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Reaching the high seas: An open water swimming escape

This article was originally published in the 118th issue of La Gazette, the magazine for the Francophone Association of Malaysia. Thank you to our squad swimmer Daniela Barrier for the coverage and permission to reproduce the article at our blog. An English translation is provided below.

Imagine yourself in the Perhentian Islands, navigating the turquoise waters with your own body as the only engine. No noise apart from the sound of your arms splashing the water in constant rhythm, schools of fish and turtles think you are one of them.

"more people are looking for a new way to experience local natural beauty in open water swimming. ”

Malaysia is a popular destination for open water swimmers. The Perhentian Island Challenge - 16 km round-island swim around Pulau Besar is among the top 100 courses in the world according to the World Open Water Swimming Association. Nationally, the number of entries in the Malaysia Open Water Swimming Series (circuit of five competitions) is increasing every year. And since the closure of national borders due to the Covid pandemic, more and more people find that open water swimming is a new way to experience local natural beauties. What they discover often exceeds their expectations.


You don't have to be a seasoned athlete to get started on this adventure. But beware: whatever distance you intend to swim, your main challenge will be mastering natural and therefore unpredictable elements: currents, waves, wind. Some experienced swimmers guarantee that thanks to better buoyancy, swimming in the sea is much less tiring than swimming in a pool, although your muscles will be more strained by the need to constantly adapt to the movements of the water and the outside environment. Another challenge: the absence of markers. The pool lanes won't be there anymore, so you want to avoid swimming five miles instead of four because you've lost your north. And finally, the sea creatures, more or less docile. During the 2019 Perhentian Island Challenge, the swimmers were accompanied by a whale shark. An unforgettable experience once the fear is mastered!


If swimming alone can reinforce the somewhat sacred and transcendent character of intimate contact with nature, swimming in an organised group will free you from logistical and security management. Not to mention the pleasure of meeting like-minded people who are ready to support you when you lack strength, including during training. According to Amirizal Ishak, founder of Swimon, an organisation specialising in the organisation of courses, crossings and competitions in open water, ensuring the safety of swimmers includes, among other things, managing the traffic of boats in the surrounding area, often blind to swimmers; or having each swimmer be accompanied by a kayak or paddle board which will provide water and food supplies and help with orientation. "My pleasure is to see the smiles of people on arrival, and to listen to them tell the stories of their crossing," he says.


Swimon organises open water swimming training sessions with crossings of about two kilometres on alternating weekends, in Port Dickson or in the lakes around Kuala Lumpur such as Putrajaya or Tasik Widuri, at Bukit Beruntung, Rawang. Beach hopping-type courses are also organised, during which swimmers cover about two kilometres between each stage, with moments of rest on the sand and under the coconut trees, in The Perhentians or in Langkawi.

For swimmers who are starting to get comfortable, a 4k race, solo or relay, is a possibility. Not to mention the night swim, for those who start before daybreak. “Night time open water swimming is something I really enjoy, it feels like you are floating in space. You can see the bioluminescence with every arm pull, ”says Ridzwan A. Rahim, an experienced open water swimmer (see sidebar). "But this beauty is lost to most people because they've never tried it, "he regrets. Proximity to nature, surpassing oneself, friendship and solidarity: swimming in open water is certainly one of those experiences capable of changing you for life.



According to Shauqie Aziz, founder and trainer at MySwim Coaching, in order to swim in the sea it is important to have the right crawl technique allowing you to swim continuously over a long distance with less effort. “The right technique - that is, how often you breathe, on which side, whether you need to kick more or less, to increase or decrease your stroke rate - is unique to each individual according to their anatomy, their strength, their daily physical activities and even their personality, ”he explains. “My rule of thumb [to swim in the sea] is to be able to swim 400 metres front crawl in the pool, at a minimum speed of 2 minutes 30 seconds per 100 metres and, if possible, swim faster and faster with each lap. Before you get started, you need to make sure that you are able to cover the same distance in the pool as you plan to swim in the sea or in a lake. Often, the fear of open water stems from a lack of training and therefore a lack of understanding of your own body in the water. To get around this and gain self-confidence there is only one solution: swim, swim, swim!"



Journalist Ridzwan A. Rahim learned to swim in 2009, already in his 30s, when he was sent to cover a scuba diving event by a newspaper. Since then, having become an open water swimming enthusiast, he has taken on many challenges: the 6.5 kilometres that separate Kapas Island from the coast, in Terengganu (Kapas Marang International Swimathon); the 2.5 km in the cold, shark-infested waters that separate the city of San Francisco (USA) from the infamous Alcatraz prison (event called Sharkfeast Alcatraz!); the tour of Pulau Besar (16 km), in the Perhentians, twice. But his latest achievement will go down in the annals of the sport in Malaysia. On March 21, 2021, Ridzwan became the first person to swim, solo, the waters of the China Sea separating Pulau Besar (Perhentian, Terengganu) from the coast, or 19 km in just under nine hours. During most of the crossing, Ridzwan was aided by favourable winds and tides. Until he got caught in a mighty back flow. "I was treading water and I was so tired that my team considered getting me out of the water and ending the swim only 600m from the finishing line!"


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