Under my byline

Flying fish

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 24 July 2009

The journal of a pioneering swimming adventure

Strel, Mohlke, The Man Who Swam the AmazonThe Man who Swam the Amazon
Martin Strel, Matthew Mohlke
pp 232

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin told the Wall Street Journal last month that “We need something to inspire hope in people” — such as a manned mission to Mars. “We need to inspire teachers and students to get into productive areas, not just thinking about making money.”

In the guestbook entries on the website of another pioneering traveller — Martin Strel, marathon swimmer — one can read the hunger for inspiration and gratitude of dozens of schoolchildren and teachers, not to mention aspiring long-distance swimmers. Among all the science-project requests there is young Emma: “I am nine and I am a swimmer too… If you ever need a partner to help with your swim to raise awareness contact me… I can swim 5 km in under 2 hours.”

Strel is a hefty, middle-aged ex-armyman from the tiny nation of Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia. In his youth he wanted to be a gymnast, and practised with total determination despite his father’s disapproval. Eventually his coach told him he would make a better swimmer than gymnast. Strel changed course accordingly, becoming a professional marathon swimmer in 1978.

Since then he has swum a number of rivers from source to mouth, starting with small fry like the Krka (1992, 105 km, 28 hours) in Slovenia and working up to monsters like the Danube (2000, 3,004 km, 58 days), Mississippi (2002, 3,797 km, 68 days), Yangtze (2004, 4,003 km, 51 days) and Amazon (2007, 5,268 kms, 66 days). That last was achieved at an amazing average rate of just under 80 km per day — swimming!

This book is a record of his Amazon expedition in early 2007. It is written in the form of a journal, one chapter a day. The author is not Strel but his pilot Matthew Mohlke, a young American who came to Strel’s notice because he wrote a book on on a solo kayaking trip he took down the Mississippi on $3 a day (Floating Down the Country, 2001), as Mohlke puts it, “looking for girls and a good buzz”.

Strel picked Mohlke to guide him on his Mississippi swim. Mohlke writes: “Martin needed a few kayakers who knew the river, could give up three months of their lives, were physically capable of spending fourteen hours a day in a kayak, and would do the work for free. I guess there were only a few of us who qualified.” Though the Amazon expedition cost $1 million, none of the participants got rich (likely not even John Maringouin, whose feature-length documentary on the swim, Big River Man, won an award at Sundance this year).

The most valuable skill Mohlke possesses is: “I can find current.” This is critically important on a river that can be kilometres wide, because not only does it make the swimmer’s job easier, but it keeps him away from predators like crocodiles and piranhas which lurk in the slow water near the banks.

Large biting animals are not the only health risk. None of the crew, in or out of the water, escapes the constant stomach problems, mysterious rashes and the like. Always, the show must go on; Strel must meet his daily distance targets. And Strel, in the water 10 hours a day, suffers most.

He wears a wetsuit rubbed down with petrol to dissuade predators, which also rubs away his skin; flippers rub his feet raw; his face is burnt by the sun; his skin is infested with parasites; he has diarrhoea and must let go within his wetsuit and keep going. Then he must eat, rest and repeat. No question of a recovery break — the only pause in the progress, measured in hours, not days, is when the support boat (the large craft on which the crew live) breaks down or gets stranded on a sandbank.

There is, of course, no good answer to the obvious question: why. There never is, with such feats of athleticism and endurance. Strel says “I swim for peace, friendship and clean waters.” But once in the water, the doing consumes all: Mohlke writes that when Strel gets into his wetsuit, “he changes from a slightly old, slightly fat man into a superhero”. That change is all in the mind. Mohlke is trained to watch and intuitively understand the river, moment by moment, and is equally attuned to his boss; some of the finest passages occur when Mohlke describes Strel’s tactics — how he tells stories in his mind, holds conversations with family members, pays attention to water and jungle.

As a daily record, this journal covers a lot of ground, from logistics to elements of unpredictability; finding one’s bearings in a watery, shifting world; problems of health, stress and adaptability; the challenge of living in close quarters; the ways of coping that each expeditioneer must devise; issues of leadership and control; balancing PR with expedition goals; and so on. It’s a reminder that such enterprise depends on people, not technology. Surely there is some kind of lesson here for the Mars mission that Aldrin says we should be planning.


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