An Eyewitness account of Sarah Ferguson’s world first circumnavigation swim of Easter Island -By John McCarthy
A big idea
Wiping the slate clean
Kavi – Kavi, the Birdman ceremony
The three bays
Mata Te Pari
The beautiful people
Tataku Vave – Counting the waves
Tears in the moonlight
Acknowledgements and thanks
4000 people have climbed Mount Everest, 2000 people have swum the English Channel, 12 people have walked on the moon, only one person has successfully swum non-stop around Easter Island or Rapa Nui as it is known to the local inhabitants. Rapa Nui is politically part of Chile, but due to its isolation from the mainland it has retained its own cultural identity and even has its own language. This is an eyewitness account of Sarah Ferguson’s epic swim around the island which was completed at 03h15 on Saturday 16 March, local Rapa Nui time.
Sarah Ferguson has just swum 63 kilometers non – stop in just over nineteen hours. She is exhausted. Twenty minutes previously we were administering glycerin and a non-steroidal bronchodilator to try and keep her throat open, the prolonged effect of exposure to high salinity having taken its toll. Sarah Houston, her coach, has been swimming uninterrupted with her for the last ten kilometers. Before that she was administering feeds every half an hour and had already swum at least five kilometers in stages, so she’s swum around fifteen kilometers herself on this day. The Chilean Navy has closed the port because of the giant surf. No shipping allowed in or out until it subsides. They radio us and urge us to abandon the swim behind backline and allow them to ferry us back to land on the special naval vessel that has been deployed to keep us safe. I peer into the darkness and see volleys of foam exploding off the rocks. I can hear a male American accent shouting through the darkness.
“Go Sarah, you can do this!”
I can’t tell if it is Tod, William or Jeff, but it is a reminder of just how close we are to reaching shore.
It is bitter sweet. We’ve come so far and we’re so close, but it seems like the ultimate objective is just out of reach.
In good conscious I know I’m incapable of guiding the two Sarah’s safely across the reef in the early hours of the morning with a giant swell running, especially after a swim of this magnitude. I can’t see properly and my nerves are screwed to the snapping point. In the harbor I can see the ambulance waiting, lights flashing, a morbid beacon of impending disaster…
A big idea
You want to do what?”
I’m going to swim around Easter Island.”
“They have the highest concentration of microplastics in the world. The island of Rapa Nui is being suffocated by the rest of the world’s plastic waste.”
“Couldn’t you just organize a protest, or an online petition or a beach clean-up or something like that?“ I answer.
Sarah looks at me with a look I’ve come to recognize.
“Yes, I can, but we need to do something that will make people sit up and take notice of how serious this problem is. No one has successfully swum around the island yet. I’m a swimmer, this is what I do, and I think I can do it. If I do, then it will shine a light on what is actually a global issue not something that is limited to the strangulation of a beautiful island in the South Pacific.”
Sarah Ferguson stands an easy 6’2” in her Havaianas. She’s Amazonian both in size and in the lithe languor of an athlete in their prime. Her latent potential kinetic energy threatens to explode outwards from her every movement, like a predator she’s just waiting for the moment, then she’ll strike.
Sarah is so much more than a swimmer, she’s a healer (physiotherapist) and she’s an environmentalist. Marrying her skills with her passion and her philosophy has turned her into a formidable Eco- Warrior.
When she says she’s going to do something, I’ve learned to listen carefully.
Mozambique, Robben Island, Aliwal Shoal, Sodwana and Hawaii are all places where we’ve collaborated to raise awareness for the dangers of ocean plastic. Sarah as swimmer, Sarah Houston as coach and me as the modern wayfinder tasked with choosing the day, plotting the course and making sure we all get out alive. These days the team has broadened to include Rentia Denissen, Sarah’s Sport Medicine practitioner and Homeopath, Angelika Sandri, the most amazingly gifted Masseuse, Kirsten Van Heerden her friend, fellow swimmer and psychological coach, Lynne Mackey her biokineticist, Kerry Gibson her sports nutritionist and Karl Oftebro aka ‘Wofty Wild’ who is tasked with documenting these adventures. On this trip we’ll also be joined by Erik Aleynikov a Russian filmmaker who has done a lot of work for the team at Plastic Oceans who Sarah’s organization, Breathe, has partnered with to do the swim. Erik has already been to South Africa with the operations manager of Plastic Oceans, Tod Hardin to film some of Sarah’s preparation for the swim.
Choosing the weather window for Sarah’s swims is largely my task. For two months prior to our departure from South Africa I scour the internet for information about wind, weather and ocean currents on Rapa Nui. There is surprisingly little information out there. I ‘fly’ around the island so many times on google earth my MacBook can practically fly itself around Rapa Nui. I check in with Windy and with Magic Seaweed daily, but it is only once I get to the island that I realize how complex the local combination of wind, swell, and ocean currents is. We are looking for around fifteen hours of light winds to allow Sarah to get around the two Southern points of the island. The trade winds are from the east, varying between south and northeast. Weather windows close almost as soon as they open. I’m anxious to get local knowledge and on our first day there we meet with the boat captain and the local kayak guides. They confirm my suspicion that routing would best be anti-clockwise. Sarah asks them if they believe she can be successful. They respond “Si, si! In excited and enthusiastic Spanish. That is a huge boost to Sarah, she needs believers on her team. I’m surprised at the youth of Marta our boat captain skipper. I was expecting a grisly old sea dog, not an attractive young woman in her twenties. As a huge bonus she speaks very good English and as it turns out is an excellent skipper of her father’s boat Nanakua, which translated means ‘divinity of the sea’. Tavo runs Kayak Rapa Nui with his partner Karina. He has dreadlocks that run down to his waist and a wide Latin smile. She is petite with big friendly brown eyes. Tavo doesn’t speak English, but Karina does and she happily plays the role of translator. Tavo has asked his friend Ko Nui to join the kayak seconding team. Ko Nui is one of the top athletes on the island. He swims, runs and paddles at events around the world, proudly representing Rapa Nui and his people. He is also one of the few people who have successfully paddled around the island in his outrigger canoe. We bond immediately with our local brothers and sisters. We have no idea how strong that bond will grow in the oncoming days and nights.
That afternoon as Sarah and Konui set out for a warm up swim, Marta, Sarah H, myself Wofty and Erik set out in Nanaku for a recce by boat around the island. I realize that in head winds of anything over ten knots it would be stupid even trying to swim. The day of the recce the conditions are ferocious and instill in Sarah Houston and myself immediate respect for this ocean we’re going to attempt to escort Sarah through. Currents, winds and swell combine to create a formidable oceanic cocktail. Erik is sick as a dog, his pale Slavic features become even more drawn and paler still. Halfway around the island Marta informs us that we can’t go back to the port at Hanga Roa. The surf is so big the Navy has closed the harbor. We get two thirds of the way around the island where she can offload us in the protection of Anakena bay. We all leave the yacht humbled by what we’ve experienced and contemplating the magnitude of what Sarah is about to attempt.
Wiping the slate clean
Despite having submitted a comprehensive safety plan, there are two unexpected hurdles we need to navigate before we can even get a permit to do the swim. To proceed we need to get the green light from two important men on the Island, Carlos Schlak and Fernando Gallegos. Carlos heads up the local hospital and Fernando is in charge of the Chilean Navy on Rapa Nui. The previous swimmer to attempt this swim was a man named Cristian Vergara who ended up being plucked from the ocean after 27 hours of swimming. He was in very bad shape and things only got worse for him after he left the water. Carlos and his assistant explain in a very thorough medical presentation to us what happened to him. Exhaustion caused a collapse in his muscle tissues, this combined with hypothermia, very high sodium levels and fluid in his lungs, and a constricted throat from the prolonged exposure to the high levels of salinity in the water there, prompted the necessity of a crude make shift ventilation system to keep him breathing. As his body shut down in a full system collapse he was emergency medevacked to Santiago where he could be put on proper life support. He survived, but the ordeal ended up costing him thirty thousand US dollars and it left a very bad taste in the mouths of Carlos and Fernando.
Our first task on the island is to wipe the slate clean. Rentia does a full presentation of our safety plan and Carlos throws in an extensive first aid kit, supplementary oxygen, a saline drip and he ensured that there was a cardiac defibrillator on the Naval escort boat for good measure. We have evacuation routes planned and the hospital will be aware of our progress every stroke she takes around the island. The team also meets with Fernando and his staff. I do a presentation about our navigation and seconding protocol and show him our working satellite phone. Fernando is satisfied with our plan, but insists on allocating a fast-Naval patrol boat to accompany us for the duration in case we need a speedy evacuation, it’s a wonderfully generous gesture and one we welcome with both hands. At the final sign off and issuing of the permit he wants one person to take responsibility of the whole operation. This is a complex operation with many moving parts and we are managing real risk here, where not only Sarah’s life, but also those of her crew and support team could be jeopardized by an error in judgement. I accept that responsibility and it is my name that ends up on the permit. In case there was any doubt about the seriousness of the undertaking, there is none left now. I feel the weight of that responsibility, but I don’t have time to dwell on it. It appears as if a weather window is opening up for the following day and we have the green light from the hospital and the navy. It is all systems go, we load the boat the evening before and get ready for an early start the next day.
I wake very early on Wednesday the 13th of March and before I even step outside I examine windy.com on my phone. The internet is agonizingly slow. As the page loads my heart falls. The window that we’d seen the day before has reduced by about 8 hours. It won’t give us enough time to cross the two southern points and will leave Sarah exposed. I’ve been in that ocean in those winds and know there is just no way I can send her out in that. I step outside and the wind on my face confirms the digital prediction. We have to stand down. Sarah’s tough but not stupid and she calmly agrees with my call. I see another potential window for Friday, but it’s a small window. In the long-range prediction there is no other chance until the day we leave. It would be heartbreaking to come all this way and not even try!
As we chew through the next couple of days towards the next swim opportunity Sarah keeps busy with short training swims. These are just about keeping momentum and feeling the water. For most people a two to three kilometer ocean swim would be a workout, but for Sarah the larger part of this is to keep her grounded and calm. Every time we swim she hauls away from Sarah H and myself even though we’re wearing fins. She is chomping at the bit, literally rearing to go, but we all know that mother nature calls the shots, and for the time being we have to be patient. It’s during these few days that I realize we’re in the company of a wonderfully eclectic and unique band of ocean eco warriors. Funding an operation of this scale is a huge challenge before Sarah has even entered the water. Plastic Oceans have thrown their full support into this swim. Not only financially, but also taking care of logistics and operations months before our arrival, their contribution is massive. Everything from accommodation, transport and media are being organized by their highly efficient team. Names on emails and WhatsApp chat groups turn into real people. Tod we’ve met before with Erik in South Africa, but we finally get to meet and know the rest of the plastic Oceans team. These guys are spread out between the US and Chile and all work virtually most of the time. Mark, Camilla aka Toto and Vivi are based in Santiago, heading up Plastic Oceans Chile. Todd is in Detroit and Julie Anderson works out of Los Angeles. On this trip Julie has brought her husband, William Pfeiffer along to assist as well as their son, Ethan. Mark and Toto have done incredible groundwork to pave the way for our visit. Julie, Tod and William, bring a quiet confidence and efficiency to everything. It is immediately clear that they are used to handling big projects and they are a huge asset to our effort. They have also organized beach clean ups, movie screenings and swimming lessons for the local kids while we are on Rapa Nui.
We were also joined by two other sponsors both of whom Tod had worked with before. Jamie Sergeant owns CROWD which is a global advertising agency and Jeff Basset is the VP of Marketing for Footprint, a progressive packaging company that focuses on biodegradable packaging alternatives to plastic. Both men have hectic schedules but apart from writing out cheques they insist on rolling up their sleeves and getting involved to help in any way they can. It is inspiring to be part of this broader team all united with two objectives. Firstly, reducing ocean plastic and secondly getting Sarah around Rapa Nui safely. William and Jamie even join us for one of Sarah’s training swims. At a beach cleanup I watch as Julie, William, Tod, Mark and Vivi roll up their sleeves and get stuck into extracting plastic from the rocks on the shoreline. There is no doubt about it, these guys and girls are all in, and they bring a wonderful positive vibe to the team.
As Friday the 15th approaches the window stays open. This is our gap I’m certain of it. Through Karina who translates I discuss this with Tavo and Konui, they concur. I phone Marta, she agrees. I call the green light on Thursday. We have a blessing from Carlos and Fernando, it’s a go. The winds look light for the early and later parts of the swim, but the swell is huge. I reason that once we are beyond the breakers the huge long period swell won’t affect her adversely. Also, I reason that the middle part of the swim will be in daylight and she’ll be able to navigate both southern points with light winds in daylight. Once again, we mobilize for the swim. Nanaku is loaded with carefully selected provisions. We have enough food to keep Sarah fed every thirty minutes for thirty hours. That is sixty feeds! We also have food supplies and all kinds of electronic gadgetry and camera gear to load for Wofty and Erik. Quietly I’m hoping it won’t be that long but I know it’s better to be prepared than left wanting.
While we were en route to load the boat, I got a message from Tod, saying there were a group of concerned locals that had heard about Sarah’s proposed swim. In their culture the correct thing to do before embarking on an endeavor such as this would be to hold an Umu ceremony where a chicken and some sweet potatoes are cooked in the ground with heated lava rocks. Then as this food is shared amongst the participants some of it is symbolically offered to the spirits of the ancestors and to the gods of the island. It is a ritual that asks the island for permission for us to pass through. It is short notice and I desperately want Sarah to have an early night, but my gut tells me this is the right thing to do. I ask Tavo, Karina and Ko Nui to join us and the whole team meets at Toki Music school just before sunset. If there is a more gentle and nurturing space on this planet I have yet to find it. Enrique Icka, Mario Tuki and Mahani Teave welcome us into their space. After a brief tour of their beautiful, sustainable and highly progressive facility, Sarah and I are called to the middle of the center room in the building. The rest of the team is fanned out against the walls facing inwards towards us. Enrique, Mario and Mahani sing in beautiful Rapa Nui as the food is distributed amongst us. Perfectly on cue, Enrique and Mahani’s young daughter, Tahai joins in. I don’t understand the words they are singing but the message is clear. They are approaching the island with respect and asking for a blessing on our mission. I find myself moved by the ceremony and generosity of the gesture a deep peace settles on me afterwards as we head home to bed. I fall asleep swiftly despite the impending challenge of the next day.
Friday dawns and my spirits lift as both the digital forecast and what I feel in the real world show the wind has dropped. The door has opened for Sarah to swim. We assemble in the small port of Hanga Roa. The surf is huge, closing out the channel that boats normally navigate to get out into the open ocean. Before Erik boards the zodiac I notice he is wearing closed shoes. He is a vegan parkour athlete and as tough a son to come out of Mother Russia that ever there was, but the water is not his strong point. I mention to him that he might want to take his shoes off. He asks why. I respond it’s easier to swim without shoes on if everything goes tits up in the surf zone. Erik eyes the lines of crashing surf in the pre-dawn light trying to figure out if I’m joking. I’m not. I watch with huge respect as Marta navigates a heavily loaded zodiac back to Nanakua filled with our precious team and all their equipment. She has to time the sets to do this and she does so to perfection. Thirty seconds before or after she chooses her gap and there would have been bodies and gear floating all over the surf zone. If this had happened, the swim would have been over before Sarah even took a single stroke.
As per usual Sarah will start the swim on the beach, in this case a small dock, with Sarah H accompanying her for the first mile or so and I’ll be in the kayak. The extra days of waiting have been a blessing in disguise. Sarah is fully recovered from the long journey around the world. If ever she’s ready to rock ‘n’ roll it is now.
I explain to Sarah the best route through the surf and tell her to hold onto her goggles while she does so. It’s a very long period swell, so there are gaps between the sets, but when they arrive they are ferocious. Coated in a mixture of lubricant and sunblock she gives a final wave and a whoop at 8:07am on Friday the 15th of March she dives into the harbor off the dock. I round the corner of the breakwater and have to pause while a set unloads closing out the channel in front of us. Once done I sense the gap and paddle vigorously through the foam for the sanctuary of the deep blue water beyond the reef. Just behind me the two Sarah’s are swimming the pace of a 100m sprint, not like marathon swimmers contemplating a distance of between 60-70km, but sprinters trying to outrace the ocean. The gate keeper here is the surf. Somehow, I squeak over the next set just as its feathering and the girls swim through, we’re out. Game on!
I immediately set a course for Hanga Piko to the south careful to stay well clear of the surf zone, any rogue waves catching us in this size surf would be a disaster. Marta is more conservative piloting Nanaku even further out. She is assisted in her skippering duties by Hian. The sun rises late in Rapa Nui and I watch the day being born in glorious shades of pink and orange infused with rain showers in the distance over Maunga Terevaka and soft morning light.
As we approach the cliffs of Mataveri, not twenty minutes into the swim, Sarah says she’s feeling sick. The giant swells are smashing into the cliffs and creating backwash waves running back into the ocean. It’s a perfect cocktail to create sea sickness. From our experience in Hawaii we know what we have to do. Modesty and dignity be damned we need to get an anti-nausea suppository into Sarah as quickly as possible. Shortly after we do that we get word from the Navy that they have closed the harbor. The surf is too big to safely allow the passage of vessels in or out of the small ports of Haga Roa and Hanga Piko. There is no going back now. Giant waves peel into the bay as Sarah swims past it. I measure her progress against the cliffs. She’s going fast, very fast. The suppository has worked quickly and she’s settled into a rhythm. I wonder if I should tell her to slow down, but she looks so happy I leave her be. Instead I watch these incredible trains of waves rifling down the point, mind surfing them as I do.
From the recce I know she’ll be tested in the moment when she makes it to the base of the southern cliffs of Rano Kai, the volcanic crater where high above is Orono, the sacred village of the birdmen or Kavi-Kavi as they are known within the local culture.
I know that one of the wildest places I’ve ever swum in any ocean lies at the base of the cliffs below Orono. Orono is an ancient village perched high on the cliffs of the Ranu Kau volcanic crater. Black lava rock, green grass and blue ocean combine to make this a spectacularly beautiful point on the island. Billowing clouds cartwheel through the tropical sky as giant waves smash into the cliffs, sending plumes of whitewater hundreds of feet into the air. If you could hear above the roar of the surf, you’d hear the cry of the hawks above who make this part of the island home. After the megalithic period on Rapa Nui famous for its giant Moai, the local tribes on the island realized that they needed a device to help them allocate the resources on the island. Instead of warring with each other they devised a contest where the fittest and strongest warrior in each tribe, of which there were at least twelve scattered over the island, would gather annually to compete in the Kavi-Kavi or birdman ceremony as it is spoken of now. This was an event that saw these young men scale down these giant cliffs which reach five hundred meters to the ocean below. There they would paddle a crude reed raft across the channel to Motu Nui, the small island a mile to the south west of the cliffs. There they would have to scale the cliffs and find the egg of the Manutara bird. This was not an easy egg to find because it blended in to the surrounding rock. Then securing the egg in the folds of their hair they would then have to return across the channel and climb the giant cliffs. The first warrior back to Orono with his egg intact would secure the leadership rights for his tribe for the next year. It was an undertaking of great courage and athletic ability and matched the task that Sarah faced as she rounded the cliffs.
There are many people on the island who believe that Rapa Nui is like a smaller version of the world and that the problems it faces affect us all over the world wherever we may live. Our cause is to raise awareness for the dangers of ocean plastic, but I have to stop and pause at the ingenuity of the bird man ceremony. It seems the rest of the world hasn’t yet caught up with this ancient civilization in its forward-thinking efforts to avoid war and settle conflict without loss of life.
It was like the spirits of these ancient warriors came down from the cliffs to help guide and encourage their modern-day kindred spirit. Where days before I had been tossed about like flotsam and jetsam in the mixture of wind, swell and current, Sarah cut a swath through the mayhem, leaving behind a small wake of her own in the process. As we rounded the point a cheer rang out from the boat. I looked up to see the imposing façade of Poike to the north emerge from behind the black rock of the Rano Kau Volcanic crater, the resting place of Hotu Matu, the first Rapa Nui king. Sarah celebrated by flashing a shaka and the boat crew blasted Thunderstruck by ACDC in celebration. One down two to go. The forecast winds for this part of the swim have not materialized and Sarah has taken full advantage of the gap. As we round the base of Rano Kai a storm lumbers into position behind us. The dark clouds are menacing and rain and wind whip the surface of the ocean around it into a frenzy.
The Three Bays
Vinapu to Vaihu
All the shades of the ocean are evident in this shallow bay.
Close in emerald in patches offset by the submerged black reef. Further out turquoise gives way to royal blue. 320kgs of plastic is pulled from the base of this little cove in a matter of hours. When we walk these cliffs and coves days later our hearts break with the volume of plastic driven into the rocks. We are speechless. Sarah swallows hard and blinks. Her face flushes and I see the rising anger sharpen her features. She collects what she can, but both figuratively and literally it’s just a drop in the ocean.
The swell on the day we pass that bay is gigantic, lighting up Rapa Nui’s most feared and revered surf break, which aims its lava shelf directly into the South Westerly swells that march in from the Antarctic. Tanga Roa is where these deep ocean swells make landfall. Even from far out to sea I can see the plumes of spray billowing off the crest of the waves and hear the roar of surf as they focus on the lava shelf and then run across the rocks into the shallow bay. Such is the local respect for this wave that when referring to it, it is always spoken of as ‘Papa Tanga Roa’. I surf there a few days later when the swell has dropped and the place still scares me senseless. The force of the water drawing off the shelf creates an incredibly hollow and fast breaking wave. One mistake and you will be driven into the sharp, shallow urchin infested lava shelf. I nearly blow it on one wave, but somehow, I recover and make the drop. Shakily I have to sit quietly in the channel afterwards to collect my wits. Energy on Rapa Nui I’m beginning to realize is not in short supply.
As we approach Vaihu, the winds that have been kind to us all morning shift slightly and increase in strength. Sarah is swimming in a straight line from Ranu Kau to Poike, so she is cutting across the three distinct bays of the South Coast. There is no hiding in the lee of the bays because we are too far out to sea. She takes a foot of wind chop into her face every time she breaths to the left. Far away on the land the cattle and horses graze peacefully in paddocks secured with handmade stone walls. Out here in the ocean there is no respite and the wind is increasing. It feels like it is being sucked over the low saddle that links the high points of the north and south of the island. It’s hard work in the kayak and it’s getting harder, I can only imagine what it must be like to swim though. After a conference with Tavo I decide to switch to the smaller of the two kayaks we’ve brought. It’s a good call with the reduced resistance the smaller kayak rides cheerfully through the swells and wind. Sarah still has to swim through it and it’s a long hard slog.
Sarah Houston can see she’s slipped into a down. The chemistry between these two women is extraordinary. In a separate conversation I have with Sarah Houston I ask her why they work so well together.
“Not only is Sarah talented, but she has a work ethic to match. She leaves no stone unturned in ensuring she’s prepared. Be it her nutrition, psychology, or strength, she dots every I and crosses every T. Add to this a perfect cocktail of being focused and having drive, but at the same time being relaxed and easy going. She trusts in and enjoys the process in the build up to her swims. She’s learnt that things will turn out just as they should in the end. It says much about her faith. We were fortunate to cross paths, I came with a complimentary nature and skill set. We without saying recognize that we bring out the best in each other which forges a path of trust. I always joke with her that she has a mind of a steel trapdoor. Once she’s swung it shut on an idea it is as good as done!”
She reads Sarah’s body language the way Tavo and Konui read the ocean currents. She dons her goggles and jumps in to swim next to Sarah, matching her stroke for stroke and lifting her spirits in the process. Soon I see Sarah’s stroke lengthening and bursts of her ‘thunder kick’ become evident again as I get splashed on the kayak. It’s a dunking I’m happy to have. I wipe the saltwater from my face and quietly marvel at the bond between these two exceptional athletes. Coach and swimmer, but so much more than that. Sarah swims with Sarah for two feeds. That is how we measure time on the swim. Rentia takes over the feeding duties and Wofty and Marta step up to deliver the feeds with the effervescent Marta cheerfully at the helm of the little zodiac. She pilots the small craft like it’s an extension of her body while Hian keeps Anakena on track. Toto keeps spreading her magic positive vibes, Wofty takes thousands of images. Despite his aversion to being at sea Erik focuses on the filmmaking task at hand. Tavo, Ka Nui and I work in rotation on the kayak. I’m humbled to be part of such a dynamic team.
It takes forever to reel in Rano Rarakua, the birthplace of all the Moai that have become synonymous with Rapa Nui. Even from far out at sea I can make out the distinct shapes of the Moai cast in various states of relief on the hillside. The Megalithic sculptural carvings hail from the soft sand stone that is unique to that part of the island. Once completed these giant Moai were ‘walked’ to the furthest reaches of the island. My mind marvels at the determination and effort it must have taken to do this. On the slopes lie broken Moai like shattered dreams undone before they could be delivered to their intended resting place. As if in tribute to the effort of the ancients, Rano Rarakua demands a tax to pass and it’s a steep tax, this turns out to be one of the hardest parts of the swim for Sarah, but also for her crew. Rentia, who never gets sea sick, has succumbed in the increasingly rough conditions. Erik has so much medication in him he is batting to stay awake. Tavo is injured when returning from his stint on the kayak to the boat a wind swell tilts the boat as he is jumping, causing him to lose his footing and bash his shin against the side of the boat. Blood spurts from the injury immediately. Despite her sea sickness Rentia cleans the wound with assistance from Wofty and Toto. Tavo, true to his nature, grits his teeth and soldiers on like it’s a mere scratch.
As a team we’ve been so focused on the three major points of the island that we’ve forgotten that there is nearly twenty kilometers of hard swimming to be done to move between them. Rano Rarakua reminds us of this in no uncertain terms. Constantly moving between yacht to zodiac to kayak to swimmer and back is a complex and dangerous task in these kinds of seas. I glance over my shoulder and the storm that has been following us since we rounded Rano Kau has followed us across the first two bays, cutting off escape to the south. Even though we can feel the giant groundswell pulsing beneath us, we are still navigating into the wind. The doorway to the south remains firmly closed. There is no turning to run with the wind, we have to swim through it until we round the island at Poike. Even if the navy hadn’t closed the harbor, mother nature has.
From far out to sea we watch the fifteen Moai of Tagariki shape out of the landscape. It is like there is an easing to our passage. The handbrake that has dogged us for the past few hours is released as the iconic Ahu holds up the fifteen giant Moai. It must have been a very powerful time in the history of the island to create and shape this monument to their gods and ancestors. These giant sentries face inwards towards Rano Raraku and a small plane that would have been home to countless villages and people over the years. They are angled so that it looks as if they are facing the top of the mountain, like the mountain is holding some deep and ancient secret. Where before the island was demanding a tax, in the last and the smallest of the three bays I feel like we’re getting a push. As we approach the island sentinel of Motu Maratiri, I can see Sarah squaring up to the challenge that she now faces. Preventatively Sarah Houston insists on another anti-nausea suppository as she approaches the cliff face.
Mata Te Pari – Watching the whitecaps
In a private message to Kirsten Van Heerden, Sarah’s psychological coach, I describe what it is like to swim in these waters after my recce a few days previously.
I think this swim will give Sarah the challenge she’s looking for. I swam in six key points around the island yesterday and in two of them (the SW and NE points) Ï have honestly never felt such opposing forces of the ocean all colliding against each other. Picture a 3m @ 17 second period swell slamming into a cliff hundreds of feet high. After detonation all that energy reverbs into the next oncoming swell. Add to this a strong opposing ocean current, topped by a 15-knot surface wind swell. I have huge respect for what she is going to try and do. She will definitely need to engage four by four to get around these points. In between these key points there is respite though. She’s going to have to work through the tough patches (about 5km each) to enjoy the longer downsides. The water is a warm 24 degrees and very salty which makes it buoyant and the vis is off the charts at 30m plus. It’s like swimming through beautiful liquid mayhem…”
In warring times of old resourceful survivors would find refuge in the cliffs of Poike. To survive there, you had to be a good swimmer and you had to be able to make do on meagre rations. With Sarah swimming faithfully at my side I paddled us into the liquid vortex marveling at the combination of land and seascape that the ancients passed through all those years before us. Her trust in me to guide her is a huge responsibility, but I have no doubt in her swimming ability. I can feel the suck of the current coursing around the island taking hold of us and pulling us backwards. Progress against the cliffs slows down dramatically. Sarah swims and in between breaths I can see she’s smiling. I can’t believe it, she’s enjoying this!
A low whistle sounds from the boat. Tavo and Ka Nui are on the foredeck of the yacht. Tavo makes a simple and subtle hand signal to the right. I see what he’s pointing at. The locals call this place Mata Te Pari or ‘watching the white caps’. It is notorious for being one of the most dangerous places on the island. Right then I see what Tavo is showing me. I don’t speak Spanish and he doesn’t speak a word of English but my brother from the ocean is telling me clear as day to move right and swim across the current. I alter course and half an hour later I feel us break free from its hold. Progress against the cliff face resumes at a satisfactory pace. I pride myself in my ability to read ocean currents, but if Tavo hadn’t shown me that one at Mata Te Pari I don’t know how long it would have taken Sarah to swim through it. We are running well ahead of schedule and even though I know we have a long way to go the computations I’m doing in my mind tell me that if we keep going at this rate we’ll have to make landfall in the dark in the small hours of the morning. I remind myself to focus on the task in hand and stop worrying about the future. She still has to swim around twenty-five kilometers after rounding the Poike point.
As soon as we are in the northern lee of the island the giant swells abate blocked by the land. The wind is now side onshore coming over Sarah’s right shoulder. I put on my mask and long dive fins and dive deep beneath Sarah to get an underwater shot for the camera crew. I’m far below her as she passes over me. She tells me later that she got excited thinking I was a sea creature of sorts, that was until she realized it was just me hanging out in the big blue. The water is so clear it is like a mirror to one’s soul. I feel the depth of the ocean pressure giving me a squeeze, it’s like a great big hug from mother nature. I count seven different shades of blue before reluctantly returning to the surface. My peaceful reverie is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a storm bearing down on us from the north. Back on the boat Marta is battening down the hatches in preparation for the wind and oncoming deluge. I’ve experienced these kind of storms at sea before. Getting wet is not the issue. Visibility can be reduced to within a few feet in seconds. Tavo, Ko Nui and I have a discussion about navigation in reduced visibility and agree to keep the kayak and Sarah close to the boat when it hits. But it never does, magically it pauses about a kilometer from us and we swim past on towards Anakena marveling at our luck. Sarah is making good time and just before we reach Anakena darkness falls suddenly after a spectacular sunset.
There is a big psychological impact when the sun goes down. Sarah has endured many hours of night swimming, so it’s nothing new to her, but I know each time she does it she has to gear up for it mentally. A long hard swim in the dark faces her. The first part of the swim was good, the second part was hard and I know that this last third will require vasbyt. Vasbyt is a wonderful Afrikaans word that we use in South Africa. Literally translated it means ‘bite hard’, what it means is hold on, hang in there and never give up even though you are feeling pain. I’m in the kayak next to her when the sun goes down as she feeds and as my shift on the kayak is rotated to Tavo’s watch I ask Sarah if she’d like company. She replies affirmative, so I jump in and join her. To keep up with Sarah even though she’s swum around forty kilometers by this point I need to wear my bodysurfing fins. These increase my reach and glide and compensate somewhat for what is a very ordinary stroke. I jump in expecting cool darkness and nothing but pain.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The waxing half-moon is reflecting off the coral deep below. Specs of phosphorescence light up as our hands enter the water. As I breath to my left I see Sarah swimming with the precision and timing of a metronome. It is beautiful to watch her swim this close up. Her stroke is perfect, extended and efficient. Behind her I can clearly make out the lights at Anakena as we slip past eating up the darkness. To my right I watch the moon and the southern cross hanging over us. My body relaxes into the gentle rhythm of just swimming. The aches and pains accumulated from the day’s paddling on the kayak melt away into the distance, stroke by stroke. My body feels refreshed and my mind clear. I do the calculations in my head and am now certain that we’ll be back at the harbor between three and four in the morning. Lights flash us from the land. Clearly word has spread around the island about Sarah’s swim. Tavo and Konui flash back, signaling our response. It is a boost to Sarah to know there are people out there thinking about her. All too soon I’m called back to my kayak duties.
The north eastern corner of the island at the base of Manga Terevaka has its own little test for us. It’s a very long corner. There is no major swell or ocean currents like on the other two but the distance before you turn the corner is the killer. Sarah puts her head up several times asking are we there yet?’ Finally, a cheer breaks out from Nanakua, the crew on the boat have seen the lights of Hanga Roa in the distance ten kilometers away. Shortly afterwards I get my first siting of the lights and can tell Sarah to look up and see them for herself. She sighs a huge sigh and rolls over onto her back for a rest. Before she can lose her momentum Sarah H jumps in and starts swimming next to her urging her onwards. As she reaches half way down the west coast in line with the secret caves of Ana Kakenga I can tell she is really hurting. With Sarah H now swimming next to her. Rentia, Wofty and Marta assume control of the feeds. The team is fluid, flowing where it needs to, to get the job done.
Four kilometers from the finish and I hear three hard blasts on the whistle. This is the sign from the kayak to the boat that there is a problem. I immediately jump in the zodiac with Marta to go and investigate. Sarah H shouts to me that she needs a bronco-dilator and glycerin. Sarah’s throat is closing up from prolonged exposure to the very high salinity of the sea water around the island. My thoughts escape to the complications that unfolded for Cristian Vergara and my heart sinks. There is no way I can allow Sarah to get that close to danger. I return with the bronchodilator and glycerin. Rentia also makes the trip out to asses her with her stethoscope and is assured that for the time being she might be uncomfortable but she is not critical and still good to swim. And swim she does. As we enter the last two kilometers of the swim, Sarah keeps breaking left towards the shore and the lights of the town, but this also pulls her closer to the danger of several rocky out crops not to mention the big surf breaking on shallow coral. Reluctantly she heeds my warning and continues swimming parallel to the shore. We still have a little way to go but she just wants to get back to land now. The last two kilometers are excruciatingly slow and painful for her. I’m on the kayak when Marta brings me a message from the Navy. The port is still closed due to the giant swell and they want us to terminate the swim behind backline. I know this will be a bittersweet way to conclude such a heroic effort but in good conscience I know that I can’t guide her through the gap in the rocks. Sarah tells me in no uncertain terms she definitely wants to finish where she started. I hastily convene a discussion with Konui and Tavo. This is their turf. Having grown up in these bays they know this coastline and its moods better than anyone. They feel confident they can find the entrance in the reef that will enable her passage back into the port safely. For anyone else this would be sheer madness.
Sarah H and I have both spent a lifetime in surf zones surfing and lifesaving. You couldn’t get better guides in the whole of the south Pacific to guide us than Tavo and Konui and Sarah is a genetic freak of nature. Collectively I liked our odds but was still concerned as surf zones by their nature are always dynamic.
On the beach I can hear firecrackers, cheering and shouts of encouragement. Clearly word has spread about the crazy South African girl who has swum around the island and even though it is three in the morning many locals have come down to see history being made with their own eyes. At that moment out of the darkness emerges a Rapa Nui fishing boat. Unbeknown to us a friend of Tavo’s has slipped out of the port somehow to offer his assistance. Clearly the Rapa Nui and the Navy have different definitions of what constitutes a ‘çlosed’ harbor. Tavo and Konui both climb on the double kayak and I jump back in the water with my fins to swim with the two Sarah’s for the final stretch. I’m desperately worried about them coming undone in the surf and hitting one of the shallow coral heads in the bay before rounding the breakwater into the small harbor.
The Beautiful People
Sarah is confident in her ability to swim long distances in the ocean often in adverse conditions. She is driven by her faith and a desire to leave the world a better place than she found it. When she started doing these long swims several years ago there wasn’t nearly as much awareness for the dangers plastic poses to our oceans as there is now. There is a growing groundswell of activism and awareness that Sarah is proudly part of. She’s quick to point out that she is just one person doing what she can, but perhaps what she didn’t realize was the uniting effect that her swim would have on both the visiting and local environmental activists. Her objective gave us all a common goal and united us in a way we never expected. It forged bonds between all of us that were as welcome as they were unexpected. From the support team on the beach, to the crew on the boat to the two amazing kayak guides, the Navy boat and our last-minute addition of a rogue fishing boat, to the locals who streamed down to the docks everyone’s objective was focused on one thing. Sarah finishing the swim successfully and safely.
Tataku Vave – Counting the waves
As we approached the point at which we would turn left and swim through the surf back to the harbor Tavo and Konui and the fishing boat paused. We were lined up with the swimmers in front, the kayakers a little further out, and the fishing boat further out still. Sarah was impatient wanting to just put her head down and go, but Sarah H and I soothed her telling her to be patient. Suddenly through the darkness we hear shouts from the fishing boat. Then Tavo and Konui are shouting to us Go! Go! Go! They urge as they launch the kayak forward with perfect symmetry in their powerful strokes.
A couple of days later when I’m sitting out the back of Mario Tuki’s house recounting the events of that day and night I explain this to him. He cradles his infant daughter in one arm while casually eating a fresh guava with the other.
“Do you know what we call that place where they brought you in?”
“No”. I replied.
“There is an Ahu there called Tataku Vave, it means counting the waves. Our ancestors observed the ritual exactly as Tavo and Konui did timing the sets to make sure they navigated the surf zone. It is one of the sacred places on the island.”
Waves wash over us as we swim down the side of the reef close to the surf zone, but I can feel from their energy that these are not the big set waves, but the smaller in between ones. They push us shorewards but do not drive us into the shallow reef below. Sarah rounds the harbor as I hear the first of a giant set wave break outside and close out the channel, but we are safe. Tavo and Konui have timed our entry to perfection. Sarah H and I trail Sarah as she swims up towards the jetty. Spontaneously she explodes into a butterfly stroke to finish her swim on the strongest possible note she can. I can hear Sarah H laughing next to me. The harbor is in uproar. We catch Sarah as she stops swimming at the step of the jetty exactly where she started swimming nineteen hours and eight minutes previously. We embrace in the water, Tavo dives off the kayak and joins in the group hug. It’s a magical moment and it is real, she’s done it, a new world first in swimming, but so much more than that! She’s united a global band of eco warriors with the local custodians of Rapa Nui culture. She has reached across international borders, and complex cultural minefields to unite everyone from the Captain of the Chilean navy in Rapa Nui to the local fishermen and people who came down to the docks to support her. On the other side of the world news reaches South Africa and her fans and supporters cheer loudly for her there too.
Leis are placed around Sarah’s neck and a crown of flowers on her head as she leaves the water. She is allowed a brief celebration before being whisked away by Carlos Schlack, the director of the local hospital for a comprehensive medical checkup. The rest of her team linger on the dock a little while longer exchanging hugs with each other and the locals who’ve come down to support Sarah. The vibe is amazing a complete celebration of success.
Fernando Gallegos comes up to me just as I’ve got out of the water. It is 03h20 and he is in full Navy uniform. He shakes my hand vigorously, several times.
“Congratulations to Sarah and her team. We had no doubt she would complete the swim, we just never expected her to be… so fast!”.
I don’t think even the most optimistic of her team (except perhaps the two Sarahs) expected her to maintain such a pace through such adverse conditions.
She averaged around eighteen minutes per kilometer for sixty three kilometers. We find out later she lost 3.5kg and burned at least 12 000 calories in her journey around the island.
Tears in the moonlight
I ride in the back of the pick-up back to the hotel to get dry clothes before we go and fetch Sarah from the hospital. I’m sharing the open back with Ale, one of the receptionists at Hotel Hotu Matua, the hotel on the island who has kindly sponsored the entire teams accommodation for two weeks. I’m still processing the success and reflect on a day of amazing co-incidence and courage. It feels as if the island allowed us to travel around her on this day. As we arrived at each ‘door’ in our journey it magically opened for us and then clanged shut behind us. The harbor was closed fifteen minutes after we left it. If we’d left half an hour later we wouldn’t have been allowed to leave. The winds forecast for the early part of the swim didn’t materialize, this made the swim around Rano Kau so much easier than it should have been. The storm that followed us from there to Poike never overran us. At Mata Te Pari, Tavo spotted a current that I missed enabling Sarah to squeak around the Poike point much faster. Add that to the time she saved going around Ranu Kai and this contributed to her blistering pace around the island, something that caught us all by surprise. If she’d had to spend another five to six hours in the water it is likely that she could have experienced severe distress because of the effect of the high salinity in her mouth and throat and we may have had to pull her out early. The storm that threatened us as we approached Anakena paused for just long enough for us to pass by. As we approached the final hurdle of entering the harbor, which was technically still closed, we had the two most skilled guides on the island to show us the way. Somehow, we were able to make us of the local Rapa Nui knowledge but not piss off the Chilean navy in the process. I explained all this to Ale as we bumped over the rutted roads back to the hotel. I looked up at the stars and the setting yellow half-moon that had perfectly illuminated the entire night time part of the swim. I look back to Ale, she is crying, silent tears of joy streaming down her face. She explains to me you cannot live here and not be connected to the island, it’s a living breathing thing. She says our mana was good today. I agree. As a team we were focused, peaceful and co-operative. Sarah was determined and confident and performed at her athletic peak and the island allowed us safe passage. As we bump down the rutted tracks I feel a dawning spirituality in me.
I recall my discussion with Mario Tuki. He explains that many people think of mana as power, but he likes to think of it as synchronicity. This makes so much sense to me in the context of Sarah’s swim. He reminds me of the Umu ceremony which they held for us prior to the swim.
“Sometimes if we forget to ask for permission, the island reminds us to ask for it.” He smiles as says this.
“It is normal for us to have a spiritual connection to the land, but perhaps the feeling is more profound to people who don’t usually live with that level of spiritual awareness. The island can also wake your demons.”
I ponder how closely the local Rapa Nui people live to nature, and how deep the appreciation and love of the land and sea they live in and on is. I imagine how offensive it must be to have the rest of the world’s plastic waste wash up daily onto your shores. By having a relationship with nature, it is almost impossible not to feel this spiritual connection to the world you live in. If you have a spiritual connection with your world the last thing you want to do is fill it up with plastic and other toxic waste. I think again of the wisdom of the ancient Kavi – Kavi or Birdman ceremony and how it avoided the conflict of war replacing it with athletic competition and think how in many ways the local Rapa Nui people are so much further ahead of the rest of the world in pioneering a more sustainable lifestyle and preserving the environment for the next generation.
On our last day on the island I run up Maunga Terevaka, it is the highest of all the mountains on the island on the north western corner of the island. I want to be able to take in the enormity of Sarah’s swim with one vista, where I can simultaneously view all the points of the island. I pass through a rain shower and many false summits before reaching the summit. It appears as if someone has prepared a massive bonfire on the peak with a collection of dried logs.
From there I look back towards the town of Hanga Roa, the cliffs of Mataveri and onwards on to Orono and the volcanic crater of Ranu Kau. My head turns left as I sweep along the three bays of the south side towards the back of Ranu Raraku and onwards to Poike and Mata Te Pari. All around the island and dotted in the ocean are little rain showers. My eyes caress the north coastline as I continue my anticlockwise journey past Anakena to where I now stand on Maunga Terevaka. From there I turn my head and complete the circumnavigation back to Hanga Roa in the distance.
To stand here and think that someone swam all the way around all those points seems absurd, the enormity and scale of what I’m looking at is unbelievable. Yet I was there, I saw the whole thing with my own eyes! I also know how incredibly well prepared she was. Perspective helps us understand where we’ve come from and can light the path for where we are going. I consider the example Sarah has set for us both as an athlete and an environmental activist. To achieve what she did, she had to be the best possible version of herself and perform at her peak and she was supported by an amazing team of sponsors, guides and seconds who shared her passion. As I turn to run back down the mountain I resolve to reach a little higher and dig a little deeper in my own endeavors to live more harmoniously in Nature.
Acknowledgements and thanks
To all the people of Rapa Nui who welcomed us so warmly to your beautiful island, thank you for your hospitality.
Thank you to Sarah Ferguson for including me on your team. You are an inspiration.
To the rest of Sarah’s support team, Sarah Houston as coach, Rentia Denissen, Sarah’s Sport Medicine practitioner and Homeopath, Angelika Sandri, the most amazingly gifted Masseuse, Kirsten Van Heerden her friend, fellow swimmer and psychological coach, Lynne Mackey her biokineticist, Kerry Gibson her sports nutritionist. You all help to bring out the best in Sarah.
Karl Oftebro aka ‘Wofty Wild’ and Erik Aleynikov thank you for documenting this adventure with such good humor and energy.
To Marta Vigoroux of Yacht Nanaku and your 2IC on Nanaku Hian Schneider thank you for your positive energy and amazing ocean skills.
To Gustavo ‘Tavo’ Ogaz, Karina Navea from Kayak Rapanui and Te Manu Ko Nui Gabriel Lillo, my fellow kayakers, you are my brothers and sister from the ocean. Thank you for your energy, knowledge and expert guidance.
To Fernando Gallegos Captain of the Hanga Roa Harbor, thank you for believing in us, giving us permission to do the swim and for allocating a fast Navy boat to provide assistance if needed.
To Carlos Schlack Medical Doctor and head of the hospital on Rapa Nui, thank you for your comprehensive dedication to protecting Sarah’s well being. Your post swim care of her definitely helped speed up her recovery.
To Enrique Icka, Mahani Teave and Mario Tuki from Toki Music School, thank you for performing the Umu Ceremony for us. It was a deeply moving experience for the whole team and we have no doubt it played a large role in Sarah’s success.
To Mario Tuki, thank you for the translations and cultural insights you shared.
To Sergio Mata’u Rapu director of the film Éating up Easter’, thank you for the generous sharing of your knowledge about Rapa Nui and it’s culture, history and legends.
To William Pfeiffer, Julie Andersen and Tod Hardin from Plastic Oceans USA. You guys were so much more than sponsors! Thank you for the support, energy and belief. I can’t wait to share another adventure with you.
To Mark Minneboo, Camila Ahrendt aka ‘Toto’and Viviana Pinto from Plastic Oceans Chile, thank you all so much for the amazing logistics and on the ground work you did to make sure our stay was pleasant, productive and successful.
To Jeff Basset from Footprint, thank you for your sponsorship, your big ideas and willingness to help wherever you could.
To Jamie Sergeant from Crowd, thank you for the sponsorship and encouragement, your positivity was a wonderful asset to our endeavor.
To Ále’Alejandra Roberts and Chris from Rapanui Dream and Hotel Hotu Matua and “Vicky” Victoria Barra from Hotu Matua, your hospitality was unsurpassed, thank you for making us feel at home on the other side of the world.
To Hotel Hotu Matua thank you for sponsoring the whole teams stay.
To Rapanui Dream thank you for providing the vehicles and the tour of the island.
To Miguel, Che and Patrice for taking me surfing.
To Te Mau O Te Vaikava and Ludovic Tuki Burns thank you for the work you do removing plastic from the beaches.
Hotel Hotu Matua
Rapa Nui Dream