In April, marathon swimmer Corrina Connor swam the 26.9km Foveaux Strait without a wetsuit. It’s the furthest into the season anyone has attempted this swim. She talks to Liz Lewis about hypothermia, resilience, and the power of the open ocean.
Te Ara a Kiwa, or the Foveaux Strait, is the notoriously tumultuous stretch of water between the South Island and Stewart Island. On April Fool’s Day this year, Corrina Connor swam it in 9 hours 21 minutes and 31 seconds and she did it one hundred strokes at a time.
“I count my strokes up to 100 over and over again, because it helps me focus,” she says. Connor describes entering a state of altered awareness during open ocean swims, heightened for some stimuli and dulled for others. The rhythmic counting helps her filter out the cold, the fatigue, and the jellyfish stings. It has a way of blending the hours together, too.
“My little treat was that after every hundred strokes, when I breathed, I could take a breath to the right, because normally I always breathe to the left,” she says. “Later on in the swim, there was a bit of Stewart Island that was sticking out for quite a long way. So whenever I breathed to the right, I could see it, and I’d think it looked really close. It wasn’t.” She laughs. “But it was still nice to think, ‘Oh, there is land there, somewhere.’”
A marathon swim is an unassisted open-water swim sustained over multiple hours. The most popular marathon swims in Aotearoa are the 22.5km Cook Strait, the 26.9km Foveaux Strait, and Lake Taupō, which spans 40.2km. The Foveaux Strait is by far the least attempted of the three, Connor being only the 15th swimmer to successfully complete it.
Six marathoners crossed from the mainland to Stewart Island before 1989, after which the swim fell out of fashion for several decades. The next successful crossing was in 2016, this time in the reverse direction, starting at Stewart Island. Since then, all swimmers have replicated that route – until now.
Connor is the first person this century to cross the strait in the original southbound direction, and the first in history to do so this late in the season. As both milestones indicate, cold has never deterred Connor taking the plunge.
Growing up in Wellington, Connor was a studious child who took her interests — reading, cello, and swimming — seriously. She swam competitively throughout adolescence, tapering off in her late teens to focus on her music education.
“It was quite addictive, and good fun, in a painful way.”
– Corrina Connor, librarian, concert cellist, marathon swimmer
After completing a masters degree at Oxford University, she moved to South London, across the road from an unheated outdoor pool called Brockwell Lido. There, she found a thriving community of people who swam outdoors in all weather, even when the water temperature sank to 2 or 3 degrees.
“I started swimming with them quite a lot, all year round, always trying to go a little bit further into the cold water than we had the previous day,” she says. “It was quite addictive, and good fun, in a painful way.”
Sufficiently hooked by the time she moved back to Wellington for her PhD in music in 2016, she joined several ocean swimming groups and took up pool training with coach Timon Wilkinson. Surrounded by athletes tackling increasingly ambitious swims, Connor began to picture herself doing the same.
The Cook Strait
In early 2021, her friend Rebecca Hollingsworth proposed that Connor join her on a tandem Cook Strait swim.
Marathon swim conditions do not permit a wetsuit, only a bit of grease to insulate against the cold. Swimmers are accompanied by a support vessel and crew, there to pass out food and assist in the event of emergency.
Overseen by coach Philip Rush, Hollingsworth and Connor set out in dramatic waters towards the South Island on March 25, 2021.
“We swam and we swam,” Connor begins. “But then, I started to get quite hypothermic.”
As hypothermia affects cognitive functioning, Connor had no idea how cold she was. She zigzagged around in the waves, unable to swim in a straight line.
“I was doing many very erratic things in the water, and was not quite firing on all cylinders. I have no memory of any of this,” she says with a laugh. “It must have been very annoying for Rebecca, because she had this loose cannon beside her. I mean, I thought I was doing really well, […] I was quite deluded!”
When her vision started to go dark, she finally agreed to get out of the water. The crew warmed her back to lucidity in the boat, and Hollingsworth went on to successfully complete the swim.
“I ran out of steam. And as soon as that happens, you get cold and lose your mind. And your memory.”
– Corrina Connor
Connor had never struggled with body temperature, despite swimming through several Wellington winters. The problem, as she found out the hard way, was that she needed far more calories than she had anticipated to keep warm.
“Essentially, I ran out of steam,” she says. “And as soon as that happens, you get cold and lose your mind. And your memory.”
Connor was sure that would be her first and last experience with open ocean marathon swimming. Then, Rush suggested she try the same swim again, this time alone, with more preparation and an adjusted meal plan. She trained throughout 2021, and when an opportunity opened up that December, she took it.
This time, it was a vastly different experience.
“I knew what to expect,” she says. “I didn’t really feel in control of it at all, but I knew at this stage I just had to trust the people in the boat.”
Connor carefully constructed a protein-rich feeding plan, but included a bottle of flat Coca Cola for the final stretch, to boost energy and morale. When Rush gave her the Coke, she knew she must be close. Sure enough, the cliffs of the South Island soon appeared before her.
“It was quite overwhelming in a way. I was doing the last 50 metres to the rock, and I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to cry, I have to do it now,’” she says. “I had a little whimper during the last few strokes, then touched the cliff. […] It was an amazing feeling.”
A new goal
The following March, Connor volunteered to be a crew member for Hollingsworth’s double-crossing of Lake Taupo. In the dark hours of the morning, Hollingsworth approached the southern end of the lake, her halfway point. Connor was preparing some ravioli for her when Rush asked if she’d ever considered swimming the Foveaux Strait. It’s more challenging in some ways – longer, and potentially much colder, given its latitude. Connor had found a new goal.
She trained all winter with a February 2023 swim in mind. One day in November, she began to feel short of breath at work. She was combing her hair in the library restroom when suddenly, she woke up on the floor covered in blood. She’d fainted and hit her face on the way down, waking with a broken nose, chipped tooth, and concussion.
The accident was not attached to any underlying health problems, but due to her injuries, doctors prohibited swimming for two weeks following the fall. The moment those two weeks were up, Connor was back in the pool. Each day, she would put her flippers on, and, without submerging, simply kick for hours on end. Gradually, she healed to a place where she could resume her regular training.
February came and went, her initial swim date postponed due to cyclones. The delays offered her valuable extra time to regain strength.
“It was just in those last four weeks that everything really came together,” she says. “I was back in control of my body.”
The Foveaux Strait
On April 1 at 6:30am, Connor and her crew departed from Bluff Harbour, Invercargill. The morning air was cold. Swimming towards the starting rock, surrounded by huge kelp, she grew apprehensive. She touched the rock once and swam south.
From that point on, the water had her back.
“It was kind of bizarre how well it went,” she says. “The swell was going in the right direction, and it was carrying me along.”
Under the water, Connor saw countless specks of light flashing, almost strobelike. The sun wasn’t out yet, so there was no light to reflect. She realised it must be bioluminescence.
“It was all different colours — purple and red and green and sparkly,” she recalls. “At one point, there was so much of it swirling around that it was quite disorientating. I had to shut my eyes just to calm down!”
As she plugged along, the sun came out, and with it many more creatures. Fish swam beneath her, while albatrosses swooped above. Some even landed on the water, peering curiously at the newcomer.
“Albatrosses, they’re quite magical things,” she says. “Seeing one sitting, staring at you, it’s very surreal. Not many other people have had that experience.”
She was, however, happy to keep sharks at a distance. At one point, she passed several preoccupied in an intriguing group behavior, orbiting around each other in two concentric circles. Connor swam on.
It was a far steadier swim than she was used to. Foveaux is shallower than the Cook Strait, with fewer competing currents. Swimming through the Cook Strait, she recalls a patchwork of sensations, the water switching abruptly from pleasant to very cold, from smooth to very rough. In Foveaux, the swell stayed consistent. She found her stride – and then there was nothing left to do but swim.
When she felt cold, she turned her arms faster, generated speed, and kept counting strokes. If she could still count to one hundred, she knew she was solid.
“The more experience you have, the more you can deal with,” she says. “In my first Cook Strait attempt, everything was a bit of a panic. […] The second Cook Strait was a bit different, but again, I didn’t even really feel in control of what I was doing, I was just doing the best I could. But I think Foveaux was quite a revelatory experience, because I was having thoughts like, ‘Okay, I can deal with this. Let’s keep going.’”
Before she knew it, she was at the rock that served as the end point. She touched it, turned, and saw several massive waves tumbling towards her.
As the waves crashed over her, she gripped the rock, clinging to the finish line.
“It was a bit dramatic,” she says, laughing. “But the water was beautiful, and Stewart Island, from what I saw of it, was beautiful. I could hear the birds singing in the bush.”
“As humans, we think we control everything. But […] the sea is much bigger than we are. The sea is absolutely in control. You can’t do anything unless the water lets you do it.”
– Corrina Connor
Connor returned to her support crew, which, in a symbolic passing of the torch, included Gráinne Moss, the last person to swim the Foveaux Strait before her. Irish-born Moss swam the English Channel when she was 17 and later had a controversial stint as chief executive of Oranga Tamariki.
“When you’re in that open water, like Foveaux or Cook Strait, you can feel that the power of it is just unbelievable,” Connor says. “As humans, we think we control everything. But I think when you’re in the water, that’s when you realise the sea is much bigger than we are. The sea is absolutely in control. You can’t do anything unless the water lets you do it.”
To Connor, the ocean’s support felt like a gift.
“You really can feel the difference when it gets behind you,” she says. “Doing these swims, it’s not really me against the elements. It’s just me in the elements, trying to work with what they give me.”
Returning to land, the crew asked Connor what she most wanted to eat at that moment. Her response: “I’d really like an ice cream.”