Dean Summers on his plan to swim the Seven Seas in support of exploited international seafarers. By Cindy MacDonald.
Rolling strokes: Dean Summers, 58, channel swimmer
I was born and bred in Fremantle and was always a swimmer as a kid, but I found other distractions and, when I was 16, joined the merchant navy. I only really returned to serious swimming around 2013 when I came across a squad in Sydney – Vladswim – and I saw some of those people were swimming the English Channel, what I thought was the biggest swimming challenge in the world. I started training and I was hooked. My first big swim was six kilometres and I thought that was amazing. Now I train two-and-a-half hours, four times a week in the pool, and then at the weekend anything up to 25 kilometres.
It’s 36 kilometres across the English Channel, but not many get the chance to swim it directly. I think mine was 52 kilometres because of the arc of tides coming in and going out again. I did it in August 2015, and inside one year I completed what’s called the Triple Crown – the English Channel, the Catalina Channel from Catalina to Los Angeles, and a circumnavigation of Manhattan Island.
What I aspire to now is the Ocean Seven. Very few people – no Australians – have swum the seven oceans. That’s the English Channel. The Catalina Channel. The toughest, coldest, meanest one of them all is the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. I did that last September. That’s the one everyone usually leaves to last. Then there’s the Cook Strait in New Zealand. I went to do that but I spent a week sitting on the beach waiting for the weather to change. It didn’t, so I have to come back to that one. The Molokai Channel in Hawaii – it’s warmer but it’s much longer, 43 kilometres in a straight line. I’ve got that in April. Then there is the Tsugaru channel in northern Japan and the Gibraltar Strait.
There are very strict rules and each of the swims has to have an observer on board the support boat watching you. You can only wear budgie smugglers and a cap and goggles – that’s it. You can’t touch the boat, you can’t touch a kayaker, you can’t touch anybody else for the entire time. You have to be fed with food on the end of a rope.
To swim the English Channel was just over 13 hours – 13 hours and 19 minutes. It was about 16 degrees Celsius – that was doable – but the North Channel was 13 degrees and the outside temperature was about 5 degrees, so with each stroke there’s a breeze blowing cold air on your already cold shoulders. Again I was in the water for 13 hours and in the end I was hypothermic. I touched the cliffs of Scotland but I can’t remember it. The observer saw it, so that was the important thing.
We see glimpses of sharks every now and then, but I always say that if you’re going to worry about sharks when you’re swimming in the ocean, you should find another sport. Maybe tennis is your sport. Sharks live in the ocean and that’s their territory.
You’ve got to be always thinking about your nutrition and how your body is reacting. Seasickness comes into it, of course. In Catalina there were two storm fronts that came through during my 11-hour swim. I didn’t get sick, but a lot of my crew did. Heaps of things can go wrong when it’s just you and the ocean battling it out for hour upon hour.
I swim for 45 minutes and then I feed for maybe 30 or 40 seconds, then 45 minutes’ swim, 40 seconds’ feed. I’ve tried and tested a whole lot of things but two-thirds of the time I have maltodextrin and then there’s a little bit of protein and some other stuff I mix. Sometimes I take a little bit of white bread and Vegemite – that’s a really Australian thing – but it cleanses your palate and it’s something to look forward to. That’s about it.
I use these swims to raise money and awareness for seafarers’ mental health. In my real job I am the Australian coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation – a global union. Everything that we use, we wear, we consume in Australia comes to us by ship, and seafarers on those ships, who are mostly from developing countries, have a real tough job and they’re exploited. The suicide rate is astronomical, there are very few human or civil rights for these people, and if it weren’t for our organisation and trade unions, they’d have almost no protection. Sometimes they can’t communicate with their family for a very long time and they are at the mercy of some very unscrupulous shipowners.
I managed to raise a little over $10,000 for a Burmese widow whose husband had been at sea for 17 months and, when he died in an accident, the company stole all his money. All they sent home to his widow were his ashes. She had two kids to raise. It was an atrocious thing, but not uncommon, unfortunately. I’ve also raised about $40,000 for Hunterlink, an Australian organisation supporting mental health, drug and alcohol issues for Australian transport workers, and also for international seafarers. It does some pretty wonderful things. I come from a seafaring family – me, my father, his father and my son – and I feel very passionate about this industry.
The only thing I have in common with someone like [Olympic freestyle sprinter] Cameron McEvoy is that we get wet. It’s two different sports. Those guys are supreme athletes but I don’t think they’d want to do the English Channel. They want to get in, finish the race within the shortest amount of time possible, and get out.
What I think about when I’m swimming is… I can’t tell you. Sooner or later with the rhythm of your arms and the ocean and the sound of blowing bubbles every breath, you go into a bit of a meditative state. You’ve got to slow your mind down and find a happy, peaceful place.
This week’s highlights…
• Winter Olympics: PyeongChang 2018
Until Sunday, Pyeongchang, South Korea
• Motorsport: Superbike World Championship – Australian round
Until Sunday, Phillip Island, Victoria
• Swimming: Rottnest Channel Swim
Saturday, from 5.45am (AWST), Cottesloe Beach
• Horseracing: Blue Diamond Stakes Day
Saturday, 1st race 12.30pm (AEDT), Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne
• Basketball: Australian Boomers v Chinese Taipei
Sunday, 3pm (AEDT), Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
• Soccer: A-League – Sydney FC v Western Sydney Wanderers
Sunday, 6.30pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 24, 2018 as "Rolling strokes".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial