Thursday, October 06, 2016

Swim around Pulau Perhentian Besar (15.4 km) on 28 Sep 2016.

I had a Total Hip Replacement Surgery in May 2016 and had done a lot of swimming for rehabilitation (no running or cycling though) and I was just itching to do a really long swim. My swim mileage exceeded 50km per week for eight straight weeks coming into the Perhentian swim on 28 Sept 2016.
Coach Amir of Swimon was organizing an Open Water Swim Camp at Pulau Perhentian from 29 Sep to 2 Oct with international long distance swimmer Jose Lois Larossa as the Lead Coach. I enquired with Amir whether it was possible for me to try a round the island swim and he said that it was possible, as Jose was planning to do the same with a friend from Argentina on 28 Sep. Amir thought I would attempt just a partial swim as I was no international marathon swimmer. I mean, I was 3rd Last at the Bali 10km swim in July 2016. Amir is a competent Open Water Swimming organizer / Certified Coach and originates from Bachok, near Perhentian and has very good local knowledge and contacts (the Open Water Swimming Camp he organized was a resounding success).
Pulau Perhentian also hosts the very popular Annual Perhentian Challenge where Teams of four people would relay (kayak and swim) around the whole island. I enquired with recent Challenge participants Faizol Ramli and Nik Raiha the sea conditions. Their feedback was most valuable, I am most grateful for your feedback guys. Start early, they said and swim anti clockwise because they encountered very strong currents on the eastern side. Five hours to swim just 3km for them. Not actually encouraging information.
The Day Before, Tuesday, 27 Sep 2016 
The international swimmers, myself, Amir and our entourage arrived at Perhentian on 27th Sep. (Tuesday). That night we discussed our strategy for the swim, Amir's face went pale when I impressed upon him my intention to complete the island swim. I mean, who was Sofian? Jose, had just won an 81km  River Swim in India only a few days earlier. Jose could definitely do the swim, but who was Sofian ha ha?
To make matters worse, Jose decided to swim clockwise because of the wind conditions. Jose surely knows what he was doing, I thought. But people that I trust (Faizol Ramli and Nik Raiha) had advised me to swim anti clockwise. Now, I am a self taught swimmer and I can only breathe on my left side  and I thought looking inwards at the shore would be best, rather than looking out into the sea.  Looking at the rough South China Sea the whole way would surely be very demoralizing. So I decided to swim anti clockwise, opposite to Jose.
Our entourage also included Janez Maroevic, six times Croatia Marathon National Champion, but more importantly, twenty four (24) times Race Director of the Faros Maraton, one of the most prestigious ocean swims in Europe for elite swimmers (16 km). I had already viewed the Faros Maraton swim on you tube many times and was very surprised to actually meet the Race Director face to face in Malaysia.
Jose would swim with Argentinian, Fernando clockwise. Fernando is an International FINA Grand Prix swimmer who came with his family. Fernando was jet lagged from 50 hours of flying. Both Amir and Janez would follow Jose and Fernando in a boat, after all they were the real swimmers. I only had two local boat boys (Pian and Piee) to watch out for me. Its a serious matter ocean swimming, especially with the horror stories I heard of the South China Sea (strong currents and waves, monster jelly fish, speeding boats and even sharks). I had no chance.
I decided to double (RM 500) the agreed rate (RM 250) for the boat hire, After all, my life was in their hands. None of us (either swimmer or boat crew) had done a round the island swim. I wanted the two boat boys to be fully attentive towards my safety, thus I paid them double what they wanted.

Time to do it, Wednesday, 28 Sep 2016
Jose had estimated 3.5 hours for him to complete the swim, so I told my boat skipper (Pian), that it would take me about 7 hours. He rushed off to get more petrol ha ha. Unfortunately for Piee (the crew guy), he didn't bring any water and a few hours into the swim, I could see him in very bad condition and he had to be eventually rescued by another boat.
I started at 7.17 a.m. from the Barat Jetty going anti clockwise, just before Jose's team.
Boat traffic was still sparse that early in the morning and I could see a stationary fishing boat near a jetty that I used as a target. I agreed with the boat skipper (Pian) that he would stay on my left as much as possible. To his credit, he stuck to it throughout. I advised him that the boat's propellers must always be at a safe distance from me as this is the most dangerous thing in sea swimming with a boat. The propellers were unfortunately always close to me but I guess the skipper was fully alert and knew what he was doing.
For the first couple of hours I went slow, very cautious  and did my own sighting. It took me a good two hours to reach that fishing boat which didn't seem very far away initially. Its demoralizing to use something on the horizon as a target as you never seem to get any closer. Anyway, I reached and passed that silly fishing boat.
I only met Jose's entourage after 2 hours and 55 minutes of swimming. So its true then, the eastern side of the island had very strong currents / waves. Amir and Janez were cheering me like crazy. That was nice. But I was shocked to see Fernando IN THE BOAT! Oh Oh, I have no chance now. Jose and me high fived and Jose told me what I already knew, its very strong currents ahead.
At three hours, Tip (my wife) came in another boat to see how I was,  as we agreed. Then Tip's Boat Skipper saw the waves ahead and he did a blooming U TURN! Oh Oh, all these demoralizing things were happening. I increased my nutrition intake (my wife's oatmeal cookies) and focused more on my swimming technique. The boat skipper and crew started to look more alert. They both put on their life jackets.  They were doing fine for me up to then, so I now trusted them explicitly. The skipper is able to see ahead much more clearly than a swimmer. This is also  his island. He comes here everyday. he knows where the waves are.  So I decided to only focus my sighting on the side of the boat, to put my life in the hands of two young village men. Whichever direction the boat took, I would swim right beside it. I only took a quick look at side of the boat and then looked straight down into the beautiful clear blue sea. This strategy seemed to work. I wasn't swallowing any sea water and didn't feel sea sick no matter how much the sea was tossing me about.
Strange, I could see the lips and face of the boat's crew man turning white. Both of them looked very uncomfortable as the day got hotter, but I was almost having a ball in the water, I felt fine. Come on wave, is this all you got.....
I never once asked the crew "Are we there yet?". My Garmin was on "miles" instead of "km" which I didn't realise, and I wrongly thought I was going very very slow, thinking that it would take me much more than seven hours.
Amir came beside me for the second time, so Jose must have finished I thought, but then Amir went off again. Never mind, I have managed four or five hours on my own. A rescue boat came to pick up the sea sicked crew man (how come a fisherman could get sea sick? I don't get it). The Boat Skipper (Pian) told his crew man (Piee) that the finish was actually in sight. I looked up and could see a structure (a large mosque) on the horizon. Blimey the end is in sight, albeit on the horizon yonder.
This part of the swim was the most beautiful. The area near Turtle Beach and in front of the swank Perhentian Island Resort, its just the colourful sea bottom and fishes. The sea was clear blue the whole way. Most of the time I could only see a deep blue deepness broken by the sun's rays. Certain places I could see the bottom or large rocks. This gave me comfort as it meant I was actually moving along, albeit slowly.  No matter how rough the waves were, I was still moving ahead according to the boulders below as I left them behind. As Nik Raiha correctly put it, you are "swimming in an aquarium". Yeah man, she is so correct. Again, don't look at the horizon, instead look down or at the nearby shore. It will give you comfort that you are moving along, bit by bit.
The sea was so clear that I could see the humongous jelly fish that had just grazed me. It was just floating there nonchalantly. But it grazed me and I could feel the sharp itch on my hands (my arms and shoulders were safe though being completely covered with the Skins I was wearing). The itch went away after a few minutes, great.
Then Amir came for the third time and Tip was with him too. They stayed with me a few minutes and I could see the end coming. Amir jumped into the sea and swam with me the last few hundred meters. Its done man. I've actually done it. Just the sharp, pesky, dead corals to avoid at the shallow Barat Jetty (my start point). Tip threw me my slippers and Amir helped me the last few steps over the sharp dead corals.
7 hours 2 minutes and 15.4km on  my Garmin. I felt off balance / a bit groggy but I was largely OK.
Tip went off to finish her lunch whilst I did some photo shots with Amir and my boat skipper.

Its History Man  

To our knowledge, I am the first Malaysian to swim around Pulau Perhentian Besar. The boat boys were in awe that an "Uncle" just swam the whole island in seven hours.
Jose is the first person ever to swim around the island. He is a class swimmer and took only 4 hours 17 minutes. I'm the local idiot taking seven hours and two minutes.
Its an "Unofficial" Swim 

I probably didn't meet all the criteria for it to be an official swim. I had no recognised Observer, wore Skins over my shoulders and arms (this is not allowed for open water swimming at the highest level) and I held onto the side of the stationary boat for most of the feedings. When the sea is flying all over the place, I needed to hold onto the boat to have my favourite oatmeal cookies.

Open Water Swimming is fraught with danger. You are exposed to mother nature and all its elements. There's the weather, strong currents, high waves, sharks, jelly fish. These things are very real. Thus it is a Team event, you need many people to help you otherwise it can't be done.

I sincerely acknowledge the assistance of the following:

1. My wife Tip, who follows me for all my events. She sorts out my nutrition needs (cool bag, rope, drinking bottle, ice, homemade oatmeal cookies etc) and acts like a Coach, double checking everything.

2. Amir, Swimon. He is the chief organizer. Being from the area, has very good contacts. As a Certified Open Water Swim Coach, he understands the risks involved.

3. Spanish International Swimmer, Jose Lois Larossa who has inspired us Malaysians that open water swimming is a valid hobby / sport of its own. That there is life after the Ironman.

4. Pian (Boat Skipper) and Piee (Crew Man), who took care of my safety very very well and for the many pictures and videos.

5. Janez, Fernando and Hett. It was great to see you all out there that day.

6. Faizol Ramli and Nik Raiha for their feedback on the sea conditions.

The Evidence

At the start (Amir, Fernando, Me and Jose)

Pian, my Boat Skipper wears his life jacket on his head

Feeding, pic taken by Tip

This is open water swimming (pic taken by Skipper)

Done. Amir escorted me

We did it guys (Me, Skipper and Amir).



Kevin Siah said...

Official or not, you're definitely a freaking legend in my books! Well done! Truly inspiring!

Meng said...


Meng said...


sofiantriathlete said...

Thank you Meng

sofiantriathlete said...

Thank you Kevin
As always, you are very kind.

sofiantriathlete said...

Thank you Meng