John van Leeuwen, of Invercargill, at Oreti Beach on
Saturday during the commemorations of the 50th anniversary
of his becoming the first person to swim Foveaux Strait. He
swam from Bluff to Stewart Island, which can be seen in the
distance behind him. Photo by Allison Rudd.
The seventh person to swim Foveaux Strait, and the first
to swim it from Stewart Island to Bluff, says he has great
respect for John van Leeuwen, the first person to conquer the
fickle strait 50 years ago.
It took Invercargill masters swimmer Wayne Evans nine hours
and 20 minutes to complete the swim on Saturday during an
event commemorating Mr van Leeuwen's history-making endeavour
of February 7, 1963.
''I have great respect for what he achieved, especially as he
wore a bathing suit and I had a wetsuit,'' Mr Evans said.
Stiff and sore yesterday and unable to lift his arms above
his shoulders, he said the sea was rough and there was doubt
at first whether the swim would take place. Then he hit a rip
and ''battled through concrete'' for the first three hours
before conditions calmed, he said.
Other swimmers, most from the Oreti Beach Surf Lifesaving
Club, of which Mr van Leeuwen is patron, swam in relays.
They were to join Mr van Leeuwen, his twin sons and a group
of young club surf lifesavers for a ceremonial swim into
Oreti Beach on Saturday evening, but because they were
delayed the ceremonial swim went ahead without them.
Mr Evans said his name would not go down in the record books
because he did not have official timers and recorders with
Mr van Leeuwen (78) said on Saturday he would never have
become the first person to swim the strait without the help
of his swim buddies.
While he swam, his buddies took it in turns to swim with him,
encouraging him and feeding him Complan to keep his strength
''I always say we swam the strait, not me.''
So it was fitting some of his swim buddies made it to
Invercargill for the commemorations. They included Tim
Fenton, who travelled from Canada, John Fogarty, who like Mr
Leeuwen still lives in Invercargill, and Mr van Leeuwen's
1963 girlfriend, Ann, now his wife.
Back in 1962, members of the surf lifesaving club decided to
try swimming the strait, Mr van Leeuwen said. Coach Ivan
Wilson selected him as the swimmer who would go all the way.
''I was the oldest in the group ... but I was the toughest
trainer. The others used to swim upstream on the edges of the
Oreti River - I swam in the middle where the current was
The February 7 attempt almost ended in failure midway when
the group was ''attacked'' by bluebottle jellyfish, he said.
Mr van Leeuwen had grease on his body to protect him from the
cold but was ready to quit when the bluebottles began
stinging his face.
''I stopped and put in a complaint to the complaints
department - Ivan. He got engine oil and smeared it across my
mouth. That's what saved me.
The group had left at 9am but struck three tides and swam
many more kilometres than they had expected to, he said.
''The strait is 30-something kilometres and we might have
swum 50. By the last two hours, I was getting very, very
Ann swam the last section of the journey with him, urging him
to go on.
Finally, 13 hours and 36 minutes after leaving Bluff, they
reached Stewart Island at an area has since been renamed van
''We went to Halfmoon Bay for a good meal of sausages, eggs
and chips and a good night's sleep. But first I had to be
degreased,'' Mr van Leeuwen recalled.