"This is Living"
Crossing the fabled Cook Strait
Kimberley Chambers dives into adventure, and when she is in over her head, she just swims harder. She has chosen to live life this way after almost losing her leg. Her attitude is propelling her to accomplish some amazing open water feats, including crossing the notoriously violent Cook Strait in 8 hours and 26 minutes on March 5, 2012.
Cook Strait separates the North and South islands of New Zealand. It is 16 nautical miles wide and part of the Ocean’s Seven swim series. Fewer than ten people attempt it each year, and fewer of half of those make it to the other side. There are only a handful of tide windows during the season when it can be done, and the area is extremely windy even on a good day. According to cookstraitswim.org, sharks are encountered in one out of every six swims, but so far there have been no attacks.
A former ballerina and rower at UC Berkeley, Chambers got in the water for the first time just three years ago as a way to rehabilitate a life-threatening leg injury caused by compartment syndrome. “[The doctors] saved my leg, but didn’t think I would have any function,” she says. Chambers set out to prove the doctors wrong. “I just wanted to move. I was incapacitated for two years,” she says, explaining that in the water, she didn’t feel her limitations. She is now a member of the Dolphin Club of San Francisco, South End Rowing Club, North Bay Aquatics and Night Train Swimmers. She first went for a dip in the cold San Francisco Bay in November of 2009. The water was 54 degrees. She “went numb but loved it.”
Chambers fell in with Vito Bialla and Night Train Swimmers and their enthusiasm for open water swimming rubbed off. She has completed dozens of cold open water swims, both relay and solo. She was on both Farallon Islands relays in 2011. “I wasn’t the best swimmer by any means, but Vito gave me a chance [on the first Farallonnes relay] and I just loved it.”
Later in 2011, she hit her first bump in the road when she failed on a solo attempt of the English Channel one week after she was part of a successful relay crossing. “I wanted to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” she explains, admitting her goal was a little unrealistic. So Cook Strait was her chance to prove that with the right training and timing, she could do one of the hardest solos crossings in the world. And it would mean a lot to Chambers to complete her first solo in the land of her birth. Chambers calls the training mind numbing; it sometimes included one Masters workout and two swims in the Bay in a single day.
After flying to New Zealand, one of the hardest parts for her was waiting for the conditions to support her attempt. As she says on her blog: “And so began my 10 day wait. 10 days. 10 days of me saying - EVERY SINGLE DAY – ‘no, I really think I'm going to swim tomorrow.’ I watched the weather reports on TV like a dog salivating in front of a juicy bone dangled before him."
She was lucky she was able to swim at all. On the last day possible, she got the call. She had a 12-hour window to make her attempt, so she hustled to Wellington for the start.
Once in the water, it didn’t get any easier. Strong tides and cold, turbulent water left Chambers wrung out and addled at the end. One thousand feet deep in the middle, the Cook Strait becomes shallow at the edges which makes it a washing machine, particularly as the winds pick up and churn up the cold water. “I could only breathe on my left, so I was just inhaling saltwater,” she says. “I was on my last legs. I switched to breaststroke. I was pretty delirious at the end.” But proud, she adds. “I couldn’t have done it without Joe [Locke] and Phillip [Rush]. Phillip used the right amount of carrot and stick to get me across.”
She says the most exciting moment was when she saw a shadow with a horizontal tail underneath her. That shadow turned out to be a dolphin; an entire group of them literally swam with her for about half an hour in the early part of her swim.
That swim showed her anything is possible, and her horrifying leg injury now seems a blessing in disguise. “I really do believe everything in life happens for a reason. I crave adventure now. I’ve realized health is fleeting, and you have to make the most of it.”
As for future swims, she’ll be a part of the huge San Francisco to Los Angeles relay and fundraiser organized by Vito Bialla and Night Train Swimmers in September.
“I just feel like I learned so much about myself. It’s all about making up your mind and doing it.”
Chambers writes lyrically about this swim and many others on her blog: kimswims.squarespace.com/blog/