It seemed like an endless wait for Prabhat Koli. A little over three years ago, he had stood at the same spot in New Zealand, overlooking the waters of the Cook Strait. It was to be the last swim of the Oceans Seven—the seven toughest open water swims of the world. He had started strong, but seven hours into the effort, the sea had turned rough. The conditions seemed risky to his pilot, Philip Rush, and he asked Koli to abandon the swim.
“I heard people say all kinds of things—that it wasn’t in me to swim the Cook Strait, perhaps I was too young, maybe I should just focus on studies and get a job. Bohot taane sun ne pade (There were so many taunts),” Koli recalls “Once I returned home, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. So, I had to be really patient, keep working out and wait for my opportunity to go back,” he adds.
On 1 March this year, Koli finally swam across the 28km stretch of the Cook Strait, from the Arapaoa Islands off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island to Makara, near Wellington, on the North Island, in a time of 8 hours 41 minutes. And in April, Guinness World Records ratified him as the youngest in the world to pull off the Oceans Seven at 23 years 217 days.
Koli swam the first of the seven in 2015, when he crossed the English Channel. Over the next few years, he pulled off the Catalina Channel (2016), the Moloka’i Channel, the Tsugaru Channel (2017), the North Channel (2018) and the Strait of Gibraltar (2019). Through all those years, Oceans Seven was the sole focus for Koli and his family. The successful end of every swim afforded a brief celebration; a few days later, the Kolis were back to the grind.
“I feel the same as I did on the first day I went swimming. All I have in mind is that I have to swim for long. Of course, with age, I’m a lot more sound in the head. I know what it takes to make these swims happen—the time I put in during training, the funds that need to be gathered. There is pressure, but I choose not to think about it too much, else it just won’t be possible to swim,” Koli says.
During the early days, his mother, Shilpa, would spend hours outside the pool, watching her son grind out the training miles needed to take on the mammoth distances. Koli’s father, Raju, would run around for months gathering funds for each swim, besides taking loans when the money fell short. In fact, for the Cook Strait, he availed of the Voluntary Retirement Scheme from his job at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in March last year.
Two weeks before the attempt, there was a lot on Koli’s mind when he arrived in Wellington. Each morning, he put in practice swims to acclimatise to the conditions, while evenings were spent on dry land workouts. He felt confident after a five-hour training swim where he covered around 18km. Yet, there were more decisions to make before the final attempt.
“Most swim from the North Island to the South Island. But on that day, my pilot said the conditions were likely to get rough around 6-7 hours into the swim. So he suggested we swim the other way. The weather was going to get worse the next day, so I knew there was no question of waiting it out. I decided to take the risk,” Koli says.
After a boat ride to the South Island, he started out at 10:30am. Koli made speedy progress in perfect swimming conditions, fuelling and hydrating regularly from the boat accompanying him. However, six hours into the swim, the weather turned, just as the forecast had warned.
“The wind really picked up, about 60-70kmph, and there were big waves of about 5-6 metres that hit me in the face. I could see the finish in the distance, but the current was against me and I was making little progress. I knew I would have to dig really deep,” he says. “The pain and the suffering is all a part of the challenge. There was no question of ending the swim, unless of course, the pilot called for it. That was the only fear I had, since there was so much at stake.”
Around 5km from the finish, when conditions got really rough, Koli’s effort was handed a fillip, quite of the blue. As he battled the waves, a pod of dolphins arrived by his side, keeping him company and raising his spirit.
“They were at an arm’s length, around 15 of them. I could even touch them at times. They swam alongside for at least 30 minutes and I didn’t realise how time flew by,” Koli says. In all of my 18 international swims, I have never been accompanied by dolphins. It came as a blessing during those moments,” he says.
The water was still choppy towards the end, forcing him to finish on the rocky shoreline at Makara in Wellington. “Cook Strait was the only one that needed a second attempt, so I was overwhelmed to have finished it. Signing off the Oceans Seven with this swim was the cherry on the cake,” he says.
The next day, Koli was back in the water for a recovery swim. This time, he was at ease, as he looked back at his journey over the last few years. “Records, awards and recognition will come, but I do this only for the joy of swimming. About 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. And I know there are a lot more places I want to go swim in the future."
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.