|▲ Sherrin Hibbard plans to swim around Jeju to raise environmental awareness. Photo by Darren Southcott
Environmental campaigner Sherrin Hibbard called on long-time Jeju resident Father Jerry Cotter on Saturday, May 15, to bless the kayak that will support her on The Jeju Big Swim. All members of the Big Swim team were present at Samyang Beach along with a strong show of public support for the ambitious endeavor.
The Big Swim will commence on July 31 when Sherrin Hibbard, with support kayaker Steve Oberhauser, will attempt to swim around Jeju Island to draw attention to the plight of the seas. Australian Hibbard is a self-proclaimed born-again environmentalist and the attempt is her way of giving back to the seas.
“I spent many years harvesting from the seas and people don’t seem to get the danger the seas are under,” the former commercial fisher said. “It is more recently I have woken up to these dangers and this is my way of giving back.”
The blessing was the first official outing for the team and translator and gap-year student Oh Ji Su believes they have come a long way since the early days of planning.
“At the outset we were hitting our head against the floor, as the Korean saying goes. Perhaps we were unprepared for the full project, but we have really seen it come together in the last few weeks and today is a testimony to this,” Oh said.
The morning began with Hibbard and Oberhauser taking to the calm waters of Samyang for a practice swim and kayak. The pair showed good form and returned ashore to prepare for the blessing. Oberhauser was full of praise for Hibbard and looked forward to the attempt.
“Sherrin has been preparing a whole year for this so today represents a real milestone for all of us. The scenery of Jeju is what excites me the most about the trip, although the long hours at sea could prove tedious,” Oberhauser said.
He will support Hibbard in his sea kayak and camp at each landing point, while Hibbard will overnight in guesthouses. It will provide an extra test for the kayaker who feels a close affinity to nature.
“Growing up in United States I was always active and close to nature, so camping comes naturally. The kayaking itself will be testing, but not comparable to the swim,” Oberhauser said.
As the pair came ashore, Cotter prepared the blessing. A blessing of the fleet is a traditional Catholic ceremony to bring good fortune ahead of the fishing season and it isn’t the first time Cotter has been called upon to perform less-than traditional rites.
“Although a kayak isn’t the most conventional of blessings, in the past I have blessed everything from chicken runs to old cars,” he said. “I support this project because I have always had a close relationship to the seas. Those around Jeju, although pristine, are becoming more polluted. It is something we can all change.”
Cotter read the blessing in both Korean and English and proceeded to douse both the kayak and crowd with holy water. He then took to the seas himself with Hibbard and Oberhauser and emerged in high spirits, despite being dampened by the Samyang waves. The Big Swim team were all there to show support, including Professor Ko Chang Hoon, whose World Environment and Peace Summer School is supporting Hibbard.
“This is a great opportunity for a Jeju business to get behind the campaign,” Ko said. “The oceans are our greatest asset and we need to raise awareness of their importance to the world. We are thankful for Father Cotter’s support today.”
The biggest threat to the bid at this point is funding and Hibbard stressed the importance of having locals fully behind the team.
“Today is all about having some recognition that we are actually going to make this happen. We have needed a show of support and an official opening to set things in motion and this is it,” Hibbard stated. “Hopefully now business and media will continue their support as this is what we need most.”
Media liaison Hyun Sung Mi, a Jeju National University student, summed up the increasing confidence of the team and what the blessing meant in terms of overall progress.
“When we began we were met with skepticism by many people and confusion at what we were doing. Now we are seeing more and more support for the cause and if this can be maintained for the entire swim it will be a success,” Hyun said. “The cleanliness of our seas is the priority.”
Follow Sherrin and her team on The Jeju Big Swim Facebook page