There is normally no shortage of action on which to base the reports of our major swims. But Hawaii was action aplenty, even before we arrived. Living in the tropics of northern Australia, we face the annual threat of cyclones along our coastline. We had already had one this year, which didn’t deliver destructive winds, but did help to create monsoon like conditions to dump a metre of rain onto our city in the month of February. A small town just north of us got double that. And then, two days before we were meant to fly to Hawaii, tropical cyclone Hamish (category 5) developed to the north of Cairns and started heading our way. Fearing flights would be cancelled and we would miss the international connection, we flew to Brisbane a day earlier than scheduled. This created a bit of last minute panic, but better that than having to batten down at home and miss our flights altogether.
The next morning we flew from Brisbane to Sydney, then onto Honolulu, before catching the fourth and final flight, from Oahu to Maui. Jet lagged as usual, we arrived in Maui early afternoon on Sunday, March 8, 2009. We picked up the hire car and drove to our condo in South Kihei. Since our room wasn’t ready, and the beach was only a couple of minutes walk away, we headed down for a loosen up swim. The water was great. Crystal clear, sandy bottom (except for the lava outcrops which bordered the beach to the north and south, with coral fringing these outcrops), 23 degrees C and even a few fish, turtles and rays.
We thought we should touch base with our skipper (Jim Dickson) as soon as possible, as he was just starting to learn how to email, so communications between us had been scant. I phoned him late Sunday afternoon, and he said straight out that the weather was looking good, and we should swim as soon as possible. So we arranged to meet first thing Monday morning to discuss the final arrangements. That was totally unexpected. We were tired, hadn’t done our final shopping, and we thought the tides were wrong (we were in the middle of the spring tides, with the smaller neaps not due for another week). It was difficult sleeping that night with so much going through our heads.
Next morning in our meeting, Jim said the forecast for Tuesday was for light north east winds. And he suggested I swim first. Penny said “Hang on, mine is the tougher swim, in more exposed waters, so if the weather is good, I should go.”
Fair enough, and Jim agreed that a light cross wind would still be suitable for Penny’s swim, so the decision was made. To say Penny’s swim would be tough, is a huge understatement. Of the eight channels in Hawaii which are considered swimable, the Alenuihaha, between the big island of Hawaii and Maui, is by far the most challenging. As the seagull flies, the straight line distance between the two islands is around 30 miles (a little over 50 klms). And it is totally unprotected north Pacific ocean, with the closest land mass being the California coast, some 4,000 klms away. The only previous successful crossing of the Alenuihaha was by Harry Huffaker (all American, and national record holder. Ie. No slouch) on April 24, 1970 (39 years ago).
It was 9.30am on Monday when we bid Jim farewell. His boat was ready to go. He just had to pick up a few supplies, and get his crew. It was 10 hours steaming from the boat ramp just south of us to Kawaihae harbour on the big island, so he wanted to cast off no later than 11.00am.
It was full on for us, as well. We booked a shuttle flight to Kona, on the big island (It was agreed that we should fly across rather than get more fatigued on the boat trip). And then we went to the supermarket to buy food and drinks for the trip. We managed to lie down for half an hour before heading to the airport, but were still oh so tired. The 40 minute flight to Kona, on the small, six seater plane was fun. Great views, the channel below looked almost calm, and we could see several humpback whales as we started to descend. Not so much fun was the $US100 taxi ride from Kona to Kawaihae harbour, along the Queen K highway (used for the bike leg of the Ironman Triathlon). Not that we had any choice in the matter.
We finished our feed of pasta at a local restaurant, just as the boat was nearing the harbour. Jim and Cody Vares (kayaker/deckhand) were tired and we had some time to kill, so we anchored in the harbour for a few hours and tried to sleep. Since this crossing is unknown territory in so many ways, we didn’t know how long it would take Penny to swim. Harry Huffaker was a great swimmer and it had taken him over 20 hours (he started swimming from the big island at midnight and didn’t reach Maui until after 8.00pm. Ouch!!). We guestimated it might take Penny around 16 hours, so we planned to start at 3.00am and hoped to finish before dark (around 7.00pm).
So we upped anchor at 1.30am and motored up to Upolu Point (the northernmost tip of the big island) for the start. Whilst on our way, the breeze and seas steadily increased, a sign of things to come. There was wind and whitecaps aplenty when we started at 3.07am.
I think everyone was a bit apprehensive but we just got about our respective jobs. Personally, I would have been terrified if it was me jumping into such rough conditions, in total darkness, for such a huge swim. But there was no way I was going to say anything. It was Penny’s swim, and hence her call as to whether she would swim or not. Cody is 23, fit, and races kayaks, and he looked anything but comfortable, as he launched the sea kayak off the duckboard. He said later to Jim, “I can’t believe you didn’t call off the swim!” For Jim’s part, he has been fishing these waters for decades in all sorts of weather. And he has guided many of these swims (he told us at the finish that this was the roughest conditions he’d had for a successful swim). He said nothing in the lead up, but he told us later that he was observing Penny, and since she appeared so calm and in control, and had a great track record, he thought we should give it a go. Jim was also hoping that the wind would ease off around sunrise, to make swimming conditions easier.
For her part, Penny was just focused on getting ready and mentally prepared, although she was waiting for someone to call off the swim. When no one said anything, she jumped and was on her way.
Everything was challenging for those first 3 1/2 hours of darkness. Feeding every half hour was difficult, and a couple of times, Cody was hurled down big waves, anything up to 75 metres away from Penny, and then had to struggle to get back on station. We could see them both very clearly from the boat due to their light sticks, so safety wasn’t overly compromised. The half hourly feeds were tricky due to the boat rolling so much, and pushing waves back at Cody on the kayak. In the first two hours, Penny covered four miles (around 6.5 klm). This is very slow for Penny. Obviously, the conditions, and the need to take extra care, slowed us down, but I think there must have also been a bit of a head current.
Cody got out after sunrise as it was too hard trying to stay alongside Penny. He has paddled a number of the Hawaii channels, and was hoping to add this one to his list. But it was just too difficult. Soon after sunrise, at one of the drink stops, Cody asked Penny would you like a drink? (as if to say, have you had enough yet?). Penny replied with a smile, “I’ll get out when the whales get out!”
The wind didn’t die off as anticipated. A “Small Craft Advisory” was issued on the 9.00am marine forecast for the waters we were swimming in, with winds of 25-34 knots throughout the day. And the wind was most certainly blowing true to forecast. But by this time, we were half way across, and Penny, although sore in the shoulders, was in good shape and holding close to her trademark 80 strokes per minute, so there was no thought of pulling her out.
We were heading in a north westerly direction towards the eastern end of Maui, originally hoping to make landfall in the Kaupo area, which would make the swim 31 (statute) miles (52 klm). At around sunrise, we must have picked up a good current (it seemed that the spring tides may be our friend, after all) which allowed Penny to average over 3 miles per hour, but the north easterly cross wind was pushing us sideways and progressively adding to the swim distance. We were in a quandary on the boat. A couple of times when we tried to head for the closest point of land on Maui, the power of the wind and waves stopped Penny dead. She made almost no progress and would be unable to complete the crossing. Jim saw no alternative (and I agreed) than to head slightly downwind towards south Maui, and to get a little assistance from the conditions. But whilst Penny was making good ground, it didn’t appear that way to her, at water level. She could clearly see the Maui coastline at the 6 hour mark. But four hours later, it appeared to her that she was no closer (because although moving forward, she had to swim a lot further, to the southern end of Maui).
The waves, going across the channel were huge. The average wave was around 12 feet (4 metres) and there were plenty around 20 feet (6 metres) high. There were many times when we lost sight of Penny for 10 seconds or so when we were in a different trough to her. And Penny was getting hurled around by the crests of the bigger waves, but to her great credit she kept powering along. Some waves actually broke on top of her. And a few times, she was flipped 360 degrees whilst swimming.
At the 11 hour mark, Jim made the decision that we would attempt to land near the light at La Perouse Bay, some 17-18 miles south west along the coast from our planned landing point. At that feeding, Penny (clearly suffering now in the conditions) said she was hoping to swim to Maui, and not around it. I was worried because we were being pushed so far and fast sideways, that we might miss land altogether. Penny was really sore now and cold. Water temperature was not bad, at 73 F (22.5 C), but the wind chill would have made it a lot colder for her.
Finally, as were got closer to our destination, the wind started to subside. The sea was still turbulent however, as the currents from the north and the east converged, to give a washing machine effect. Even for that last hour of the swim, Penny was still being pummelled. Her stroke rate had dropped to 75, still very respectable. She finally finished her crossing at 5.58 pm, 100 metres east of the La Perouse light. Total time for the crossing was 14 hours 51 minutes. The distance covered was a fraction under 43 statute miles (around 70 klms).
The map above, shows the planned rum line for the swim, on the right, and Penny’s actual course, on the left. It was truly an achievement of epic proportions.
We were exhausted at the finish. When we got home, we were too tired to go to a restaurant, so we had a bowl of breakfast cereal and went to bed. Penny’s ribcage, lungs, shoulders and most other parts of her body were incredibly sore. The next morning, her nose was running like a tap with blood stained mucus. For those interested in this kind of thing, Penny’s weight the day before the swim was 127 pounds, and exactly the same two hours after she finished. Many thanks to Jim and Cody (you guys did a great job on the boat, except perhaps for predicting the weather).
Special thanks also to Forrest Nelson, who first sewed the seed for our Hawaii channel swims. Forrest from LA gave us lots of great information and contacts. Also thanks to Dan and Brooke from NYC (who although not directly involved in this swim, support us in so many ways), our sponsors Gu and Shark Shield (we used your respective products).
This report has an unusual and dramatic footnote.
Mike Spalding lives on Maui and is an inductee of the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame. He has swum seven of the channels. The only swimable crossing he has yet to conquer is the Alenuihaha. Whilst 61 years old, he has the energy of someone a third that age. He has been trying for ages to get really good weather to attempt this crossing, and was naturally interested in Penny’s attempt. I lost count of the number of times he phoned Jim during our crossing, to check on her progress.
The day after our crossing, Mike invited us to his house where we had dinner with his wife Jill, and family. He was keener than ever now to swim, and had booked Jim’s boat for the following Monday/Tuesday. He had a great crew assembled, including Linda Kaiser (7 channel crossings), and daughter Nicole and Bubba (who would take turns kayaking). He was soooo lucky with the weather, calm seas, and light/variable winds forecast for virtually the whole crossing, which he estimated would take 20 or so hours.
He started at 3.20pm on Monday, and must have immediately picked up that same favourable current which Penny got. But unlike Penny, he had perfect weather and was able to stay on the rum line, and was making 2.5 miles per hour toward East Maui. At the four hour mark, he had covered 10 miles, around 1/3 the way across the channel. He was feeling pretty good, had Bubba close by him on the kayak and had settled in to night swimming. The only annoyance was a few cuttlefish which bumped into him. At 8.03pm, he had just had a drink, when he felt a sharp pain on the sternum area of his chest. He stopped and let out a few choice words. It felt like a bite. Bubba knew by the tone of his voice something was wrong. He was only 1 metre away from Jim, but saw nothing in the water. No more than a few seconds later, Mike felt another bite, this time on his leg. He ran his hand down the back of his calf, and felt the divot, where skin and flesh had been torn away.
His swim was over. Bubba helped him into the kayak. He was bleeding profusely. A minute later, he was on the escort boat, wrapped in towels with his leg elevated and the crew trying to stop the bleeding. He got to hospital sometime around midnight. We first heard about the drama from Jim at 7.00am next morning, and didn’t believe him at first. Mike needed 10 days in hospital and a skin graft to fix the wound, 3 inches wide and 1 ¼ inches deep. A month later and he has not yet been given the all clear to resume swimming.
We visited Mike a couple of times and he was and still is, incredibly upbeat and positive, and talking about a number of swim crossings, including another shot at the Alenuihaha.
The culprit for the attack was a small but nasty creature, the cookie cutter shark. It bites into its prey with razor sharp teeth, then twists its body to tear the flesh away. It lives in very deep water and only comes to the surface at night, to feed. That may explain why Mike is the only known “live” human to be attacked by this type of shark. Who after all swims in the dark, in water 1000 metres deep?
Well I guess, Penny for one, and only 6 days earlier, at that. Maybe the rough water kept the cookie cutters away from the surface, or the rough conditions masked the splashing which could alert them to her presence. But at the end of the day, Mike was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And very unlucky. He knows that, and that is why he has no hesitation in returning to the water.
Penny and I know that too. Which is part of the reason why, 3 days later, we swam together, the Au’au channel from Maui to Lanai. Neither we, nor Mike, want his bad luck to deter others from open water. As the Hawaii channel swimmers say, being out there in the ocean, you are totally enveloped in mother nature. It’s a very special place to be.
Hawaii Channel Swims, Part II
Penny has completed her huge swim across the Alenuihaha Channel From the big island of Hawaii to Maui. And now it is my turn to get wet. But first, a bit on the lead up. We arrived in Maui on March 8th, 2009 and we had no idea that Penny would swim so soon after we arrived. The neap tides were around March 18th. Linda Kaiser from Oahu
(Hawaii swimming hall of Fame inductee) had warned us about the strong currents close to the islands. So we thought one of us would swim around March 12-13th and the other around the 16-18th, subject to weather, of course.
Getting Penny’s swim out of the way so soon after we arrived was totally unexpected, but also opened the possibility of us actually having some free time for a holiday. Wouldn’t that be nice.
I have been on the boat as Penny’s handler/crew for a few swims and I think I suffer as much as her. I don’t sleep too well leading up to a big swim. And many hours flying and in airport lounges doesn’t help. In the 72 hours leading up to when Penny finished her historic swim at the La Perouse light, I figure we only got eight hours sleep. And sure enough, in my run down state, I started feeling the beginnings of a head cold as we motored to the start of Penny’s swim. I have been her partner/husband for 14 years and she is still able to amaze me with her strength, endurance and mental toughness.
Back to my crossing. I wanted to use Hawaii to get a long crossing under my belt (albeit in warmer water) in preparation for my Manhattan and Catalina swims later this year. The plan was to start from Maui, swim across to Molokai and then continue down to Lanai, a total distance of around 33 klms. The prevailing NE tradewind would be a cross wind for the first leg, and a tailwind for the second. Perfect. And the other reason for choosing a multiple crossing (apart from that it was the distance I was looking for) was that only one person has ever done a multiple crossing in the Hawaii channels. That was Harry Huffaker back in August 1989. We also found out from Carl Kawachi, who ratifies and records all successful crossings, that only one person has ever done a two way crossing of any of the Hawaii channels.
I thought my plan sounded good in theory. The trouble is mother nature has the final say. We needed a few days break after Penny’s swim (on Tuesday) as we were both exhausted. Sure enough, Wednesday and Thursday were glorious. Having caught up on sleep, I told Jim Dickson (our skipper) that I was good to go on Friday. He phoned at 4.50am, just as we were walking out the door, car packed and sunscreen applied. The wind had shifted to northerly, which was bad for a Maui to Molokai swim. Oh well, since we were awake, we thought we would drive up Mt. Haleakala and see the sunrise. Atop the mount, it was blowing a gale, 30 degrees F, ice covered the ground making walking difficult, and visibility was down to 100m., an interesting outing.
We would try for Saturday. This time, Jim phoned on Friday night to advise the wind was unsuitable. So after postponing my swim date twice, I/we were getting a little “toey”. The windguru website showed conditions for Sunday a bit blowy at first, but moderating during the course of the day. But Jim didn’t think it was suitable for my planned crossing and suggested we postpone until Wednesday (a local channel swimmer, Mike Spalding, had a swim booked for Monday/Tuesday). But that would only leave us a few days to do my swim before flying home, and would also restrict our tourist type activities. So we decided to go for my swim regardless on Sunday March 15th.
After getting up at 4.00am (again!), we drove round to Lahaina to meet up with Jim for a 6.00am departure. The crew would be compact to say the least. Jim driving the boat, Penny handling/feeding and myself in the water. We motored along the West Maui coast in the pre dawn toward our starting point at Kapalua. At one point, we had a couple of humpback whales surface less than 50 metres from the boat (we have seen maybe a hundred of them this last week, as they come to these waters each year at this time to give birth and nurture their young). Man, it would be nice to swi with these guys. In case anyone is interested, there are strict rules in Hawaii about boats approaching whales. If any boat motors to within 100m of a whale, it is breaking the law. But if a whale surfaces near the boat, that is ok provided you don’t approach it. There are no such rules for swimmers.
After gearing up, I hit the water at 7.01am, touched the rocks at Hawea Point and was away. The first leg on my swim was across the Pailolo Channel which seperates Maui from Molokai, a straight line distance of around 8.8 miles or 15 klm. My swim course was roughly WNW and we had a southerly breeze of around 15 knots at the start, so I received a small amount of assistance, not unlike swimming to Rottnest from Cottesloe, when you swim in a westerly direction and have a (normally) SE breeze. This was true open water and the swell was a good 6 foot/2 metres. I never saw anything going across except for the deep cobalt blue void below me, although Penny said there were heaps of whales in the vicinity, the closest of which came to within a 100 metres of me. After 3 hours 45 minutes of swimming, I could see the bottom and was only a klm or so from land. We couldn’t land here as this part of the Molokai coast is fringed by very shallow coral reef. I could see the line of waves breaking between me and the shore. I would be cut to pieces attempting to cross it. But Jim advised prior to the swim that there were strong currents along the Molokai coast, which would push me from right to left (and hence shortening the crossing to Lanai.
So now we changed course down along the Molokai coast, heading in a SW direction. But the current which was meant to assist me never eventuated. We were heading 2 1/2 miles/4 klm along the coast to Puko’o harbour which provided a safe landing spot. Without any assistance from the current, I was now punching into the headwind. The breeze had now dropped to a little under10 knots (with a rain squall every so often) and had switched to SW, so I was going straight into it. After 1 hour 45 minutes of that, an old shoulder problem was starting to flare up so I decided to call it quits after touching dry land at Molokai. I had originally hoped to then swim across to Lanai, or as a plan b), to swim back to Maui. But whichever option I chose, I would still have at least another 6 to 8 hours of swimming into the wind. I thought finishing in good shape was the smarter option, rather than causing major damage to my shoulder, when we have entered to swim the Manhattan Island Marathon in only 11 weeks from now. My final swim time was 5 hours 41 minutes and I had covered 11.29 statute miles/18 klms. Whilst the Pailolo Channel is one of the shorter ones on offer in Hawaii, it is still a challenging crossing. I would rate it equal to Rottnest, in Western Australia. Despite the magnificent conditions for open water swimming in Hawaii, it is amazing how few people have swum these waters (apart from the annual Maui Channel Swim which goes from Lanai to Kaanapali, on Maui). I was only the 19th person (and the first Australian) to swim the Pailolo Channel.
Like any of our swims, if you want some more information to help plan a crossing in Hawaii, please don’t hesitate to contact us.We’re happy to pass on our list of contacts.
The Au’au Channel
(commonly referred to as the Maui Channel)
If you are reading the reports of our swims, you are probably contemplating swimming across a stretch of water somewhere. And since most of our swims are long distance, you may also be interested in the extra challenges that this entails. Races are fun, and give you the opportunity to test yourself against others.
But crossings (which you have to organize yourself) add a whole new level of challenges. You have to contact people for information. You have to organize a boat and other support equipment, crew and logistics. You will also have to do some research into the conditions you are likely to encounter, and must prevail against. And you must plan and structure your training accordingly.
These challenges and the pioneering aspects (there are stretches of water all around the world, which very few people have swum across) are what makes doing crossings, for us, so interesting and exciting.
An easy crossing to start with, is the Au’au Channel, between the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Lanai. Easy, because a fair bit is known about swimming this channel, due to the annual Maui Channel Swim. Held in August/September, this race caters mainly for relays, but also has a solo category. Heading from Lanai to Kaanapali beach (in the tourist area of West Maui), the swim is 8.8 statute miles (approx. 14.5 klm).
We chose the Au’au Channel as the second crossing for our visit to Maui. We had both completed crossings a few days prior. Penny swam the notorious Alenuihaha Channel (Big island to Maui – 43 statute miles) in punishing conditions, and I did the shorter, but still challenging Pailolo Channel from Maui to Molokai.
After these swims, we were trying to decide what other water based tourist activities we should try. Kayaking, snorkeling, diving and whale watching were all on offer. But we were both in good shape, and our boat skipper had no other commitments. So we thought “why not do another crossing?”. There were also large numbers of humpback whales in these waters (they come here each year from November to March, to give birth and nurture their young) and we were really hoping to swim with some.
We planned to swim from Kaanapali to Lanai (the opposite direction to the annual race) due to the forecast NE wind. This would give us some assistance as we would swim in a SW direction. Curiously, whilst hundreds of people have swum from Lanai to Maui, only three people (all males) have swum in the direction we were attempting, since the channel was first conquered in 1970. So there was still a pioneering aspect to this swim, and a little uncertainty as to how the currents would affect us.
Our swim day of Thursday, March 19th, 2009 came with a forecast 10-12 knot NE breeze and overcast conditions. It was the day after the neap tide (= not much current). And water temperature was 72F (22C). All perfect for swimming.
We met up with our skipper, Jim Dickson at Mala Wharf (Lahaina) at 8.00am. With him was deckhand, and our feeder, Rob Knake. Jim has piloted many crossings (including our previous swims), but Rob was a first timer, so we briefed him of our requirements on the way to the starting point.
After applying sunscreen and some grease, and taking a final drink, we jumped in at 8.30am for the 200 metre swim into shore. Kaanapali beaches are lined with big hotels and we must have been a strange sight to those strolling along the beach, or enjoying breakfast in the beachside cafes.
We started the swim over fringing coral reef, with a group of people to our left taking a surfing lesson, and others to our right (beyond the small break) about to descend on a guided scuba dive. Swimming was easy at the start, as there was only a slight swell and virtually no breeze. The high rise hotels and Puukukui (west Maui mountain) would provide a wind break for the first couple of klms. And low tide was scheduled for 10.00am so any influence from the current would be minimal for the first part of the crossing.
Like all Hawaiian waters, the Au’au channel is crystal clear. Penny and I swam together (she did a mixture of freestyle, drills, breaststroke and backstroke to stay at my slower pace) and we could easily see each other through the water, from anything up to 50 metres away.
Looking down, apart from the fringing reef hugging each coast, there was nothing but a deep cobalt blue void. There were no fish (except in amongst the coral in the shallows), no sharks (encounters in deeper waters are not common) and unfortunately, no whales to be seen. Although the guys on the boat said later that they were everywhere, and some quite close. At one point, we both recall swimming through a strange patch of upwelling water, which we can only surmise was caused by a whale swimming close by.
Unlike our other two Hawaii channel swims, we did see a lot of jellyfish on this crossing. The resulting stings were very minor, leaving us with only a few itches (although bluebottles inhabit these waters at certain times of the year).
As we passed the half way point of the crossing, the now incoming tide started to push us sideways (from left to right) and added some distance to the crossing. This is evident by our course shown on the chart. But Jim had taken this into account and planned to land us at Halepalaoa Landing, on the southern end of Lanai..
We read an interesting story about Lanai. It must be a beautiful place as Bill Gates (Microsoft) chose to get married there in 1994. The story goes, that to ensure privacy, he booked out every hotel on the island, and kept all rooms empty apart from invited guests. And then he chartered every helicopter on Maui, and paid them to stay on the ground. As we approached the beach and could clearly see the many coconut palms, it occurred to me that we had found a novel way to gate crash such a party.
The reef, as we approached the beach, was very shallow. So we slowed right down to avoid bumps and coral cuts. We completed the crossing together in 4 hours and 31 minutes, covering a straight line course of 9.98 statute miles (16 klms).
The breeze, not that there was much of it at any point in the swim, had died right out, which made for great whale watching on the trip back to Lahaina. Jim and Rob did a fine job in supporting us, and the crossing turned out to be like a very comfortable training swim (suiting us fine, as we had a few sore bits from the previous swims).
For the record, I was the fourth male and Penny, the first woman, to complete the swim from Maui to Lanai.
Hawaii is heaven for open water swimmers, and Maui is the best place to base yourself for a crossing in these waters. Even the small beach where we stayed in South Kihei, boasted clear water, coral, and turtles almost every time we went for a dip. And we thoroughly recommend Maui as a great swimming (and holiday) destination. Just be aware though, that you won’t have everything organized and laid on for you. You will have to organize the crossing to YOUR REQUIREMENTS. This includes discussing with your skipper, before the swim, how you want it run and what you expect of him, and vice versa.
As usual, feel free to email us if you would like further information or some contacts.