There’s “sick of” and then “swim for 23 hours in the ocean sick of.”

On 22 August, a mysterious man appeared in the town of Shibetsu on the east coast of Hokkaido. He claimed to be a Russian national who swam from the nearby Russian controlled island of Kunashir to Japan seeking refugee status, but until now his identity was only a matter of speculation.

But on 7 September, the swimmer’s identity was confirmed as 38-year-old Vaas Feniks Nokard when he spoke to Japanese media for the first time. As to the question everyone wanted to know, Nokard claims that he did indeed swim the entire stretch of ocean by himself and it took him about 23 hours.

The shortest distance between the coasts of Hokkaido and Kunashir is about 24 kilometers (15 miles) and the average swimmer can move at a speed of three kilometers per hour (two miles per hour), which would equate to a eight-hour trip. However, considering the fact that he would have to wrestle with ocean currents which probably would also have knocked him off the ideal course and tired him out, 23 hours doesn’t seem unreasonable.

That leaves the question of whether he could survive such a journey. The temperatures of that stretch of ocean in mid-summer is comparable to that of the 34-kilometer (21-mile) long English Channel, which has been swum by many, including Kevin Murphy who spent a whopping 52 hours and 30 minutes in there one time in 1975, swimming non-stop.

Russian media also reported that Nokard had likely used a wetsuit which would help him endure the temperatures. However, it still isn’t clear why he didn’t appear to be wet at all when spotted upon arrival in Shibetsu on surveillance cameras and by witnesses. It’s possible that he carried clothing in a waterproof bag or procured them quickly in Shibetsu.

▼ News report showing footage of Nokard walking in Shibetsu

Regarding why he did it, Nokard told media: “I wanted to get away from Russia’s authoritarian system. I was sick of the Putin administration,” adding, “No one can go against Putin in Russia today. You can only either keep silent or leave the country,” and “I didn’t see a bright future on Kunashir Island.”

However, an explanation by the man himself seemed to do little to assuage netizens’ disbelief either that he could accomplish such a swim or that he’s genuinely seeking asylum.

“There sure are some amazing people out there.”
“He’s pretty matter-of-fact about all this. Are all Russians like this?”
“I still say he’s a spy.”
“He certainly can’t go back now, after bad-mouthing Putin.”
“If that’s how he feels he’d probably be better off swimming to the USA instead of Japan.”
“He should probably wait until he knows he isn’t going back before shooting his mouth off about Russia.”
“An assassin ought to be here shortly for this guy.”
“You can’t defect to Japan from a Japanese territory.”

The last comment and many like it have touched on the added complexity to Nokard’s case. The government of Japan still considers Kunashir to be its territory, which means that in their official eyes Nokard swam from Japan to Japan. If they were to grant him refugee status, it would have to be done in a way that doesn’t officially recognize Kunashir as a part of Russia.

The territorial dispute has been ongoing since the end of World War II, and shows no signs of ending soon. But perhaps our newest marathon swimmer will provide an impetus to get back to the negotiation table sometime soon.

Source: Kyodo, Hachima Kiko,
Top image: Pakutaso
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!