Under the Rarotongan sun, Chris Daniels works up a good tropical sweat, without losing his wedding ring.

If I had to marry every woman I offered a wedding ring to, I'd now have more wives than a pre-missionary Rarotongan chief.

It all started when I first took to the water off St Heliers in my new wetsuit - my wedding ring slipped off my finger unnoticed and dropped to the sea floor, never to be found.

Since then I've repeatedly turned up to ocean swims or triathlons and - usually just minutes before the starting gun goes - I realise my (replacement) wedding ring is still on my finger.

Cue a hasty trip to the event organiser tent and an awkward request for someone to please look after my wedding ring while I thrash my way through the swim. Usually it's a woman I have to present it to - then track down after the swim asking for my wedding ring back.


So I found myself on a hot afternoon on a Rarotongan beach compulsively checking and re-checking I hadn't inadvertently left my ring on, staring out at the rusted, reef-bound hulk of the steamship SS Matai. It lies a few hundred metres from the beach and would be the first, modest athletic task of my Cook Islands holiday.

They call it the "boiler swim" - an 800m race around the shipwreck of the SS Maitai that sank just offshore on the Avarua Reef. According to the Cook Islands News, there's some debate about what to actually call the piece of wreck protruding from the sea floor - some call it the engine, but swimmers always refer to it as "the boiler".

The water was warm - but not too hot, thanks to a small river that meets the sea nearby. But definitely leave the wetsuit at home - it's a great liberating feeling swimming in an ocean race without the security (and constriction) of the neoprene.

It's a pretty basic course - swim out to the rusted wreckage poking out of the sea, turn around it and head back to the shore. But for a shipwreck swimming novice it was great thrill, with the unexpected sight of century-old ship parts, generators, rusted beams and the skeleton of what was once an ocean-going steam ship lying on the sea floor just metres below in the clear, warm waters.

So on to part two of my Cook Islands challenge - the 2015 Rarotonga Triathlon.

It was weighing on my mind while packing up my bike, running shoes, water bottles and sunglasses before heading off to the start line of the 2015 Rarotonga Triathlon. I'd had my bike professionally boxed up by my friendly bike shop here in Auckland, then expertly unpacked and delivered to my hotel room the day before.

Again more compulsive ring-checking at the start line - but a few metres into this swim it was pretty clear that even if I lost my ring in the waters of Muri Lagoon it wouldn't be a problem: the sea is perfectly clear and warm, with a soft sand sea floor just a metre or two below the surface.

Now swimming's not my specialty - but if I ever had the opportunity to train in such beautiful water I think I'd improve enough to start rivalling Michael Phelps.

The writer competes in the bike stage of this year's Rarotonga Marathon. Photo / Scottie T Photography
The writer competes in the bike stage of this year's Rarotonga Marathon. Photo / Scottie T Photography

Next to the bike - a quick run up to the transition area and I was off up the main road. There's only one main road around the island and usually the triathlon is able to run a complete circumnavigation. Not this year unfortunately, since there's a big mains water project going on, meaning a lot of road works and rough gravel about.

(Organisers aren't sure if they can do the full loop next year - but they're hopeful.)

It's a non-drafting bike leg, so things get a bit quiet out on the road. You can't tuck in behind fellow competitors but some of the locals take it pretty leisurely island-style on their motor scooters. I was guilty of drafting for a short time behind an elderly woman on a red Honda - but she pulled off into a driveway before I gained any real advantage. And there are the dogs too - but I only saw one half-hearted chase attempt by an overweight canine as we swung around on the fast tarmac near the bottom of the airport.

There's a slight hill on the bike leg, but it's a pretty fast, flat 41km - the road surface isn't too bad and I never felt unsafe around traffic. Most of the traffic on the road is motor scooters and there is no real chance of getting lost.

It wasn't till I started the run leg that the actual implication of doing an endurance event in tropical conditions started to hit me hard - the water during the swim and the breeze on the bike had masked the temperature, which was often near 30C.

The writer on the home stretch in this year's Rarotonga Marathon. Photo / Scottie T Photography
The writer on the home stretch in this year's Rarotonga Marathon. Photo / Scottie T Photography

Down the finish chute to the din of Cook Island drummers - presented with a fancy medal, a coconut filled with delicious coconut water and a groaning table of tropical fruit.

It can't be easy combining a professionally-run event with that casual Cook Islands vibe, but the Cook Islands Triathlon Association has had 21 years of experience getting it right.

There's the obvious Rarotongan relaxed attitude to many aspects of life - but this didn't mean the race was in any way slack or disorganised. There were signs, directions and marshalls where I expected them and I had no worries about my safety on the bike or swim.

Organising an event for weekend warriors like me is one thing - this race also attracts a few pros and people with bikes worth far more than my car.

There were some real guns there - former International Triathlon Union Elite triathlete Samantha Warriner won the 2015 race - coming in just one minute ahead of the first man home.

The 2016 Triathlon Festival runs from May 5-11. If, while you're training for next year's event, you happen to find a wedding ring at St Heliers, please get in touch - a spare would be great.

Technical notes for triathlon pros

Swim (1500m)

Awesome - warm, clear water - I didn't see too much marine life in Muri Lagoon - for those swimmers anxious about water depth it's probably around chest-deep the whole way round. Easy to see the buoy - and there was even a nice current sweeping us all back home to the beach.

Bike (41km)
Great course - in previous years the tri has done a complete circuit of the island with an extra 10km loop thrown in to make up the distance. Installation of a new water main around the whole island has meant a fair bit of road works and kerb-side gravel - so this year we made it about halfway around the island - then did a loop around the airport before heading back to transition at Muri. I had anticipated the road surface would be a bit rougher than I was used to, but it was fine.

Run (10km)
This involved heading 2.5km up the road to a turnaround point then back again before doing a second lap. This was the toughest part of the race by a long way - not really much to see along the road and the out and back course in the afternoon heat wasn't the most exciting.

It's a non-drafting race - competitors are told to keep at least 12m away from other cyclists. That's something that I find it hard to get used to - it's frustrating when someone passes - then appears to slow down in front, forcing me to either drop back further or pass.

There were 17 teams competing this year - including such legends as Raro Reef Rockets, the Has Beans and the Crash Test Dummies. If you're not so keen on the swim or run (or want to avoid the hassle of taking three bikes across to Rarotonga) then a team entry is a good idea.

Jakub and the team at Ride Rarotonga can put your bike together for a small charge - rebox it ready for transport back to New Zealand. It's pretty cheap and takes the hassle out of packing tools and worrying about reassembling your bike when you arrive.

They'll deliver it to your hotel and pick it up once the triathlon has finished - box it back up and deliver it to the airport for you. (Taking the bike over on the plane costs around $150 in total).


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Rarotonga.

Details: Next year's Triathlon Festival runs from May 5-11, with the main event held on Saturday May 7 at 1.30pm. Registrations open later this year. You can check out photos, results and more details at rarotri.com.

For more information: Visit feelraro.co.nz.

The writer travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.