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New Zealand's Maori tribesmen like to tell the story of Hine-poupou and her husband Manini-pounamu, who lived on the South Island in the mid-1800s. Seems that Manini-pounamu fell in love with a younger woman, so he put Hine-poupou into his canoe and paddled her across Cook Strait to the North Island, where he dumped her off and returned to the waiting arms of his lover. More than moderately miffed, Hine-poupou chanted to the gods for strength, then dived into the dangerous waters and swam back to the South Island, buoyed by her anger and guided by a dolphin sent by the gods. Then, while her faithless husband was out fishing, she again called on the gods. A sudden storm swept across Cook Strait and Manini-pounamu was never seen again.
Last week, more than a century after Hine-poupou's fabled dip, another determined woman plunged into the Strait. This time fact overtook fable. Lynne Cox, an 18-year-old California high school senior, became the first certifiably flesh-and-blood female to swim between New Zealand's islands. Lynne missed breaking the record by two hours, 28� minutes, but she set a standard of moral courage that may outlive even the legend. For 12 hours and three minutes Lynne clawed into five-foot swells and 25-knot winds to reach a kelp-covered rock on the South Island.
The journey—13� miles from the North Island's Ohau Point to the South Island's Perano Head—is not a far piece as long-distance swims go, but powerful and unpredictable tides make it one of the most difficult in the world. Not until 34 years after the time of the first attempt was Cook Strait conquered by a swimmer and only twice since has that crossing been repeated, although there have been nearly 20 attempts.
Several factors make the Strait formidable. Because New Zealand's twin islands form a barrier to ocean currents, water gushes through the Strait as through a sluice. The shores of the Strait are mountainous, so the wind, too, is funneled and gains velocity. Moreover, peaks and valleys on the floor of the Strait distort the frigid submarine currents flowing from the Antarctic, creating countless swirls and eddies.
Usually a Cook swimmer will try for a rough southerly arc to catch the tides going his way—sort of like a golfer with a slice aiming to the left of a green—but more often than not his actual path is a series of S's. Lynne's own route covered 20.2 miles and included seven changes of direction, one of them backward. Add jellyfish, killer whales and sharks to the problems of capricious currents and wild winds, and most point-to-point swimmers will opt for the 21 comparatively peaceful miles across the English Channel any day.
The person who knows more about the quirks and whims of Cook Strait than any other is John Cataldo, a fisherman with 31 years of experience in those waters. Cataldo's knowledge of the currents is as sharp as his weathered fingers are agile; he can roll a cigarette in a storm with one hand as he grips the helm of his boat San Antonino with the other. Cataldo has been a guide for two of the three previously successful swimmers, including the fastest, and has been pilot for all but a few of the attempts in the last dozen years. Now he would shepherd Lynne.
She flew to Wellington with John Sonnichsen, a family friend who has been coaching marathon swimmers for nearly 20 years. Although her coach of record is her elder brother Dave, she would need Sonnichsen's counsel more than physical discipline: she had been training for months by swimming from five to 15 miles a day. Lynne and Sonnichsen had paused in Auckland to recover from jet lag and pick up Sandra Blewett, a New Zealand distance swimmer who had planted the idea of the crossing in Lynne's head when they were both in England to make Channel swims. Sandra had hoped to swim the Strait herself, but a back injury made that impossible, so she joined Lynne as cheerleader and alter ego.
After deciding against a Feb. 3 try because of strong northwesterlies, Cataldo gave the go-ahead for an attempt the following day. The weather forecast was good: early-morning winds of 10-20 knots tapering to five-to-10-knot southerlies for the rest of the day. Too good to be true. The soft southerlies never came. Instead, 25-knot northerlies blew, sometimes gusting to 40 knots.
At three o'clock the morning of Feb. 4, Lynne was taken on the San Antonino to Ohau Point. She slipped into the water at 7:56, the sun still hidden behind the cliffs at her back and the air silent save for the occasional squawk of a sea gull. Within minutes Lynne hit her first obstacle, the vicious Terawhiti rip, which can change direction half a dozen times in 50 yards and has swallowed more than its share of small craft. Paced by a young lifeguard whose surfboard smacked against the swells, she made it safely through the Terawhiti, her orange bathing cap bobbing like a buoy.
Lynne swam the next three hours and 40 minutes at an average pace of 68 strokes per minute, but as she stroked she was being carried sideways, some five miles south of the straight-line path. She had been swimming strongly, but in the next 90 minutes she stopped to rest five times. Then, after more than 5� hours and well past the halfway point, Lynne stopped once more and stared blankly up toward a small boat carrying Sonnichsen and Blewett.