Story: Nehua, Katerina

Page 1 - Nehua, Katerina

Nehua, Katerina

1903–1948

Nga Puhi; endurance swimmer

This biography was written by Paul Goldstone and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Katerina Waetford was born at Whakapara in the Bay of Islands on 6 February 1903, the daughter of Mereana Teruhi Nehua and Hare Paerau Waetford, a bushman. She was of Nga Puhi descent, and a descendant of Eru Patuone of Ngati Hao of Hokianga, elder brother of Tamati Waka Nene. She was brought up by her grandmother. After attending Whakapara School she helped at home. On 11 April 1923, in Whakapara, Katerina married a local farmer, Joseph Darley, who had divorced his first wife in 1921. Joseph had been born in England and after their marriage worked as a miner. In about 1927 the couple moved to Sydney with their young family. Joseph got a job as a motor mechanic, but was later laid off; after he had been unemployed for nine months, the family was destitute.

During the depression years endurance swimming contests attracted immense public interest, with substantial prize money offered. The aim of the contests was to stay afloat without touching the bottom (or side of the pool). Katerina had taken part in a contest in the Bay of Islands, staying in the water for 25 hours. In January 1931 she entered an endurance competition in the tidal baths at Manly, hoping to win the first prize of £300. The event attracted 60 contestants, including New Zealand endurance swimmer Lily Copplestone, and the famous English Channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. Katerina entered under her mother’s maiden name, Nehua. Leaving her nine-week-old baby and three young children with a neighbour, she and Joseph spent the last of their money on a tram ride to the contest to save her energy. As she had not eaten for some time, Katerina was given chocolate and beef tea by concerned race officials. Unable to afford the special grease used to protect endurance swimmers against the cold, she was coated with a mixture of olive oil and axle grease.

At 9.44 p.m. Katerina Nehua entered the water; she was heard to say that she was determined to ‘stay in the water until they carry me out’. The contestants talked about fashion and films and read newspapers to pass the time: their supporters provided them with nourishment. Nehua and Mercedes Gleitze were the only two to last beyond Gleitze’s record of 43 hours, which she had set in Auckland earlier in the month. After 47 hours 52½ minutes afloat in a cold and choppy sea, Nehua showed signs of distress and was forced to leave the water. Mercedes Gleitze endured for another 22½ minutes to win the event. Impressed by Nehua’s courage, she added £100 of her prize money to the £100 Katerina received as runner-up.

In March 1931 Nehua entered an open sea endurance competition at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney. Later in the month at the city’s Balmoral Baths she broke the world record with a swim of 72 hours 9 minutes. Soon after the event, in a radio broadcast to Australian and New Zealand audiences, she said, ‘a person requires courage and plenty of it, to stay in the water over night. Therefore my advice to young people who might like to try endurance swimming is don’t'. However, she went on to break her world record in May 1931 at Brisbane’s municipal baths, swimming for 72 hours 21 minutes. In March 1932 she attempted to swim for 100 hours, but was forced to leave the water after 60. It is not known whether she competed again.

Katerina Nehua was an active figure in the New Zealand community in Sydney: she took part in the Waitangi Day commemorations in 1940 and was prominent in the Polynesian Club. She visited New Zealand in 1931 and again during the Second World War. She died, in her mid 40s, of a heart attack, in Sydney on 15 June 1948, survived by five daughters. Her husband had predeceased her, but it is not known when or where he died.