In 2017, Rohan Dattatrey More was selected for the year’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. The Pune based-swimmer was well into a series of long distance swims when the award was announced. In February 2018, he wrapped up the Oceans Seven challenge. He had bagged marathon swimming’s Triple Crown earlier. He now dreams of taking a shot at the Olympics; the open water swimming event therein. At the time of publishing this article, Rohan worked with Infosys.
The word asthma is derived from the Greek term for panting.
In regular life, panting and asthma are very different.
Asthma is a medical condition; it affects the airways and can make breathing difficult. Doctors are known to recommend swimming for children suffering from asthma. Information available on the Internet says there is no evidence yet to prove swimming is better than other exercises in this regard. Preference for it appears founded on a few factors. First, swimming is one of the best exercises. It is particularly noted for its low impact on joints. Second, when done with proper technique, the strain of swimming is handled without recourse to panting. You settle into a rhythm, inhaling above water and exhaling in it. There is also the general perception that the moist respiratory environment of swimming is less of a trigger for asthma than dry ambiance. Third – as one doctor this blog spoke to put it – exercise and outdoors are broadly deemed to be good for growing a healthy immune system. When you encourage a child suffering from asthma to take up swimming, you are hoping that its immune system is strengthened while its respiratory system gains from gradual passage through exercise-induced stress and adaptation. The overall benefits of acquiring improved lung capacity through swimming are seen to outweigh risks like exercise induced-asthma.
Rohan Dattatrey More is the only child of his parents. Born 1985 in Pune to a father who served in the police and a mother who was a housewife, Rohan attended Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya in the city. He suffered from respiratory problems. The doctor recommended sports and athletics, particularly swimming. “ I started swimming from around four years of age,’’ he said, end-June 2018 at his apartment not far from Pune’s Senapati Bapat Road and Symbiosis College. His mother, Vijaya, who accompanied him to his swimming sessions, appears to have been a major influence in how Rohan’s early years in swimming evolved. Rohan swam at the S.P. College swimming pool; it was of Olympic dimension. He was an introvert; metaphorically a lot like Sunk Rock, the lighthouse mounted on a pier and located some five kilometers out at sea from Mumbai, a city of thickly packed buildings. Compared to the cheek by jowl living conditions of Mumbai, Sunk Rock seems a lonely outpost; a pillar of a lighthouse jutting out from the sea. Those days, many swimmers from Pune used to head out to Mumbai for attempting the distance swim from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. Vijaya, asked around if ten year-old Rohan could attempt it. The resultant trip to Mumbai with three day’s practice at Juhu beach, ahead of race, was Rohan’s first experience of the sea. Armed with those three days of familiarity with the sea, the ten year-old successfully swam the distance from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. “ I had to get used to the dynamics of open water. But I didn’t worry about depth. Once you know you are a good swimmer, you don’t fear depth,’’ Rohan said of his first major tryst with open water swimming.
Five years after Rohan’s Sunk Rock-Gateway of India swim, the first section of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway would open, reducing the time taken to travel between the two cities. The road to Pune from Mumbai passes through Khopoli. With an elevation of approximately 200 feet and located at the base of the climb to Lonavala and Pune beyond, Khopoli is gateway to the hills. The Amba River originates in the nearby hills. At the point where this small river meets the Arabian Sea, is Dharamtar, now an upcoming port. For Rohan, the next logical progression after his Sunk Rock-Gateway of India adventure was to try the annual Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. It is 35 kilometers long. He trained with emphasis on greater mileage. On land, 35 kilometers is less than a marathon. The average amateur runner in Mumbai completes a full marathon in under-five hours. Progression in water is a lot slower. Given the longer distance involved in his next objective and the fact that swimming takes time, Rohan had to be prepared for an early morning start – in the dark hours preceding sunrise – if called for. He obtained special permission from the pool authorities in Pune and trained at night to get used to swimming in darkness. Vijaya accompanied him to the pool for these training sessions.
This phase in his life also represented another transition. Ever since he started frequenting the pool, Rohan had developed into a strong, competitive swimmer. Swimming around three kilometers every day, he was good enough to merit podium finishes at district level competitions and represent Pune district at state level competitions. He specialized in 100 meters and 200 meters backstroke. Post Sunk Rock, as he aspired for Dharamtar-Gateway, the drift in training moved from short distance swims to long ones entailing endurance. The concept of endurance entered the frame. In December 1996, an eleven year-old Rohan successfully completed Dharamtar-Gateway, covering the 35 kilometer-distance in seven hours, twenty nine minutes. At that time, he was the youngest swimmer to complete the annual challenge. “ By now I realized that I liked open water swimming. Unlike in the swimming pool, you see no boundaries at sea. It is open on all sides. I like that,’’ Rohan said.
Human life however isn’t as barrier-free as the sea. Geographically, Pune is part of Maharashtra’s `Desh’ region, plateau situated at higher elevation from the sea coast. Apart from some lakes and reservoirs, it offers no scope for open water swimming, certainly nothing comparable to the sea gracing the Konkan coast far below. Dharamtar-Gateway done, Rohan returned to training at the swimming pool in Pune with occasional forays to larger tanks. As he grew older, he graduated from representing Pune district to representing the state in swimming; he was also member of the state water polo team. When he reached eleventh standard, the fabled Great Wall of India went up – studying for exams and focus on academics. The years went by characterless; swimming reduced to recreational swimming. He studied engineering at the Government College of Engineering, Pune and secured a job with Cognizant Technology Solutions, a leading IT company with operations in India. For the next five to six years he worked in Pune, a visit to the pool or an occasional bout of football was all he did to break the monotony. Dharamtar-Gateway seemed distant memory.
In 2013, Cognizant transferred him to Abu Dhabi, a city blessed with Persian Gulf for coastline but too hot for working person to find adequate hours for swimming in the sea. “ I explored Abu Dhabi as best as I could. But in six months I ran out of places to explore,’’ Rohan said of his predicament. He hit the gym with two friends. That soon dwindled to just him. He then started to swim at a pool, apprehensive alongside that the swimming too would die like the gym visits did. But a video of the English Channel he chanced to come by changed things. An old itch returned. Back in 1996, when he returned from Mumbai after the Dharamtar-Gateway swim, Rohan had picked up a new fascination – the English Channel. He had heard the name mentioned in the Dharamtar-Gateway swimming community. He complemented that by reading up about Indian distance swimmers; among them – Bula Choudhury, the swimmer from West Bengal who swam the English Channel twice in 1989 and 1999. For almost seventeen years all that curiosity and research had stayed locked up in the head. Now, in the moneyed urban expanse of Abu Dhabi, the small voice of adventure and open water swimming beckoned stronger.
In the last Ice Age, when sea level was far lower than today, England wasn’t an island. It was connected to France in continental Europe by a ridge. As the ice cap receded, two instances of flooding are supposed to have eroded and submerged the ridge. The resultant 560 kilometer-long body of water between France and England, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, is now known as the English Channel. The Channel varies in width from 240 kilometers to 33.3 kilometers. The narrowest part is called Dover Strait. Among the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it is also a magnet for endurance swimmers. Nobody quite knows how the imagery around the Channel as an objective in swimming, commenced. Some accounts (available on the Internet) mention the case – albeit unconfirmed – of a captured Italian sailor who escaped swimming the distance in 1815. Nobody knew if this was correct or not. The question lingered, likely engaging the fancy of those with the bend of mind to try. The first recorded successful unassisted crossing was by Captain Mathew Webb of England. On August 25, 1875, he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. The swim made him famous. He licensed his name for merchandising and participated in exhibition swimming contests and stunts. He died at the age of 35 while attempting a swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below North America’s Niagara Falls. The first Indian to successfully cross the English Channel was Mihir Sen; in 1958, he swam from Dover to Calais in 14 hours, 45 minutes.
Not long after he saw the video on the English Channel, Rohan researched the topic of swimming across the channel, further. Given most channels targeted for crossing feature currents, tides, marine life and maritime traffic; not to mention marathon swimmer’s need for nutrition and hydration along the way, crossings are done with the aid of a support vessel. Rohan emailed eight to nine English Channel-pilots. They would be the ones managing the support boat guiding a swimmer through. In January 2014, one of the pilots replied informing of windows available in the period spanning July-September. Rohan settled for July 2014. Against the generally recommended two years of preparation, he had six months to get ready. Around January 20, he started training for the attempt in Abu Dhabi. He was a curiosity at the pool. Nobody from Abu Dhabi had trained in the city to cross the English Channel. Rohan persisted. Regaining three kilometers – his old benchmark in daily training – wasn’t a problem. The difficulty began as Abu Dhabi’s summer unfolded. It was very hot. By the end of March, Rohan was getting muscle spasms. His right arm wasn’t holding up well. The situation wasn’t making sense for another reason too. The English Channel is characterized by cold water, just the opposite of conditions in Abu Dhabi. Amid this, in April, Rohan had to rush to Pune as his father suffered brain-stroke. While in Pune, he continued to train at Tilak Tank in the city.
By May, he was managing four kilometers at his training sessions. He also availed acupuncture treatment for the right arm. According to Rohan, the credit for solving the issue goes to a local masseur. He returned to Abu Dhabi from Pune with the massage oil the masseur provided. It helped ease the pain. One problem remained on the English Channel front – he had to do a six hour-swim in water temperature of 16 degrees centigrade to qualify. The evidence must be submitted to authorities, a fortnight before one’s Channel attempt. There was no way he could do this in Abu Dhabi. So Rohan resolved to do the qualifier in England. Two major angles were thus reserved for addressing in Dover – getting acquainted with the cold waters of the English Channel and executing the qualifier. He needed enough days on hand for this. The last obstacle Rohan had to cross in Abu Dhabi was getting leave from office. A new boss had taken charge and he wasn’t appreciative of so many days required to attempt crossing the English Channel. In matters of this sort, you cannot dialogue with those lacking empathy for the subject. Rohan’s work in Abu Dhabi revolved around a client located there. Luckily, Rajesh Narayanan, a senior official at the client’s office, understood the attraction for English Channel and the need for adequate time to do the crossing. He agreed to Rohan being away for that long, prompting in turn the sanctioning of Rohan’s leave from his own office. On June 19, Rohan left for England. None at home in Pune were told of his plan to attempt crossing the English Channel. As far as they were concerned, he was away in England on work.
Sonia & Martin welcome you to their family run Victorian Guest House – so goes the introduction to Sandown Guest House on its website. In Dover, Rohan found accommodation at Sandown. From April 15 till the end of May, he had been swimming four hours daily in Abu Dhabi. He also put in two sessions of eight hours each and two sessions of seven hours each. As he stepped into the waters of the English Channel, the cold temperature hit him. “ It was a Friday. After five to ten minutes in the water, I had a headache, my forearms were paining and after I came out, I was shivering. I ran from the beach to the hotel, downed cups of coffee and still I was feeling cold,’’ Rohan said. Weekends at Dover, Channel swimmers from elsewhere in England arrive to train. Thanks to Martin, Rohan got an opportunity to meet them. The interaction helped. That Saturday he swam for five hours; by Sunday he had touched six, which also served as qualifier. On July 14, he informed his pilot that he was ready to avail a window for the crossing.
After one call to start on July 19 aborted at Dover harbor owing to sudden onset of bad weather, Rohan commenced his swim on July 25 at 10 PM. There were hiccups en route. He had to change his goggles while in the water. Anticipating a swim largely in daylight he had brought along dark goggles. Now in the darkness of night, he could see nothing. “ I was blindly following the light on the boat. That light was all I could see’’ he said. While still in water, he traded his goggles for clearer ones. The hours went by. In open water swims the swimming is rarely in a straight line. The course changes with weather, maritime traffic and sea conditions, including currents and the movement of tides. The English Channel swim is typically in the pattern of `Z’. Around the tenth hour of swimming, Rohan had a pain killer. By the eleventh hour, he could see the French coast. But the sighting was one thing. Reaching there took another two to two and half hours. He accomplished the crossing of the English Channel in 13 hours, 23 minutes. Against the distance of roughly 36 kilometers to cross, that day his crossing entailed covering 48 kilometers. Once on land, he accessed a phone and informed his parents who had no idea of his attempt, that he had crossed the English Channel. “ I could swim the English Channel because I was a free person. I had nothing to prove,’’ Rohan said.
While researching English Channel, he had stumbled upon the challenge in open water swimming called Oceans Seven. In fact, before leaving Abu Dhabi for England and the English Channel, he had booked an attempt to cross the North Channel in August. The North Channel is the coldest of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. The relevant swimming association in Ireland wrote back advising against Rohan’s planned attempt of the North Channel as it is cold and demanding. There should be adequate rest between a crossing of the English Channel and attempting the North Channel. “ They said your money is safe. You will have your chance. But train and come back,’’ Rohan said. Not one to sit idle, he therefore booked a slot to cross California’s Catalina Channel in September 2014. “ Catalina is easier than the English Channel. Water temperature is warmer and the currents are less powerful,’’ he said. The main challenge in Catalina is – sharks. The crossing is therefore attempted at night. All the lights on the boat are switched off. Swimming so is a peculiar experience. There are two glow sticks on the pilot’s boat, which swimmer follows loyally. There is one glow stick attached to swimmer for those on boat to track. There is also one safety kayaker in the water, keeping a watch on swimmer’s progress. While this may seem simple enough, accounts of open water swimming available on the Internet, speak of swimmer’s bobbing position in the water and the equally bobbing predicament of boat and its lights, as potential cause for swimmer to feel disoriented. For the Catalina Channel crossing (and every channel crossing thereafter), Rohan’s mother accompanied him on the trip. The swim played out well; he completed the crossing surrounded by a herd of dolphins. The time taken was 10 hours, 17 minutes. By now, Rohan was firmly locked into pursuing Oceans Seven and Triple Crown, another challenge in open water swimming made of the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
For the month after Catalina, Rohan had booked an attempt at crossing the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. Also known as Kaiwi Channel, the waters here are pretty deep, plunging up to 2300 feet below the surface. Rohan elected for a swim commencing at night. He felt it would be good to labor in water during the night and be ready for the pleasure of landfall by the morning sun. That proved to be a miscalculation. “ The night went by and quite a chunk of the following day as well,’’ he said laughing. On October 26, he accomplished the crossing in 17 hours, 28 minutes of swimming. It was late evening when it ended. For most of us, big projects are above all an invitation to be aware of the associated risk. Distance; depth, ocean dynamics, marine life – they all hit us, do jigs in the brain. Rohan said he takes note of risk but doesn’t dwell on it unnecessarily. Even in the context surrounding an imminent channel crossing, where other swimmers are also present, he said he does not latch on to conversation about risk. He would much rather listen to training tips or positive aspects around the attempt and discover things as they unfold. “ It is the pilot’s job to take me to the destination. My job is to follow the boat. Beyond a point, it is not my business to worry about current, wind speed and tide,’’ Rohan said.
After Molokai, Rohan rested for a month. He resumed training in December 2014. In March 2015, Rohan wound up his work in Abu Dhabi and returned to India. 2015 was to be a busy year. In June he completed the Manhattan Island swim and bagged Triple Crown. “ My focus that year was on the North Channel crossing. It proved to be brutal,’’ Rohan said. His research indicating potential battering in the channel separating north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, Rohan concentrated on strengthening his core muscles as best as he could. The reason was simple. Open water swimming is primarily a mind game. However as regards its engagement of the human body, the bulk of the work is done by the core.
According to Rohan, out in the cold waters of the sea, it is only a matter of time before swimmer loses sensation of his extremities. The arms and legs keep working mechanically driven by commands from the brain. Sometimes, in the depths of a long distance swim, it becomes utterly tough to keep the body horizontal in the water. The legs begin to tire and cave in. To counter this, the core has to be strong. Rohan concluded that if all this punishment was due in the North Channel, then, he better work like mad on his core. So in addition to swimming, he ran and cycled in Pune. “ I prefer to run on trails as that helps engage the core more than running on roads,’’ Rohan said. A typical mix of all three activities meant 10 kilometers of running, three hours of swimming and 40-50 kilometers of cycling – all in a day, including a portion of the night for completing the cycling. On weekends, he hiked that to 20 kilometers of running, 15 kilometers of swimming and 110 kilometers of cycling. This training regimen resembles a series of triathlons. Interestingly, for all this training, an open water swimmer like Rohan hardly resembles the typical triathlete in physical appearance. Ahead of a demanding channel crossing, swimmer may even put on weight for some amount of body fat is good insulation against the cold of the sea.
As with his English Channel attempt, Rohan reached Ireland a month before his shot at the North Channel. He used the time to acclimatize, get used to the cold water. Formidable as this training and build up to crossing the North Channel may seem, there is also one underlying truth in challenges around open water swimming. By now, Rohan was experiencing some of the proverbial wind beneath one’s wings that all human beings seek in life. As you progress through the challenges of Oceans Seven, the body begins to anticipate what it must cope with at sea. “ It knows what to expect in the next challenge,’’ Rohan said. And as that knowledge builds up, you work with a body more willing to respond than before. His preparations in Ireland started in July with swims in waters having a temperature of around 15 degrees centigrade. Given it rained in the mornings, early morning swimming sessions were cold. For the first week, he swam during the warmer afternoon; then shifted to cold mornings. Slowly he worked his way down to water temperature of 11-12 degrees centigrade. The North Channel features cold water and strong currents. “ Nobody attempts this channel crossing at night,’’ Rohan said.
On the day of his attempt to cross the North Channel, there were three swimmers – including him – in the water. While the other two started earlier, Rohan commenced his swim at 4.30 AM. Ahead was a third challenge besides cold and current, to tackle. Jellyfish are free swimming marine animals that are very intriguing to behold and painful when they sting. They usually have an umbrella shaped bell and trailing tentacles. The bell pulsates to provide propulsion; the tentacles are armed with stinging cells. Jellyfish is found all over the world from the surface waters of the sea to its great depths. The largest known species of jellyfish is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. They are residents of cold water. In size, those residing in the higher latitudes tend to be bigger. The bell of a Lion’s Mane can be as big as six to seven feet in diameter and its trailing tentacles can be up to a hundred feet long. The cold waters of North Channel are among places hosting the Lion’s Mane. “ You see them along with Blue Moons,’’ Rohan said. The latter is likely reference to the much smaller common jellyfish, which is capable of limited motion and typically drifts with the current. According to information on the Internet, the common jellyfish has a weak sting that is just about felt while the Lion’s Mane can make its presence felt. Both are nowhere near the pain caused by genuinely toxic jellyfish. When you are swimming out at sea, any sting can worry. The important thing is to not panic. “ North Channel is where I saw the most jellyfish in all my swims,’’ Rohan said. His passage included a few stings to remember the swim by. Rohan completed the North Channel crossing in 12 hours, 46 minutes. Despite late start, he reached the other side before the other two swimmers did. It was August 8, 2015.
Japan is a stratovolcanic archipelago composed of 6852 islands. The largest island is Honshu; the second largest is Hokkaido located to the north of Honshu. Between Honshu and Hokkaido, connecting the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, is the Tsugaru Strait. September 2015 on Rohan’s calendar was reserved for attempting the crossing of the Tsugaru Strait. If the North Channel offers the coldest swim in Oceans Seven, Tsugaru offers the most powerful currents. Besides the current, there is one more thing to watch out for – sharks. Rohan reached Japan two days before the scheduled date of attempt. It was to be on September 11 or 12, whichever proved ideal. Ahead of swim, he trained with a Mexican swimmer. On the day the swim was to start, the pilot asked Rohan which side he turned his face to, to breathe. Rohan found the question odd but he nevertheless replied: left. He completed the channel crossing in 10 hours, 13 minutes. “ I could have done it in eight hours or so. But for the last four hours I was at the same spot, not making any gains due to the current,’’ he said. After the swim was over, Rohan asked the pilot why he inquired about the side swimmer turned to, to breathe. The pilot replied: that’s the side I should have the boat ladder on for you to grab and exit the water, should there be any hostile shark. The Strait of Gibraltar is the simplest of the Oceans Seven challenges. Rohan tried to book that for 2015 itself. “ But I didn’t have money,’’ he said.
Post Tsugaru, Rohan’s Oceans Seven bid slowed down for want of resources. In September 2016, he joined Infosys, among India’s biggest IT companies. He was based at their campus in Pune. Roughly two months later, in November, he successfully swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, polishing off the distance in three hours, 56 minutes. Not long after the Gibraltar swim, Rohan was selected for the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, India’s highest award in adventure. He got it in the `water’ category. The award fetched him Rs 500,000, precious input for realizing the last challenge in Oceans Seven – the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Also of help was the financial assistance Infosys provides staffers attempting a challenging objective, which Rohan availed. Up till then, he had sustained the channel crossings from his own funds and contribution from friends. At this concluding phase, besides the money he got from the national award and the assistance from Infosys, Tata Trusts pitched in to help. As with some of the other swims, he went a month in advance to New Zealand to prepare and acclimatize. Separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, Cook Strait has a reputation for being unpredictable and rough. It has strong tidal flows with submarine ridges running off the coast further complicating the flow and turbulence. “ The beginning of the swim is in generally warm waters. On the day I swam, about two to three hours into the swim, the cold waters of the Southern Ocean arrived with the current. That really hit! It is a game changer. On the whole given the channel’s capacity to be rough, I would say, I was lucky to have a good day,’’ Rohan said. Cook Strait is noted for its marine life. It gifted Rohan plenty of dolphins for company. “ You feel good having dolphins swim with you,’’ he said. It was a fine way to conclude Oceans Seven.
In May 2018, Rohan commenced training for a new project. He wants to take a shot at the 10 kilometer open water swimming competition held at the Olympics. “ I am currently able to cover the distance in one hour, 58 minutes. I need to get that down to one hour, fifty or fifty five; in that range, to qualify,’’ Rohan said. Will he make it? Time will tell. Rohan’s training continues to be mostly at the swimming pool in Pune. He still has no long term sponsors.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Rohan in Pune. Time taken to complete channel crossings are as mentioned by the interviewee.)