Saturday, April 14, 2018

21km Swim aound the island of Koh Tao, Thailand (4 April 2018)

This was the longest swim I have ever done (21km taking 9 hours 42 mins). There is much uncertainty in Open Water swimming. Not all of us completed this swim. I have done about 20 serious Open Water Swims now and  DNF two (Tabarca - Alicante and the heart attack at P.D.). So I guess overall, I have been lucky.
Koh Tao and getting there
Koh Tao is a "Diving" island about 2 hours ferry ride from Koh Samui. Koh Tao has apparently 70 diving schools and produces the most certified divers in the world. Their rates are the cheapest in the world. So you can imagine the waters around the island would be quite good to swim in.
The town and roads are very basic though. The island is popular with back packers who would often visit both Ko Pha Ngan and Koh Tao.
The ferry from Nathon, Koh Samui stops at Koh Pha Ngan (which is famous for its "Full Moon" and other parties) on the way to Koh Tao.
Koh Samui is more upmarket and suited for families. Unfortunately Air Asia does not fly to Koh Samui and the rates by Bangkok Airways to Koh Samui are quite high. A cheaper option from KL would be to fly Air Asia to Krabi, bus to Surat Thani I think and ferry across to Nathon. This option takes quite a bit of time.
The water around these three islands are actually quite beautiful. Sometimes there are no waves whatsoever and the water surface actually glistens (I have actually not seen this effect anywhere else). The temperature is also a good 3 degrees cooler than K.L. and it doesn't rain as often. So there is a ready paradise here for long distance swimming, no need to go all the way to the cold English Channel or the Saint Lucia Channel swim that I was contemplating.
The water is not as clear as Pulau Perhentian though but there are fewer jelly fishes (I only saw one) or other sea animals. So again overall, its a very good place to do long distance swimming. We have more lined up.
The day before. Helter Skelter at 4.30 p.m.
The initial plan was to swim the 18km or so between Koh Samui and the Thai mainland, but this swim would not be in clear water.
We thought about the island of Koh Tao which is world famous for its diving and clear waters. We found out that the last ferry for Koh Tao from Nathon would leave at 5.30 p.m. So at the late hour of 4.30 p.m., we made the call to instead swim around Koh Tao and to try and catch the 5.30 p.m. ferry from Nathon a good 30 minutes away. We quickly packed whatever we could and rushed off to Nathon by motorbike. We did make it on time.
You know, I have not even heard of "Koh Tao".
We arrived at Koh Tao at about 8 p.m., very tired. Andy has lived and worked on the island for about 5 years. So with his abundant local knowledge we did identify a Diving School that could rent us a couple of kayaks the following day for the swim.
THE ACTUAL SWIM (4 April 2018)
The teams were:
  • Jose Lois Larossa (swimmer) and Andy (kayak support)
  • Myself (Sofian) swimming and Annika Larsson (kayak support)

Andy and Annika are from Sweden and have lived at Koh Samui for many years.  We have met them many times at swim events. In fact, we have even hosted them at our house.
6.40 a.m. About to start
Jose and Andy with their GoPro went clockwise whilst myself and Annika went anti-clockwise. We did the same thing on 28 Sep 2016 when we first swam around the island of Pulau Perhentian Besar. It would be nice to again bump into each other about mid way,  the other side of the island.
0 km - 3 km (sea was calm)
We started from the main beach (where all the Diving Schools are located) at 6.40 a.m.
The water was perfectly flat and I felt wonderful. My watch was inadvertently on "miles", so I mistakenly thought I was going fast. Didn't matter, I base my swim on an "easy feeling" and not on actual speed.
I found the start very nice, swimming smoothly in such calm waters.
Swim speed:  2:02 - 2:20 min. / 100 m
3.5 km - 8.5 km (high waves)
The wind picked up substantially. The waves were very high especially when swimming around the corners which were all huge boulders.
I greatly appreciated that my kayaker Annika, would always place her kayak in-between the scary boulders and myself. Thank you Annika.
Sea was nice all the way
I had learnt my lesson when encountering huge waves at Hong Kong. Then I didn't know any better and would fight with all my might the big waves, resulting in me expending all my energy and collapsing at the finish.
But now I know better. Effort must be "constant" throughout. It's the same as for an Ironman. So I kept on maintaining a "comfortable" effort in spite of the high waves.
Another "trick" is to not look at the high waves. They are scary. Just stay calm and keep on swimming the normal way.
The support person on the boat, or in this case the kayak, would find it very difficult when the sea starts to bob up and down. My nutrition (bananas and home made cookies) were soaked with sea water. Annika had to keep on bailing the kayak. 
Swim speed:    2:36 - 3:43 min. / 100 m
9 km - 16.5 km (calmer)
 The sea was calmer but still choppy going around corners. There sure seems to be a lot of corners and big boulders at Koh Tao. 

I expected to see Jose coming in the opposite direction at about 4 hours or earlier. I knew something had happened when I didn't see him.
The good thing was that the phone and internet was always working during the swim. Annika made the phone calls and informed me the other team had stopped.

My nutrition up to this point was CarboPro mixed with water and bananas mixed with sea water, every 30 minutes.

The battery on my watch went dead and I relied on Annika for distance swam. At 11km I was so disheartened that we were only about half way.

Swim speed:   2:04 - 2:52 min. / 100 m
17 km - 20.5 km (going against the current)
By this time, I was very confident on finishing. We decided to change the nutrition to plain water and gels. I only had a few pieces of my wife's oat cookies as it was soaked with sea water.

Whilst the sea was now "flat", we were going against a strong current. I didn't dare glance at landmarks as knew I was hardly moving. Whilst high waves hurtling towards the boulders are very scary to look at, it is currents going against you that really slow you down.
Rocks everywhere
Oh well, we just have to keep on going. I didn't try to have a strong finish as it wasn't a race.

Swim speed :    3:01 - 3:58 min / 100 m
20.5 - 21.2 km (totally calm)
We were back in the Bay where we started. The sea was totally flat. We stopped many times as Annika phoned the rest of the team to determine exactly where we should finish.

The sea was very shallow and full of corals and very sharp looking sea urchins. I was worried I might graze the corals or even couldn't put my feet down.

But just close to the shore, it became clear sand and I was able to put my feet down.

Swim speed:    2:31 - 2:46 min / 100 m

The Finish
 Gosh I was relieved and so happy. My longest swim ever. It was actually all down to my kayak support who was able to last the full distance (the other pair had to stop due to kayak issues).
I gave the appropriate respect to Annika (my kayaker), Jose (my swim mentor) and Andy (our local expert).
Job done. Thank you to Jose, Andy and especially to Annika Larsson, my kayaker

This is from Annika's Fenix 5. It's super accurate as the signals were uninterrupted
TOTAL:     9 hours 42 mins 28.7 secs       21.26 km         2:44 min / 100 m

Any body damage?
 I have about ten minor cuts all over my body. Some is from my compression top, which is not actually for swimming, but I wanted some protection from the sun and jelly fish. There are some insect bites I think here and there, not serious.

I was tired of course, but the legs were quite ok and I could walk a good few km with luggage to town after the swim. Recovery has taken about a week. I have quickly got back to 60 km per week, but going very slowly. The very long swim killed my speed.

But overall I'm quite OK and I am eagerly researching even longer swims to do now.

Was I the first person to swim around the island?
A South African lady has actually done this swim taking about the same number of hours. She has also swam the 32km or so from Koh Pha Ngan to Koh Tao. That would be a possibility for our next project.

Thank You

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