Cornwall endurance athlete David Merpaw has just returned home, after his latest test of physical and mental strength: an Amazon River 200-kilometre swim – much of it at night – through portions of Peru, Colombia and Brazil.
“It’s been a long time coming, for me to finally (swim in) the Amazon – a lifelong journey and dream,” said Merpaw, 54. “It was an environmental swim, but also (with a message of) never giving up on your dreams. . . I survived my swim. I was ill for four days (afterwards) but I’m all good now.”
Merpaw said that sure, people asked him about the wisdom of attempting such a swim, and he would tell them, “it’s not my first time at the carnival.”
It sure wasn’t.
Merpaw was one of 12 inductees into the Cornwall Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, getting the nod in the distance events category. The former Lions Club Sports Awards Dinner recipient of the Jacques Richard Memorial Trophy has been an accomplished endurance athlete for over two decades, and his passion for several years has been endurance swimming, including in the Ganges River in northern India in 2018.
In 2016, Merpaw was honoured by the St. Lawrence River Institute for making significant contributions to the river.
But there are no piranha in the St. Lawrence.
“Yeah, some people said I’m crazy – I replied it would be like a badge of happiness to receive a bite,” Merpaw recounted.
He’s not conventional, to be sure. Last Labour Day weekend, he swam around the island of Montreal, 112 kilometres over two days – and mostly at night.
Why did he think he could survive such a long swim in the Amazon?
“I believe in myself,” he said. “I trust my experience and my training. I’ve overcome illness and injuries and broken bones, and here I am.”
But his trip to South America was put off for quite a few months, because of an injury at home last winter that set back training. Merpaw during his career has been in the water with sharks and crocodiles and with some unimaginable man-made hazards, but what sidelined him was some ice on the driveway when he fell and shattered his shoulder bone, the scapula.
“I was in the pool a few days later, but it was depressing,” Merpaw said, recalling having the use of just one side of his body.
But he regained his focus, trained it on the Amazon, and reminded himself why he does this: he truly loves the planet.
“Earth is an oasis,” he said. “It’s precious, it’s unique and it’s our only home. It’s my way to make a statement (about Earth’s greatness), I just hope I can make people aware, through the stories and experiences I share.”
The latest story Merpaw is sharing begins in southern Colombia, in the city of Leticia, next to the Amazon and bordering Brazil and Peru.
It’s an open, soft border,” Merpaw said. “No border control here.”
From Leticia, Merpaw took a fast boat ride going up river, toward Iquitos, in Peru. He asked to be let off about 120 kilomtres from that city, which would give him 200 kilometres of river to swim in, back toward Leticia.
And off he went, his gear and supplies in two large wet/dry bags – “those bags float great with all my junk, and of course safety orange in colour along with my flashing lights, so I’m quite visible,” he said.
He was in the water 18 hours a day, so much of the swim was at night, when Merpaw finds it more peaceful.
His six hours of rest? It’s fitful. It’s during the day and so it was hot, and there were bugs. Big bugs, when he grabbed a series of power naps wherever he could along the shore, usually under a tree.
Merpaw said it wasn’t as difficult as some of his swims. There wasn’t heavy traffic on the water, or rapids, or any portaging.
Merpaw was surprised at all the development along the river, but he realizes it’s a highway for many residents, that it’s their main source of water.
“I thought it would be more of a natural setting – it was sad to see it’s heavily developed,” Merpaw said. “There were oil slicks, there was lots of plastic and garbage on the shore.”
The actual swim was about 200,000 strokes, he estimated. A strong two-beat kick, 15 per cent backstroke, 5 per cent breaststroke, all the rest freestyle, reach, grab, pull, push, repeat. He’d have about 100 strokes before his head came for a view.
He’d encounter Amazon river dolphin – got a good, hard bump from one, actually. Plenty of other things too deal with too, including massive lily pads, and large, aggressive catfish.
And then it was over.
“I was pretty sore and dehydrated,” Merpaw said. “I slept for 18 hours straight. . . hotel staff checked on me to make sure I was alive. I appreciated that.”
Next up for Merpaw will be a trip overseas in the spring, when he will attempt to swim a distance of 300 kilometres in the Ethiopian portion of the Nile.