The Competitive Ocean
Amanda Smith: Today, the competitive ocean: athletes whose sporting arena is the open sea, and whose drive is to conquer the elements and their own human frailty.
MUSIC Ruben Gonzales
Susie Maroney: When you're hitting, like, the 35 hour mark, your arms are going over, but mentally you're going a little bit crazy, like you're hallucinating. So I think before the swim you've told yourself that you're going to swim a long wa,y so that's what your body is actually doing. The mind can do amazing things if you really want it to.
Shelley Taylor-Smith: When I'm really tired, that's when I really kick in, into overdrive, and I say, 'OK, let's see how much more Shelley can hurt'. And as a result now she doesn't want to stop, she doesn't see amber, she doesn't see red, she only sees green.
Kaz Cooke: Really these are people who want, for various reasons, and fair enough perhaps, they want to be a bit special. But really I mean it's dangerous. And you hurt yourself. And your parents are screaming at you to keep going. And it's an ugly thing I think, all round!
MUSIC Ruben Gonzales
Amanda Smith: A range of views from those who do, and those who don't do, ultra-distance sports events.
Hi, I'm Amanda Smith, and on The Sports Factor, because of a confluence of events, we're entering the high-risk and sometimes murky waters of those who swim and sail the high seas. It's Ocean Week, it's World Environment Day, it's the 10th anniversary of Kay Cottee becoming the first woman to sail solo around the world; and Susie Maroney has done it again: set a new record for the longest distance swum at sea, with her swim from Mexico to Cuba earlier this week.
And later in the program, we'll find out about a world first in artificial surf reef construction: a project on the Queensland Gold Coast that's planned to produce perfect waves for surfing as well as benefit the coastal environment.
Before that though, to an exploration into the minds and bodies of those who strive to set records in the open sea. David Adams has sailed alone around the world in races not once, but twice. The second race he finished in record time, in 1995. He's also just completed a race from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, with the French sailor Isabelle Autissier. But it must be a very particular kind of person who can handle the sleep deprivation, the intense risk, and the discomfort that's involved in doing what David Adams does.
David Adams: That's definitely right. You know, some people aren't comfortable being by themselves for a long period of time, and there is definitely a make-up. I don't know whether you could get a group of people in a room and give them a questionnaire and say, 'OK, well you're solo sailors, and you're not'; I don't know whether that would work. But it's a sport that the competitors really want to get into, none of them are forced into it, and I think that's part of the game. If you like to accept these challenges, you know it's going to be tough, then they're the people that are going to go on and succeed.
Now the definition of success is different for everybody. Some of us go out there to race to win, some people just go out there to do the trip and conquer that challenge, and some people just like to get away from it all. So I guess it's different for everybody, but there is definitely a make-up for the competitors in this type of racing.
Amanda Smith: Well, the thing is I suppose, that you're always pushing the envelope, sleeping the bare minimum of time that you can to get you through it. Are there examples, though David, on your round-the-world races when your judgement, or your ability to make the right decisions speedily was adversely affected by fatigue?
David Adams: I would assume yes, although I think that we did most of the time make the right decision. But on the first race, my first round-the-world trip, I did make a lot of mistakes. And that was because I tried to make a decision when I was very, very tired. And through the research we've done since, about nine decisions out of ten when you're really tired will be the wrong decision.
Amanda Smith: Right. Although how often are you in a situation on a rolling sea where you actually have to make the decision there and then, you can't put it off, get some sleep first, you can't delay the decision?
David Adams: Well it's more a tactical decision, whether some competitor's done something, or the weather reports that you've been receiving suddenly change dramatically. For example, a hurricane may be in your path and you have to get out of it, or something like this where you have to make a pretty radical decision. I think the hardest time I had in the last race was we had a very big storm in the Indian Ocean, where the waves got up to sort of in excess of 60-feet high. And I made the decision that I had to stay on deck and steer the boat throughout this period of time. That ended up being around two days, and I was pretty well exhausted by the end of that, not only just because I'd been awake for two days, but just the sheer adrenalin of riding a wave that's sort of the equivalent of a six-storey building. And at the end of that, when I was pretty exhausted and feeling emotionally down, the mainsheet broke and the boom snapped on the shroud, and this ruined my whole chance of winning that leg. And I must admit then, I was having a lot of trouble getting the decision process working. And I actually had to ring my wife, Caroline, and we talked through it and she said, 'Just get to bed and we'll think about it all when you wake up'.
Amanda Smith: Can you imagine doing what you've done without that kind of regular radio contact and other forms of modern communication, that wasn't possible for example when Joshua Slocumb was the first person to sail solo round the world last century?
David Adams: Yes, I mean it makes it totally different, because people like Joshua Slocumb and Francis Chichester and all those guys that went before us, they were true adventurers, they were doing things that hadn't been done before. Now, we're just yachtsmen and we're out there to race. And the reason that we need these sophisticated communication systems is the race organisers need to know where we are, and also we have to plan with our shore support crews what's going on in each port, and this sort of stuff. And also we need to know where the opposition is. So it's put a whole different slant on it, and the mental approach from the Chichesters and the Slocumbs to the mental approach now is completely different.
Amanda Smith: What do you think it is that drives people like you to want to take on these challenges, when it's not about discovering and mapping the world in the sense of the explorers, like Slocumb, say?
David Adams: You know, I think in every one of us there is that desire to go out and do something. It just depends on what the challenge is. I mean to some people it may be to make hundreds of millions of dollars. Or it may be to some just to create a family unit and really get through life as a real healthy family. Or whatever the challenge is, it doesn't matter. As long as you've got the opportunity to do something, most people will go out and do it. And I was lucky that I got this desire or this vision that I wanted to do this type of racing a long time ago, and we slowly worked our way up to being able to do it.
Amanda Smith: So what is the next event you're working towards at the moment, David?
David Adams: Well there's a number of smaller ones, but the big one I think is in the year 2001, there's a race around the world for the ten fastest boats in the world, and that's non-stop.
Amanda Smith: Right, and this is with other people, this is not a solo event?
David Adams: No, no, this will be with a crew, you know you'll have a crew of up to eight to ten people, and we'll be trying to get round the world in something like 64 days. So, these boats haven't been built, and it'll all be brand-new technology, and it'll be something that will be very, very interesting.
Amanda Smith: David Adams, a yachtie who's always looking for another challenge out there on the oceans.
Another person who's spent her life getting wet for sport is Shelley Taylor-Smith. Shelley's been the women's world champion marathon swimmer seven times over. She actually started as a promising competitor in the pool, over short distances. But while she was at college in the United States on a swimming scholarship, her coach noticed that the further Shelley swam, the better she got, and urged her to get into marathon swimming. And so, over the past 15 years, Shelley's raced in the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world, often in dangerously polluted waters. First-hand experiences that must surely raise your environmental consciousness?
Shelley Taylor-Smith: Absolutely. Over the years, a lot of people say to me, 'How could you swim in that rubbish?' And I say, 'Look, you know, you're in Argentina, you've got 100,000 screaming supporters going "Shelley! Shelley!" and you're not even thinking about what you're about to dive into.' I have, over the years, become the gauge, the dipstick on what the quality of the water is really like. Within 36 hours after the Rio Coronda in Argentina, you know, Shelley's got dysentery. And I'm the gauge, if I've got sick, they know the water quality is not up to scratch, as it was for five years.
So I have become very passionate about the ocean, and I get nothing more than a buzz out of seeing the ripples in the bottom of the ocean as the waves roll in. And then you see other things, like wrappers and plastic bags and shoes and tyres, and I say to myself, 'What's this going to do to that poor seal, or poor turtle, or dolphin that's going to swim on by?' And they live in it, I just use it from time to time.
Amanda Smith: Tell me more about your relationship to pain, Shelley, to physical pain. Most people spend their lives trying, hoping to avoid pain. Yet marathon swimmers are what's been described as 'a strange society of pain'.
Shelley Taylor-Smith: Well you know what's so amazing is that you know I had scoliosis and wore a back brace for all of my high school years, and I used to love throwing that off so I could jump in the water and feel free. Maybe that's why I feel so good in the ocean over those years. And then you know with the paralysis and that, and I think pain is different for everybody. You know, I hate needles, that's a different type of pain, and some people can handle needles, some people can go to the dentist, some people can't.
I think just something that I've really developed, is a great pain threshold. But as a result over the years, where I used to think more was better, I have realised that my strength has really become my weakness. Because over time (my boyfriend actually noticed just recently that when I'm really tired, he said, 'You must do this in a race'), when I'm really tired, that's when I really kick in, into overdrive, and I say, 'OK, let's see how much more Shelley can hurt.' And as a result, in time, now she doesn't want to stop, she doesn't see amber, she doesn't see red, she only sees green. And as a result, you know, I've been a chronic fatigue sufferer on and off for a couple of years because she doesn't feel the pain, she numbs it out.
Amanda Smith: The thing about you also is that you can, and have on many occasions, beaten the best men in the world in marathon swimming, as well as the best women. Have you bruised a few egos along the way because of that?
Shelley Taylor-Smith: Bruised a few egos, got a few nicknames: 'Dangerous When Wet' actually came out in 1991, August 1991, when I won the Atlantic City Marathon Swim. And particularly a week before that I beat Diego Degano, who gave me the nickname 'Dangerous When Wet', and Diego Degano was ranked No.1 in the world. For some strange reason, they asked him, 'What would happen if you ever got beaten by a female?' And he said, 'Oh, the day I get beaten by a female I quit!' And two days later I beat him. And he just hung his head in shame. And everybody in Magog, in Quebec, you know, the women came up to me to say 'Yeah! way to go, Shell, you've made us so proud' etc.
And then two weeks later we went to Atlantic City and I came out first overall, never been done before. And broke the men's world record as well, and the guys were going, 'Oh, it was a fluke, it was a fluke'. And Diego came in third that time, and he came up to me and shook his head and he said, 'You know Shelley, you're very, very dangerous when you're wet', and then that's how my nickname stuck.
Then I came back to Sydney on November 10, 1991 I won the Sydney Harbour International Marathon Swim. That win put me to the No.1 world ranking for men and women. And then in February in Argentina they decided that the men's and women's world rankings would never be combined again, and so I set a precedent, in that we had separate rankings. When I first started in the sport, women used to earn 66% less in prizemoney. That now is equal, and the prizemoney is not shared, so we actually have a prize pool for women, and a prize pool for men.
Amanda Smith: Shelley Taylor-Smith, who's getting ready to hang up her towel after 15 years of marathon swimming. Next month she's competing in the Round Manhattan Island Race again, and then in September her final plunge will be the World Marathon Swimming Championships in Italy.
MUSIC Ruben Gonzales
Last year it was Cuba to Florida, and just a few days ago it was Mexico to Cuba. Susie Maroney, as we all know, can swim a very long way. This latest one, at around 200 kilometres, is the longest ocean swim on record. In an interview recorded before the Mexico to Cuba swim, Susie Maroney talked to me about the mind-set she applies when she knows she's going to be in the water for 30 or 40 hours.
Susie Maroney: Well usually the first few hours of a long marathon swim, I'm thinking about my stroke, because during the swims I'm always getting hit by the cage and like you can get a lot of sores and things on your wrists and your ankles. So I'm concentrating on my stroke so that in the long run when I reach 40 hours that my wrists won't collapse on me and things like that.
So first of all I concentrate on that, and then the next part of the swim I'll look at everyone on the boat and see what they're doing, and where they're all situated, you know, because what I look at is my Mum's face the whole time, and I just need to look at someone while I'm swimming. So that's what I do, and then really I kind of distance myself from them and concentrate on the job that I have to do.
Amanda Smith: But is it a kind of almost trance-like state that you're in?
Susie Maroney: Yes. I actually think that during a long swim like that, you do go into like a trance. You're just constantly thinking about what you have to do, and when you're hitting the 35 hour mark, your arms are going over, but mentally you're going a little bit crazy, like you're hallucinating. So I think your mind's somewhere else, but you know, your arms are going over and over. I think before the swim you've told yourself that you're going to swim a long way; that's what your body is actually doing. The mind can do amazing things if you really want it to really.
Amanda Smith: So has your mental response changed, improved or worsened, with each big swim?
Susie Maroney: Yes. Every single swim I've made mistakes. Like I know that in the Cuba swim I was yelling so much, I was yelling at my Mum, and just wasting so much energy on what they couldn't control either. So I think that I've learnt in that way not to be so stressed. And if I physically prepare myself, which my coach, Dick Cain makes me anyway, then it's just my mental attitude. I've really learnt not to get so uptight and just look at it as an adventure more than pain the whole way.
Amanda Smith: But apart from the issue for you of achieving your goals, is there actually pleasure involved in doing this sort of stuff?
Susie Maroney: Yes there is, definitely. I mean you're on such a high before the swim because you've actually tapered down your training. Usually you're training six hours every day with Sundays off. But then a couple of weeks before the swim you're doing hardly anything, like 40 minutes every day and not much. So you're on a high, you're feeling physically really relaxed. I mean, during the swim, you go through pain, but you know, there's no other way to do that swim.
Amanda Smith: Well it sounds like you have to be the kind of person who can deal with life on an emotional rollercoaster really, because what you're describing is these real extremes of feeling during the course of a swim, yes?
Susie Maroney: Yes. I even go through that in training. There's days where my coach Dick Cain will be yelling at me, and I won't be getting my times. And I just go home and I feel so bad, you know, I'm not swimming well during that week and then you've got to constantly pick yourself up for the next morning, because you're training twice a day. And then of course, the next week you feel OK. But yes, I kind of tend to have more bad days than I do good days. So I think to get me through that, I think about the goal, which is to swim further than anyone else has ever swum.
Amanda Smith: Is it an insatiable appetite?
Susie Maroney: Yes, I really do think it's addictive. Like I remember when I was 15, I swam the English Channel. And I think it was something in me even at that age. Because then I heard someone had swum the English Channel, double crossing. So I said to Mum, I said like the day after event, 'Mum, I've got to do a double'. So it is kind of addictive. You want to see how far you can really go.
MUSIC Ruben Gonzales
Amanda Smith: And after that 200-K swim from Mexico to Cuba, Susie Maroney, true to form, says she can't wait to do her next big swim.
Well, for those of us who are mere spectators to the feats of solo round-the-world sailors, ultra-distance swimmers and the like, their efforts to us are either, I suppose, marvellously awe-inspiring, or a little bit pointless. One of those who remains unimpressed, is cartoonist and author, Kaz Cooke. In fact, Kaz has gone so far as to coin a term for this type of activity.
Kaz Cooke: Look, I'd have to call it Dorksport, Amanda. Dorksport, it has several elements, and they are as follows I think:
Lone pursuits, or you have to do it in a very small group; the probability of really serious danger; and a stupid, reckless, disregard for other people and the ineluctable forces of nature.
A bonus aspect of Dorksport is causing danger or major inconvenience to other people. And of course I speak of long-distance solo swimming, you know, going up Everest in a blizzard, sky diving over the Antarctic, that kind of caper, you'd have to say, Dorksport.
Amanda Smith: Why is it dorky?
Kaz Cooke: You know I mean unless they're going to actually include stubbornness and stupidity in the Olympics, I'm not quite sure how many of these things actually fall into the category of sport. Mind you I kind of think the same about boxing. But really these are people who want, for various reasons, and fair enough perhaps, they want to be a bit special. But really I mean it's dangerous and you hurt yourself, and your parents are screaming at you to keep going, and it's an ugly thing I think all round.
Amanda Smith: But what about the idea that someone who swims long distances in dangerous waters, or sails solo around the world, can be in a way emblematically inspirational for ordinary folks like us, in the way of facing dangers, of conquering human frailty and the elements?
Kaz Cooke: Look Amanda, I mean danger, that's spending a whole day inside with a couple of toddlers. I think actually, solo round-the-world yachting, I mean it might be inspirational for people who are learning how to rescue other people who are just being completely stupid. And it can be very expensive of course, Dorksport.
Amanda Smith: Meaning in the kind of rescues that had to be done in the Southern Ocean with Tony Bullimore and Isabelle Autissier in the last couple of years?
Kaz Cooke: Yes, those sort of rogue persons who go into the drink and you know, sadly are sometimes seen again. But then there are the others who will pop off to the Antarctic and bits of them will fall off. And presumably they come back and use up all their Medicare points, getting bits of themselves sewn back on. I don't know. But I don't think they care.
Amanda Smith: Why do you think these people do these sorts of tough, dangerous endurance sports and feats?
Kaz Cooke: Look I think there are three major reasons: one of them is apparently there's a gene which people who do risky sports have more of; I think people who have failed at other sports, or failed at things, find something that they're good at. You know, 'If I can't be skilful, I can at least be stubborn', and succeed in that way. And I think there's plain showing off. I that that would have to be in there at No.3!
Amanda Smith: So in your view, this is a lot of pain and effort for not very much return to the sum total of human development, Kaz?
Kaz Cooke: No, although as a child of course, you do love the Guinness Book of Records, you know, there is that thing where you want to know who's eaten the most salami.
Amanda Smith: You'd have to admit though that these sorts of high risk, life endangering athletic feats do have a sort of riveting fascination for the public?
Kaz Cooke: Yes. A bit like those Japanese game shows where people are locked in gas tanks with cockroaches all over them. I mean certainly the spectacle of somebody, being reduced to a tragic, frostbitten or jellyfish-bitten lump of humanity whimpering on the shore, look, clearly it's an achievement, but it's not one that I admire I'd have to say.
Amanda Smith: Cartoonist, humourist and author, Kaz Cooke.
Now, there's been a lot of talk in recent years, in Australia and elsewhere, about the construction of artificial reefs - their purpose being either to save a coastline from environmental degradation, or to create perfectly breaking waves for surfboard riding. Indeed, two international symposia have been held, last year in Perth and this year in San Diego, to examine the concept. And while there's been a lot of talk, there hasn't yet been much action. However, one of the first artificial surf reef projects is about to get off the drawing board and into the sea, on the Queensland Gold Coast. And the particular thing about this project is that it's planned to combine the idea of making perfect waves for surfing, with protecting the coastline.
Angus Jackson is a civil engineer and recreational surfer, who specialises in coastal engineering, and he's managing this project on the Gold Coast. But what does an artificial reef look like, and what's it made from?
Angus Jackson: It just looks like any other reef from the beach. It's just a shallow water, where the waves break. Most of the surfing reefs that we're looking at at the moment have been designed with really big sandbags, and by big I mean about 150 tonnes, and they're usually going to be about a metre below low water level. So if you look from the beach, all you see is waves breaking, and if they're shaped as they should be, well then what you get is a left and a right break, the perfect wave.
Amanda Smith: And what are the arguments for building or modifying reefs to create surfable waves where none existed before?
Angus Jackson: Sometimes nature just doesn't quite get it right, so in some places it's fairly easy just to modify the sea-bed shape. And usually a natural reef is going to be, well in Australia, it's going to be made out of rock. And if you go up and down the east coast of Australia, there's a lot of rock ledges and some pretty famous surf breaks, like Shark Island. And there's also a lot of man-made surf breaks that are fairly famous now too. And the thing is that the engineers when they designed the structure weren't thinking surfing. We're getting a bit more advanced than that. You know, places like the North Wall at Newcastle, the other side on the Gold Coast, Duranbah northern New South Wales, they're all man-made breaks, but someone was just lucky.
Amanda Smith: Now with any project that does modify the natural land or seascape, environmental issues must play a part. Are there any environmentally negative effects about putting in an artificial surf reef?
Angus Jackson: A reef is really a fairly common occurring natural structure. So if you replicate what happens naturally, you won't have a problem.
Amanda Smith: What's the ball-park cost of constructing an artificial reef, Angus?
Angus Jackson: The cheapest one, say at Bargara in Central Queensland, was done with an excavator reshaping some rocks that were on the beach; it probably cost in the order of hundreds of dollars. The El Segundo Reef in California, they're working to a budget of half a million; the Gold Coast Reef, the estimate for that is $1.5-million. That one's an interesting one: the cost benefit studies on that indicate just one surfing competition held on that reef will bring $2.2-million into the Gold Coast economy. So it's really been built as a coastal protection structure, to improve the beach at Surfer's Paradise, but a by-product will be that it'll virtually pay for itself in a very short time as a surfing reef.
Amanda Smith: Can you see any dangers though in capitalising on our coast with these artificial surf reefs?
Angus Jackson: One of the problems with the coast at the moment is the population's increasing in Australia.
Amanda Smith: Around the coast.
Angus Jackson: Particularly around the coast. And if we don't manage our coastline, we're going to get uncontrolled use. Already we're getting a situation in the water where, what used to be quiet surfing spots, are suffering from 'surf rage'. And one problem with surfing being a natural sport is that it's very weather dependent. So the window where surf spots are usable is often quite limited. We've worked out, say in the Gold Coast, that it might only be 30% of the time at a spot like Narrowneck where the reef is proposed, is really good surf. By building a structure you can increase the usability and the consistency to something like 70%. It'll take the surf board riders, and the surf craft riders, away from the main swimming beach at Surfer's Paradise. It really is a management thing, and will be very interesting to see how it goes.
Even if the surfing reef just provided an area for surfing competitions, it would take the pressure off the other beaches, and I believe that these aritficial reefs, because they'll have more consistent, more predictable surf, will become top venues for surfing competitions.
Amanda Smith: Is there any likelihood that the coast though could be hijacked by the private sector wanting to make money out of artificial reefs by charging people to surf on them?
Angus Jackson: I can't see that happening in Australia. I'm predicting that within ten years there will be surfing resorts in places like Thailand and Indonesia, and again, that's probably not a bad thing for their economy, and also it'll concentrate surfers in one area where they can be controlled and catered for.
A surfing reef really protects the coastline by breaking the waves offshore, and reduces the erosion. With sea-level rise, we're going to be forced into managing our coast more carefully. I mean Australia has 37,000 kilometres of coastline, and much of that's already starting to show the signs of sea-level rise, and we're going to get more and more pressure for works to be built on the coast to protect what we have.
Amanda Smith: Angus Jackson. And the expected completion date for this artificial surf reef on the Gold Coast is September this year.
And that brings us to the end of an oceanic Sports Factor for this Ocean Week. I'm Amanda Smith, hope you'll join me next Friday when we'll be back on dry land with the World Cup Soccer finals getting under way in France.
The Sports Factor can be heard on Radio National, 8.30am Fridays (Repeated Friday evenings at 8.30pm).