Early last year, Warren Bird from Hecs Aquatic rang up me and Justin Lee to see if we would be interested in another competition. He mentioned a film project and New Zealand Nationals. All we heard was summertime in New Zealand and we were in. We had zero details aside from dates. He said he would organize everything. All we had to do was show up.
Fast forward a few months and I’m in Portugal scouting for next years World Champs and I bump into team NZ. No surprise there we had the same idea of scouting at the same time of year as the Worlds. We sit down to dinner and Nationals come up. They ask if I’m ready to swim. I’m confused. Warren has already lined up two boats for us why am I swimming? They say it’s a swim comp like the Interpacific Championships. I reply with, “that can’t be right because I would never agree to a swim competition I don’t swim well”. I’ve never done Interpacs because I’m more of a boat-drop-me-off-over-there, then I’ll spend 5 minutes breathing up, then do a 40 m 2:30 dive. This comp would not be like that.
I decided some serious training was in order so I flew out to the one place that I always seem to be swimming and diving against the current: Hawaii. Justin had me dragging stringers of fish on my belt and diving against the current daily. I complained. A lot. We decided that if Justin carried our float and fish and guns that I could just maybe keep up swimming with hands and feet. We were wrong.
Justin, Sam, and I arrived on beautiful Great Barrier Island with about ten days to get familiar with the local species. Only problem was I arrived sick as a dog. I’ve got super fragile sinuses and diving with any sort of congestion even just from a night of drinking can leave me screwed for weeks. I equalize hands free. When congested I can still dive but end up needing to force clear with one hand, basically crippling me. I took a few days off then decided I couldn’t wait any longer and got in. My condition was as expected and I was diving at less than 50% capacity. I told Justin I didn’t think it’d clear up for the comp.
This was a new format for us. One large float connected to a 40 meter line and a 4 meter line. Each diver swapped lines upon surfacing and we had to be attached to one of the lines at all times. Sounds simple. Throw in some current and it wasn’t so easy. This was a team competition with no individual score. We figured we needed about 13-14 fish a day and it didn’t matter who shot em. I quickly volunteered as support and had Justin run point. I’ve always thought Justin was a much better diver. Especially in these conditions, shallow, small, relatively smart fish. Justin would run point and I’d string fish, untangle lines, and try to keep up.
The comp was a no scout event. So no one would know where the zone was till the morning meeting. We would drive our own boat to the site and on the way try and make a plan then get in and have a shotgun swimming start.
Day 1. We made a plan to try and swim to the far outside pinnacles. We would race for the first point, dive it hard and wait for the tide to slow to hit the pinnacles. Justin was on fire. He picked up a couple tarakihi, a snapper and some trevally really quick. The current was ripping and I was having a hard time busting 25 meter dives. We looked towards the outside pins and the current just seemed too strong to get there. “Yoking” as they say. Fighting to get there could be a huge mistake or it could hold exactly the species we needed. In the end it was the latter. We pushed into the current for what seemed like all day. We had a steady pick of fish and towards the end hit a gold patch and scooped up three john dorys almost back to back. I saw a boarfish I couldn’t close the gap on and Justin saw one more JD he maybe should have had. Otherwise we dove hard and I thought we would finish pretty high up. The swim back was brutal and I was trailing pretty far behind Justin even though he was towing the board with the guns and fish. I crossed the finish line a solid 3-4 min behind Justin with only 5 min to go.
The weigh in was by far the shortest one I’ve ever attended considering there were 42 pairs. We ended up with a respectable placing of 5th but would need to kill it day 2 to climb to the podium. Third, fourth and fifth were only separated by a few percent so we were still in it. Dwane Herbert, the local 9 time champion, was so far ahead there was no way anyone could catch him. The rest of us were fighting for 3rd place.
Day 2 started at 5 am, so tired I did not want to get out of bed. We got to the boat a bit later than the day before and then realized I forgot my wetsuit a 30 min drive away back at the house. Justin jumped in the car and must have had the Subaru sliding around corners to make the round trip in 35 min. We headed offshore with little time to spare to see the zone. We raced around it real quick trying to make a plan. The two outside pins here were boiling with current and luckily last second they excluded them from the competition zone. We suited up quickly and got in with only a few minutes to spare. Justin starts swimming the float to the starting line when he realizes it’s sinking. The plug on the hard plastic kayak-style board is missing. Shit I pulled it out a few hours ago to drain it but have no idea where it is. We scrambled around the boat and with only a minute to go found it tucked under a pontoon. I was in and disaster was averted again. The shotgun start was noticeably a bit slower today. Everyone’s exhaustion was pretty apparent. Except for Justin who was running guys over pushing the float. Again I was just struggling to not be left behind. Justins on the 4 m line with gun connected and the 40 m line and my gun are coiled in the float. The whole pool of divers enters a shallow bottle neck between islands and there’s a legal blue mao mao in less than 2 meters of water. People are everywhere and Justin shoots the fish in the middle of everyone throws it to me reloads and keeps swimming before I knew what happened. We shot two the day before and neither of them weighed so we were stoked to check this off the list. A few minutes later Justin shoots again to make sure we have one big enough and strings 4 in one shot. 1 tears off and we land 3. Blue mao mao done. Somehow Justin is 40 m in front of me again and I hear him yell. I stick my face out of the water and a big Kahawai is flying towards me from 40 meters out. I grab it and string it and Justin is dragging me again. We decided to head towards the far island and try to get there first. We did, only problem was nothing lived there. It looked perfect but wasn’t holding. We kept swimming and made the far side of the zone 2.5 km away from where we started. All alone on another beautiful point but nothing home. We picked away and struggled the rest of the day. We went left, shoulda gone right. Much less fish were landed today but we ended in 13th slipping us to 7th overall. In the end apparently we spent all day working the wrong kind of kelp. It all looked like kelp to us but I guess it wasn’t the right kind for the fish we were targeting.
New Zealand Nationals was such a cool experience and a totally new tournament format for me. I wish I could have been on my A game. This was one of the most fair, hardcore events I’ve seen. No scouting, serious team work, no easy given fish, 8 kg max points eliminates lucky big fish, no kingys just solid hard work diving. Definitely a few things we could have done differently and some small mistakes we made. This was a humbling experience with some seriously good divers. This was the first of three competitions for me in 2018. Next comes the US Nationals followed by the World Championship. I’ve got a lot to work on.