cook straight

A deceptively calm day on Cook Straight. What you can’t see are the miles-wide whirlpools that make this one of the most dangerous crossings on earth. Photo: Joshua Kirk (@joshuamkirk)

Epic | Annabel Anderson’s Harrowing Crossing on Cook Strait

As told to Shari Coble

Paddling the Cook Strait is something that I'd wanted to do for a few years, but is one of those missions that you're not sure will ever happen. There are so many factors to consider—with this stretch of water in particular—because of the conditions: the tidal flow creates these gnarly currents and massive whirlpools of currents, and then there's the infamous Karori rip [current]. This is one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world.

A lot of people attempt this crossing in all different ways, but very few make it; one person that did make it—and the only person to successfully standup paddle Cook Strait before me—is my mate Shayne Baxter, a Maori, who completed it in 2010. I basically talked him into coming with me [on my crossing] by promising him I'd get him to a surf contest on the North Island the weekend following the crossing. He drove the Jetski over and it was really special having him there because he's culturally in tune with the significance of that piece of water through Maori culture, and, he's the only one to have paddled it.

All of the elements seemed to come together for this mission—and very quickly. But, there was a moment when I realized I didn't prepare for this as much as I normally do for crossings—I didn't even have a spare fin; there just wasn't the time.
As we were on the ski getting out to leave Picton, there was so much turbulence in the water— it's just indescribable. We ended up being 15 or twenty minutes late leaving, so we were really conscious of time the entire crossing because we were really cutting it close to the tide change. I knew if I was going past six hours I just wouldn't make it [because of the tide change], but figured it would be about a four- to six-hour crossing.

Anderson, making her way across the Cook Strait. Photo: Shayne Baxter

Anderson, making her way across Cook Strait. Photo: Shayne Baxter

It was about 22 kilometers total from our starting point on the South Island at Marlborough Sound to the visual landmark we chose, but what makes it so difficult isn't the distance—it's the changeability of the weather and the swell conditions. There's this tiny window of time with the drastically changing tides, with the incoming tide filling in from the Tasman Sea and outgoing tide on the Pacific side, so I knew I would get dragged right and then I would be dragged left. If I didn't cross in time, I'd just be stuck on a treadmill.
When you approach the North Island [near our finish in Wellington] you can get stuck in the Karori rip; it's not quite five kilometers offshore, but if you get caught in the rip, you'd be on a treadmill, paddling in place for 10 kilometers or so.

We could see land in the distance the entire time—it's actually not that different from paddling Moloka'i to Oahu. When you get closer and land becomes clearer, you see the valleys and everything, but that's the hardest part because of the way the currents are, you just don't feel as though you're making any progress. You're going through massive whirlpools, like two or three miles wide. I'd be paddling along, thinking, 'this is awesome,' and feel like I have consistence going downwind. Then, it would feel like I was suddenly going upwind. And then [it would] feel like you're getting sped up. But, what I realized was, it was the massive whirlpools.

It took me three hours and fifty-seven minutes to complete the crossing.

It was my day; I got a lucky break. I don't think I took a stroke on my left side the entire time because we had a westerly wind and 12-15 knots from the lefthand side. And, that was nearly perfect conditions.

I think we zig-zagged a lot because of the currents and whirlpools, so I'm not sure of the total distance. All that matters is that I got to cross the strait.

And by the way, the following weekend, Shayne and I both ended up winning our divisions in that surf contest.

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