Most swimmers would exit the water immediately after a close encounter with a tiger shark – especially when facing the prospect of swimming another 18 km – but not Lauren Tischendorf. The Australian distance swimmer has just received WOWSA (World Open Water Swimming Assocation) recognition for her record-making swim in notoriously treacherous waters. Here, she discusses the feat with another intrepid Australian outdoor swimmer – the OSS’ Peter Hancock.
In April this year, Sydney school teacher Lauren Tischendorf became the first woman to swim the 32km circumnavigation of Lord Howe Island. Situated 600 km east of the Australian mainland in the Tasman Sea, Lord Howe is a World Heritage-listed island covered with untouched forest and surrounded by tropical coral reefs. The crescent-shaped island consists of the eroded remnants of a volcano seven million years old. Its shoreline alternates between sandy beaches and sheer black volcanic rock cliffs, punctuated by white waterfalls and dark green patches of vegetation.
It was as Lauren headed down the east coast of the island that she became aware of entering more difficult waters. It was here that Galapagos sharks began to follow her, the tides started to change, and the wind picked up. Then, after two hours in bad currents, Lauren had an encounter with a tiger shark.
“I was half way through the swim, and everything that could possibly happen was thrown into one section,” she says. “The sun was on the other side of the island, so it was cold and shaded, the wind was up, there was bad chop, a 2.5 m swell, and I’d been battling strong currents for two hours with sharks circling. About half way through the swim, a tiger shark came close while I was feeding. It was right up in my personal space. I was saved by a quick-thinking move from my mum on the support boat, who yanked out the feeding container and threw it to the shark. The shark grabbed the food- a vegemite sandwich- and went away.”
At this point, many people would have abandoned the swim, but Lauren kept going.
“Most of my training was in the ocean off Sydney, so I’d swum with sharks before, and I’m used to rough seas,” she says. “I knew I’d see sharks on this swim, so I was mentally prepared for them, and this helped me stay calm.”
“I was saved by a quick-thinking move from my mum on the support boat, who yanked out the feeding container and threw it to the shark. The shark grabbed the food – a vegemite sandwich – and went away.”
The seed for the Lord Howe Island swim was planted in June, when Lauren and some friends spent three weekends swimming from Palm Beach to Little Bay – a north-south swim of around 46 km along the coast of Sydney.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that swim, and I began to wonder what I could do by myself to extend my swimming beyond the Sydney bubble,” she says.
A friend had mentioned how lovely Lord Howe Island was, so Lauren began researching. At the time nobody had swum around the island before, so there was no established route to follow. This made the adventure even more appealing. Another advantage of Lord Howe was that it is still part of New South Wales, which meant the swim could still go ahead even if there were state border closures due to Coronavirus outbreaks.
By August or September, the idea of the swim had become entrenched, and the planning was well under way.
“I’m a bit of a commitment freak,” she says. “Once I sign up to something I’ll see it through and get the most I can out of it. I began to intensify my training, building to four pool sessions a week, with ocean swims off Bondi Beach in some evenings, and longer swims on the weekends. My longest swim was six hours, and that was in very rough seas so it turned out to be great training for Lord Howe.”
And then there were the logistics to organise – a support crew, a feeding strategy, island access, and a boat. For the latter, Lauren was able to secure the Island’s police boat, piloted by Lord Howe’s only policeman.
“There was a lot to organise, but it gave me something to do after work during the lockdown.”
“I really just wanted to go for an adventurous swim, so I went for an adventurous swim and it turned into something much more than I ever anticipated”
Finally, when the date arrived in April 2021, Lauren stepped off the boat ramp near Old Settlement Beach and began her swim. The first part of the swim was in sheltered water, full of coral and colourful fish, but once Lauren passed the western tip of the island, the sea became mountainous.
“It was just great! The water was choppy so I just worked with it until I was comfortable, relaxing into my stroke until I found my rhythm.”
The next few hours flew by, as Lauren passed the tall, dark cliffs along the northern coast. Lauren fed every half hour, alternating food (energy gels, dates, Snickers, vegemite sandwiches) with liquid (Tailwind or water).
Then, of course, followed the east coast and the encounter with the tiger shark. Thankfully, as she rounded the southern tip of the island and was heading back north towards the starting location, the difficulty of the eastern leg would soon be compensated for by other wonders of the deep.
“It was dark by then, and one of the boats had a big spotlight to guide me through the coral,” she says. “The coral and fish were all lit up, and it was spectacular. Then I’d roll over and do a bit of backstroke to stretch the shoulders, and I’d look up at the stars. There’s no light pollution out there, so the stars were beautiful.”
It was still dark when Lauren came ashore, just past her starting point and 13 hours and 50 minutes after stepping into the water. In doing so, became the first woman to swim the 35 km circuit around Lord Howe Island.
“I really just wanted to go for an adventurous swim, so I went for an adventurous swim and it turned into something much more than I ever anticipated,” she says.