Hoping to avoid the likelihood of being hindered by very strong currents, I have been swimming across Tsugaru Strait as quickly as possible. Blessed by Mother Nature with favorable conditions – light winds and calm seas – I feel as though I have been making decent progress in my quest to reach Hokkaido. And though grateful for wonderful swimming conditions, this scenario seemed too good to be true; I figured it would only be a matter of time before things changed. Besides, the Dragon couldn’t possibly sleep all day.
Now happily advancing towards land with minimal shoulder pain, I suddenly feel the force of the water push against me. Up to this point I have been swimming parallel to the boat, and consistently maintaining a 10-15 yard distance. Just close enough to read the messages on the whiteboard, and just far enough away to feel the freedom and joy of being in the ocean alone. A strong upwelling of very cold currents pushes my body so hard that I am now swimming perpendicular to the boat. I watch with frustration as I struggle to stay close to the boat and land becomes more elusive. The Dragon - quietly sleeping all this time - is stirring.
I watch his tail flick sporadically side to side. Having quietly navigated the entire length of his body without incident, I am alarmed at this discovery. Perhaps he is dreaming. Perhaps he is waking. I am not sure. With each forceful flick of his tail, I am thrust back to where I began. Undeterred, I push ahead despite making minimal progress. Digging my hands into the current, I drive the water past my hips as powerfully as possible. As I continue to break every 30 minutes for brief feedings, I fully grasp the intensity of this current. Although the boat is in neutral during each fuel stop, it is pushed by the current and within mere seconds zips past me. I drop the feeding bottles and dig in with my stroke again and push onwards. Hours seem to pass as I repeat this sequence without any progress.
Feeling a break in the current, I lift my head briefly and look towards land. To my surprise I have no more than 1/4 mile to go. I stop with disbelief and look at my crew for verification. “GO GO GO!” Yell my crew. I can hardly believe it. The water is too shallow to bring the boat any closer so I am now instructed to make my own way towards land. A burst of energy propels me forward. Closing in on Hokkaido, details of rocks and seaweed come into view beneath me as I move across the water. Lifting my head to check for land, I focus on the brown rocks set against the nearby jagged shoreline. A gentle swell assists me as I breaststroke carefully towards my goal. Overwhelmed with my reality, tears fill my goggles. I reach both hands in front of me and make contact with the course-grained slippery texture of the rock. Out of nowhere I fist-pump my right hand into the air. Catching this odd behavior (I have never fist-pumped in my life) I laugh through my tears. Where on earth did that come from? I ask myself.
With my finish verified by my observer Mika and my crew cheering, I make my way back to the boat. The current is making it very difficult for me to grab onto the ladder of the boat. After some attempts, I am now finally hanging on to the ladder. With a firm grip of the ladder rung, I take a moment to compose myself. A few deep breaths, and I step out of the Dragon’s den, crawling my way up onto the boat. Feeling my Mum’s gentle hand on my back I burst into tears. “I am so proud of you!” she exclaims. As my crew claps enthusiastically, Mum hugs me and wraps me protectively in a towel.
“Ok… so how long do you think you have been swimming for?” asks my Mum. “12 hours 42 minutes!” I blurt with confidence. Mum shakes her head with an enormous smile. Skeptical, I look towards my observer. “9 hours 38 minutes” confirms Mika with an even bigger smile as she hands me the stopwatch. My exact swim time is 9:38:58. I cannot believe it. I was sure that I had been swimming for much longer. Prior to traveling to Japan I had taken careful note of harrowing stories from much faster swimmers detailing failed attempts and endless struggles against the notoriously brutal currents in equally challenging weather conditions. Clearly I had been exceptionally lucky.
Surprised and relieved beyond my wildest dreams, I thank my crew with hugs and high fives. Captain Mizushima turns the boat and heads back towards Honshu. Moving away from Hokkaido I notice the wind whip aggressively against the New Zealand flag. White caps suddenly appear on the surface of the water and I am happily drenched by waves launching over the side of the boat. Mum turns to me with a huge grin and says, “I think the Dragon just woke up.”