When you stand near the shore of the Naf river, it’s always nerve-wracking. There’s a fear in your eyes, the fear of the unknown. You are about to dance with the sea, hoping and praying that the Bay of Bengal plays nice with you. The Bangla Channel awaits and you can never have any bigger challenge than this in our country right now.
“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better” – Pat Riley
This year I was back, again, to take on the challenge after last year’s disappointment. Last year the sea was extremely rough and I was very new to swimming. So, I had to make the hardest decision to abandon that time. I hate quitting though and this year I was determined to complete the Bangla Channel challenge successfully.
Going into the challenge
I wasn’t that prepared at all. I hate swimming in the cold water so I missed out most of the training sessions this year during winter. So, I was a bit tense when I was introduced to my rescuer, Rubel, the day before the event. The challenge day was almost dawning on me and here I was, having a discussion with my rescuer. Moreover, it wasn’t too reassuring when Rubel told me that my boatman still wasn’t fixed by then.
For any channel swimming, the navigation boat plays a huge role. The Bangla Channel is 10 miles long in its shortest path and the journey has its challenges. Strong waves, changeable conditions, jellyfish stings and exposure to salt water etc. are just some of them. Moreover, if you get off course, you’ll end up in deep sea or some other place. So, missing the brief with the boatman was a bit concerning for me.
The day before the event
We spent the night at Shahporir Dwip, our starting point. A temporary camp was made in a cyclone center and festive spirit was all around. I went to bed on time but woke up early after hearing some chit chat between Bangla Channel legendary swimmers, Monir bhai and Sinha bhai. I decided to get up and clear my stomach before everyone wakes up.
After that, I couldn’t sleep again. The night was beautiful though with a full moon in sight. It meant we were expecting strong high and low tides during our swim. That was a bit of a concern as well going into the challenge.
Slowly everyone started to wake up as the dawn came. Our breakfast was scheduled at 7 am. The morning breakfast was perfect – perched rice, milk, eggs, yogurt, apple and banana. I knew it was going to be a long day so I was back for a second serving.
After breakfast, Rubel told me the good news that my boat was managed and my boat number was 12. We all got ready and headed off to the jetty from where we’re going to start.
Bangla Channel time
We all were in swimming trunks and a massive crowd was looking at us like we were some sort of aliens. After all the pre-event formalities, we had a short warm-up session and group photos. Then it was time, Lipton bhai, the king of Bangla Channel, who crossed the Bangla Channel 13 consecutive times previously, signaled us to stand on the shore of the Naf river.
Standing on the shore, everyone besides me was a warrior. They had a look in their eyes – anticipation, anxiety, determination. Moments like this give you a wider perspective of the challenge that you’re taking on. At 9:45 am, Lipton bhai signaled the start of the event. With small steps, I headed towards the middle of the river and started swimming.
Bangla Channel 2019 naf start
We started during the low tide so that the current takes us towards the sea. Locating the boat from the start was critical. I was having difficulty finding the boat assigned to me between the melee of all the boats. I started getting concerned and was taking more glances over the water to identify the boat. It was a hectic time as every rescuer was trying to find their respective swimmers and I almost got hit by another boat in that chaos.
Once the faster swimmers left me, I found my boat and my rescuer. It was a huge relief for me. Now it was time to put my head down and keep swimming with the flow.
Soon the difficult bit started
The first couple of kilometers of Bangla Channel is pretty comfortable and relaxing. The difficult bit starts when you face the estuary, where the river meets the sea. The waves are very rough and unpredictable there. Also, the current pushes you towards Myanmar so you’re constantly fighting against the wave.
The biggest learning, I took from the last failed attempt was how to avoid the big waves and surviving in the sea. It paid dividends as I managed to avoid being dominated by the sea. The waves were pretty big though in the estuary. Some of them were over 12 feet long!! In waves such as this, it becomes really difficult for the boats to be in control.
Bangla Channel 2019 in the sea
And soon enough, a catastrophe happened right in front of my eyes. A 15 feet wave was coming towards me. Just in front of me, there was another support boat. The wave just wiped the boat sideways and was crashing it towards me!
Just for a moment, I froze. I didn’t know what to do. If I were to duck under the wave, then the boat’s engine may hit me and my brain would splatter into the sea or I can try move away from the boat but the wave can severely hit me and might end up hitting the boat anyways. I closed my eyes, took a long breath and made a frantic diagonal dive under the water to avoid the fast-incoming wave.
For a small moment, I thought myself, “Is this how I’m going to die? In the middle of the ocean and such a tragic way”. The moment felt like a lifetime. Well, I survived, narrowly! Once I lifted my head from underwater, the boat was only two feet away from me. I was ok but the boat wasn’t. The crew was in a frenzy and called my support boat to shift their people and their stuff in my boat. A close call and just a proof of how the sea can be merciless at times.
Time to move on
In the wake of that chaos, I started swimming again. The low tide remains for 6 hours so being a slower swimmer, I knew I don’t have time to waste. I have to cross the Bangla Channel before the high tide comes. After an hour of struggle, I managed to escape the estuary. The waves calmed down a lot after that and I was picking up my speed. The moving water was creating some motion sickness though.
Two and a half hours into my swim, Rubel notified me that the St. Martin island was visible. It felt music to my ears and my dream of conquering the challenge was becoming a reality. Soon though I discovered that my Garmin stopped tracking the distance, the reading was stuck in 7.5 km. I didn’t stop the workout though rather I wanted to track the duration for the whole swim.
Bangla Channel 2019 swimmer
Well, the challenge became difficult again. Suddenly, my left leg cramped up badly. I couldn’t kick with that leg so I kept on kicking with the right leg only. It became worse when the right leg also cramped up after half an hour. Both of the legs were out of the equation so I only had my arms to propel me forwards. My legs were acting as an anchor and my speed dropped significantly.
To make the matter even worse, a jellyfish got stuck in one of my legs. It started with a tingling pain and then it got stronger and stronger. As my legs were gone, I couldn’t even kick hard and detach the jellyfish. I was just praying and hoping that at some point it would go away.
I was getting tired and sick of salt water. The waves were getting stronger again. The pain was getting over me. I felt like quitting a few times. It was so boring; you are in no man’s land with a desolate landscape. It felt never-ending.
The hope of success
Soon Rubel shouted out, “The island is near. You are almost there”. I raised my head as high as possible and saw the island for the first time clearly. With renewed hope, I increased my strokes.
I had mental math and estimated to finish within the next hour. But that’s when the worse situation became the worst. My boatman took me to the wrong side of the island. I knew I was going towards the wrong direction and I shouted strongly why he’s taking me to that direction. His reply was that the organizers have set the direction there. Before the event, Lipton bhai asked us to listen to the boatman, so I stayed put and didn’t argue at first.
Bangla Channel 2019 Group Finish
Well, that mistake cost me and I got stuck in a very bad situation. The current was absolutely against me at that time. No matter how strongly I swam, I didn’t move forward at all. That’s why parents usually say don’t swim in the low tide, now I know why. It was taking me away from the island. The shore was so close but I couldn’t reach it.
I started scolding to the boatman for the wrong direction. I was tired, drained and physically sick. Still, I had to put a herculean effort against a strong tide. All of a sudden, I felt helpless – “After all the hard work, am I going to fail again!”. My legs were gone and my arms were almost coming off from my shoulder joint. Suddenly I discovered myself almost hitting the Navy ship on the other side of the jetty. The strong current was taking me beyond the island!!
Then I found a way
I instructed my boat to move ahead 200 meters and stay there until I cross it. That was my only way to find out whether I was making any forward movement or not against the tide. The plan worked. I used the boat as a checkpoint. Once I cross the boat, it went ahead another 200 meters. Inch by inch, I fought hard against the tide.
It was at its strongest due to the full moon. Last 1 kilometer felt like an eternity. So close yet so far. It took me around 1.5 hours just to swim the last 2 kilometers! I gritted my teeth, went deep into my pain threshold and told myself failure wasn’t an option.
Bangla Channel 2019 Finish
With relentless effort, slowly I was winning over the tide. The beach was getting closer and closer. It was my heart that kept me going. After 6 hours and 10 minutes of humongous effort, I made it to the shore. I MADE IT!! I conquered the sea. I completed the Bangla Channel.
The finish gate awaits
I slowly walked towards the finishing gate as I landed way off the course. I couldn’t even walk properly due to the cramp but I didn’t feel the pain. I was ecstatic and a sense of relief came over me. Lipton bhai came to me and embraced me with a big smile, followed by Arafat bhai. Went to the finishing gate with everyone. This was the time for me to celebrate and photograph the memory.
The Bangla Channel was tough, once again. The waves were calmer but it was silently brutal this time. Poor navigation didn’t help my cause either. But looking back, even 2.5 years back, I couldn’t swim 25 meters properly. Here I was, conquering the mighty sea even with all the odds.
Bangla Channel 2019 Success
Thanks to Lipton bhai, Monir bhai, Arafat bhai and The Bangla Channel team for all the support. Without you guys, I wouldn’t be able to come here today. It’s for you guys, my Ironman dream came to fruition as well. Will I do another attempt in the next year? Only time will tell. But this was a memory of a lifetime.