On 20 January, 2020, Prabhat Koli jumped into the chilly waters of the Cook Strait, off the coast of Wellington. Starting out at 5.30am, his intent was to swim across the strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand: a swimming distance of 22-35km, depending on the ocean currents.
It was his final swim as part of the Oceans Seven challenge that features seven of the toughest open water swims in the world. He had started strong and was maintaining good pace, with the current aiding his progress. Midway through the swim however, his pilot, Philip Rush, informed him that the weather was likely to turn. Koli started swimming harder, but it wasn’t enough. The current was soon against him and the choppy waters made the going rough.
He had to pull the plug. After having gone 29km in about seven hours, he was finally out of the water, having missed the finish line by about 5-6km. “The pilot looks out for the safety of the swimmer first and you have no choice but to follow instructions. In fact, once I was on the boat, we had a rough, two-hour ride back to the shore. As I sat there, I thought of everything that had occurred over the last few months: The effort that I had put in during training and how hard we had worked to gather funds in order to make the swim happen. It had all gone to waste,” Koli says.
Koli’s six previous swims Oceans Seven had been completed on the first attempt, so this rankled. He was sure that he would return to finish it, but the moment he landed back home in Mumbai, he knew it was going to be an uncertain wait. “A few weeks after I got back, they imposed a lockdown in India due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I have been longing to go back ever since,” he says.
On 19 February Koli will finally get his chance to have a crack at the Cook Strait once again. At the age of 23, finishing it will make him the youngest in the world to have accomplished the Oceans Seven challenge.
Koli has come a long way since he first started swimming while growing up in Trombay Koliwada in Mumbai. He would regularly accompany his father, Raju, on a boat and take a dip in the Arabian Sea. But it was only after a swimming camp that the family realised his love for water. His first timed sea swim was in 2012 when he took on the 34km stretch between Dharamtar in Alibag and the Gateway of India. He continued doing a number of long routes around Mumbai and in August 2015, ventured out to attempt his first international swim. The following month, he swam across the English Channel, which opened up a whole new world to him.
It was the first time he had heard of the Oceans Seven. The project features the English Channel (33km), the Catalina Channel (32.3km) off California in the United States, the Moloka’i Channel (42km) in Hawaii, the Tsugaru Strait (19.5km) in Japan, the North Channel (34.5km) between Ireland and Scotland, the Strait of Gibraltar (14.4km) between Spain and Morocco, and the Cook Strait. According to Longswims.com, only 21 swimmers have successfully finished the seven swims, and the current record for the youngest person to complete all seven is held by Australian Thomas Pembroke, who finished them all at the age of 29.
“They are all very demanding swims. For instance, Moloka’i took me over 17 hours, while the North Channel had freezing water and the threat of being stung by jellyfish,” Koli says. “When it comes to the Cook Strait, the challenge is the unpredictable winds, which tend to change the sea condition in a short amount of time,” he says.
Along the way, Koli also realised that swimming these massive distances, even before he hit his teens, was taking a toll on his body. Time and again, he experienced discomfort in his shoulders. It was no different during the Cook Strait attempt. On his return, doctors told him that his ligaments hadn’t had the chance to develop, since he had been swimming regularly since a young age. “I’ve done big swims every year since 2015, so the body has had no time to recover,” Koli says.
The lockdown in March 2020 then came as a blessing in disguise, giving him ample time to rest. A few months later, he started with light workouts in the sea and gradually built it up to 30-35 hours each week. He regained his confidence after swimming the 34.27km stretch across Lake Tahoe in the United States last year. His body felt good and after a month’s rest, he turned his attention towards the Cook Strait in September. “I would hit the pool at 4.30am and swim until 9am before heading to college. In the past, I was focussing on the time spent in the water, but this time around, I was also keeping track of the speed. I also added hours to the longer workouts and have done multiple swims that have lasted between 8-10 hours,” he says.
Over the last few weeks, a few other swimmers have successfully crossed the Cook Strait. Koli has been reading their accounts and looking up the data to understand how these attempts have panned out. “I’ve had to be really patient and keep working out, knowing that the swim will eventually happen. Honestly at this point, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. I just know that I have to finish it,” he adds.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.