Toughest Swimming Race of all time

I knew if I swam fast enough our clan leader would be crowned Bird-King of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

I accepted that if I lost I would risk being among those who would be ritually sacrificed in the cruel annual crowning ceremony.

By Ian Sewell -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

View from sacred village of Orongo on the tip of Easter Island looking towards the rookery island they used to swim to as part of the Birdman Cult. The last ceremony was in 1866.

To win, a man had to be strong and brave.  First I would need to climb down the giant four hundred foot cliffs of volcanic rock.  The highest point on our island. I would then enter the sea and swim to a small rookery island called Mota Nui that was a bird colony.  Sharks patrolled this area in search of food and now for contestants injured on the way down the cliff.  If I survived the long swim I would live on the rookery island in a cave, sometimes for weeks, similar to the other contestants, until the sacred bird arrived and laid the first egg.  Whomever found the first egg would announce their find: “Hakarongo manu!” meaning ‘here (is) the bird’ .  The clan chief of the winner would shave their head and paint it red.  On the rookery island the champion would fast for five more days and carefully swim back with the egg.  Then finally climb with it up the cliff and would win our clan the right to rule for a year… as long as the egg was intact.


View of the cliff on which Orongo is located; highest point on the left side of the crater’s rim. (photo credit: Claire Provost)

The contest avoided civil war between clans.  Food was scarce since the palm trees on the main island had slowly disappeared. The leader of the island would have the right to harvest eggs from Mota Nui.  The best source of protein.

Our island was the ‘naval of the world’, discovered by the first forefathers long ago, who sailed from lands far away, guided by the bird-god and the stars.  Our leaders were honoured as stoic statue Moai around the island and immortalized in the carved sacred wooden tablets.  Now we relied on the fate of the ‘good luck’ bird to decide our leader each  year.

1027 Currently un-deciphered Easter Island wood runes. The closest similar style is from the Indus valley.

The stone Moai, our past leaders, reminded us of our great history.  Our bodies honoured by tattoos telling the stories of our people.  The wooden tablets, our tattoos and our Moai would ensure that our story would always be told of the most sacred place on earth.  I would some day be a part of that history.

By Aurbina - Own work, Public Domain, The famous Moai of Easter Island have exposed only one third of their true size.

With the competition about to begin, I looked down at the sea, the morning light broke the horizon far to the east. From my vantage point I could see dark blue ocean in every direction.   More than two thousand miles before you would find other lands.

Before I started to climb down the cliff I  imagined myself swimming across the dark blue gap from Rapa Nui to the small island of Motu Nui.  Makemake, the bird-god that our Shaman had seen in his visions, would help me find my footholds and protect me from the shark infested water. The distance was farther as most men who were strong swimmers could manage in one attempt (one mile) but the sea was often violent and stormy making the crossing treacherous.  I would carry my straw bundle on my head and not under my arm as I swam. I had made a straw nest which would keep the sacred first egg safe on my return and the egg, the embodiment of our bird-god, would keep me safe. I had been practicing my climbing and my swimming getting stronger every day.  I had found that the swimming had made my arms much stronger. Working with stone was a way of life on our island and strength was regarded as a true sign of manhood.  I was determined that I would arrive on the small island before the shadow on our Moai was directly overhead.  Our shaman had said the Moai had whispered to him in his dreams. Our Shaman and my great grandfather would wait in the stone hut village of Orongo overlooking the small island with the other leaders of the clans. They would wait for our call announcing the arrival of the bird-god.

As I climbed down, I felt the presence of the Moai, I too would become a Bird-King.  I too would become a Moai to stand with my headdress balanced on my head for eternity facing towards the land on my successful return!   Only those who had been born brave could be Bird-King.  Those that failed would be sacrificed.


The giant stone Moai statues believed to have been first carved in 1200AD

It was going to be a great day.

(The Bird-cult ceremony on Easter Island is a true event deciding the right to rule each year by a contest which included climbing down the cliffs on Easter Island and swimming across the open ocean to the bird colony.  It is the only swimming race that I know of that decided the right to rule.  Almost all aspects of Rapa Nui culture have been lost including their unique writing system.  Interpretations of the reasons for the statues and many other found objects have been speculated upon but no concrete interpretation has been agreed by anthropologists.  Speculation abounds.  In the late 19th Century slave traders decimated the islands population.  Missionaries intent on their task ended tattooing, burnt almost all wooden carved objects, taught a new language and of course ended all religious activities including carving statues for the remaining population. What remains is only what you see.  Some carbon dating has found man-made objects that could be as old as from 300AD.  Easter Island is the most isolated populated place on earth.)

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About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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