Brutal Swells at Kapas-Marang International Swimathon 2023
Coach Shauqie Aziz shares his challenges as he navigates the iconic Kapas-Marang Cross Channel Swim in Malaysia
I want to share my experience swimming 6.5km across the channel from Kapas Island to the mainland Marang, Terengganu, on 11 March 2023.
This time, it was a different kind of experience from the previous years 2017 & 2018 I swam. I describe this as the easiest in terms of tidal currents (underwater currents) but most brutal in dealing with big swells. Tides were pushing slowly to the south, but big swells were moving to the mainland; hence, tides and swells were moving in almost opposite directions resulting in the water's choppiness.
The low strength of the tides allowed many swimmers to estimate their arrival right in front of the finishing arch. Hence, you can see a lot of swimmers who had swam Kapas-Marang before clocked in better times than in the past. In terms of weather, it wasn't hot, and it was so comfortable to swim in this weather. I just loved the water temperature, which I think was around 27°-28°. Compared to the past years I swam when the sun was up and hot, and I had to take off my swim cap and dip my head into the water to release the heat from my body.
So the main challenge I faced in 2023 was navigating to the endpoint. The navigation buoys along the route were irrelevant. What I think might have been useful is if the organiser had placed a big helium balloon at the finishing arch. This will let swimmers judge their position clearer rather than having two confusing thoughts: swim along the navigation buoys or follow the so-called "Mount Fuji".
Swells and choppy waters during the swim (video credit: Alfi Jamilin)
The swells were so high, probably due to the extended monsoon season. I have never swum for 2 hours in this rough/choppy water condition. From the beginning to the end, it was super rough. The swells never stopped coming after me, and if I found this was super tough, some of my swimmers might feel the same, and some could have pulled out immediately. I was thinking about some of the first-timers. Can Ganesh, Johnson, Jennifer, Foo and Irwan endure this? I could feel for them if they decided to pull out. For every 20 times I sighted; I could probably see Mount Fuji only once or twice. I had no clear direction where to go, and I was battling with the big swells that some fishermen reported were about 2-3 metres high. I'm sure many swimmers had their share of swallowing this water. I didn't get it even once, maybe because I expressed to the sea that, "you are my friend, I have swum with you for the past 17 years; we are cool, and let's dance together." 😊 So immediately I felt calmness in the roughness.
Sticking to the Game Plan
We could have achieved many incredible things if we had stuck to our game plan. But sticking to it is not easy, because we tend to follow what others are doing, isn't it? So I forcefully made my way heading to the right side of Mount Fuji (actual name is Bukit Temiang), where there was a valley. So that was my target point. Yes, trying to see the target point with the big swells covering my sight was tough. But yeah, keep swimming and sighting; you will still get to see things when the swells bring you up for a moment. I timed myself; after 1 hour of swimming, I slowly straightened my position aiming for the exact peak of Mount Fuji for the next 30mins. Finally, after 1.5 hours of swimming, I can start to see the beach and swim straight to the shore for the next 30-40 mins. The tides weren't strong, so I could angle directly to the finishing arch without fighting the tides.
Let's understand Tides, Swells, and Waves for a moment. Tides are underneath the surface and affected by the gravitational attraction from the sun and the moon. Swells are formed by the strength of the wind that blows over long hours from far away. Waves have lesser strength than swells and they appear at the end of the swells, that's what you can see 50 metres from the shore; they can curl high, smash to the ground, lose power, and then disappear. So we have experienced all of these three elements during the Kapas-Marang swim.
The Last Hurdle
Davina Goh & Kenny Lum being pushed by the waves
I'm very sure so many of us were panicked by the enormous waves curling over us in the last 50-100 metres, something that most of us did not expect. So the trick was when I took a breath, I looked slightly behind and timed the waves coming from behind. I positioned myself in the superman position or single-arm swimming to let the waves take me to the shore, one after another. I rode the waves and swam when I felt it pulling me back again, repeating that style until I reached the shore. Just don't panic; keep doing what you believe will work.
Safety is always my concern when it comes to open water; it's a dangerous place to be in if swimmers are not equipped with training and adequate skills. Looking back at the race condition, imagine if swimmers did not carry safety buoys (safety buoys are compulsory at all open water swimming events in Malaysia), many would have panicked and been pulled away by the big waves. Think again if no one helped approaching swimmers who were looking for help. The situation could have turned out to be bad.
30 minutes after I arrived, myself and a few other strong swimmers who had finished had to help approaching swimmers who felt like drowning under the waves. I also went to Bomba (fire fighters) and asked for help, but they said their boat had already capsized and asked me to go to the organiser tent to tell them. What is this from Bomba? I was a bit upset and mad as there was nobody I could ask to help check on the remaining swimmers at sea. How are the swimmers doing after nearly 4 hours in the water? There were no support boats/jetskis around to check on them. What if they were really in need of help, how are we going to evacuate them from the sea immediately?
I went up and down looking for help and made some people unhappy, but it is not personal; it's just for the safety of all participants. I would like to see Malaysian event organisers and sanctioning bodies turun padang (come down to the field) to ensure things are running according to guidelines and take safety as the utmost priority. I am not apologising to anyone for what I have said to any of you; we have lost friends from our triathlon/open water communities due to ignorance or taking things lightly by the responsible parties. Ignorance is no longer tolerable in sports. I will always keep supporting local events, and I will also always give my say on the open water scene.
I'm very proud of MySwim Coaching athletes, who completed the 2023 Kapas-Marang Channel Crossing. This is a challenging feat. You have trained so hard in the squad every morning and on weekends—the amount of time and dedication you have given to achieve this is truly admirable and can keep on in our living memories. Remember to reward yourself with something; it doesn't need to be big, just enough to make you smile before thinking about the next challenge.
1. Mani (Manigaanda Keertan) from Red Rescue did a great job making sure the personal kayaks that supported our newer swimmers were well communicated with via walkie-talkie. So we could know where Ganesh's position was and when the kayak lost sight of Mable. He was serious and no-nonsense about doing his part.
2. Foo Sheek Hian ("Foo") did not finish (DNF) the race as the swells gave him a headache and caused him to vomit. Despite the disappointment, he then watched over swimmers that needed help from the shore.
Foo on hand to help participants after tumbling through the waves
3. I wasn't worried about Suga (Sugania Vijayan); I knew she would make it after her disappointment at her last attempt in 2022 before she joined MySwim Coaching. I saw her two faces; one panicked face at the end when the waves were curling over her, and then, her look changed entirely with confidence after overcoming those gruelling waves. One look at her eyes and you know she has a strong fighting spirit!
4. Kimi (Hakimi Radzi) is as chill as he always is. For him, this is just another swimming day. This man does not doubt himself. He lives better in the water than on land.
Suga & Kimi out of the water
5. Johnson Chen did breaststroke all the way; it's ok, mate, do what you think is the best at that time.
6. Ganesh (Ganeshwara Rao Devadoo), our last swimmer out of the water, was the greatest of all! Being in the water for 4 hours was not easy! He kept fighting and could still ran strong to the finish line!
Johnson and Ganesh as they arrive at the finishing line
7. Indeed, a big congratulations to our champs! Thank you for flying our flag high and proud!
Imran Luqman 1:39:21, 1st (M20-29) and 4th Overall male
Anne Bendix Dahl 1:58:47, 1st (F50-59) and 3rd Overall female
Janice Chan 2:20:40, 3rd (F40-49)