Swimming duo take on daunting swim
By Julia Wade
Jelly fish, cold waters and the close companionship of a hammer head shark is not enough to deter two inspiring local long-distance swimmers from diving back into the deep blue once again.
Enduring winter seas and early hours throughout their training which began in June 2017, Simon Bennett, co-owner of Astute NZ, and Jacquelyn Schirmer from Mangawahi Osteopathy, emerged together from Mangawhai Heads surf after completing a six hour sea challenge – swimming the 11-plus kilometres from Sail Rock to Mangawhai surf beach. The day of their swim just happened to fall on Mangawhai Heads Volunteer Lifeguard Service’s annual Beach Day, and the intrepid pair were greeted by a rousing round of applause from the crowd.
“Arriving on the beach with hugs, claps and smiles was pure joy,” Jacquelyn says. “The last two hours of the swim were quite mentally hard, but when I was told by the surf clubs’ IRB that there was a crowd waiting, I became inspired and more determined to not end at the dune but to swim the extra distance to the surf club.”
Simon says it was just coincidence their swim coincided with the surf life savers event, as they had originally scheduled for the day before but had to change due to their support team not being available.
“It was great to finish with Beach Day happening,” he says, “So many people clapping as we came out of the water, which was pretty neat. Quite unexpected and somewhat overwhelming really.”
Diving into the water around Sail Rock at 6.45am – accompanied by two kayaks, a boat with five support people, mild south-east winds and northern current which dragged the pair towards Bream Bay – was daunting Simon says.
“A bit weird putting those first few strokes in knowing that you had to keep doing that until you got to the other side,” he says. “I remember thinking that every journey begins with a single step, or in our case, stroke.”
Stopping every 30 mins for hydration and food, the swimmers saw only the odd jellyfish floating past, although Simon was told that a hammerhead shark became close company at one stage.
“But they don’t bite anyway and I didn’t see it so no issue really,” he says.
Jacquelyn says she’s made friends with the sea life now and admits to even loving jellyfish.
“I try and smile when I see them now. They still sting me but alas, I'm in their home.”
The pair say the last few kilometres was a struggle with fatigue and getting-fed-up-with-swimming kicking in.
“But eventually after about 36,000 strokes your feet hit the sand” Simon says. “Then it’s over and kind of hard to believe that we have really done it. I don't really remember much of the swim… you get into a bit of a zone, sort of meditative. The cold beer over lunch tasted unbelievable though.”
The two locals became swimming partners due to Jacquelyn needing a swim buddy to train with for her next personal challenge – swimming the Cook Strait in early 2019. Simon says his wife Megan volunteered his services as “she thought I could do with the exercise.”
Crossing the Strait is a step towards an even bigger challenge for Jacquelyn, who admits to “always having a challenge on the go”. She plans to eventually take on the English Channel, an event she qualified for in 2011 after making a promise to a former coach over a gin and tonic.
For Simon, the idea of swimming from Sail Rock to Mangawhai Heads had been a “fleeting thought” for the last 10 years, as “it’s never been swum before”.
“Although that idea left my thoughts as fast as they entered them,” he says. “But when I started swimming with Jacquelyn, I suggested we try it although we didn’t tell too many people just in case we didn’t get to do it!”
The pair have pushed their abilities to the limit with challenging distances including the 6.6km from Paihia to Russell, 6km Langs to Waipu, and a couple of 9km Langs to Mangawhai, “with Jacquelyn always insisting we swam it both ways” Simon says.
“And even though we started swimming in June, cold wet and windy, Jacquelyn never swam in a wetsuit! I do in winter because I’m not totally insane!”
Jacquelyn’s training schedule is split between five hours swimming in Mangawhai’s waters and driving to Silverdale’s Northern Arena pools before work three times a week, to train with two of New Zealand's top swimming coaches, one who swam the Cook Strait at only 13 years of age.
“I'm investing a lot of time and money and it's all worth it,” she says. “I've done lots of endurance events and have the mental toughness but this one is a bigger challenge than anything I've done before. Simon has been amazing. He's an incredibly strong and talented swimmer and I absolutely couldn't have done the long swims without him.”
Jacquelyn’s efforts have paid off as she can now keep up with Simon in the water whereas before he could easily out pace her.
“She has put so much work into her technique over the last five months; it’s really amazing and a credit to her will and determination. I’ll be trailing behind her before too long.”
Jacquelyn says she also could not have achieved the swim and her ongoing training without the support of family, friends, “my very kind, generous and loving partner Alastair” and the “camaraderie and community spirit” of Mangawhai.
“I've had many offers from people willing to swim or walk the beach while I swim and have a new friend who swims part of the way with me rain, hail or shine,” she says. “Simon and I hope that our swim will inspire people to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.”
Smiles, relief and some disbelief that they actually swam the distance; intrepid local swimmers, Jacquelyn Schirmer and Simon Bennett, enjoy the feel of wet sand between their toes after six hours in the water.