The last organised swim to Savai’i, before the test swim last year, is coming up to its 30th anniversary in two years.
Then, in 1988, Samoa Marine organised a swim across Apolima Strait. That swim started at the old wharf at Mulifanua and finished at the Tafua headland, the closest point of Savai’i to Upolu.
Recalling that great swim this week is the man who won that race, by several nautical miles. His name is Mailata Iosia Leau, of Aopo Savai’i.
In 1988, Mailata was 26 years of age and was bullet proof. He played all sports and every sport that was on offer. And he was the best swimmer on island then, by far. The next year, in 1989, Mailata became the first Samoan to complete an Ironman in Kona. His time of 11hrs 38mins 20secs for the 260km race is an incredible time given the resources available then to triathletes. Ironman races are measured by time – more so than distance.
He was also a competent paddler who competed in the World Outrigger Champs in Hawaii around the same period. In rejigging his memory of that swim in 1988, Mailata tells that there was a very good group that swam under Laauli Allan Grey’s tutelage. Laauli was very much involved in coaching rugby at the time and held weekly open water swim sessions in the harbour.
When the Savai’i swim was called by Samoa Marine for 1988, Mailata found out about it by chance. The bunch of swimmers that gathered for the epic journey across Apolima Strait, mostly from overseas, were in the dark about Iosia, his taule’ale’a name. Mailata is his title name from his village of Aopo.
He says, “I turned up at the wharf for the swim across to Savaii and there were overseas swimmers who looked quizzically at me. I could tell they were not confident I would make it across.”
“A few of them came over one by one, and asked about my swim credentials. I didn’t say much. But they reassured me that if I got tired I can hop on the boat. I said, ok.”
“In the end about three different people came across to me to ask if I could swim. I just nodded and said yes.”
“Again, they reminded me that I can hop on the boat if I got tired.”
When the gun went, everyone took off in a splash. It was 5am in the morning and it was pitch black. Just outside the harbour Mailata started his push to the front. He stayed there all the way to the finish at the Tafua headland.
Mailata swam the 18km distance in five hours. That is no small feat, a massive effort that needs to be recognised in the annals of Swims between Upolu and Savaii.
Mailata says he was held back. He says that on that boat was Peter Meredith of Samoa Marine, Gina Moore, Uelese Pataia and Keneti Faulalo.
“The leading boat kept asking me to wait for the other swimmers. After a couple of times, I told them that the sun was coming up soon, then the wind will rise and things will become difficult. But because I was so far ahead, they wanted the others to catch up.”
He says that when the sun rose and it was daylight, the boat then stayed with him for some of the time. When he caught up to the boat, it would take off again and go ahead, leaving him alone in the water until he caught up again. It went on like that until he got thirsty when he was close enough to Savaii, between Apolima and Savai’i, where he asked for a drink. He was given a coconut to drink. That was the only drink he had in the swim.
Meanwhile the others were being swept out to the back of Apolima Island. He kept going and touched land at the headland shortly after 10am in the morning.
“The way we finished, we had to swim down and pick up a coral or something from the sea floor. That was the end of the swim. I dived down, behind the breakers at the headland and picked up a piece of coral to show I had reached land.”
In that swim was the first woman to swim to Savai’i.
“She was from Australia. She too got swept to the back of Apolima. She was having huge difficulty with the swells out there. She finished the race though while the others were all recused because of the swells.”
Mailata will now head back to the Upolu-Apolima Swim in a team. He will swim with Sam Nimarota and Daniel Afoa as team mates. The other Team Samoa is headed by Kim Taunga of Auckland, with Shane Taivai Paulo and Steve Nimarota.
“I am looking forward to swimming to Savaii,” he said.
The two Samoa Teams will join five others form New Zealand and Australia for the inaugural race to the big island this week. The race is much longer at 22.3kms, and will finish at Salelologa wharf.
Each swimmer will be accompanied by a boat and kayak. The boat will carry the swim captain and support crew.
Swimmers are not allowed to touch the vessel in their rest stops.
The swim is the first event of the Savai’i Games this year.