On the crest of a wave: Swimmer recounts his historic swim across the Perhentian Channel

BILL Gates once said that most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.

In 2008, I came to Perhentian Island on assignment for the New Straits Times.

I was to try something called Discover Scuba and look at some artificial reefs that had been installed by Panasonic Malaysia in the waters of the island paradise.

I was also a non-swimmer.

 Feeling on top of the world. Pictures by Ariff Budiman Abdul Halim.
Feeling on top of the world. Pictures by Ariff Budiman Abdul Halim.

Truth be told, that assignment scared me to death. I really thought it was going to be my last assignment for the newspaper.

“If I don’t come back, tell my kids I love them,” I said to my friend, Julia.

My fear stemmed from my inability to tread water — to stay afloat in one spot. It made me fearful of deep water. I could swim short distances but if I had to stop in the middle of my swim for whatever reason, I’d be in deep trouble.

As fate would have it, I survived the assignment. I was so happy to have survived a scuba dive that I made a pun out of it for Julia — belumscuba, belum tahu — meaning, until you try something, you’ll never know if it’s right for you.

I always make puns when I’m happy.

My friend Julia, a German, has since committed this Malay pun to memory.

However, I also became somewhat of a local legend because of that assignment.

Soon after I returned to KL, rumour spread in Perhentian about a certain NST reporter who feared so much for his life that he broke his scuba regulator with his bare teeth!

Now if you know scuba regulators, those things aren’t very fragile! I was furious when I first heard the rumour. Of course there was no truth in it!

Be that as it may, that Perhentian assignment 12 years ago turned out to be a turning point in my life. It was there that I began the process of breaking free from my aquaphobia.

Recently, I returned to Perhentian — this time to complete an 18km solo swim from the island to Besut in the mainland. I’d grown so much. I was both the swimmer and the organiser, and was calling the shots.

I called this event Perhentian Channel Swim. There was no such thing as Perhentian Channel. I coined the name. It was a swim that nobody had done before. Some reckoned it was impossible.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I’d be doing anything like this. In the words of Mr Gates, I certainly did underestimate what I could achieve in 10 years.

UNCONVENTIONAL ROUTE

 By mid-morning, still going strong after so many hours of swimming.
By mid-morning, still going strong after so many hours of swimming.

I had an unconventional route to becoming a swimmer.

I took up scuba diving first before swimming. After that first experience in Perhentian, I found joy in Discover Scuba and repeated it another 10 times, to the point that PADI had to introduce a level called Advanced Discover Scuba just for me.

By the time I decided to do my proper scuba certification in 2009, I was already quite confident underwater.

However, my antics at the surface — my swimming skills — left much to be desired. (A side note: swimming and scuba diving are two different skills that don’t necessarily complement each other. One can be a good swimmer but a horrible diver, and vice-versa.)

My scuba instructor, Dolphin Lee, wasn’t impressed by my inability to swim. As a diver, one mustn’t rely 100 per cent on one’s scuba gear, he said. Lee insisted all his divers must be able to swim.

He certified me as a diver, but also made me go through proper swim instructions after the scuba course.

I’ll never forget that first swim lesson with Lee. Towards the end of the class, he took me to the deep end of the pool and asked me to stand on a starting block. Then he asked me to jump into the water!

 Arriving at Bukit Keluang Beach in Besut after almost nine hours of swimming.
Arriving at Bukit Keluang Beach in Besut after almost nine hours of swimming.

I hesitated. I feared I’d sink straight to the bottom like a rock. I spent a long time staring at the scary-looking water from atop that starting block.

Some youngsters sitting at the poolside saw the predicament I was in and laughed. I think I might have yelled at them something unprintable but also realised I had no other way out.

After what must have been a full 10 or 15 minutes, I finally decided to bite the bullet. I jumped. And when I surfaced, something fantastic happened: my mental barrier had been broken. I discovered that no matter what, my body would come back to the surface.

That was my eureka moment. From that day onward, I’d gleefully jump in wherever I found deep water. After two months with Lee, I could swim laps comfortably. Eventually, I was spending more time swimming than scuba diving.

My confidence grew. I took up pool lifesaving, Rescue Diver and freediving. I was fortunate to be in a circle that encouraged self-improvement. Eventually, I ventured into open water swimming.

 Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 crew members (from left) Damien Ong-Yeoh (crew), Abdul Razak Abdul Aziz (team leader and observer) and Tsuyoshi Amzar Sawada (observer).
Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 crew members (from left) Damien Ong-Yeoh (crew), Abdul Razak Abdul Aziz (team leader and observer) and Tsuyoshi Amzar Sawada (observer).

In 2013, I took part in my first open water race — Kapas Marang International Swimathon, a 6.5km swim from Kapas Island to mainland Terengganu.

I actually joined that race on a dare. An Australian friend named Dave had heard about my regular swims at the pool and challenged me to the 6.5km race.

Not wanting to chicken out, I said yes and found a triathlon coach, Steve Lumley, to correct my stroke. I trained for three months with Steve. Subsequently, I completed that swim and have since repeated it twice.

Kapas Marang was my first-ever open water race. I certainly did go from zero to 6.5km in one morning.

However, it wasn’t as reckless as it sounds. I was already an experienced scuba diver and was comfortable being out in the open sea.

SPREADING MY WINGS

 At 3.30am prior to the swim. Getting help from a crew member to apply copious amount of Vaseline onto the body to prevent chafing.
At 3.30am prior to the swim. Getting help from a crew member to apply copious amount of Vaseline onto the body to prevent chafing.

One of the most nerve-racking swims I’ve ever done was from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco city. Yes, that infamous maximum-security prison from the movie The Rock. The first time I did that swim was in 2015.

The fear wasn’t about depth or distance. It was the cold water — some 2.5km of frigid, 15 Deg C shark-infested water. The event was called Sharkfest Alcatraz. I was the lone Malaysian participant.

To my knowledge, I’m the only Malaysian to have ever swam the Alcatraz.

I didn’t fear drowning. I could tread water. I knew I could stop at any point during the swim if I had to deal with anything. But I did fear catching hypothermia. I feared being reduced to a quivering, cold, wet, helpless Chihuahua that gets eaten by sharks.

There was no such thing as cold water swimming in sunny Malaysia. I had nobody to advise me on how to prepare for a swim in frigid waters.

So I resorted to reading articles, devising unconventional cold water training methods and borrowing a wetsuit from a triathlete friend.

When doing something new and risky, we should ask ourselves what’s the worst that can happen. In this case, Sharkfest Alcatraz was a short swim. With a wetsuit, there was zero chance of developing hypothermia.

 Entering water at 4am to begin the swim.
Entering water at 4am to begin the swim.

So hypothermia wasn’t the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario was failing to finish within the 75-minute cut-off time and getting scooped out of the water by a boat. Which was fine. Having completed the 2015 Sharkfest Alcatraz, the following year I had another go at it — this time without using a wetsuit.

Sharkfest Alcatraz taught me how to take calculated risks. By the time I returned to Malaysia, I was a new swimmer eager to push my limits.

I began taking on longer distances. In 2017, I swam 16km around Perhentian Besar island. I knew then that I could last an awful long time in water. This gave me confidence to tackle that big personal project — Perhentian Channel Swim.

DIFFERENT BALL GAME

 Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 kayaker Mohd Hafizuddin Amlin plays a critical role as a navigator.
Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 kayaker Mohd Hafizuddin Amlin plays a critical role as a navigator.

There’s a world of difference between swimming in organised races such as Kapas Marang and Sharkfest Alcatraz, and the sport of unassisted solo marathon swimming (or ultra-swimming) like Perhentian Channel Swim.

In ultra-swimming, you plan months in advance. You begin by looking at charts to identify the dates with sea conditions that are most favourable for swimming. These days, there are apps you can use to access charts for tides, wind and weather forecasts.

If a swim requires one to cross the border between two countries, permits need to be secured. I’ve learnt through experience that this can involve lots of red tape and money.

 Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 crew Mohd Fahmi Zainal Aripin getting ready to release a drone for video recording.
Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 crew Mohd Fahmi Zainal Aripin getting ready to release a drone for video recording.

Speaking of money, ultra-swimming isn’t a cheap sport. One needs to pay for escort boat, travelling, lodging and hire crew members. So one needs to either have loads of cash or find sponsorship.

One also needs to assemble a team. Ultra-swimming isn’t a one-man show. No swimmer, no matter how good she/he is, can do it alone. One needs a team to perform tasks such as feeding, navigating, documenting and looking out for hazards such as big ships and sharks.

Finally, one needs risk management plans. How do you handle injuries? How do you proceed if your boat breaks down? What sort of weather conditions are considered too adverse to swim in? In some countries where the water’s cold, the crew must also be trained to identify signs of hypothermia in the swimmer.

Planning is such a huge and painstaking part in ultra-swimming that the actual swim feels easy by comparison.

PERHENTIAN CHANNEL SWIM

 Eating peanut butter sandwich while lying on back in water.
Eating peanut butter sandwich while lying on back in water.

For many years I’d been wondering if it was possible to swim from Perhentian Island to mainland Terengganu.

On Google Earth, the straight line distance is 17km. It looked tantalisingly doable. There is Rhu Island along the route that could act as a checkpoint.

I asked a few swimmer friends about doing this swim and was perplexed that nobody wanted to do it.

In September last year during a family trip back to Besut, I decided on a whim to swim from Bukit Keluang Beach to Rhu Island.

I managed to track down a local kayaker called Abe Pie (Brother Pie) for kayak escort. We had a pleasant 5km swim to Rhu Island and back. Pie told me he’d kayaked from Perhentian to mainland before. He covered 17.3km.

A quiet and peaceful dawn time portion of the swim.

He also told me I was the first person to successfully swim to Rhu Island. Others had tried before and failed. Meeting Pie was all the trigger I needed. I could feel the pieces falling into place. The time had come to do that Perhentian to mainland swim.

In November, I began assembling my team and training. It wasn’t easy to plan this swim amid all the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. I consider it a miracle that my team and I made it to Perhentian to execute our plan.

We identified March 21 as the most favourable day to swim. We expected to cover between 18 and 20km in eight hours.

The plan was to start at 4am and finish at noon. I began my swim from Alunan Resort in pitch dark. The decision to start at night was deliberate.

Apart from taking advantage of the tides, I wanted to minimise the time my crew and I spend under the scorching Malaysian sun.

Also, open water night swimming is something I enjoy immensely. It’s magical; it feels as though you’re floating in space. You can see bioluminescence with each arm pull. But this beauty is lost on most people because they’ve never tried it.

 Members of the Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 team.
Members of the Perhentian Channel Solo Swim 2021 team.

I wore a blue LED light on my swim cap to help my crew keep track of me in the dark. It was low tide when we started. I had difficulty getting in the water due to corals at the beach. However, once I hit deeper water, everything went smoothly.

In fact, I’d say for the most part, the swim was easy. The weather was perfect, the sea was calm and I was able to ride on the rising morning tide. The most interesting thing about being in the middle of the sea were the tides.

I could feel the tide pushing me forward during the swim. I was able to propel myself with minimal effort. I’d never experienced this during beach swims or round island swims.

The wind also helped our cause when it changed directions from 4 knots from the south to 5 knots from the northeast according to Windy app.

Because of all these factors, we made good progress and reached Rhu Island, our checkpoint, at 10.15am. From there, it’d be about an hour or so to reach Besut based on my experience swimming there. It really looked like I’d finish this swim ahead of schedule. 

Or so I thought.

All I can say now, after this swim, I have more respect for the waters between Besut and Rhu Island.

About 600m from shore, I was stuck in a current, unable to make progress. I was reduced to flailing my arms just to keep moving. 

At 600m from finishing, the team actually contemplated pulling me out and ending the swim. Instead, team leader Razak jumped in and swam next to me to provide moral support.

After a while, I broke free from that frustrating current and landed on shore, where I prostrated in gratitude.

Time: 8hr 56min 30sec. Distance covered: 19.087km. I had become the first person to swim across the Perhentian Channel.

MARATHON SWIMMING

 Epic journey.
Epic journey.

An important feature of my Perhentian Channel Swim isn’t holding on to the boat, kayak or any other flotation device at any point during the almost nine-hour swim.

During my feeding stops every 45 minutes of the swim, I’d consume food, drinks and Chek Hup Ipoh White Coffee while dancing in place in the sea.

I’d prop myself up using the eggbeater kick technique, or what some call water polo kick technique.

Occasionally, like a sea otter, I’d lie flat on my back on the surface of the water to eat my bananas, energy bars and peanut butter sandwiches.

With this technique, I’m able to remain completely motionless, take my time and conserve energy.

I also laid on my back to perform Subuh prayer during one particular feeding stop. But I can only lie flat on my back for eating. If I try that for drinking, water would shoot up my nose.

 Swimmer Ridzwan Rahim accompanied by his escort boat and kayaker in the middle of the South China Sea.
Swimmer Ridzwan Rahim accompanied by his escort boat and kayaker in the middle of the South China Sea.

Water treading is a critical survival skill. With more people joining open water swims, I find it distressing that so many choose to go into the open water without knowing water treading.

Tow floats — those bright coloured floats tethered to swimmers’ waists — have gained popularity in recent years. Many call them safety buoys. Contrary to the name, however, they actually provide a false sense of security.

It’s a fact that you wouldn’t have time to inflate a tow float or put on your goggles during an actual emergency. You only have your limbs.

 Prostrating in gratitude upon exiting the water at Bukit Keluang Beach, Besut.
Prostrating in gratitude upon exiting the water at Bukit Keluang Beach, Besut.

If we don’t arrest this trend of relying on tow floats, we’ll soon have a generation of swimmers who are actually not very confident in deep water.

I agree that people should use tow floats when the situation calls for it. However, true freedom can only come from knowing you can rely on yourself for survival.

As swimmers, we shouldn’t rely on tow floats. Instead, take time to build our water confidence. Let us become better swimmers for Malaysia.

By : RIDZWAN A. RAHIM – NST

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