Chris Swims the Molokai Channel, 2010

It Seems a bit weird that 3 months before my 53rd birthday, I should be embarking on the biggest athletic challenge of my life.  And as I write this, 3 weeks after the swim, whilst very happy to notch up a successful crossing, the finishing time and how it ranks, is still more like a dream than reality.  2010 was to be our second visit to Hawaii. Back in March 2009, we had a very enjoyable two weeks in Maui, each doing 2 channel crossing (including Penny’s record breaking Alenuihaha swim in very rough conditions).

 

Even before flying home from that trip, we were already tossing around ideas for a return visit.  Whilst getting slower with age, my endurance is as good as it has ever been.  But more importantly, as I continue to notch up long distance swims, I have found that my self confidence (ie my belief in myself that I think I have a reasonable chance of completing the swim – whatever ‘the swim’ may be).

 

A year ago, I thought the Kaiwi (pronounced Kie-vee) channel, better known as the Molokai channel, was beyond me.  It is 26.4 miles (42klm) of open ocean separating the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai & Oahu.  It is recognized as one of the toughest “doable’ marathon swims on the planet.  For some interesting background reading on the Kaiwi & other Hawaii ‘Channels’, go to the ‘Maui Channel Swim’ Website & click on the link to the Hana Hou (Hawaiian Airlines Magazine) article.  In the article, our good friend Forrest Nelson from LA describes the Kaiwi this way.

“This is  by far the most challenging channel I  have ever been in. My analogy is that the English Channel is a river between two huge land masses. Yes, there are strong currents and the threat of hypothermia. But here, you’re in the middle of the frigging Pacific between two tiny dots”.

 

The first serious attempt to swim the Kaiwi, was mounted in early 1961 by Olympic Gold medalist & world record holder, Greta Andersen.  She made two really valiant, but unsuccessful attempts, each time getting out at around the 17 hour mark.

 

Amongst her support crew, was an accomplished local swimmer by the name of Keo Nakama.  He must have learned some valuable lessons from Greta’s attempts, as later in 1961, he made the first successful crossing, finishing in Haunama Bay, Oahu, before a large crowd of well wishers.

 

Since Keo’s triumph, only 11 other people have successfully swum the Kaiwi Channel.  All of them were Hawaii residents except for Forrest Nelson (LA, California).  And all successful crossings have been made from Molokai to Oahu, except for Forrest and the great Harry Huffaker who have both swum the Kaiwi in both directions.  The times taken by successful swimmers have generally been relatively slow (15 to 16 hours is about average), reflecting the difficult conditions & strong & unpredictable currents.

 

The early mark of around 13 ½ hours was set by Huffaker in 1967.  Jon Ezer bettered this in 1974 with a time of around 13 hrs 20 mins.  Finishing times are not officially recorded anywhere & these times were advised to me by Harry & Jon’s brother, Scott.

 

Despite the obvious difficulty of the Kaiwi, I decided to give it a shot.  In Manhattan 2009, I handled the cold water better than in any previous swim.  And in September that year, I felt fresh & in good shape at the end of my Catalina crossing,  My ‘self imposed’ limits were being expanded & I thought ‘maybe I can do this thing’ (as compared to taking an easier option & tackling one of the shorter channels in the Maui Archipelago).  To do so though, I would need to be in the water & stroking for up to 5 hours longer than in any swim I had done previously.

 

One of the things Penny & I love most about open water swimming is the fantastic people we continue to meet & build friendships with.  In particular, the people doing, or aspiring to do solo challenges are often modest, and most are willing to share their experiences with others to help them achieve their goals.  Many people have helped us (and continue to do so) and Hawaii Channel Swimmers are no exception.

 

Mike Spalding, Bill Goding, Scott Ezer, Forrest Nelson and Harry Huffaker all gave me useful advice in the lead up to my swim.  One of my main questions about Kaiwi concerned the notoriously strong currents, which had scuttled many attempts.

 

One thing which worried me a little, was that people seemed to have differing views on how to tackle the swim.  Mike Spalding (Hawaiian Swimming Hall of Fame Inductee) had this to say.

“The tide upon arrival is critical. You need to arrive on a slack tide or transitioning to rising. If you come in on a dropping tide, you will be bucking a strong current. A dropping tide dumps water out of Waikiki and pushes offshore at the coast where you would finish”.

 

Bill Goding, a great swimmer, based on Oahu, had slightly different ideas.

“My point is to finish when the tide is going to high and not low. Whether that’s the beginning of the high tide or near the end. As you get really close to the finish, the current will be strongest as it hits Oahu”.

 

And Scott Ezer told me this of Jon’s 1974 Kaiwi channel swim.

“He basically swam in place for almost one tide cycle (6 hours) while waiting for the currents to shift. In fact, he was pushed offshore quite a ways, because he could not swim faster than the current was pushing him. I can remember him taking off like he was catapulted forward when the currents finally changed. It was an amazing thing to witness”.

These differing views and experiences showed that the Kaiwi was still very much a pioneering swim with no tried and tested formula for a successful crossing.  Since Mike and Bill had both said that finishing on a rising tide was essential, I decided to take Mike’s advice as he was the most specific.  I also decided to use Laau Point (SW tip of Molokai) as my starting location as every successful crossing in that direction had gone from there (except for Forrest and Bill, who chose a big sandy beach halfway between Laau and Ilio Points, simply because it offered and easier start).

Penny and I chose the month of April to swim.  Our Hawaii based advisors said it was best not to go earlier in the year due to the big swells coming from the north.  They also said that September/October were the best months, but that didn’t suit our work commitments.

And finally, I asked James Dickson of Maui to be my pilot, as local experienced channel swimmers said he was the best (and we had worked with Jim on our 2009 channel swims).

Those reading this who haven’t mounted a major channel attempt, are maybe starting to realize some of the research and preparation which we believe is necessary in order to increase your odds of a successful swim.

We also studied local weather conditions so as to get an idea of what we be swimming in.  The ‘wind guru’ website was really helpful.  Also ‘storm surfing’ and data from the ‘NOAA’ buoys.  A few days before our swim, Jeff Kozlovich asked Rick Shema (weatherguy.com) to help us and Rick gave us more accurate information about conditions than we could get from the other websites. So, based on his recommendation we chose Saturday April 24 as our swim date.  Coincidentally, this was 40 years to the day after Harry Huffaker’s pioneering Alenuihaha crossing.

We started assembling our crews (Penny was also planning a crossing far more ambitious than mine), largely from Forrest Nelson’s contacts.  Forrest himself was a key person on Penny’s team.  Bill and Jeff (both professional lifeguards and highly accomplished swimmers and paddlers) rounded out Penny’s swim crew.  Jeff also helped with several other aspects of the swim including enlisting Quinn Carver (an accomplished and fast channel swimmer) to crew for me.  Rounding out my crew was Cody Vares, who would Kayak for me, deckhand for Jim and assist Quinn, as required.

Having selected the swim date, I looked at the tides for Haunama Bay (which was close to where I hoped to land).  Low tide was 6.54 pm, pretty much right on sunset.  To determine my start time, I simply deducted 15 hours, hence 4.00 am.  If the swim took longer, I would still finish in the early part of the flood tide.  I didn’t have any tidal data for the Laau Point area, so I didn’t know what the tidal situation would be like at the start.

Based on recommendations, Quinn and I flew across to Molokai and booked a hotel so as to be semi rested at the start (as opposed to pounding into a headwind on a boat trip to the start).  The short flight between the islands was really good as the pilot agreed to take a detour and track from Sandy Beach (Oahu) to Laau Point, which was the course I hoped to take in reverse.  It helped me to visualize the crossing, and of course, when I saw Laau Point in the distance, I thought, ‘Wow, that is a long way!’.

We arranged to meet up with Jim and Cody at Kaunakakai Pier at 1.00 am as they had motored across from Lahaina, Maui.  They were there as arranged and we had a smooth 2 ½ hour trip to the start.  So I could rest (not sleep) and prepare in relative comfort.  We arrive at Laau Point at 3.45 am, and given forward notice from Jim, had applied 2 layers of sunscreen and then grease.  Jim put the engine in neutral, announcing we were in 4 fathoms of water.  (I will use statute (land) miles and feet to express distances from here on).  After ‘taking 5’ (I didn’t want to start early),

Cody launched the kayak and I was just about to jump in when I asked Jim, ‘How far to shore?’  ‘1000 yards’, he replied. ‘Bugger that’, I said, not wanting to swim so far, in order to even begin a 26 mile swim.  So I asked him to move closer to shore.  It was pitch dark but he motored to 500 yards from the beach.  Still further than I wanted for a warm up, so Cody suggested I lie on the front of the kayak and he would paddle me in.  Good Idea.  But as soon as I shimmied onto the craft, it tipped and we both went for a dip.  Against his better judgment, Jim inched closer to shore and I dove in the normal way, 256 yards out and was escorted to shore by Cody.  Since it was dark and I was not familiar with the shore, Cody carried ‘reef sandals’ for me to guard against cuts and injuries from marine creatures.  But it was flat calm and the exit and entry was uneventful.

I started swimming at 4.04 am.  As soon as I started stroking, I had problems with my goggles and had to change twice.  The first pair were flooding and the second pair continually fogged.  I was really frustrated and annoyed with myself for such basic problems.  But the third (tinted) pair were fine and I felt better.  At this time, the half hour mark, it suddenly became very choppy.  I had seen this rough patch from the air 12 hours before.  I guessed then that this was the effect if wind against tide.  But I didn’t find out the precise cause until after the swim.

Once we left the Lee of the land, we had maybe a 5-10 knot NNE breeze.  But there was also a fair current flowing from Maui, wrapping around Laau Point and pushing me north.  It created a really annoying 1-2 foot chop which I had to punch into for almost 1 ½ hours.  Some swimmers talk of a ‘black period’ that they go through well into a really long, tough swim.  But I had mine in the first 2 hours, partly due to the goggles and then the chop.  My left shoulder was only 85% after a niggling injury.  And I had many negative thoughts and self doubt during this period.  But 2 hours into the swim, right on dawn, the chop disappeared as quickly as it began and was replaced by a NE swell and NE breeze.  It came from my right quarter and was giving me a little push along, just as Mike Spalding said it would.

I started to feel really good and this mindset lasted for the next 8 hours.  People always ask what you think about in a long swim?  I regularly think about my stroke and staying relaxed.  I think about my pace and particularly with this swim, metering out energy consumption to ensure I had plenty in the tank in order to fight a head current near the finish.  I also regularly assess how the working parts are going (shoulders, neck, arms and legs).  Lots of trivial thoughts come and go.  Overall after settling in, I seem to get into a zone and time seems to go really quickly.

I measure time by the half hourly drink stops.  The crew did a great job with these.  Jim bought the boat in close.  Quinn tossed the bottle (attached to a rope).  I removed the lid, gulped the contents (300 ml carbo drink – mainly Endura) dropped the bottle and Quinn pulled it back into the boat.  Every hour, I had an Endura carbo gel in addition to the drink in order to top up the energy reserves.  That was the only sustenance I took or needed during the swim.  Penny and I generally don’t eat any solids during a long swim.  My goal was to keep stops short and we did well, keeping most of them to 20-30 seconds.

The other thing people always ask about is marine predators and do they concern me?  Well I’m normal, and yes I do think about them, particularly as the Kaiwi is meant to be a hang out for Great White and Tiger Sharks.  But ‘Shark Shield’ an Australian company, has been loaning us their repellent units for a couple of years now.  They are proven to repel (but not harm) sharks which come within range of the signal they emit.  Even if there are no sharks around (how is a swimmer meant to know if there is or isn’t), they give great piece of mind and one thing less to worry about.  The battery life of the unit is only 6 hours, so I used it (deployed from Cody’s kayak) for the first 2 ½ hours of the swim.  And the plan was to redeploy it just before sunset until I finished.  As it turned out, I didn’t need to use it again.

I saw virtually no marine life during the swim.  Maybe a handful of bait type fish and that was it.  I copped on sharp jellyfish sting, I think around the 5 hour mark.  It got me on the face, knee and foot as I passed over it.  But it was minor and I had all but forgotten it after a ½ hour.

I received a really good lift at the 5 hour drink stop, when I noticed land ahead of us (I try not to peek).  ‘Oahu?’  I asked Jim, who as always was looking out the cabin window with his gaze fixed on me.  He just nodded and smiled.  I had no idea how far ahead it was, and didn’t want to ask, but for the first time, I really started to feel confident that I could make it.

And it got better at the next stop when all the crew announced in unison that we were 0.3 mile short of half way.  I asked how long I had been swimming for and the answer came back 5 hours and 40 minutes.

Being a ‘figures’ guy, I started doing the sums as I recommenced stroking.  Say 5 hours 50 minutes for 13.2 miles.  That was 22 kilometers in under 6 hours.  Wow!  I was swimming at an easy, relaxed pace trying to conserve energy and keep my left shoulder in good shape.  So I knew I had received some really good assistance from the current.  Now that the swim is done and I have Quinn’s log, I can report that I covered around 7.5 miles in the first 3 hours of the swim (even with the darkness, goggles problem and chop).  After that, my pace dropped to around 2 miles per hour until the 10 hour mark.

I also calculated my approximate finish time given what I had completed, at 13 to 13 ½ hours.  I felt good and was confident that I could negative split the swim (that is often a benchmark I set for myself).

From these mental calculations, I also figured that I would be swimming towards a head current as I approached Oahu, as at this rate, I would be landing 1-2 hours before the low (slack) tide.  I wondered what I should do.  But I was already swimming conservatively, at a pace I thought I could sustain for 15 hours or more, so I felt my best and probably only option was to just hold the same pace.

I knew what the record times for the swim were, but I was certain that these currents would kick in a few miles from shore.  With 6 miles to go and 9 ½ hours into the swim, the difficulty that I expected from the Kaiwi arrived.  But it came in the form of a headwind.

Prior to this the wind, which was now around 12-15 knots was consistently coming from the NE.  But suddenly, it had backed around to coming from the north.  Whereas it has been coming from the starboard quarter, it was now on the starboard bow, with maybe a 2 foot chop.

The boat was slightly ahead and downwind of me (to my left) and I asked Jim to hold station fairly close to me, thinking this would minimize the effect of the current coming from my port bow.  Jim did a great job with this.  But little did I realize at that point that if there was any current, it was minimal.

I was really determined after 10 hours to finish this swim so I picked up the pace.  Prior to this, my stroke rate was about 64 per minute.  Now, I picked it up to 66 and was putting more effort into the pull through.  I was starting to hurt but could see the hills of Oahu as I breathed.

The crew gave me regular updates on the distance to go.  My pace had dropped to 1.6 miles per hour as a result of the headwind.  After 11 hours, with around 3 miles to go, I could see land when I breathed both left and right.  And at 2 miles to go, I knew the current wouldn’t beat me as I was still making good, but slow progress.

I knew I was somewhere close to record pace due to the half hourly drink stops, but I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, precisely how I was tracking.

I declined the last drink stop, which was maybe 0.6 mile from shore.  I could see people on the beach (which I guessed was Sandy Beach – my planned destination).  And I could see cars on the coastal road.

I gave it 90% plus at this point and my shoulder was starting to give me trouble.

Cody joined me in the water on the kayak with 2 miles to go and having him on my right and the boat on my left allowed me to simply concentrate on making headway, instead of the direction I was heading.

At maybe 600 yards from shore I could see the bottom.  Jim had now stopped the boat leaving Cody to do the final escort.  300 yards out, Cody stopped me and said something like ‘Hey man, the lifeguards are announcing your arrival on the P.A.  They just called out your name.  ‘Chris Palfrey from Australia has just swum from Molokai’.

‘Wow’, I said, not knowing how they had got my name.  My emotions (normally always in check) were flooding to the surface now.  A few surfers cleared a path for me and were clapping as I went by.

There wasn’t much of a shorebreak but I was knocked over twice as I tried to stand, so I half crawled, half walked to dry sand.  Having done so, I waved to the boat and shook Cody’s hand.

The first 2 hours of the swim were not fun.  The next 8 hours just flew by.  And those last 3 hours were just a pure slog.  (I remember thinking that the 2010 Rottnest Solo Swim was a picnic compared to Molokai), But coming into and standing on the beach was surreal.

There were 50 or more people on the beach when I stood up.  I think everyone was standing and clapping and a few cheered.  As I looked past the boat to Molokai, way off in the distance, someone tapped me on the shoulder and handed me an ice cold Corona.  I said thanks but no.  But he insisted so I took a sip.  It actually tasted really good.

Quite a few people of both sexes came up to shake my hand, or ask questions, or ask if they could have their photo taken with me.  That’s never happened to me in my entire life and I must admit my 15 minutes of fame felt pretty good.

It was hard work getting out through the waves and Cody towed me for most of the way.  But back on the boat, I was in pretty good shape, all things considered, I was able to change into dry clothes without difficulty.

Whilst I had a reasonable idea of my time I was still a bit shocked when Quinn showed me the official time.  12 hours 53 minutes 15.7 seconds.  I had broken the record which has stood for 36 years by over 20 minutes.

And how, you may ask, does an ageing (and definitely not fast) person like myself manage to do this?  Well I was very pleased with my swim.  But I don’t for a minute pretend that I am any better than any of the other 12 successful swimmers, quite the contrary with the majority of them,

My end result was the result of luck, pure and simple.  I received assistance from the currents whereas most other people have had to fight opposing currents for at least part of their crossing.  It wasn’t the result of a special strategy.  Just guess work based on advice I received.  Remember that I only found out at the half way point that my calculations were out and I was ahead of my planned schedule.

Jim said that as we pass Haunama Bay en route to Waikiki Yacht Club, a strong current (from west to east) was starting to develop. Who knows what would have happened if I left Laau Point an hour later and got caught in that.

Conversely, what would have happened if I started swimming an hour earlier?  Would I have received even more assistance from that early favourable current? 

Again, I don’t know the answer.  Maybe some local swimmers will do some research and times will plummet.  I hope they do.  And in so doing, my experience can help others.

One thing I do know however, is that no major achievement (athletic or otherwise) can occur unless the person pushes the boundaries and goes outside his/her comfort zone.  In open water swimming, this holds true for new comers to the sport who might be planning their first 3 mile (5 k) swim through to mounting an attempt to swim the English Channel.  Train hard and smart and you may be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Of course, the swimmer CANNOT achieve success without a good support crew, and mine was excellent.

Jim did a great job in piloting me to Oahu.  He knows these waters very well and played a very big role in the end result.  Quinn did an awesome job in feeding and attending to my needs.  Even down to anticipating what I might need and doing it without being asked.  And when he wasn’t attending to my needs, he was taking photos and video footage, with great results.  And Cody toiled hard throughout the day in a variety of roles.

For the record:

                      First crossing 1961.

                      Including myself, 13 people have swum the Kaiwi (nine men & four women).

                      11 are Hawaii residents, Forrest Nelson from Mainland USA.  I am the first Non-American to complete the crossing.

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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.