In 2007, South Africa’s Ryan Stramrood received an unexpected email while sitting in his office in South Africa.
“I didn’t have much [open water] experience at all, but it was about a swim attempt from Taiwan to China.”
Recipients were invited to request further updates if they desired. “I decided I’d like to receive the updates so I clicked the link.”
Five minutes later, Stramrood received a call from Wang Han asking him to join. Eight days later, Stramrood was in Taiwan after convincing Kieron [Palframan] to join. “I barely knew Andrew Chin at this stage, so this was where we got to know each other well.”
The plan was to relay across the South China Sea from Taipei to a small group of islands just off the Chinese coast called Matsu Island. “It was a large political venture. No phones were allowed on the boat, but there was not reception and it was frankly impossible to send updates as the water was mostly rough and the boat like a tiny cork.”
Stramrood’s full account of the Taiwan to China relay is below:
Four South Africans have joined a team of 24 Taiwanese and Chinese swimmers to attempt to swim non-stop via relay from Taiwan to China. Relations between Taiwan and China are extremely strained and this is the first co-operative challenge in their history. It is the first attempt to make the 210 km crossing and the logistics are incredible. The South African team (Ryan Stramrood, Kieron Palframan, Andrew Chin and Herda Silverman) have been invited by the organiser and seasoned Taiwanese swimmer Wang Han to bring experience to an otherwise inexperienced team.
August 13th 2007
Kieron and I arrive in Taiwan to start the adventure.
August 14th 2007
Ok, I have a stomach that can tolerate pretty much anything. but what we were presented tonight was frigging scary. Loads of authentic Taiwanese food. Guests always eat first and 25 sets of eyes were on us for each of the 9 courses. Torture, but complete experience.
We met the whole team this evening. No other Europeans, only 4 South Africans. Mostly young students ranging from 15 to 26. Communication is impossible, extremely little English spoken, its like one very long game of charades.
We were really happy to find out that tomorrow’s schedule indicated “rest” for us for most of the day. But we now found out that the Taiwanese word for “work” was incorrectly translated and we need to meet at 7 am to scrub decks literally and prepare the boats.
August 15th 2007
We left our hotel at 7 am yesterday to go see the boats and prepare them for the trip. Please get the word ‘yacht’ OUT of your minds. Think ‘fishing / joy cruising’. 20 of us will share a cabin space around 3×2 meters for 5-6 days. Kieron and I just laugh hysterically at everything, but we both know we are going to have to dig deep – personal space works differently here apparently.
Think Taiwanese harbour…horrid broth of oily fishy foul-smelling gunk…then think of Kieron and I in Speedos with paint-scrapers removing barnacles from the hull for half a day.
We are both having issues with the food. Everything is authentic, odd and boiled. I can’t handle the taste. Our hosts are super keen that we enjoy it and watch us constantly – we very quickly learnt the Taiwanese word for “full”. They promise something extra special for lunch today. I can’t imagine what we will be served when at sea.
We had an amazing press conference – huge media interest in this, with about 6 TV cameras and 15 journalists. I was asked to sit on the panel to represent South Africa and had to make a short speech. Considering about 3 of the 50 people in the room know a few English words, I kept it very short. Quite an amazing experience.
All the other swimmers are professional or ex-professional. They are cut and laugh and point at our undefined stomachs. They are also 15 to 26 years old. We had a swim with them last night in a 200m race. Kieron held his own and I was a few seconds behind, but absolutely poked. The only advantage we have is that the Chinese team have never swum in the sea before or until yesterday had never been on a boat.
Last day on land today and I plan to stock up on a warehouse of chips and recognisable snacks to keep me alive.
August 16th 2007
Although we are with the group 24/7, information is very hard to get and we find out what we are doing when we get to wherever it is. Literally 10 minutes before it was bedtime the night before our big departure, they decided to postpone the swim to allow a very large typhoon to pass. Good decision of course, but it is now a race against time for the South African team as we are all booked on flights home. We are still in with a chance and scheduled departure is now Tuesday 21st. So, right now it is a whole lot of ‘hurry up and wait’.
We had to check out of the hotel and have been relocated to a villa where we are literally sleeping on hard wooden floors with a ‘why-bother’ mattress, no pillow and a swim towel for a blanket. If you wonder why we are persevering, we are the “VIP” guests of Mr Wang and he is covering all costs while here. They take hosting very seriously and if we were to relocate ourselves, it would be a big insult. Kieron and I did however sneak to the lounge last night and took all the ‘Biggie Best’ type cushions off the couch to sleep on. It was a good move, but we were up at 5 am to go replace them as this breach would definitely be frowned upon.
Yesterday we had our first sea swim.
Again information supply was challenged and we only found out it was to be a 2-hour straight swim as we got in the water. The sun was baking, the water temp around 28°C, no feeds, no chance to grease up and no idea where we were heading.
To top it all off, we started in disgusting smelly harbour water, only this time we had to put our heads down. If you know anything about swimming, you’ll know how much water goes down your throat no matter how desperate you are to avoid it. Despite this, it was good to get in the water and better (only just) once out at sea.
There was a nice bit of chop at play and the South African team clearly showed our experience in open water and it is clearer why Mr Wang wanted us here. He rates us very highly in the open sea and all the Chinese and Taiwanese swimmers look to us for direction despite the fact that they are all professional or ex-professional swimmers. This was their first sea swim and there is now a definite feeling of subtle respect and acknowledgement that we might just be worth our salt on the long haul.
At dinner after our swim (which included frog, eel stew and odd looking eggs which Kieron keeps dishing up large helpings on my plate when I am not looking) we were clearly incorporated into all conversation (read: long game of charades) with lots of jokes and fooling around. Although we know our host does not approve, we simply could not handle another evening drinking tea at dinner. Andrew broke the ice and ordered a beer. There was some silence before Mr Wang smiled again and ordered another beer to be shared in tot-sized helpings for all 20 at the table – not quite what we had in mind, so we ordered another 10 bottles to be shared, much to the delight of our younger fellow swimmers and the opposite for their coaches. A good evening followed.
Today have been given a ‘free’ day and we planned to head out for some fun. But now apparently we must be back by 3 pm as the typhoon hits at 5 pm and they expect it to be of enough force to rip trees from the earth and certainly cancel all transport options. We are less convinced as to its ferocity, but best we trust the locals. Could be an interesting night for us. Imagine the blank stares when we beg for a ‘typhoon swim’ (in the pool) to be arranged – just for the experience.
August 17th 2007 (a major typhoon delays the swim 5 days)
Ok, so now all we really have to do is send an update – house bound. Although it might sound like we are bored, there really is never a dull moment in a Taipei apartment with 14 Chinese, 10 Taiwanese and 4 South Africans.
After our free day yesterday where some of the more affluent of us shopped in electronic mecca for 5 hours or so, we arrived home around 8 pm apparently with seconds to spare before the devastating typhoon hit us – wind and rain already pounding. All we wanted to do was hit our wafer-thin blue mats and head off to sleep after a swim in the 25m complex pool.
Upon hearing about our swim intentions, all eyes widened considerably and the plan was quickly crushed. Mr Wang rather invited the team to his house down the road for a drink. All completely not keen, but remaining polite, accepted the invite as long as it was a “que que” visit – (hurry, hurry).
We arrived at Mr Wang’s ultra-modern apartment to be immediately met by a 76-inch LCD screen, full-surround sound system, lounge and bar. Suitably impressed, we were then escorted to the second floor which displayed another LCD screen, bar, lounge and kitchen for a bottle of wine and beer. Then it was off to the 3rd floor for the same. Then to the 4th, then the 5th, then the 6th – an apartment with 6 floors and a full-on lift which goes ‘ting’ at each floor. Amazing and clearly a great display of wealth and status.
Mr Wang had made it known that we were to make ourselves at home and it was then clear that this was not designed to be a ‘que que’ evening and again the South African team had missed the brief. Nonetheless we got stuck into some mighty fine wine and, at last, sitting around a table 5 days into our visit, we finally got to know all our new friend’s names. You can forget about remembering even one of their real Chinese names as they are complicated, but most have an ‘English name’ too. Those who don’t already have an English name, we have now allocated one. So its Fire, ET, Andy, Candy, Zoe, Mama, Lilly, Coach, Tom, Jerry and many others…communication is developing slowly.
It was not long before Mr Wang announced that we were to all relocate to the ground floor where he had some very ‘special entertainment’ for us. At first the mind boggled, but as soon as two microphones were produced, it could be only one thing: karaoke, Chinese karaoke. What followed could only be described as one of the most entertaining, different and fun evenings. The South African team managed to smash over 6 bottles of red and were just as tipsy as our super fit Chinese mates who were still on their first bottle. Thankfully there was English karaoke too and a really good sound system, which led to myself, Kieron and Andrew all giving it horns on the mike until the early hours.
With the typhoon now coming in strongly, but still not getting to grips completely, we decided to follow through on our ‘typhoon swim’ and managed to convince 2 Chinese to join us. Good experience and often quite eerie.
To illustrate how our communications are coming along, Mr Wang arrived this morning with news of a ‘surprise’. He summoned Andrew to follow him. He returned 5 minutes later telling us he had figured out that the surprise is “German Sausage” for dinner (we were not sure whether to be excited or scared about Taiwan-German sausage). A minute later, Mr Wang walked in with a new fan for the apartment. This was the ‘surprise’ and it had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of sausage.
But we really are improving and even the meals are now fun and less traumatising. Herda, who finally has some comfort after receiving a spoon, is still battling a bit, but Kieron, Andrew and I are confident with the chop sticks, know what to avoid, have learned to lower our heads and slurp from the bowl rather than lift the food to our mouths and we no longer care about the inevitable laughing at our expense.
Last night was another 2-hour strategy session where plans and rules are made. The only difference now is that they look to the South African team for direction and we have manipulated this position to mould the entire event to suit us. It is interesting to note the difference between us and the Chinese. They would never dream of questioning a rule, where we are quick to point out that it is flawed or it does not suit us. For example, there is a strict and well structured schedule for the swim. You are either swimming, ‘on duty’ or resting and in the mandatory 8-hour rest period, there is a very strict no-talking policy. We all knew that keeping Kieron or Herda quiet for 8 hours is impossible, so we have negotiated it down to a lesser 6 hours of quiet time. Also, only the South African team refused to wear the sharkpod and rather insist on it being tied to the accompanying duck alongside. They were very unhappy about this, but swimming with an strong electrical pulse down the leg is ridiculous and we all flatly refuse. They have now agreed (this causes huge issues as relay swimmer switching and sharkpod charging systems are very streamlined).
We are now off to clean boats some more and add finishing touches. Tuesday is looking good for departure.
August 20th 2007
The swim is definitely on from tomorrow. We are due to start at 9 am, but will first have a press conference and ‘departure party’. We would normally be excited about a ‘party’ before the swim, but the SA team is on such a tight timeline and the Taiwanese idea of a party is a brightly lit room, crap food and speeches which we can’t understand anyway. Expect to leave late afternoon as we know how superb their time management is.
We have been supplied with a small tog bag which is the only luggage we may take on board. We have been strictly briefed on the exact items we are permitted to pack – no food, water or cell phones – Andrew, Kieron and I are now concerned as to how we are going to conceal our case of beers, bottle of whiskey, 10 packets of chips, 6 boxes of biscuits, loads of Energades, chocolates and plenty other Western-looking snacks. But a plan will be made.
For a minimum of 3.5 days from tomorrow, we will have 28 swimmers and 5 crew (33 people) on board a 15 x 3 meter, multi-coloured boat…all sleeping together in a 3 x 2 meter cabin (15 at a time). Other attractions are ‘face cloth’ showers, aqua-dumps and water restrictions. But we are so ready to get this done. A second, larger boat will be alongside with a press contingent, management, coaches, etc.
As tensions between Taiwan and China are super sensitive, no flags will be flown and we have agreed to leave ours behind too…pity.
We are off to do our packing now, then a final briefing. It is possible that my next communication will be from an island called ‘Matsu’ on the Chinese coast (if we are successful and if I can smuggle my phone on board).
It is all over. An epic adventure to conquer the virgin Taiwan Strait ended after only 26 hours of gruelling swimming. A difficult, but inevitable call to turn the fleet around was made by the small remaining team of swimmers exactly 26 hours after departure and one very long night.
This trip has been 10 days so filled with experiences that an email could never come close to doing it justice and money could never buy. A foreign country, a completely foreign language, very different food and ways to eat it, two teams of swimmers from countries in such political conflict with each other thrown together in a room with 4 noisy, excited and die-hard South Africans, all part of a challenge to swim from Taiwan to China. Then throw a major typhoon into the mix.
One thing is for sure, once we stepped onto a small boat with 33 people and headed out to sea for a 4-day swim never attempted before, not one of us could possibly have felt comfortable. The massive media frenzy at the harbour again brought it home just how tough this might be and it was only minutes into the swim after leaving the shelter of the harbour walls, that we hit really rough waters and a strong current against us.
It soon became very clear to us that there were a number of fundamental problems. To name a few, the Taiwan team consisted of a number of inexperienced swimmers, some who swam the slower breaststroke style. Secondly, the stronger Chinese team had never trained in the sea and within minutes were all dreadfully sea sick, as were some of the Taiwanese team. Thirdly, both teams were understandably petrified of sharks and other sea wildlife and chose to wear a rash vest and attach a shark pod to their legs, both slowing themselves down enormously. Fourthly, no one had ever swum at night which can be hugely daunting. The South African team were by far the strongest and most experienced, did not wear the rash vest or shark protection, and were never overcome by sea sickness.
Within hours, the Coast Guard had to make three trips to collect sick people and we lost 15 of our 33-strong team. This included both cooks, one boat captain and the entire Chinese team, including management. Kieron, Andrew, Herda and I remained strong and positive, but knew we would have to step in and severely increase our work rate.
Swim progress was very slow and an emergency meeting decided that the South African team would swim every fourth hour, while all others would rest 12 hours between swims. This was necessary to keep us moving forward with Kieron and I cautiously confident that we had it in us and happy that we would be put to the ultimate test. More so than ever before all eyes were on the 4 of us to give direction and take control of the expedition. Andrew’s vast relay experience was very useful and all four of our positive attitudes, solid pace, sense of humour and abilities in rough water stood out head and shoulders above the others.
It was not long before darkness came and I must admit that swimming in the South China Sea 20 km off the coast alongside a small rubber duck in the pitch darkness of 3 am, with the larger support boats running approx 200-300 meters away from the swimmer, is enough to test anyone’s nerves. Andrew got badly stung by a jelly on his second swim and shortly after I got one in my mouth and face. Really painful thing but overall it was very good to get the night experience.
Kieron and I also acted as the 911 team to solve a number of close disasters. We did not get to rest at all. What seems a simple task, like transferring sick passengers from our boat to the coast guards’ boat, is made extremely dangerous when the sea is so rough. The duck drivers were not experienced enough and Kieron and I took the responsibility to conduct the transfers. We also had to take care of a young swimmer who drifted away when the duck engine stalled and would not restart. We both immediately dived in to accompany her while the support boat turned to fetch the duck, not realising that the swimmer was drifting away. In waters so rough, a swimmer can be lost for good within seconds. Herda was a real Florence Nightingale helping the sick and wounded in-between strong swims herself.
Although we did not want to admit it to ourselves, 24 hours into the swim a relentless current running at 4 knots was still pushing us north of our destination. It was Kieron and my turn to swim. We agreed to give it absolutely everything we had to try to push us through. We both had excellent swims with all press and crew immediately recognising the increased pace and they did well to keep our spirits up. Certain that we had achieved the goal we re-boarded the boat to find that despite this effort, we still moved further away from our destination (much to Herda’s great amusement that we swam “backwards”!). This was a decisive point where the South African team knew it was an impossible task and it was time to call it quits. A meeting was called and a decision made.
Back on land, we were met by another large press contingent and a conference that lasted over a hour. We then had to unload a fully stocked boat functioning on 30 hours of no sleep.
Hugely disappointing to us all, but we know this is unfortunately the true nature of open water distance swimming. I am just so happy and privileged to have been a part of it all and something tells me this will not be the last time we make the attempt.
Sharing this with Kieron, Andrew and Herda has been amazing too. I am really proud of us all and know we had a big positive impact in the lives of both foreign teams and the sport of open water swimming. We all certainly have new friends and stories to take to the grave.
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