, two teams of 50 swimmers, each doing 2klms, covered 100klms in 37 hours 6 minutes and 41 hours 15 minutes, respectively.


Whilst we were not motivated by the record, we knew that we only had to finish to break it, so we will certainly proceed to have it ratified. And it appears that both teams will create a record.

The men for their finishing time.

And the girls for achieving the distance with an all female team.

 New Zealand is a scenic and beautiful country. Swimmers are welcome to try to break our relay record, or solo swimmers can attempt the full crossing. Philip Rush is the best contact person for this.


Chris Palfrey

January, 2009.

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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.