Joy Zhu - Big Wave Bay to Pak Lap via Ninepins

Big Wave Bay through Ninepins to Pak Lap Beach

21.2 km (13.2 miles)

6 hours, 4 minutes on 22 June 2022

Observed and documented by Max Leung




  • Name: Joy Zhu
  • Gender: female
  • Age on swim date:
  • Nationality: Hong Kong
  • Resides: Hong Kong

Support Personnel

  • Amber Chui - feeder / kayaker
  • Max Leung - observer / speedboat conductor
  • Alfair Lee - route / weather advising
  • Sophia Lai - coach


Max Leung

Escort Vessel

See photos.

Swim Parameters

  • Category: Solo, nonstop, unassisted.
  • Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, without exception or modification.
  • Equipment used: Textile 2-piece swimsuit, cap, goggles.

Route Definition

From Big Wave Bay, between Ninepin Islands, between Bluff Island and Basalt Island, west of Town Island, to Pak Lap Beach


No known previous swims of this route.

Other MSF Documented Swims in this region:

Swim Data

  • Start: 22 June 2022, 07:23 (Hong Kong Time, Asia/Hong_Kong, UTC8).
  • Finish: 22 June 2022, 13:27
  • Elapsed: 6 hours, 4 minutes.

Summary of Conditions

Feature Min Max
Water Temp (C) 27 29
Air Temp (C) 29 30
Wind (mph) 2 8

GPS Track

Trackpoint frequency: 10 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).

Click to expand map.

Speed Plot

Nutrition: See narrative report.

Observer Log

Download PDF

Swimmer Narrative Report

Splitting the Ninepins: A Voyage of Sailor Max and the Supernovae

by Joy Zhu

The islets of the Sai Kung archipelago house questionable facilities for drug addicts and beekeeper hermits; mysterious skerries a paradise of drugged divers and lobster smugglers. Dacardable (打卡able) cliffs? Positive. One recent mid-summer day, the swimmer bonnet tête de mort, accompanied by the equally lunatic ronin Speedy Rosso, swam her 22 to the White Snapper Beach from the Burning Reef, after warp speed accelerating from the Big Surf and having just split the eighteen pins in two very messy halves…

--Captain AL


  1. One pack of orange energy gel before entering the water
  2. 08:09 – one pack of coca-cola energy gel
  3. 08:53 – 2 packs of coca-cola energy gel
  4. 09:17 – 1 pack of coca-cola energy gels
  5. 10:14 – 2 packs of coca-cola energy gels
  6. 11:57 – 1 pack of orange energy gel + brand’s chicken essence

(sorry, my carpet is disgusting)

*brand’s chicken essence and one gel eaten before swim not pictured


about 4L of water

Time Stamps (according to Max’s Photo Time Stamps / gopro video time stamps)

  • 0723: Start
  • 0749: Middle of Nam Tong Channel
  • 0816: Almost to Tung Lung Chau
  • 0856: Shek Chung Kok
  • 0930: Between Ninepins and Tung Lung Chau
  • 1051: At Fo Siu Pai
  • 1121: Past Fo Siu Pai, waiting for Tow Boat to pass
  • 1145: Tip of Basalt Island
  • 1245: At the mouth of Sor See Mun
  • 1321: Near the (now dry) waterfall inside of Pak Lap Bay
  • 1327: End

Breakdown of costs(?)

  • Boat Charter: 4500HKD
  • Gels: 15*7=105HKD
  • Taxi: 400HKD
  • Uneaten Sausage Muffin: 16HKD
  • Brand’s chicken essence: 30HKD

People – Offstage and Onstage

  • Swimmer: Joy Zhu
  • Feeder/Kayaker: Amber Chui
  • Observer/Speedboat Conductor: Max Leung
  • Route/Weather Advising: Alfair Lee
  • Coach: Sophia Lai

Short Biographies

Joy Zhu is a PhD student in UCLA architecture and urban design. She studies debates in the history of geology and is also an art writer.

Amber Chui is a qualified lifeguard and recreational marathon runner, known for her ferocity and endurance. When the combination of Amber + Joy appears in group hikes, men shy away in fear!

Max Leung has had experience in scuba diving for over ten years. He had worked in the Maldives as a scuba instructor for more than three years in resorts and liveaboard vessels serving guests from all over the world. Max has started his speedboat business in Hong Kong four years ago providing fun and safe dive trips. He specializes in planning local and overseas trips. In 2019, Max drove the support boat for Alex Fong’s 45km swimming event around Hong Kong Island.

Sophia Lai is a triathlete, coach, and race organizer. She was part of the Hong Kong Triathlon national team. In 2018, she became the overall 3rd at the HK Standard Chartered 10K and came under 1 hour at the Gold Coast 15km Challenge. As a coach, she believes that each student’s body is unique and has their own strengths, and that it is important to tailor the training to each person.

Alfair Lee is a poet, sailor, illustrator, photographer, and ultramarathon runner. Alfair’s poetry not only consists of words, but also lines on a map. A line on a map is not only illustrates pragmatism, but is also a projection of desire, connecting objects or places that are seemingly separated from each other. As a captain, he is gifted with a barometric nose to tell us when is the best time to traverse dangerous waters to seek the dolphins.


I started open water swimming in 2020 when the pools closed because of COVID. As I added myself to open water swimming groups, I gradually found my way to the more advanced open water swimmers that do something like 10km every weekend. I remember my first “real” open water swim in the late Spring of 2020, where I daringly joined Edie and other “Corona Dolphins” for a swim from Deep Water Bay to Stanley main beach. As someone who had been swimming 4kms everyday, whether it is in Deep Water Bay or in a pool, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Satellites at the Stanley headland, the waves and the openness of the sea. I remember G finding a foam board in the middle of the ocean at the Satellites and using it as a kickboard and giving me menthol-smelling sunscreen in the hot summer. A jetty saw us all the way and told us we were “supermen and superwomen” when we arrived in Stanley. That was also the first time that I got stung by Jellyfish too – some on my arms, while Mandy swam into it headfirst. The second long one that I did with Edie was around Cape D’Aguilar, where I saw one of the most majestic caves one Hong Kong just around Kau Pei Chau in the Ocean Reserve. It was 12km, and the way into Stanley Bay was one of the longest stretches that I have ever swum – in an attempt to encourage me and G, Edie had swum ahead back onto the main beach first.

Since then, open water swimming has exerted a draw on me, not only because of the gratifying sense of physical exhaustion that can put me to sleep in seconds (I stopped training after secondary school, but swam again in college because it helps me relieve stress, and yet my threshold for physical exhaustion kept getting higher as my fitness improved), but also of the isolation, perspective, danger and openness that one can experience at sea. It is something that more than a few people in Hong Kong can do, but only few people have the courage and time to train for.

After being one of the few women that completed Cold Half in 2021, I had wanted to sign up and train for the HK360, but as a graduate student, the swim was too expensive for me. Also, after joining Mayank Vaid’s unofficial swim-run race (Wild Boar organized for Mandy’s birthday) that started from Sheung Sze Wan to Clear Water Bay. Sitting for the whole afternoon Tai Au Mun’s beach while waiting for the runners to come back while reading Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism, I had fallen love with Clear Water Bay in this cold, sunny morning. Since then, I began training more and more in Clear Water Bay and Silverstrand. As I became friends with Isaac Yuen, one of the best ultramarathon and marathon runners in Hong Kong and an intrepid explorer of the seas, I came to know Alfair, Desmond and Alfair – his ultramarathon friends – in a trip to the Ninepins, in which they did stand up paddling while me and Isaac swam. Before that point, I had grown a little bit tired of open water swimming, perhaps because not every swimmer is interested in exploring the nuances and specificities of the local landscape (more so the sea creatures), and I wanted to try something new. One of the most gratifying things I learned during the trip was that I had swum over a volcanic caldera across the channel to the Ninepins, which formed as a part of the high island supervolcanic explosion millions of years ago. This fact endeared the landscape to me, as if I had interfaced the objects of primitivity through the surface of the water.

Meeting Alfair, Isaac, Kieran and Desmond marked a new phase in my marathon swimming career. As I got to know Alfair, I also learned about his approaches in planning ocean trips – he would take into account the tidal flow, wind speed and direction; the way he exercises caution through drawing/printing maps, drawing distances between different points apart from the intended route for different contingencies, the careful research on the landscape and features of the destination. From Alfair, I learned that the meticulous thinking through of a route is can be like the writing of a poem. One thing that made an impression on all of us was the beautiful maps and drawings that he made in preparation for his trip. Isaac and I have agreed among us many times that Alfair can collate all his drawings together and publish a book. Not only was I impressed by the meticulousness and care that he takes in preparing for the trips, the lines that he draws are also often daring, creative and unprecedented. I wasn’t sure why – perhaps it was because of the extensive documentation of the Gopros that Desmond, Alfair and Kieran also took with them to the sea – that I decided to attempt something creative beyond swimming. For the next adventure SUP/swim we did to Wang Chau, I bought two waterproof, disposable cameras and began my practice of ocean photography. My first two rolls got wet after being in the rain – and it took them at least two weeks to get back to me, but they were some of the most beautiful shots that I had ever taken, even though the quality was not the best. As I took my camera (a Minolta Weathermatic – I bought many of them because according to my friend and an artist Mark, that the plastic, toylike camera is definitely not intended to be used this way, and they always break after 2 months) to swim with me in Clear Water Bay and Silverstrand, I learned that Isaac used to be a photographer too. Gradually, photography became one of the most, if not secondmost importance in open water swimming, especially since the pools closed again in 2022 for half a year.

In my photographic practice, I take photos almost exclusively at sea. Unlike the use of analog cameras on land, the medium of analog cameras is a necessity at sea as digital devices is very easily destroyed not just water, but sea water – but also, the picture quality of film is much higher than that of digital, in my opinion. Somehow, it also make sense because unlike a hiking route, your path cannot be limned at sea. It is almost impossible to carry with you anything, apart from the memories in your brain – and so such a medium somehow helps me give my swims a kind of specificity, even though it is impossible to control what images you capture at sea in the waves and the swell – almost like making a split second decision to capture something when you are on the back of a motorbike. These are images are precious because they are shaped by the limiting device and the uncontrollable conditions.

Crossing the cave with Isaac at Wang Chau, Summer 2021

As I learned from Alfair, I bought my own SUP (identical to Desmond’s), printed and laminated my own maps (which got seeped all the time) and planned my own trips. Although she too is an ultramarathon runner, Amber always said yes when I asked her to go out to sea with me, even though the pace of the SUP might be a bit slow for her and the extent of exhaustion too little to satisfy her masochistic desire. She is a contradictory woman – one of the most durable athletes I have ever met and yet at the same time most caring and attentive. Some maps and diagrams that Alfair has drawn:

Another change to my marathon swimming life in 2021 was also Sophia – I began to train with Sophia Lai at the end of 2021. Before training with her, my stroke rate was very rapid and inefficient, and I was constantly injured because of my inability to listen to my body. But after training with Sophia, my stroke improved drastically. Sophia previously raced for the Hong Kong national team as a triathlete. I think what makes her such a good coach is that she designs programs specifically tailored to the physical needs of the body that she trains. As a very short Asian woman (157cm), Sophia is even shorter than me. One of the most impressionable things that she has told me is that there is no correct way to swim, because our bodies, differently built, have different strengths. Since our body is smart, there is always a reason why we swim in a particular way. Thanks to her careful observations and accurate estimations of the state of my body according to my data, I suffered no injuries this year, and won the female champion of Cold Half (solo) this year. To utilize the coaching sessions to the most, I was motivated to design less conventional swims as goals – not only to challenge my physical limit, but also to make set another exemplar (as Michael Tsang did with his Ma On Shan swim) to make the sport of marathon swimming affordable and accessible to the plenitude of local talent.

Design of the Route

I had begun thinking about the route at around February or March. At that time, I was infatuated with the dangerous idea of crossing the Nam Tong Channel, from the Tai Long Pai lighthouse to the Tung Lung Chau lighthouse – and it will be difficult to do so in post-COVID conditions with the resumption of sea traffic. Before I had crossed it with Amber as the SUPer later in the year, Isaac had told me that he thought it will be like crossing the Castle Peak Road, which is a very busy highway, but for boats. Furthermore, having done a supported swim with Amber from Pak Lap to Silverstrand, passing multiple lighthouses, I had thought it might be a good idea to do a lighthouse themed swim.

I consulted my SUP friends: while Isaac suggested me to make the swim more meaningful by doing something more repeatable, Alfair suggested me to use a previous kayak competition as a model – from what I remember, the competition, encompassing more than 30km, starts from Stanley, goes to the Po Toi islands, then to the Ninepins and back to Sai Kung. Rather than taking in mind the notion repeatability, the idea of doing such and exposed route in which only kayaks might dare do might make others ask: how did she do it? Instead of starting from Stanley, I modified the route to begin from Big Wave Bay in Hong Kong Island, across the channel to Tung Lung Chau and around it to the Ninepins, and to Pak Lap. I had planned this swim to be done in April 22, a day of low tidal flow in which the current and easterly wind tells me that I should do it in reverse, from Pak Lap back to Hong Kong Island. From the government app for current speed, I figured that the part across from Big Wave Bay would be the most difficult to swim, and imagined how gratified I would feel if I had begun from Pak Lap, swum across the open channel in a state of exhaustion, but then feel a sense of hope when I see the Nam Tong lighthouse move closer and closer, and then finally feel my feet touch the sand on Big Wave Bay. Collapsing in a state of exhaustion, I would go buy some Big Wave Bay beer for me and Amber and we would just collapse on the beach until the sun sets.

However, March/April is the time of jellyfish bloom. It was much worse than last year, and I almost had a heart attack when I swam in Silverstrand – it was like swimming through landmines. At one point, I crashed into a jellyfish as tall as me, and the stings extended from the bottom of my face to my hips. It was painful the night I slept and unbearably itchy the day after, and my friends, when they saw, remarked on how painful it looked. Because of such traumatic experiences with Jellyfish, I decided to put the swim off until June. Apart from Jellyfish, I was also not completely confident in my ability to complete 20km (although Sophia said it will be easy for me). I also had some qualms about paying for the boat because I wasn’t sure why I was going through the stress to organize a documented swim. So Sophia told me that I should do the Cold Half first, then I would have the confidence to do such a route.

After studying the requirements, we changed the route such that the route dives straight into Pak Lap.

Map Description automatically

*Numbers on this map is an estimation

Training before the Swim

1. About a month before the 22km swim, I participated in the Cold Half organized by Shu Pu, where I won the female overall champion. I used my preparation for the Cold Half 15km as preparation for the swim.

2. As Cold half was a race, Sophia Lai, my coach, and I worked on speed endurance. Between cold half and 20km swim, we focused mainly on endurance.

3. For Cold half preparation, tried to incorporate one long swim or two moderate distance swims per week.

4. Also had 1-2 threshold workouts per week.

5. Every fourth week is recovery week.

Wind and Current Conditions

This day was chosen because the volume of tidal flow was the least.

Tidal volume measured from Waglan island

Wind checked from Windy app the previous day measured around 4m/s of wind throughout the day, South wind before 10:00am and Southeast afterwards.

There is usually a strong southward current coming into/out of Victoria harbor depending on ebb or flow tide. In the predicted time in which I would cross, it measured around 0.10 knots. After Tung Lung Chau, there would also be a strong southern current carrying me northwards, measuring around 0.20 knots.

The Swim

For the swim, Amber was the SUPer and Max was the one conducting the speedboat. The purpose of the speedboat was to ensure that if we encounter thunderstorms, that we could hide under shelter for such an exposed route. The purpose of the SUP was to ensure that I was able to follow the course, and for feeding to be more convenient. One thing that I underestimated was how calmly the speedboat was driven, and how easy it was to follow the boat, save for a bit of diesel smell.

As the chief organizer of the swim, I knew that to catch the best tide, we had to get up at 5:30 am to get to big wave bay with sufficient time to prepare. Since Amber lives in Lai Chi Kok, I told her I would pay for the taxi, but at the last minute, she still asked if she should take a bus to North Point and then join me on a taxi in North Point. I told her repeatedly that I would pay for her taxi because I know this is tough for both of us, and in the end she had the taxi come to my home and fetch both of us there. It was funny that the discount taxi driver lives in the same estate as I do. Amber told me that she slept at 1am, and she got up about three times during the night thinking that she had heard the alarm – she was afraid that she would not be able to wake up. And in the end, she wouldn’t even let me pay for the taxi.

On the taxi to big wave bay, I saw the lighthouse in Tai Long Pai (or translated as “Big Wave Reef.” I always look out for it. I think it is one of the most beautiful lighthouses in Hong Kong when you see it in Big Wave Bay) – just at the cusp of the horizon. It was a beautiful morning. There were people at the beach walking their dogs and old people swimming in the sea. Max’s boat were to meet us outside the shark net at around 7.

After a bit of organization, I divided my personal belongings to two parts – my personal belongings, the map with estimated time at different points, my Garmin, anemometer and thermometer on the speedboat; the nutrition, film camera and go pro with Amber on the SUP. Amber, with her garmin, was to record the GPS track of the swim with her own garmin. She is the one who will start and end the watch.

The swim commenced at 7:03am. Because Amber had to dump her stuff at the boat, I saw her struggle to move the boat over the shark net. I wanted to help her, but she told me to go on. And so I went on. The day before the swim, I had bought some pink TYR goggles without swimming with them, and so there was a bit of a cognitive dissonance as I swam towards Tung Lung Chau, the pink surface blurred with Zinc Oxide, wary of boats – this channel, which Amber and I once crossed before, is a shipping route. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any shipping boats, and only one speedboat as we crossed it. The water was calm as I crossed the first half of the channel, but it became a bit strenuous when the wind blew sideways – and perhaps because of the relatively fast current.

As I moved closer to Tung Lung Chau, the sun came up under the clouds, as the sea surface dazzled. It was probably a picture that I would have taken on my film camera, despite having too much of these. The current remained relatively strong as we approached the “white cliff” of Tung Lung Chau, but I was happy to approach the yellow floating buoy which I had often seen from a distance.

As we turned around to the southern side of the island, not only was I exhilarated to see the beautiful caves and cliffs of Tung Lung Chau again, I felt the euphoria of being carried by the suddenly rushing current, as my stroke rate increased. The water was suddenly cold, too. I was stuck by a small jellyfish that I couldn’t see on the neck.

You never see anything when you swim. Therefore, to swim is also to hope that your camera catches something that you cannot see – to tell you secrets only the neurotic surface of a plastic camera, zinc oxide on its surface licked clean by the tongue, and its cheap lens could in the intensity of its suicidal lifespan. The inability to record at sea also suggests that there is an impossibility of corroborating evidence between the boat driver, the kayaker, and the swimmer – especially compared to a trail on land. There are no highways in the sea, just vague vectors of current and wind. Something which I realized while swimming this time is that the impossibility of sighting is also caused by the fact that islands are three dimensional but not too – when pointing towards the gap between the northern and the southern ninepin islands, the gap measures the same width for a wide angle of distances, and I didn’t know if I was going at it at a straight line or not, and Amber and Max repeatedly had to point me towards the right direction – that I needed to aim for the rock (in the maze of orphaned rocks) on the right of the Southern Ninepins.

Having had one bag of orange energy bar gummies before the swim, one bag of coca cola gummies around Tung Lung Chau, two between Tung Lung Chau and the Ninepins, I had two bags of gummies in ninepins. At that point, all the gummies have melted in the bag. As I ate, the gummies became pulled to the shape of a long, elastic strand of cheese (like when you pull a slice from a pizza). It was frankly, fairly disgusting to eat them, but my stomach did not want any protein, only things that are digestable. A boatful of tourists went past, and to Max and Amber’s surprised, I yelled at them, as they waved back to me. Whenever tourists wave from me from their boats, I confuse myself as a sea animal rather than a human being. Max told me I was way ahead of schedule at this point.

As we cursorily passed the southern Ninepins, we began to approach Fo Siu Pai (the burning reef) – a blackened rock protrusion that looks as if it had been burnt. For me, this was the highlight of the swim. The rock was so small that I wasn’t able to sight it (and of course, there are no mountains to sight at this point – we are at the most exposed point of Hong Kong), and I kept asking Amber and Max if I was swimming towards the right direction.

I am not sure why these inconspicuous rock formations to me are so appealing – perhaps because they are so inconspicuous and yet so permanent that people have given them names. Because they are so inconspicuous, boats have to pay extra attention to them in order to avoid crashing into them. Perhaps they serve as a liminal point beyond which there is nothing. I think, with a similar logic to lighthouses that appear in the most unexpected places, the position of these rocks inhabit the sea to make it less modernist and cold.

As we approach Fo Siu Pai, I saw the bottom part of the rock decorated by brightly colored green moss, and that made me very happy. I asked Amber to take a picture for me. I had told Max that I would eat my Macdonalds sausage and egg muffin there. Although I didn’t, he still wrote it on the observer’s sheet, thinking that I did. It was not easy for him to observe what I had eaten on the speedboat. But when I looked at the sheet (“火燒排 豬柳蛋??), it was quite funny to me – to order a delivery from macdonalds to one of the most remote places in hong kong.

I remember that the water in Ninepins was a bit rough, especially as I was inside it and going towards Fo Siu Pai. After Fo Siu Pai however, the water became calm again. I remember being able to see Clear Water Bay area on my right side. As we traveled towards Sai Kung, we had to stop for a few minutes to let a shipping boat pass. It was probably the first time that I had seen a shipping boat (not the largest ones) come so close. Around this time, I saw Amber laying back on the SUP. Afterwards, she told me that she had felt tired suddenly and Max had asked her if she needed to come on the boat, but she said no.

I didn’t eat anything more until I arrived on the side of Basalt Island, because I was sick of coca cola gels and I didn’t want to eat my macdonalds. The water was probably the toughest at that point, not sure if it is because the wind patterns are different when there are mountains and narrow corridors in which they were to pass. Around halfway through Basalt Island, I asked Amber for my chicken essence and one more pack of gel because I was exhausted. The chicken essence really gave me the final push to power through the last few kilometers.

After I passed Basalt island, the water became calm again. I wasn’t able to recognize where the passage of the “keyhole” (Sor see mun) until Max pointed it out to me. I was tired, but I kept on moving. We passed the church and the drug habilitation center on Town Island, and I knew that the end was near. I was anxious to finish it, but I also told myself to keep calm and don’t look at the beach too much. At around 1:07pm, Amber arrived before me at the beach to see me land and to stop the watch, and told me that I was very fast.

Had we been able to eat lunch in pak lap, it would have been perfect. But Max was hesitant to park at the pier as he was not familiar with it. Morever, there were about three junk boats parked there. So in the end, we just got back on the boat and folded up our gear together and changed. After we had done all of those, Max turned on the engine for the speedboat as the speedboat flew over the surface of the water, passing clear water bay back to Tseung Kwan O. Amber was smiling when Max was driving fast (while I felt a bit of nausea) and I knew she was enjoying the speed.

As Max parked the boat, he gave me a “medal” – a keyring with “Max dives” on it, and gave both of us a sticker. We took a selfie together and parted. Amber and I went to shower in the velodrome, where I saw that she was totally burnt (because she decided not to wear a long sleeved top due to the hot weather). She kept trying to rub the remaining zinc off my body when we showered but I said it will still be useful in the sun outside. Finally, hauling the heavy SUP, we went to eat Apollo and drink beer.

I think one of the things that I regret most in this swim was the fact that I wasn’t able to use a garmin due to the documented swim rules to know what is the exact number of kilometers that I swam as well as my heart rate. But most of all – that despite Amber was taking pictures for me, that I wasn’t able to be the one taking the photos. Somehow, that is to me the most authentic proof that I did this swim.


Click to enlarge.