Rob Hutchings: The downriver nomad

Canadian-born, NZ resident, Rob Hutchings is a man of many talents; a (retired) competitive triathlete, a chiropractor, a yoga enthusiast, a published author, and most recently, an adventure marathon swimmer. 

In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Mr Hutchings about his unlikely beginning in triathlon and marathon swimming, his wild marathon swims, including his biggest adventure to date, the 256 kilometres down Clutha River, and his recent book the ‘Downriver Nomad’. 

From couch potato to marathon swimmer 

Mr Hutchings was an energetic child growing up in the most easterly province of Canada, but never much of an athlete until he found swimming. 

“I was very active and energetic as a little kid but I was a completely hopeless athlete,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I always loved the water but for some reason never tried swimming competitively until I was 13, but it took a few things to happen before I started swimming.

“Growing up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, I tried the usual sports of baseball and basketball but I was terrible at aiming for a target and ended up being the bench warmer of my grade seven basketball team which wasn’t much fun.

“After not being allowed to play at all by my team, I felt dejected and became a couch potato.” 

It wasn’t until Mr Hutchings had spent eight months on the couch that he came to the sudden realisation that he was gaining weight and must do something about it if he didn’t want to end up like his father who had previously had a heart attack. 

“I really was miserable as a couch potato and started to remember my love of the water, so I decided to join the community swim team,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“Now I must say when I was a younger kid, I had failed two of the red cross swimming levels three times each, so my stroke was no natural talent.

“But in saying that, I joined the team and loved swimming, initially because it was a sport where I was allowed to compete, regardless of my ability. There are no bench warmers in swimming.”

It was in this community swim team that Mr Hutchings found his passion for the water and set the goal of becoming a triathlete, which would eventually lead him to become a marathon swimmer. 

“Shortly after I joined the team, two triathletes caught my eye. They trained with the team and one of them was one of the top triathletes in Canada at the time and the other a top junior triathlete in my town,” said Mr Hutchings.

“As a 13-year-old, I mustered up all the confidence a 13-year-old could and told him that I wanted to be a triathlete like him. He immediately agreed to help me learn how to train.

“Although an older kid on the team did sneer at me asking, “You? Do a triathlon? You’re a fatty! Who do you think you are?”, it was from that moment that I decided whoever I was, or was to become, it was going to be a triathlete.” 

From that moment on, Mr Hutchings put everything into becoming a triathlete and realising his dream.

And, it was the open water swim leg that would capture his interest the most.

“It took me a few years to find my feet in endurance sport, but I did and I really came into my own as an open water swimmer along the way,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“As I got better and more experienced, my confidence in the open water grew and my swim coach approached me about trying marathon swimming as well as continuing doing triathlons.

“It was in 1993 at the age of 17 that I did my first marathon swim, a 16km event in Lake Saint-Jean (Lac Saint-Jean), Quebec, and loved it.

“I then spent the rest of my teenage years, my twenties and thirties competing in triathlons and marathons.

“As I got into my forties, I started seeking out more expedition-style challenges in all three disciplines of triathlon rather than competitions and that’s when I found marathon wild swimming.” 

The start of many expedition-style challenges

Mr Hutchings has lived in five countries throughout his life and travelled to many more along the way swimming in various lakes, rivers and oceans. Of all his adventures, it was a swim in our very own backyard that he fondly recalls as his favourite. 

“My wife is Australian and I lived in Australia for 15 years so I’ve swum in many places such as from Whitsunday Island to Hamilton Island, Magnetic Island (to Townsville) and many self-made marathon swims of over 20 kilometres in Adelaide and the Sunshine Coast,” said Mr Hucthings. 

“One of my favourite swims was a self-made adventure in Coorong, South Australia.

“It was a really unique experience because I started in fresh water and gradually swam into saltwater.

“I also saw plenty of pelicans and seals, and other boaters were looking at me like I was insane which made the swim really special.” 

Since moving to New Zealand in 2018, Mr Hutchings found his passion for river swimming and hasn’t looked back since, becoming the first to complete many river swims during that time. 

“I really have swam quite a few rivers in New Zealand. I swam 22 kilometres in the Waiau River, connecting Lake Te Anau to Lake Manapouri which was the filming site of Lord of the Rings, that was pretty cool,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I was the first (and only!) to swim 42 kilometres of the lower Buller River, which I have since done twice.

[Mr Hutchings has not attempted the upper Buller River because it is too rocky and shallow for swimming, as well as there are two waterfalls along the way.]

“I’m also the only one who has swam 35 kilometres in Waimakariri River Gorge. It is also the wildest swim I’ve ever done with the highest concentration of rapids, sharp turns and eddies in a relatively short distance.” 

During Mr Hutchings’s multiple expedition-style wild marathon swims he has encountered numerous animals, many he could only dream of seeing. 

“I’ve swam the only ever marathon swim of the full length of the 14 kilometre Akaroa Harbour, which is the home of the world’s smallest breed of penguins – the Pohatu Penguins,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I was lucky enough that at the end of that swim I saw them and they even came up to play around in the water.

“I also did a six say adventure swim in Southern Fiordlands and I saw plenty of seals and dolphins which was incredible.”

Taking on ‘The Mighty Clutha’ River 

Mr Hutchings’s greatest swim to date is a four and a half-day, 256 kilometres swim down the Clutha River (Māori: Mata-Au). 

“The Clutha River is New Zealand’s most powerful river. The Kiwis don’t call it, ‘The Mighty Clutha’ for nothing,” said Mr Hutchings.

“It is the second-longest river in New Zealand, but by far the biggest in terms of water volume and current strength.

“It was a huge logistical mission to put together, requiring adapting my marathon swimming/endurance training to the style of an expedition.” 

When Mr Hutchings first asked about swimming the Clutha River, he was told it would be impossible but that didn’t stop him. 

“Clutha River was an unprecedented swim,” said Mr Hutchings. 

Initially when I asked, I was told it was impossible and that only an idiot would try it

“Hearing that made it sound like it was right up my alley and I was ready to tackle that challenge.” 

After committing to swim the mighty Clutha River, Mr Hutchings had to change up his training and add more skills to his repertoire. 

“In addition to needing the endurance to swim Mount Clutha, I needed to work on my river swimming skills which involves frequent sprints to get around the turns, out of whirlpools and undertows, dodging rocks and going through rapids,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I also had to work on my stroke because in river swimming, despite going faster, it’s harder work, because as you do your stroke, your arm is actually moving against the oncoming current.”

After completing the Clutha River swim, Mr Hutchings reflected on his long, crazy life journey and decided it would be an epic conclusion to a book he dreamed of writing about his adventures. And that’s just what he did, which we’ll get into a little later. 

Mishaps of marathon swimming 

Throughout his adventures, Mr Hutchings says he has had to deal with his fair share of mishaps, but all make for some pretty epic stories to share with friends (and to be read in his book). 

I have an incredible ability to have ridiculous mishaps and get into some weird and crazy situations. Often they are comedic, some of which have gone horribly wrong.

“On one occasion, during a 20-kilometre marathon swim, I slammed into a large sea turtle, smashing my arm across its shell.

“I ended up dislocating my shoulder. So it could be said that I lost a fight to a turtle that wasn’t even a ninja!”

One of Mr Hutchings’s greatest stories – The Cow –  is one you might not believe, but he’s adamant it is true.

“After swimming the lower Buller river for a second time this January, I became the first and second person to do so,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“Once I completed it, a journalist based in Westport contacted me and wrote a story about being the only swimmer to complete the swim.

“Several days later, a cow had fallen into the Buller, 70 kilometres upstream (from where he had started his swim) and was fished out at the mouth of the river.

“A vet determined the cow sustained no serious injuries, despite having fallen over waterfalls and smashing into some rocks. The same journalist wrote a story about the cow’s adventure.

“So, anyway, having over 30 years of endurance sport under my belt, and having taken all the safety considerations, I was beaten by a cow to swim the whole Buller River!”

The pull to wild swimming 

While Mr Hutchings has been a marathon swimmer since he was a teenager, it has only been the last several years he has moved towards marathon swimming in the wild. 

“I’ve really been drawn to wild swimming over the last few years because it has no rules,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I love the adventurous aspect of it, as well as coming up with outside-the-box adventures.

Mr Hutchings is also drawn to the affordability of wild swimming. 

“Many of the recognised marathon swimming routes are very expensive to do,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“So wild marathon swimming can generally be done very affordably.

“After spending a lot of money on some bigger swims, my wife asked me, when looking out over Lake Tekapo, if we were to swim that beautiful lake, all it would cost is a hotel room and buying your kayak support team a pizza.

“It turns out her logic was sound and I now get to do many long-distance swims in beautiful places each season.”

Advice for those wanting to try wild marathon swimming

When it comes to dishing out advice to aspiring wild marathon swimmers, Hutchings’s advice follows his style of adventure, “think outside the box”.

“If your swim goals are to swim big recognised routes, that’s great, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to be a marathon swimmer,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“Safety, of course, is paramount, so making friends with willing kayakers and sailors is a great idea. But just don’t be shy about asking for swim support.

“I have met many new friends by going on Facebook sailing and kayak groups by asking for support for a planned swim.” 

Mr Hutchings also supports building stamina and confidence to help with one’s wild marathon swimming journey. 

“You have to build your stamina and confidence, of course, so begin where you’re at,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“If you can manage a local two-kilometre swim at the beach right now, that is awesome. If that’s all you’ll ever do, that is still awesome.

“But if you want to do an expedition, you need to build up your experience. I wouldn’t recommend going from swimming a few kilometres in the pool to swimming the Clutha River with no steps in between.

“But no matter what your goals are, no matter how small or big they might seem, be content with whatever you accomplish.” 

What’s next? 

There’s no stopping Mr Hutchings from finding a new adventure swim to tackle, with his most recent just this past Easter weekend. 

“I just swam the Milford Sound, it’s one of New Zealand’s natural icons and is 17 kilometres across,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I also have plans to swim the Foveaux Strait, followed by a hike around the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island.

“I’m also looking into the feasibility of swimming the Clarence River over four or five days. There are sections of that river that are not suitable for swimming – too rocky – but there are white water rafting tours that run on the river, so an idea is to swim the decent sections which is most of the 208 kilometres and then white water raft the dangerous sections.

“I would also like to do Lake Pukaki, Manapouri, Wanaka, Hawea, Wakatipu and a few others.”

Mr Hutchings doesn’t just plan on sticking to wild marathon swims in New Zealand, with plans to venture overseas soon. 

“I have made some connections overseas in my time and a friend of mine in Utah wants to organise a river swim of the canyonlands in Utah,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“I also have a major goal of going back to my hometown in Canada and swimming the Humber River. It’s a beautiful river flowing through the mountains and I haven’t returned home for a long while so that would be nice.”  

The Downriver Nomad

Mr Hutchings was always a creative child but it wasn’t until after he swam the 256 kilometres of Clutha River that he decided to write his book the ‘Downriver Nomad’. 

“I was always a creative kid and I was often writing stories, but as an adult, I lost touch with my creative side,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“As I built up a huge bank of adventures full of endurance challenges, comedic mishaps and meeting funny and interesting characters from all over the world, I set a goal of one day writing a book.” 

When writing the book, Mr Hutchings ran into a few initial barriers but none that stopped him from completing it. 

“One of my initial thoughts was, I’m not an elite level athlete nor am I famous. Who would read a book about my adventures?” said Mr Hutchings. 

“Then there was the time issue, there was always something going on that kept getting prioritised over writing a book.

“Then my wife wrote a book and started writing kids’ books and novels and that inspired me.” 

The Downriver Nomad

It wasn’t until the Covid-19 lockdown happened that Mr Hutchings took his idea of writing a book seriously and started writing. 

“On the second day of lockdown when I realised the whole lockdown and Covid thing was serious, I decided to not spend my time watching movies but rather write a book,” said Mr Hutchings. 

“It took a lot longer than the initial seven-week lockdown we had in New Zealand but by the time it was over I had established a habit of writing that I continued on with.

“When it came time to release the book I didn’t have high expectations, I jokingly set the goal of having eleven people not including my mother read it and I have far surpassed that goal and am very happy with the feedback from people who have heard about and read my book.

“I was never an elite level athlete, but I love the endurance sports world, so I threw my heart into it and now get to share my adventures, stories and mishaps with others.

“Writing the book has rekindled the creative kid that has been dormant for a long time, so I’ve gained a lot of personal satisfaction in tapping into another side of myself, besides the side that loves pushing the limits of physical endurance.

“Now that I have finished the Downriver Nomad and loved the writing process, I intend on writing more books on endurance sport, regardless of how successful Downriver Nomad is.”

Synopsis

Triathlete and marathon swimmer, Rob Hutchings takes us on a whirlwind journey from triathlons and his first marathon swim in his home country of Canada, to Ironman competitions across the pond. Then down under to Australia and New Zealand where he embarked on marathon adventures off the beaten track, on land and in the water, which led to his biggest challenge – an unprecedented attempt at swimming the turbulent 256 km Clutha River. k In Downriver Nomad, Rob shares his story of adventures and adversities not only in the water, on the race-course and off the beaten track, but also his struggles with an alcoholic father and his own unsuccessful path to fatherhood. n His is a story of humour, heartbreak and challenges that will inspire the absolute beginner in adventure sports to the seasoned endurance athlete. Join Rob on his nomadic adventures in triathlon, marathon swimming and adventure sports, packed with hairpin bends, whirlpools, rock dodging and white-water rapids.

Get your copy

To find out more and purchase your copy of the Downriver Nomad book, visit the accompanying website.

To keep up to date with Mr Hutchings’s future adventures check out his social channels and website.
Facebook: Rob Hutchings Instagram: @downriver_nomad Youtube: Rob Hutchings Website: Aventures Outside the Lines

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