Cook Strait conquest held up Parliament

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012

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Wearing nothing but a pair of bathing trunks and a cap, Barrie Devenport battled towards history against the Cook Strait's biting cold, wind and tide.

Then, 11 hours after entering the water near Wellington and 200 metres from the South Island, he paused in his attempt to be the first person to swim Cook Strait.

While Parliament was held up for the live broadcast of the attempt and an eager flotilla of supporters watched on, "I stopped, rolled on my back and proceeded to wee," Devenport recalled a few years before his death in 2010.

The November 20, 1962 attempt - 50 years ago next week - would not end there.

"The bacon and egg pie-eating dictators in the accompanying dinghies were yelling at me ‘to come on and get going'."

With the South Island just a dash away and pacers from his Worser Bay Life Saving Club in the water urging him on, Devenport responded: "Bugger off and let me enjoy my leak."

He then swam 200 metres, reached the South Island and entered history with a clamber to dry land, 11 hours and 20 minutes after leaving Cape Terawhiti, near Wellington.

The Cook Strait ferry deviated from its course to check him out, helicopters hovered overhead, and Parliament returned to running the country.

Terry Christie, a pacer that day, knew Devenport wouldn't have given up - not this time.

A regime leading up to the swim, which included laps of Wellington Harbour and sleeping through winter without blankets, had him prepared.

Peter Snell's coach, Arthur Lydiard, had Devenport running 10 to 15 kilometres a day, morning and night.

"[Devenport] was the strongest-willed, most single-minded person I have ever met," Christie said this week.

But the same strong-willed swimmer had failed in his first attempt.

The Worser Bay club had joined the race to swim the strait and Devenport was its strongest swimmer. So, with club member Ken Mitchell leading the charge, it was Devenport and Chris Billing who would give it a shot.

Fisherman Frank Dellabarca, who knew the currents of the strait, joined the team as pilot.

On March 1, 1962, into a fierce rip at Terawhiti, Billing and Devenport, covered in grease, were followed off the coast by a couple of seals. Just over two hours into the swim, Billing dropped out.

Christie remembers Bill Penney from the Maranui club in Lyall Bay attempting the crossing south to north on the same day. Neither would be successful.

The Worser Bay club's attempt came up short when Devenport, blinded by salt and numb from the cold, "curled up in a ball" semi-conscious less than 3 kilometres from the South Island's Wellington Head.

"We could see the water breaking on the shore," Christie recalls.

Ian Greenwood, who would pace on the final leg of the successful swim, said the condition that Devenport was in by November was a massive improvement.

In the final leg of the history-making swim, navigator Jim Cornish and Greenwood jumped in to pace Devenport to the end.

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In rough seas they came up against a "sheer, rocky cliff". The attempt would not be successful without an extra leg, around the sheltered side of the South Island's Wellington Head.

They slogged the final metres through thick, slimy kelp and climbed steep rocks covered in razor-sharp barnacles.

Greenwood remembers Devenport being in good spirits but still, in a famous Evening Post photograph of the moment, he can be seen helping Devenport raise his hand to wave.

Then the team huddled into the wheelhouse of support boat Christina for a rough trip home.

"It took a while to sink in," Greenwood remembers but, arriving back to cheering crowds at Island Bay at 11pm, there was no doubting the magnitude of the achievement.

The next day there was a reception at the Town Hall.

Prime Minister Keith Holyoake told Devenport that Parliament thought he had given up when he stopped 200 metres short.

When told the true story, Holyoake reportedly laughed: "You must be the only person in the country to ever hold up Parliament for a pee."

- Listen to the broadcast that stopped Parliament as Barrie Devenport reached the South Island here

FIRST COOK STRAIT SWIM POSSIBLY EARLIER

Barrie Devenport may officially be the first person to swim Cook Strait, but he could have been beaten by about 200 years.

Hinepoupou, of Ngati Kuia, lived in the mid-18th century. She was reputed to have swum from Kapiti Island to her father's home on D'Urville Island, at the top of the South Island, after her husband and his brother abandoned her on a visit to Kapiti.
The swim, about 56 nautical miles, is believed to have taken three days, with stops at Cape Jackson near Queen Charlotte Sound, and islands near Pelorus Sound.

As history website www.teara.govt.nz tells the tale, Hinepoupou was accompanied by a ''guardian dolphin'' on the swim.
When she arrived safely on D'Urville Island, she plotted her revenge. While her husband and his brother were out fishing, she said an incantation, summoning a storm that drowned the pair.

PADDLERS' TURN

To mark 50 years since the first Cook Strait swim, Worser Bay Life Saving Club is having a commemorative crossing of the strait – weather depending – on surf skis. Four paddlers, aged from 15 to 54, will make the attempt between Saturday, November 17, and Sunday, November 25. On Friday, November 23, there is a commemorative dinner at the Pines restaurant. Philip Rush, who has made the crossing seven times, will speak, as will Terry Christie. Tickets are available for $40 by emailing pat@videopro.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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