Alex Kostich Talks About His Pioneering Swim In Pitcairn

Alex Kostich Talks About His Pioneering Swim In Pitcairn

Courtesy of Alex Kostich, Pitcairn Island, Pacific Ocean.

With fewer than 50 residents on Pitcairn Island, Alex Kostich‘s successful 9.8 km circumnavigation swim around the island created quite a stir.

Kostich gives his first-hand account of his unprecedented swim:

It was a really gratifying opportunity to be able to do this, albeit in less than ideal conditions. It took us 8 hours longer by cargo ship to arrive on island on May 2nd. We were told we might not even be able to disembark our ship to spend the first night on Pitcairn as a result of the stormy high seas…[it was] really bad.

There was a squall of some sort creating huge swells, battering the ship and preventing us from doing anything for 48 hour, but laying flat and hoping we weren’t tossed out of bed. [I am] not exaggerating. Eating was next to impossible as was going to the bathroom or showering. We were tossed to and fro nonstop for two days.

The Pitcairn islanders met us by longboat and we disembarked successfully on the opposite side of the island than the landing point; this was our only hope of getting off the ship.”

But Kostich knows open water and he kept faith in his crew, planning and the possibility that the conditions would at least allow him to attempt the swim. “The conditions [that we encountered when] we arrived were not necessarily supposed to lighten up. So I was not planning on even attempting the swim unless something drastically improved or changed as far as weather.

On May 3rd, we woke up to sunny skies for a brief hour before rains started and the surf continued to surge. So that day for doing the swim was out too. Instead, I played tourist and called a meeting with my makeshift crew to plan on a swim first thing on May 4th.”

May 4th was the Kostich’s full day on the island. It was his last hope, but the opportunity was downright daunting. “[My] window was closing and I was losing hope, but trying to remain optimistic. Indeed, the conditions of the ocean from my vantage points around the island were nothing short of scary. I did not want to be in the water at all, which is rare for me.

Our meeting resulted in a plan of coming down to the historic Bounty Bay (landing dock area) at 7:30 am and assessing the conditions the next morning on May 4th.

I had Alan Tanner, an engineer from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, emailing me with information.

The satellite news that he was pulling that showed the winds dying down and the storm passing. This update was more reliable than Google weather and I trusted his opinion as he also had surf and tidal information he was adding in as well.

We also decided that if we were to attempt the circumnavigation, I would go in a clockwise direction given the direction of the currents. They were surging northeast to southwest. The island’s position meant that my first fifth and last fifth of the swim would be against the current. I chose to do this so that I could get past the rough first part in about 30 minutes and then coast, hopefully, for an hour or more until I had to hammer home in high surf again. I thought that was better than to go counter-clockwise, to start easy, but then have to hammer hard for an hour or more at one go, before getting a potential break at the very end.”

But like all pioneering swims and unprecedented adventures, Kostich was naturally worried, especially given the turbulent and unpredictable conditions. “I had a restless sleepless night, probably only closed my eyes for about 3 hours. It made worse by the fact that my open window had a steady breeze blowing into my room all night; the winds were not dying down.”

At 7:30 the next morning, the adventurers all met at Bounty Bay. Kostich’s kayaker was Ian, the island doctor on assignment for several months from New Zealand. His support boat crew consisted of Steve Childers and locals Brad Brown and Jayden Warren-Peu.

Ian told the team that the conditions weren’t great, but they would not get any better. Kostich recalls, “I had suggested postponing one more day until Sunday May 5th, which was cutting it close because we would be departing the island by 4 pm. No one else seemed to believe we should attempt the swim – and there were many locals down to see me off, including the town pastor and chief police officer.

I looked at Ian and said ‘This is it, huh? it’s now or never?’ He smiled and shrugged and agreed, the decision was mine. But he looked ready to go and the rest of the crew was looking to me for the final decision. I decided on the spot we would give it a shot. If I turned around in the high surf immediately after starting, at least I would have gotten wet and tried.

After that things happened very quickly and it was mostly a blur.”

Ian set up his kayak with my two Hammer Nutrition bottles strapped to the hull before Kostich even realized it was time to go. The pastor held a prayer circle and wished everyone a safe journey. Ian was already in the water before Kostich realized he had to look for his signal about when the set of huge waves would subside that would allow a brief window to head out into the water.

To say the least, things were dicey. “The rocky shore was intimidating and the waves were breaking on the boulders. I sat on the edge of the concrete landing ready to drop into the water and have it pull me out around the corner. Within moments, Ian signaled and I started my Garmin, dropping into the surprisingly warm – but intimidating – waters.”

As expected, the outward surge from the heavy surf shot Kostich out fast from the shore as massive waves started barreling over his head.

I fought my way out into deeper waters, but it didn’t get any smoother. The waves were literally like a washing machine, coming from every direction and battering my arms as I tried to stroke forcefully. I had no idea where Ian and the kayak were, nor did I see the boat. The sun was shining in my eyes and I just started swimming clockwise to my right, occasionally glimpsing some palm trees on shore between waves seemingly coming at me from the beach side – which they were, since they would crash into the rocks and then bounce back the way they came.”

Kostich was bounced around by Mother Nature for the first half hour like a sock in a washing machine. Up and down, left and right. “[There was] loud crashing in my ears. [I was full of] excitement and adrenaline with no idea which way was up, where Ian was, if I was swimming towards one of the many rock outcroppings that could pull me in and slice up my torso or worse. I knew if I could get around the north side of the island, this should subside, because Ian had done an early morning lookout of the east side and told me it was rough, but significantly calmer than the west side where I started.”

Kostich and his team continued to fight through the rough waters. Kostich – one of the world’s fastest distance masters swimmers and still a world-class swimmer – sprinted around the shoreline for a mile when the waters started to calm and he was able to find stroke with some semblance of a proper technique. Kostich explained his perspective in comparison to the other island swims he has done for the last 3 decades, “I will forever be grateful for the calm, peaceful waters of the Waikiki Roughwater Swim after this experience.

The next hour was rough, but manageable as I passed landmarks that I had seen on Google maps or on my day tour of the island the previous day. St. Paul’s Pool was one particularly beautiful spot that has claimed lives in the past. I could not help but think of the people swept out into the very sea I was swimming in, never to be seen again.

I needed to hydrate, but it was not easy even on the east side of the island where the waters were relatively more stable. The conditions were still, in my eyes, very rough. I yelled to Ian for the first of only two brief nutrient breaks, not because I needed this first one an hour into my swim, but because I didn’t know when I’d have the luxury of another one given the conditions.

‘Are we halfway about now?’ I asked between gulps of Hammer product.

Ian laughed in his Scottish accent and yelled back, ‘You’re about a little over a third.'”

That was not the status report that Kostich hoped for. He continued to swim, but he felt excited that he could imagine success, finally admitting to himself that he might be able finish in one piece. “At times, the water was incredibly clear and I could see 30 meters to the very bottom. The ridges of the sand at the bottom were undulating and giving up sprays of sand every time a swell went over me – and this was 30 meters below.

The power of the ocean is really something out [in the middle of the Pacific Ocean]. You really get a sense of the power and force of nature in a place as remote as this where there is nothing to shelter you from the raw elements.

As we rounded the southern end of the island, rocks started breaking the surface offshore making for dangerous dodgeball. The surf started again as I rounded the final stretch of the last two-fifths of the distance, heading north on the west side of the island. Ian was great navigating through the maze of rocks at a safe distance, but he couldn’t protect me from the waves that started battering me from all sides again.

At this point, I became super excited because I knew I was home free.”

Home free, perhaps. But Kostich and his team were still uncertain how he could possibly exit the water since Bounty Bay is notorious for sunken ships and my entry into the swim was as unplanned as it was panicked and intense. Getting in was much easier than getting out. To start, Kostich only had to swim away from the rocky shore; finishing required him to swim towards the shore.

I started passing the houses in Adamstown and knew I was only about 1 km away from the finish. The Bay was easy to spot, even with the sun in my eyes. Ian just gave me a hand signal to say it was time to turn in and get to shore.

I caught a few of the waves surging over my head while making sure they didn’t sway me into the right side where sharp outcroppings of boulders and rocks were or the left side where a circular concrete landing platform of Bounty Bay sat. The spectators were on the platform watching for me.

I managed to get into the bay safely and sprint to the left where the boat ramp awaited me. I felt the slick surface beneath the white foam instantly and rose to my feet and walked up to finish the swim.”

While Kostich feared the worse, a potential for disaster, his finish was simple and, fortunately, anticlimactic.

As he recalled the 2 hour 37 minute circumnavigation, “[The swim] went by really fast. It was a blur of intensity and strategy the entire way through. I knew what I had to do and it felt like I was threading a needle, given the timing of everything; the window of opportunity we took, the unknown conditions we were facing as nobody had ever swum in these waters before, the not knowing if the harrowing first 30 minutes of the swim would ever let up, the risk of danger, and the fear of sharks.”

Kostich never saw a shark. “The E-Shark Force ankle bracelet that I had may have been effective given that we hung it on the kayak after deciding it was too cumbersome for me to wear in these conditions).

None of this would have been possible without the incredible knowledge and skill of Jayden and Brad and Ian, the kayaker who was more of a psychological companion than anything else, though his navigation skills were exceptional.

I felt odd pressure to finish the swim in under 3 hours given that church service began at 11 am and most of the island’s 49 residents were 7th Day Adventists who never missed a Saturday sabbath. We finished by 10:45 and all made it up the hill to church albeit a little late. I was flattered the pastor worked me into his sermon and asked me to stand up during the service. I was dripping wet and still sweating, but so happy to be surrounded by such wonderful and gracious people.”

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Steven Munatones