Three swimmers adjust their goggles, cover themselves in grease and look out to the ocean. Years of training have led to this moment however statistically speaking only one of them will successfully complete one of the most difficult ocean crossings in the world, the Cook Strait. Philip Rush, retired marathon swimmer, swim guide and supporter for those attempting the crossing knows the feeling well.
Although retired from marathon swimming in 1990, Philip Rush is still the current holder of many world records including most notably every record in the English Channel. After waiting 4 years to get the weather right, Rush completed the 3-way English Channel crossing in 28hrs and 21 minutes. He took the record by 10 hours. When asked how it felt to hold such a record 31 years later Rush simply replied with “It was a very good day.”
Rush, a no-nonsense firefighter is the ideal person to manage these swims with his experience in the emergency services, having completed the unforgiving crossing 7 times and being the first to complete a double crossing without stopping.
In 2008 the Oceans Seven was established – the marathon swimmer version of the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge – with the Cook Strait included. Rush is well aware of the demands of the crossing “The Cook Strait is rated as one of the top 7 swims to do, it is high in difficulty because it’s a short gap which is also very tidal with a lot of water flowing through.” As a result, each season there are around 15 swimmers who attempt to cross with Rush and around 1 in 3 completing.
The oldest Female who completed the Cook Strait was Marilyn Korzekwa 58 from Canada in 2016 and the oldest man was 60 year old Toshio Ogawa from Japan in 2012. Rush took both of them on their swims. These two were by no means the oldest with Rush recently taking a 68 year old for an attempt; unfortunately an age record was not broken that day. Often swimmers require a couple of attempts before being successful.
When asked what sort of training is required for such an event, Rush recommends swimming about 25-50kms a week on average. “The more work you put in, the better the results. Especially with endurance sport.” He continues “Swimmers need to be able to swim around 3-3.5km per hour, if you don’t make headway across the tide, you’re not going to complete the swim.”
Swimmers face more than just the challenge of preparation. The Ocean Sevens rules dictate swimmers can only wear a speedo, cap and goggles – wet suits are not permitted. Swimmers also use grease on their bodies to help with the cold but with temperatures ranging from 10-17 degrees and often rapid changes in temperature, hypothermia is a real risk. In order to be successful in the swim, swimmers are also not permitted to touch the support boat.
So just what does Rush and the support boat do during a swim? “We are in charge of keeping them (the swimmers) alive and making sure they stay alive. Every 30 minutes a swimmer stops for fluids, high carb foods and a few words of wisdom”. There is also a larger boat to support the smaller inflatable boat.
Weather determines whether the start point is Ohau Point in the North Island or Piraha Head (just north of Raukawa Rock) in the South Island. Where these are generally the start points thanks to the tidal nature of the Cook Strait finishing can be “wherever they end up on land.”
Fortunately, the swim doesn’t cross with the Interislander Ferry although they do know the swimmers are out there. Due to the huge flow of water through the Cook Strait, Rush has noted the water remains fresh and appetising for swimmers and marine life alike. This past summer around 400 dolpihns with babies came around and played with swimmers and the support boat. Jelly fish and sharks are also around. “They are there but they’re well fed so we’ve had no problems.”
When asked if Rush is considering crossing again he replied with a firm no. “Now I help people achieve their goals to get them fit and hopefully complete the Cook Strait and any other challenges around the world.”