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Rob Hutchings is tackling something he believes no one else has done before.
The 44-year-old Corner Brook native will try to swim the entire 338 kilometres of the Clutha River
The Clutha is the second longest river in New Zealand, where Hutchings currently lives.
He expects it will take him five days to complete the swim, starting Feb. 20
Hutchings left Corner Brook in 1994 to finish training to become a chiropractor in England, which he did in 2002.
He subsequently moved to Australia where he met his wife.
In 2018, they moved to Christchurch, New Zealand where he resides to this day.
The long-time triathlete has since developed a passion for river swimming.
“I’ve noticed I prefer challenging adventures over being competitive,” he told The Western Star.
He became interested in swimming the Clutha last year.
He put together a list of rivers that were deep enough and safe enough to swim and the Clutha passed the test.
The Clutha may be the second longest river in New Zealand, but is the highest volume river in the country.
He will swim downstream, southward from the town of Wanaka, to where the river opens to the Pacific Ocean.
To put it in perspective for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, the drive along the Trans-Canada Highway from Corner Brook to Gander is about 350 kilometres.
While it is much longer than the Humber River, Hutchings says the two are comparable in terms of depth and water flow.
The strong current is perhaps the greatest peril the Clutha River poses.
“Being a fairly fast river, going around twist and turns, I could slam into the sides of the banks,” he said. “I got a good skill set about not doing that of course because I’m experienced in river swimming. But it is a possibility, of course.”
"I do this out of joy."
Despite the strength of the current, Hutchings determined the Clutha was a safe river to swim.
“Equivalent rivers have been swam,” he said. “People have swam far more dangerous rivers than the Clutha.”
He did research to ensure its safety.
In August, he visited Wanaka on a ski trip and did some scouting, including a paddling tour of the Upper Clutha and determined it was swimmable.
“There are no huge rocks that are sticking up or anything like that,” he said.
Moreover, there are no natural predators in New Zealand, on land or in water, that would be a threat on his journey.
Hutchings also felt confident in his own fitness and ability to endure the river.
But, he added, he won’t be ashamed if he’s unable to swim the whole way.
However safe the Clutha River is to swim, precautions are still required.
Hutchings will have an organized team of kayakers accompanying him.
“Every adventure marathon swim you do, whether you’re in a river, lake or in the ocean, you got safety boats, kayakers or power boats,” he said. “You’d have to be a bit of a fool to go without a safety team.”
It’s not just the current he has to prepare for. He will encounter rapids, he could potentially encounter trees knocked over by the wind or floating debris or river boats.
It’s the job of the kayakers to protect him and direct him away from any of these potential hazards in the water.
The kayaking team will have VHF radios and whistles to grab Hutchings’ attention in the event any of these things are encountered as they scout ahead.
Boating companies have been notified of what Hutchings is doing and he will have GPS live tracking.
In the event of an emergency, the kayaks will carry satellite phones and they have a list of emergency numbers to contact, including New Zealand police and New Zealand Emergency Services, in each region.
He will also be dressed in neon colours to make him easier to spot.
“Good for safety, not good if you want to look cool, but good thing I was never worried too much about that,” he joked.
Furthermore, New Zealand also has highly variable weather that could pose a problem.
Hutchings said they’ll be keeping a close eye on that as well.
People from anywhere in the world will be able to follow the progress of his swim on a special Facebook page Hutchings has set up for the event.
A great deal of Hutchings’ time is spent exercising.
Hutchings has been doing “heaps of swimming” to prepare for the Clutha challenge.
“I live very close to both the harbour and the beach section of Christchurch and it’s an absolutely spectacular place for open water swim training in the sea,” he said.
In the colder months, he swims a lot in the pool.
He also still does a lot of biking and running.
When he hikes and runs in the mountains, he frequently carries poles to get in some upper body work.
“I don’t want to miss out on running in the mountains but I want to get the marathon swim training in,” he said.
For strength and flexibility, he does power yoga and relaxation yoga.
Hutchings stresses he’s not an elite athlete, but this is something he does out of joy.
“Even in Corner Brook, I was never the fastest or the strongest,” he said. “I have done reasonably well in triathlons over the years but I’ve never been elite. I do this out of joy.”
Plotting the course
Hutchings stresses that he won’t be able to stop and get out of the river whenever he wants.
In some places, the river bank simply won’t allow it.
Therefore, they have pre-arranged exit points where Hutchings can stop for a break.
There are also two dams on the Clutha River — the Clyde Dam and the Roxburgh Dam.
Hutchings said these will be forced exit points, and there is a safe spot for him and the kayaks to exit the river about 800 metres up river from each dam.
He will re-enter the river at the safest downriver spot from the dams.
The exact spot will be determined by the conditions of the day but he confirmed it will be less than one kilometre from the dams.
Meanwhile, his wife Tansy is driving the support vehicle and they will strap the kayaks to the roof.
She will drive them the short distance past each of the two dams.
For each of the five days, Hutchings expects to swim about four hours in the morning, starting around 7:30 a.m., then he will have lunch and swim another three to four hours in the afternoon.
He has a rough itinerary for how far he hopes to swim each day.
“I believe this is doable in the week I have off work, but if I’m wrong I’m going to be thrilled with having a challenging adventure,” he said. “I won’t be ashamed if I only manage to make it, say, 275 kilometres and just didn’t allow for enough time or if nature says, ‘you have to stop now.’ I’m still going to be pretty satisfied with the fact that I swam that far.”
In an emailed statement to The Western Star, the Department of Conservation of New Zealand indicated while sections of the Clutha River or lake bank may be privately owned, the waterway itself has no access restrictions by the general public other than at the hydro-dams where access is restricted for safety reasons.
Rob Hutchings has confirmed he has exit points scheduled 800 metres before encountering the dam and will re-enter the river further downstream.
The department also did not expect the swim to be hazardous to local wildlife.
According to the spokesperson, the Clutha and its banks and islands are home to a range of native and introduced fish and birds.
“Some of these species are threatened and so avoiding disturbance to them, especially during their breeding seasons, is important,” the emailed statement read.
Fortunately, Hutchings’ swim is timed so that species such as black-billed gulls and black-fronted terns should have finished nesting by now and will be less likely to be disturbed.
Wetland areas, such as the head of Lake Dunstan, are important areas for waterbirds and passing through these relatively quickly, as well as staying away from the reeds and weed beds, will help minimize any disturbance to them.