Extreme Open Water and Oceans Seven Swimmer Toni Enderli

16/October/2017
Julie Velosa

For most of us, swimming is a fun past time, something we do during the holidays or down at the beach to cool off, but for extreme open water swimmer, Toni Enderli, it’s so much more. Toni is attempting to be one of only a handful of people (6 ever to be exact!) that have completed the Ocean’s Seven challenge and currently he is in training for his fourth swim out of the seven.

WHAT IS OCEAN’S SEVEN?

Ocean’s Seven is a gruelling and extreme open water swimming challenge that sees competitors swimming the following channels – the North Channel, the Cook Strait, the Molokai Channel, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. There are a multitude of challenges unique to each swim –  temperature fluctuations (from tropical temperatures to just a few degrees) to currents, curious sea creatures and more. Swimmers may not touch anything (like a boat or flotation device of any sort during the time) and, dependent on speed and conditions, swimmers can be in the water for up to 20 hours or more!

TONI ENDERLI’S SWIMS

So far, Tony Enderli has completed the Straits of Gibraltar, the English Channel and most recently the Molokai Channel (Hawaii) and he has his sights set on swimming the Cook Strait (NZ) in February next year. It’s not as simple as just training and heading off to complete the swim though, it takes an immense amount of planning (sometimes swim bookings are waitlisted for 2 years) and even then it’s largely dependent on Mother Nature. You could arrive guns blazing, ready to swim, but the conditions are not right. The window for each swim is small and most often it is a culmination of a bunch of different factors that all need to sync in order for a swim to happen.

The thought of spending more than 20 hours swimming in the open ocean is utterly staggering and beyond physical strength is a mental game of the toughest degree. We chatted to the incredibly inspiring Toni Enderli to find out exactly how he does the seemingly impossible.

Toni Enderli

WHO IS TONI ENDERLI?

I’m a normal guy from Blouberg with two gorgeous kids and a wife who supports me dearly. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I still have to earn a living because I don’t have financial sponsorship – I’m my own sponsor, so I am also involved in property development.

HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A SWIMMER?

I started swimming when I was in primary school but I never really swam after that. I basically started extreme swimming nine years ago. One of my friends said let’s do something to get fit – he looked at Robben Island and said let’s do the Robben Island challenge. I thought it would be impossible.

We ended up training for it and six months later we achieved our goal. We raised a bit of money for the NSRI and basically the bug bit. That’s when I really got into the swimming community and that swim led to other swims – ice swimming and further Robben islands.

CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY FROM YOUR FIRST SWIM AND WHAT LED YOU TO LOOK AT COMPLETING OCEAN’S SEVEN?

Each Robben Island swim was extremely difficult – the guys that helped me with my first swim are South Africa’s top open water swimmers, Ryan Stramrood and Kieron Palframan. Basically, after about two years of these local swims, the guys came up with a goal of doing an intercontinental swim from Tarifa, Spain to Morocco, Africa. At the time I said to them, “Are you nuts? I didn’t even know you could do that. You know, there are ferries for trips like that?”. It was an 18-kilometre swim that took place in September of 2010 and we trained for a year for that. We did it to raise money for a programme that teaches disadvantaged children how to swim.

Again, I said that it wasn’t possible, but we swam it and it was one of the toughest things I have ever done – it really opened up my mind. I really didn’t think that completing the Robben Island swim was possible and then there we were, swimming the Strait of Gibraltar.

That then led into the Everest of the swims, which was the English Channel – it was my next goal. Leading up to that swim were a number of other big swims – swimming around Cape Town, swimming Cape Point, double Robben Island, a double Alcatraz in San Francisco – these were all swims that led up to and were part of the training for the English Channel swim.

In 2013 I attempted but failed the English Channel swim. It was really cold – it was the beginning of the season and the conditions weren’t right. There was a famous swimmer that actually passed away on the same day as my swim. Her team just pushed her too hard. During the swim, after nine hours, I got into a dangerous place of hyperthermia and my team made the call to pull me out of the swim, which was the right decision. I learned a lot about the ocean and what can go wrong – that basically brought me back to booking again for 2015.

So, it took me another two years to train for that and it led to a lot of time in the pool, doing things differently, getting a core trainer on board and really throwing everything at it in terms of fitness.

In 2015, I attempted the English Channel swim again and eventually I completed it in just under 15 hours. After the English Channel in 2015, I needed a new goal, I was really loving the training, the community and everything that goes with it and that was when I started researching Ocean’s Seven.

Only six people have ever done Ocean’s Seven, no South African or African has done it. I thought, this is something I can do, I can train and I can link it to great causes. That was really the initiation of the Ocean’s Seven challenge.

This year I completed the Molokai swim in Hawaii. Having starting swimming nine years ago and now having reached this point is still mind-blowing. From a Robben Island swim, which I didn’t think was possible, to now having completed swimming three of the toughest oceans in the world, I am now en route to complete Ocean’s Seven. It is really surreal.

WHAT GOES THROUGH YOUR MIND BEFORE YOU GET IN THE WATER?

My mindset is crucial. It really starts with positive thoughts a week before my swim. I try and focus on why I am doing it, which for me is the really important part. It’s not something I’m doing for myself, it’s not a pat on the back, I’m doing it to raise awareness and to raise funds for good causes. The other biggest ‘why’ – is to leave a legacy for my kids and to teach them that if you’ve got a dream go for it, there are going to be some tough spots but don’t ever give up.

Leading up to the swim I make sure that I’ve only got positive thoughts in my mind. I actually put a memory map together and plan when in the swim I’m going to think about my family, when I’m going to think about work, friends, about life. I think about strategies over the next year, five years and so on and try to take my mind away from swimming.

Toni Enderli

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR MOLOKAI SWIM AND THE INFAMOUS LEDGE?

Molokai was different to swims I had done before. Generally, with the cold water swims, you push through the cold and it eats your energy up. Molokai was different because the water was amazing, it was beautiful, it was tropical, it was paradise.

In the morning my team had said we were doing really well; normally I don’t want to know how far I’ve got to go and with this one I made a mistake and asked how far I was. A paddler told me that we had 10 km to go and I that was on thirteen and a half hours. I thought, well I’ve got the ledge, I’m probably going to be there for about 2 hours, so I’ll be in at 16 hours maximum. I was already celebrating, I thought “I’ve got this in the bag,”. Little did I know how tough that ledge was going to be. I only had myself to blame though because I asked and I shouldn’t have.

Basically, that ledge is the result of two volcanic islands. I left Molokai, which is one of the volcanic islands and the water is 750 meters deep, so you’re in the deep, deep ocean. As you come to the other island the volcanic ledge starts coming up at 750, 749 meters and so on. As the water comes from the island side it shoots against that ledge and shoots up like an underwater waterfall – you’re basically swimming uphill against this water feature.

There’s this loud noise in the ocean where the volcanic rocks are rolling over and under each other. It sounded like a live monster breathing down your neck and there were huge bubbles coming up from the depths. It’s the only way I can explain it – like it was living. Hearing that noise for seven hours was one of the most distressing things I’ve ever experienced in my life.

It was an incredibly tough swim. It was hot because I was in the sun for a good 6/7 hours and we weren’t getting closer, I had no more energy left and I was at my lowest point after a few hours at that ledge.

The crew told me that I was going to have to dig deeper than I’d ever had to but that they believed in me. At that point, I decided to do ten hard strokes and then ten soft strokes. I could actually feel the blood in my chest, that’s how hard I was pushing. Eventually, we started to get got through and we got to the second ledge (there are two ledges). I just carried on pushing and thought “It’s not over until I’m on that beach”. I was frustrated and irritated –I was beside myself and was not in a good space.

It the most humbling experience; giving it an hour, moving backwards, giving it another hard hour and I still literally hadn’t moved. I had to do that over and over. It was over 20.5 hours in the end.

TONI ENDERLI’S OCEAN’S SEVEN SWIM MAP

Toni-Enderli-Oceans-Seven-Map

IS THERE EVER A POINT WHERE YOUR BODY SIMPLY WON’T COOPERATE ANYMORE?

At the 17-hour mark during Molokai I had pushed my body to it’s fullest; my shoulders were cramping, my arms felt like they were falling off. Basically, your mind says that you can’t do it because your body is sore. But you have to go stroke for stroke and you have to cut that out of your mind and get into the zone again. It’s sore but you have to keep moving forward.

I think the threshold that we sell to ourselves is less than what we can actually achieve. We think we can’t do it but we underestimate ourselves. I think we all only live on a percentage of our potential.

At that point you are what you are what your mind is telling you; if you just carry on moving forward, you can carry on pushing through.

DOES YOUR MIND WANDER WHEN YOU ARE SWIMMING? IT MUST BE VERY HARD TO FOCUS FOR THAT LENGTH OF TIME.

That’s one of the things that I love about the water – when you’re in it, you are in the zone, it’s only you and your mind. It’s not like running or cycling where you can hear traffic noise, or you can talk or stop. But yes your mind does definitely wander.

After an hour, two or three when you’re not comfortable anymore and that tropical water is not so nice anymore, your mind starts playing tricks on you. You get hit with a couple jellyfish and things feel terrible. You’re sore, your body is aching but you need to get into a positive mindset. That’s when I try to think about everything that’s positive in my life – my kids, my family, projects I’m busy with. I go back to my mind map. That’s my reboot button, then I go “Ok, you’re doing this for a better cause”. My kids are there to support me and my wife is there, my friends are there – those thoughts reboot me.

HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE GIVING UP?

On every swim I make sure that I have a whiteboard on the crew boat. The crew put up messages from followers on Facebook, as well as WhatsApp messages. When I’ve got nothing in the tank that whiteboard comes out and it fuels me.

For Molokai, I was on the ledge for seven hours; at sixteen hours I wanted to give up, I was done. I was stuck in the same spot for three hours and my eldest son, Tristan (9) said: “Dad don’t give up, you can do it”. I remember thinking, “What am I moaning about?” It just fuelled me. Then I had messages from my folks and my wife, from friends and swimming mates. They said “You’ve got this, stroke for stroke,” and that helped me, knowing that I’m not alone.

DO YOU GET LONELY OUT THERE?

You definitely do, especially during the low moments. It’s nerve-wracking as all hell; you know that you have this massive swim ahead of you and there are sharks and all sorts of other things. At the beginning it’s fun, it’s exciting and all those positive emotions but as it gets dark that fun stops. All of a sudden you’re in the pitch black, you’re in the middle of the ocean with the currents and waves and the “Why am I doing this?” thoughts creep in.

When your energy is low and there’s nothing left in the tank you can get delirious. I’ve actually cursed at my team – told them they were lying to me during the Molokai swim because we hadn’t got any further (when I was stuck on the ledge).

You definitely have those moments but then you have to bring yourself back to your “why?” and just focus. When I’m at my loneliest the whiteboard comes out and gets me right.

CAN YOU TELL US WHAT AND HOW YOU EAT AND DRINK OUT THERE?

In open water swimming you’re not allowed to touch the boat, paddlers are not allowed touch you either or else your swim is over. So basically, I’ve got Andrew who is my head of safety on the crew boat and he makes sure that I get all my feeds.

Different strategies apply to warm and cold water swims. In warmer water you’re going to dehydrate quicker, so you need to make sure you have 350 ml of fluid every 30-40 minutes. You also can’t just have one squeeze, you have to make sure that you complete it. For Molokai, I’d stop every forty minutes, the boat would throw a bottle linked to a string with my fluids and for the first three hours I took in a lot of fluids.

Then for the next three hours, the team would throw in a protein shake or tinned peaches, which come in a little plastic cup with a lip on and I can actually just drink it.  I keep that strategy for about 10-12 hours; there could also be some banana, an energy bar etc. Right at the end of a swim that increases to every 15 mins just to fuel me up for the last push. I then take on sugar in the form of Coke, chocolates like Bar One etc to give me a little boost at the end.

ARE YOU STOPPING AND TREADING WATER WHEN YOU DO THAT?

Correct. You tread water for 20 seconds, consume and then get going. You can’t stop for a for a few minutes because you might cramp up or you might lose focus. For me, it is stop, take the liquids in and get going again as quickly as possible. Towards the end of a big swim that does tend to lag a bit though. When I was in that current swimming Molokai if I stopped for a minute I would go backwards because of the current – it was horrific. You just want to get your feet down and get going.

Toni Enderli

HOW ARE YOU PROTECTED FROM SHARKS AND OTHER SEA CREATURES OUT THERE?

I have the main boat on my right and a paddler on my left. The main boat has a contraption called a shark shield – it’s not 100 percent proven but it has shown great success for people that have used it. It sends out a pulse that actually attracts sharks and then when the shark comes it gives a radius of about five metres and then it sends out another pulse, which is supposed to push the sharks away.

On my left ankle, I have another contraption, also a shark shield. Because it activates in salt water though it ended up having an almost taser-like effect on my ankle every 45 minutes. It gave me a little wake-up call! But, I believe in them so that definitely helped.

During Molokai, I started swimming with dolphins as it started getting dark, which was amazing. I saw other shadows that I think were white or black tip sharks but they kept their distance, so there wasn’t anything to it. The biggest threats were actually tiger sharks, which were definitely there. But, that’s their ocean after all. Luckily nothing happened but they were definitely there that’s for sure.

Then, of course, there are jellyfish but there’s nothing you can do about that, you have to just swim through them. You actually have to rip the tentacles off, it hurts because they have little barbs. You have to just keep going though.

WHAT SORT OF TOLL DOES A SWIM LIKE THIS TAKE ON YOUR BODY? CAN YOU MOVE THE NEXT DAY?

The day after Molokai my face, throat and lips were really swollen.  That evening I was nauseous, I still had sea legs; I couldn’t eat anything because my throat was so swollen from the salt.

The next morning I couldn’t raise my left arm. I literally couldn’t hold a cup, my left arm was paralyzed.

It actually took me about four days to get a little bit of strength back in my hand and obviously my whole body was extremely stiff and it literally took me five days to recover. I think it took about 10 days to really get myself back to normal. Everything my body had I threw into that swim. I had nothing left.

DO YOU EVER GET WATER IN YOUR GOGGLES AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO REMEDY THAT?

Actually, I didn’t have any serious goggle issues which is great. Speedo has partnered up with me, so I get the best kit, which is amazing. I had two sets of goggles, one for clear vision – in the dark it’s clear and you can see everything. I had another pair of the tinted ones, and at around lunchtime, I swapped out my goggles. I didn’t have a water leak. It’s very important to make sure that you’re used to your equipment and having good reliable equipment is key.

WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS LIKE ON THE BODY?

It’s really hard on the body. It feels like you’re in a washing machine because the ocean is pushing you left, right and centre, up and down. The sun is hitting you, the salt is hitting you… you’re getting hit from all angles and there’s not much you can do.

I do grease myself under my arms for chafe. Around the ten hour mark I had to re-grease under my arms but that’s the only thing you can do.  For everything else, you have to just take the torture.

CAN YOU TELL US WHAT YOU ARE TRAINING FOR NEXT?

The next swim is hopefully going to be the Cook Strait in February 2018, which is a swim between the north and south islands of New Zealand and is over 20 kilometres. It’s going to be in cold water –  around 13 degrees. They’ve got extreme tidal currents there, almost whirlpool-like currents, it’s really dangerous, very rough, very unpredictable and with the threat of Great White Sharks too.

If all goes well, in June-July next year I’m hoping to do Tsugaru Strait, which is a strait between Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan. This will also be a cold water swim with extreme currents. There you could be swimming for five hours and within 45 minutes you could be back in the harbour, that’s how extreme the currents are. They also have poisonous snakes and all sorts of other things. After that, it will be the North Irish Channel, which I think is going to be the toughest one out of all of them.

WHAT IS YOUR TRAINING REGIME FOR THE NEXT RACE?

A big part of my most recent swimming preparation was core training and flexibility. In the Molokai swim, I didn’t cramp once, which shows that my training was right, being that it is one of the longest swims. My strategy now is to become faster in the water and for that to happen I’ve got a new training programme working on my speed.

Instead of doing 40 km a week, I’m going to be doing 20 km a week but extremely hard and fast so I can actually speed up. The reason for that is that the next swim (Cook Strait) is going to be in 12-13 degree water. If you’re going to be in the water for 20 hours at that temperature, you’re going to have big problems. So, my whole strategy has changed to becoming faster in the water and just really work hard at that.

WHAT GOES INTO PLANNING A SWIM LIKE THIS?

Because of the logistics involved in organising these channel swims, you have to book two years in advance. You have to pay your deposit and book a slot.

There aren’t a lot of people that do these swims, as you can imagine, and usually only one swimming association that you can book through. Also, you have to have a qualified person to take you across the swim and, for example, in New Zealand, there is only one person that is qualified to do that because it’s so dangerous. There are also only certain times in the year that you can do it for it to be optimal.

It’s a bit of a gamble. You can pay the money, train and fly all the way there and be ready to swim and you might not even get into the water because of conditions. That has happened in the Cook Strait quite a bit, so at the moment it’s is a floating one. If I get the time right and the right conditions then I’ll do it. If not, that will move to 2019.

That’s another really challenging aspect to the whole Oceans Seven challenge, you can’t just say let’s go and do all seven and then go and do it. You’re relying on water, you’re relying on crew and other logistical people in those countries. And of course, Mother Nature.

Toni Enderli

HOW CAN PEOPLE SUPPORT YOU AND THE CHARITIES YOU SWIM FOR?

It’s really simple, I’ve got a website – toni.co.za – where people can go and donate. Those donations go directly to the charities.

At the moment I’ve got incredible sponsors that look after my kit and my car, so the expensive stuff for my training is all sponsored, which is amazing. It really helps a lot. From a financial point though for the actual swims, I back myself. I pay for my own tickets and I pay for the swim.

To give you an example, the Molokai swim alone was 4500 dollars (just for the swim). There are costs for things like petrol, crew etc and you have to use knowledgeable guys that know the area, so it’s very expensive. I find that the most challenging part (aside from the actual swim obviously). It is extremely challenging without having a financial sponsor.

I would love to do all four swims next year but it’s all going to be up to my budget if I can. Financially though, I may only be able to do two. It would be amazing if there was a big corporate out there who loves the story and wants to follow through because we have an amazing media team! We’ve had amazing coverage, and at the end of the day, we’re making a difference for the charities that we’re doing it for.

DO THE CHARITIES YOU RAISE FUNDS FOR CHANGE?

Yes, I like to change it up. This last one (Molokai) I did for the NSRI’s water safety program for kids. The next one will be Habitat for Humanity. So I change it per swim, so that it doesn’t get diluted and the charities get their exposure.

WHAT HAS COMPLETING THESE SWIMS TAUGHT YOU?

I always tell my story saying that I started nine years ago as just a normal guy from Blouberg, I’m not the fastest swimmer, in fact, I’m probably one of the slowest swimmers out there. At the end of the day though, if you’ve got a goal and you have a dream, it doesn’t matter how old or young you are, or the obstacles in you way – you really can do anything you put your mind to. It’s real.

Open water swimming teaches you that you can’t give up, you need to carry on moving forward. If you constantly, consistently do what you need to do, you’ll get to the other side. Swimming has really changed my life on all levels.

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS

Favourite junk food? Pizza.
Pre-swim food habit? Three days before I swim I carbo load with lots of pasta three times a day.
Bucket list holiday destination? Definitely Canada. Going through the glaciers and the Banff in Canada. That’s definitely on my bucket list. Swimming those beautiful crystal lakes.
Drink of choice? A good red wine.
Car would you buy if money was no object? I would definitely go for one of those pimped up RVs and take the family on holiday.

Watch this video that outlines the challenge Toni Enderli is undertaking.

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