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Three men from Mumbai gear up to attempt a relay swim across the English Channel in July 2019. Completing the quartet will be a South African lady, an experienced swimmer who has crossed the channel before.
For 35 years Zarir Baliwalla was a smoker. He led a quiet life, managing his business, Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd.
“ When I hit 50 years of age, I wanted a healthy lifestyle and started running,’’ Zarir, now 58, said. Years ago while at school – Cathedral School in South Mumbai – young Zarir was involved in a number of sports; running, swimming and hockey. None of that was at serious competitive level.
The years of running helped him pick up the recreational activity well. “ I used to run on my own on Marine Drive. I would see a lot of runners; they would wish me during the run. One of them, Pervin Batliwala, asked me to join her group, Savio’s Stars built around Coach Savio D’Souza,’’ he said.
Zarir ran with the group whenever possible. He got into the emergent trend of running half marathons and 10 kilometre-races at events. He participated in the Mumbai Marathon, Goa River Marathon and Delhi Half Marathon, besides others.
In due course, running became mundane. Some of the group members moved to triathlons to escape boredom.
“ I heard about triathlon from some of the members of the group. I resumed swimming to balance my physical activity across disciplines,’’ he said. He also bought his first bicycle, a Trek mountain bike. “ Those days, everybody used a MTB but I realised soon that I needed a road bike for triathlons. I bought a road bike later,’’ he said.
Zarir and a few of his friends used to organize triathlons in Mumbai periodically as practice sessions. In 2017, he enrolled for the Goa Triathlon, an Olympic distance-event. “ One week before the event I crashed my bike,’’ he said.
The diversification in sport, he commenced, continued. From running, he had shifted focus to triathlons; pretty soon he was enrolling for swimming events.
During his school years and later as an adult, Zarir’s experience in swimming was confined to pools. “ It was when I got into open water swimming that I realized, I enjoyed swimming in the sea,’’ he said.
In December 2017, triathlete and national level swimmer, Samiir Wheaton, proposed the idea of swimming the English channel as a four-member relay team to Zarir Baliwalla and a couple of other friends.
The idea seemed preposterous to Zarir. “ After all, I am not such a strong swimmer as Samiir,’’ Zarir said from his desk at the office of Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd in Marine Lines, South Mumbai.
Samiir was keen to swim the English Channel solo. But instead of plunging into it directly he had chosen the more prudent option of doing a relay swim ahead of attempting a solo swim, Zarir said.
“ The English Channel is a coveted objective for open water swimmers. The shortest distance across the Channel as the bird flies is 32 kilometers but when you swim, the distance can stretch to 38-40 kilometers depending on currents, wind and the tide,’’ he said.
Apart from Samiir and Zarir, two others were roped in to complete a relay quartet – Moiz Rajkotwala and Anirban Mukherji. Moiz is a marathon, ultra-marathon runner and triathlete. Anirban is also runner and a triathlete.
They set out to study the process involved in attempting the English Channel. Swimmers have to register with either of the two international bodies associated with the English Channel – Channel Swimming Association and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation.
For the relay swim, the participants are required to have a qualifying swim of two hours non-stop in the sea with water temperature below 16 degrees. Swimmers are not allowed a wet suit. They have to enter the water in swimming trunks, goggles and cap.
In January this year, Anirban had to drop out due to medical issues. Sudarshan Chari, a swimmer and triathlete, replaced him in the team to maintain the quartet.
Sudarshan has been swimming from his school days; he has participated in school level competitions. “ Swimming was always part of my life. But it was mostly confined to swimming in the pool. About three years ago, I got into open water swimming,’’ Sudarshan said. He became part of the Goa Open Water Swimming Club.
The club started organising swimming competitions, known as Swimathon. Triathletes and swimmers have been enrolling for the event since it commenced. Over the last three years, Sudarshan has enrolled for various distances – three, five and ten kilometers. At this year’s Swimathon in February 2019, Sudarshan completed the 10 kilometer swim in four hours, 24 minutes, 47 seconds.
In March 2019, Sudarshan enrolled for the Ocean Walker Swimming Camp held at Malta. The coach at the camp was Adam Walker, endurance swimmer and first Englishman to complete the Seven Oceans swim.
“ Adam Walker trained us how to reduce hand movements and use our body instead during long endurance swims,’’ Sudarshan said. Also, the camp ended with a qualifying swim for solo as well as relay swim for the English Channel. Given his aspiration to do the English Channel swim, the qualifying swim was useful.
While Samiir, Moiz and Sudarshan were already qualified for the swim, Zarir had to travel to England for a qualifying swim in May. His guide for the qualifying swim was Loretta Cox, a long-distance swimmer and coach, who has completed the English Channel swim multiple times.
“ She did not allow me to do my qualifying swim on the first day. She said I needed to get used to the cold waters before attempting the swim. On the first day I swam for 15 minutes, on the second day I did two swims – one for 20 minutes and another for 30 minutes and on the third day I did two sessions of one hour each,’’ he said. On the fourth day, he did his qualifying swim.
With his qualifying swim in place, the team was all set for the relay swim across English Channel.
The team secured a third position for the July 7-19 (2019) window for the relay swim across the Channel.
Then another setback occurred.
“ Unfortunately, Samiir had to opt out of the proposed swim for personal reasons. We then had to look out for another swimmer to take his place. And that swimmer had to have completed a qualifying swim as there is not enough time to go through preparation and qualifying,’’ Zarir said. He approached various open water swimming forums seeking a swimmer to join the trio for the relay.
“ Catherine Stefanutti, a South African swimmer based in the UK, agreed to join us. She has already done the English Channel solo and as part of relay teams couple of times. Her experience should augur well for our team,’’ he said.
Channel Swimming Association (CSA) rules are stringent about how the relay swim has to be carried out. Of the four members of the team, one person starts swimming and has to swim exactly for one hour before the next swimmer takes over. A boat with the pilot, remaining three participants and one observer aboard, accompanies the swimmer.
Swimmers are not allowed to touch the boat during the swim. Stroke rates are also measured. A substantial drop in stroke rates of the swimmer can lead to disqualification, Sudarshan said.
According to Zarir, adapting to swimming in cold waters is a challenge for those from India, especially people from Mumbai. “ I have switched from shower to bucket bath. I fill my bucket with ice and ensure that the temperature is below 16 degrees for my bath. I am now used to that cold temperature,’’ he said.
The ice water baths do help swimmers to adapt to the cold waters of the English Channel. Nevertheless, challenges of cold water remain. “ Every time you enter the cold water, the body takes time to adjust. In a solo swim the challenge is at the start but in a relay swim you have to adjust to the cold water as many times as you may require to enter the waters to complete the distance,’’ Sudarshan said. Apart from ice baths, the trio also ramped up their swimming mileage to prepare for the long haul.
Through the relay swim, the team is raising funds for Impact Foundation of Tata Memorial Hospital.
“ The idea of raising funds for paediatric oncology came about during my visits to the hospital. As part of the medical equipment business, I had to visit the hospital, where I saw several children in very critical condition. The hospital is doing a lot voluntarily work but funds are never enough. We would like to contribute some funds to the hospital,’’ Zarir said.
Update / July 14: The quartet comprising Sudarshan Chari, Zarir Baliwala, Moiz Rajkotwala and Catherine Stefanuti completed the relay swim across the English Channel on July 12, 2019 in 14 hours and 59 minutes. In a message after completing the swim, Zarir informed that since 1875, an estimated 817 teams have successfully done this swim ratified by CSA (Channel Swimming Association).
(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)