Hawaii March 2011 – Kaho’olawe Channel – Kaiwi (Molokai) Channel – Kaulakahi Channel

Kauai to Niihau Swim Hawaii 2011

Action & adventure seems to be following us during our 2011 visit to Hawaii, and our final channel swim for this visit is certainly no exception.

Yesterday, March 18, Penny, Forrest Nelson (our very good friend from Los Angeles) and I swam the Kaulakahi Channel from Kauai to Niihau, a distance of 17.4 nautical miles (approx 30 klms). The closest point to point course is 14.6nm, but is it not possible to either start from or finish at, either of these two points.

It was a big day. We got up at a little after 3.00pm, stretched, had breakfast, and then drove from Princeville on the north shore of Kauai to Port Allen (south shore) where we met up with the boat crew. We know Capt. Don Jones from previous swims (he is an awesome pilot, and a fun guy to hang out with). Don had assembled an excellent crew to help out. His deckhand, Calvin, we had met before. Josh, the kayaker, was full of excitement and really looking forward to the paddle. And Sean, our handler, was a fantastic waterman, solid as a rock and great at feeding and attending to our needs, even though he had never been on a channel swim before.

We started at almost exactly 7.30am from just east of the Pacific Range Missile facility, knowing that they could be a little concerned about swimmers coming to shore within a sensitive military facility. Just before we jumped off the boat, we were treated to the sight of a few dolphins cruising around, maybe 50 metres from the boat (a sign of things to come). There was no breeze and only a one metre NW swell, but getting into the beach for a dry land start was tricky as we had to navigate through shallow water with lava rock below, between the waves breaking.

After getting out through the break, we met up with the boat and quickly got into a rythym. Forrest and Penny are both faster than I, but we swam side by side at a comfortable pace. It took almost ½ hour for the visibility to improve, but when it did, the shafts of sunlight going down into the deep blue were amazing. Viz was over 30 Metres (100 feet) – beyond that, it’s all academic.

A group of swimmers did this channel last year, Bill Goding, Quinn Carver, Brian Denaro and Jen Schumacher.  They reported a current in the early part of the swim taking them from right to left (from the NW to the SE) and I could see that was also happening to us. We also made good headway in that first hour or so, and must had got a push from the current away from Kauai.

Capt. Don calls this the sharkiest channel in Hawaii, and last years swimmers saw several, mainly Galapagos sharks. Whilst keeping a keen eye out, we never saw any. But we had the shark shield deployed from the kayak which gave us peace of mind throughout the swim. In fact, we saw no marine life whatsoever, until the 6 ½ hour feed.

Just after the feed, we were joined by four dolphins (not sure what type) who came within 5 to 6 metres and hang around for a few minutes, just checking us out. They were magnificent to watch. Streamlined, moving effortlessly and obviously inquisitive about the strange visitors. Whilst this was happening, I could see two white shapes way down deep (maybe 50 metres below us) which I assumed to be more dolphins. But then, it started to rise and I could make out the shape of the body. It was a humpback whale (the white things I first saw were its fins) and then a second whale appeared. They could also clearly see us and seemed to be checking us out, either from below or to one side or another, coming in as close as 25 metres. They stayed with us until the next half hourly feed and were simply amazing to watch.

After the 7 hour feed, we thought the show was over, as 10 minutes had passed without a sighting (the guys on the boat could still see them, however). But then, three whales appeared. They looked like two adults (of about 11 metres (35 feet)), and a younger one (of about 8 metres (25 feet)). These guys came in closer still, to the point where you could not only see their entire bodies, but also their eyes and some of their distinguishing markings. On several occasions, they came to the surface to breathe and Forrest and Penny took off to get closer to them. Forrest thought he may have been able to get close enough to even touch one. And even from a little further away, so these guys surface, looking at the body underneath the water and the massive shape which clears the water was one of those experiences which will stay with us for many years. In total, I think the whales drifted in and out of our field of vision, for  about two hours. Wow!

These amazing scenes took our minds off what was becoming a fairly brutal swim. After the first 2 ½ hours of rolling swells with very little breeze, the shelter of Kauai was left behind. The breeze started to pick up and the swells progressively increased. NOAA had a Small Craft Advisory in effect, both for the wind (Easterly gusting up to 25 knots) and swell (coming from the east at 10 to 12 feet, but with a north west and southerly swell thrown in for good measure). After about the 3 hour mark, conditions were no longer comfortable. Several months ago, whilst researching this swim, I mentioned to Mike Spalding (amazing channel swimmer from Maui) that we were doing this channel, and he remarked, “It’s a tricky one. Make sure you pick a good day to swim. Half way across the channel, I began to understand what he meant.

The currents were also tricky and flowed from three different directions during the swim. Initially, they carried us from north to south. Then at around the half way point, they switched from south to north. And then, at the end, we got slammed. At the 6 hour feed, we had 5 nautical miles to go, and I estimated our finishing time at around 9 hours. Then, a strong current from west to east hit us and our pace was slowed to a crawl, although we weren’t aware of it at first. When we were told at the 8 hour mark, we picked up the pace, but it was hard work in the wind and big waves, when at times only covering ½ a mile between feeds.

We finally made it in at 5.48pm as the sun was sinking low on the horizon. Huge waves were crashing onto the reef, so we touched bottom just outside the breakers (ala last year’s swimmers). Quite a few people were on the beach watching us. But since Niihau is called the “Forbidden Island”, we suspect they may not have been there to offer a friendly welcome.

Twelve hours after the swim, tired, stiff and sore, it is a very good feeling to have achieved our goal. The finishing time was slower than I was hoping for, but as so often happens, Mother Nature has the final say (from the 8 to 9 hour mark, I was panicking that the current would stop us from finishing at all).

Penny completes the Molokai Channel

On Friday March 11, 2011, coinciding with the terrible earthquake and destruction in Japan (our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with everyone affected), Penny created her own little piece of history by smashing the record for the Kaiwi Channel, from Molokai to Oahu.

The Molokai Channel, as it is commonly known, is 26.4 statute miles (42.5 klms) of Open Ocean. Known for its big, oceanic swells, rough waters, and potentially strong currents on the approach to Oahu, this is an extremely challenging swim. And to top it off, due to the distance, part of the swim will necessarily be done in darkness, in waters known to be inhabited by great whites and tiger sharks.

The difficulty is indicated by the fact that only 14 people (including Penny) have completed the swim crossing since 1961, when Keo Nakama made it across in 15 hours 37 minutes. Compare this to the English Channel (of 33.5 klms) with 1,300 successful crossings.

For those involved in Penny’s swim, the lead up was almost as challenging as the swim itself. The crew, Chris as handler, Steve Munatones http://www.dailynewsofopenwaterswimming.com/2011/03/penny-palfrey-keeps-molokai-channel-in.htm  (from Huntington Beach) as swim advisor/media liaison and Jeff Kozlovich (Honolulu lifeguard) as kayaker http://kozhawaii.blogspot.com/  and Penny, flew across to Molokai early afternoon to link up with Jim Dickson (skipper) and Cody Vares (deckhand & alternate kayaker). After an early dinner, we bedded down at a local hotel before meeting the boat at 4.00am at Kaunakakai wharf.

At least, that was the plan. The siren blasts changed all that. At first, I (Chris) thought some bright spark had chosen 10.30pm as a time to start cleaning the reception area with a commercial vacuum cleaner. A couple of moments later, there was a sharp knock on the door by a big guy carrying a flashlight. “We’ve got a tsunami warning” he said, “you need to evacuate to higher ground!” We stood there for a moment, our mouths agape. Surely this can’t be happening. Jeff and Steven appeared at our door a couple of minutes later and helped us load our personal and swim gear into the hire car. From there, we just followed the line of cars up into the hills. We ended up at an indoor sports facility at Molokai High School.

The people at the evacuation facility were surprisingly well organised and friendly. But with rock hard floors, bright lights and lots of noise from excited and nervous people, rest was near impossible. We were still committed to the swim, the question was when. A small TV was on, with a crowd of people in front of it, as the news started to filter through from Japan. And the other thing commentators were speculating on was how big the tsunami was going to be when it reached the Hawaiian islands.

To cut it short, we had three attempts at trying to rendezvous with our boat. At 4.00am, after the worst of the swell had apparently passed, we jumped in the car and headed toward the wharf. No go. The police had a road block set up and no one was getting through. The breakfast TV show said the tsunami warning would likely be cancelled at 7.00am. But when we reached the road block…sorry, still no go…and the officer had no idea when it would be over. So back to the high school again. Then finally, at a little after 8.30am, the warning was officially cancelled. We phoned Jim on the boat and eventually boarded at 9.00am. Penny said she managed maybe 1 hours sleep in the back seat of the Toyota Echo car we had rented.

Upon rounding La’au Point at the SW tip of Molokai, we were greeted by angry swirling seas, partly due to the strong NE breeze colliding with the NW swells, and the added turbulence from the tsunami. Penny jumped into this washing machine at 10.54am with Jeff at her side on the kayak. The first hour was very rough due to the wrap around effect of the wind from Ilio Point, at the NW corner of Molokai. But the seas never really settled down to become anything like comfortable, at any point on the crossing. Early on, there was a parade of spectacular marine life.

Penny swam right over the top of a humpback whale even before her first feed, whilst she could still see the bottom. And on the boat we saw quite a few whales spouting and breaching. In the first hour, we also saw a large group of spinner dolphins (I guess maybe 50, although probably many more) surfing several abreast on the wind waves, and occasionally leaping from the water, a couple of hundred metres from Penny. At the 3 ½ hour mark, we were also treated to the sight of a huge humpback whale doing a full breach less than 100 metres ahead of the boat. We were still staring at the foam left from its re-entry, when it did it again. Wow. We grabbed our cameras and waited, but the show was over.

Penny swam hard in the first few hours, due to our delayed start. She knew the latter part of the swim would be done at night and wanted to make the most of the daylight hours. Possibly helped along slightly by some favourable currents, she covered an excellent (given the very tough conditions) 5.4 miles (9 klm) in the first 2 hours. I commented to Steven, that at this point, she only had the English Channel (21 miles) to go. And Steven, being one of the most knowledgeable people in the world of open water swimming, remarked half way through the crossing, that there weren’t many swimmers in the world who could handling the confused and conflicting 6 to 8 feet seas, hour after hour, as Penny did. He also commented, not only that, she made it look easy.

Contrasting with my (Chris’) crossing in April 24, when I broke Jon Ezer’s 1974 record, with a crossing time of 12 hours 53 minutes, I was extremely fortunate to have ENE winds of less than 15 knots accompanied by a relatively gentle swell from the same direction. Whilst conditions for Penny improved a little after that first horrible hour, the comments in the swim log continued to be rough seas, very choppy or lumpy. It was a constant battle. She never complained though apart from a couple of comments stating to the effect that she was having to work hard in the conflicting swells.

Sunset was just after 6.30pm. And she still had 7.5 miles (approx. 12 klm) to go. We switched to clear goggles and gave Penny a light to attach to her goggles (channel swimming rules forbid her touching anyone or anything). And lights were attached to the kayaker and running lights on the boat were switched on. We were hoping that the wind and swells would subside with sunset, but it was not to be. Still 15 knots, ENE winds, NW swell, and waves from each of 5 to 6 feet.

But she kept on making good progress toward Oahu. Diamond Head and the lights from the Honolulu tourist strip were like a huge far off beacon. And closer to our arrival point of Sandy Beach (the SE end of Oahu), Koko Head, stood out like a dark monolith against the night sky.

As we approached Sandy Beach, we could make out the line of street lights which marked the beach car park. And Steven phoned Beth Ann Kozlovich and Laura Miller who were awaiting our arrival and they were flashing their headlights in response to Jim flashing his fore deck lights. But those last couple of kilometres were very tough. As if to throw in one last challenge for Penny, she encountered a very strong current from left to right with 2.5 klms to go. At this point, we gave her her last feed (a mistake on my part) and figured she had 35 to 40 minutes to go. One hour later, 500 metres from the beach, she finally broke through that current. Jeff was on station with her to help her navigate between reefs and through the surf break and onto the beach. Jeff was awesome throughout, but particularly at this point, as straying off course would result in getting thrown by the breakers onto sharp rocks and reef.

She did it, finishing at 10.34pm, in a time of 11 hours 40 minutes and 33 seconds, breaking my record by a whopping 1 hour and 13 minutes. Oh well, at least we have kept it in the family. Penny is the 14th person to cross the Molokai Channel, and the fifth woman to do so. Penny and I are the first married couple to swim the Molokai Channel, and we currently hold the men’s and women’s records for one of the world’s toughest marathon channel swims.

A slightly more detailed report will follow when we return to Australia. We would like to thank our major sponsor for this visit to Hawaii, the Waikiki Parc Hotel. Their fantastic hotel was perfect for resting up and final training before the swim. Also thanks to Shark Shield for their continued use of their units, keeping us safe, particularly around dusk and after dark. Great peace of mind.

Note; After our swim we received a stern warning by the authorities advising us that Kaho’olawe is a protected zone and a permit is required to go within 2 miles of the island. The penalty is a fine and or jail. It would be remiss of us to encourage swimmers to go there without this knowledge.

Kaho’olawe to Maui

Today we completed the first of our swims, the Alalakeiki channel from Kaho’olawe to Maui, a distance of 7 miles (11.5 klm).

Starting from Ule Point on the NE side of Kaho’olawe we were greeted by schools of pelagic fish next to a sheer 200 ft wall drop off, making for a spectacular start with a back drop of the massive rugged cliffs of Kaho’olawe.   Conditions were calm at the start, with surprisingly warm 25C water. Ideal for swimming.  But maybe the warm water brought in the jellyfish as we received regular stings throughout the swim. Despite relatively calm conditions, there was a very strong cross current which quickly carried us south, forcing us to battle up hill for the last half of the swim, with our pace slowing to a slow crawl. Our finishing times were 5:07 for Penny and 5:09 for Chris. We finished on soft beautiful sand at Makena beach, South Maui.

Since the Alalakeiki was first crossed in 1992, there have been 8 crossings by 6 people. Of these, only 3 men have swum in the direction we did. The last crossing before today was in 2006. 

NB: After our swim we received a stern warning by the authorities advising us that Kaho’olawe is a protected zone and a permit is required to go within 2 miles of the island. The penalty is a fine and or jail. It would be remiss of us to encourage swimmers to go there without this knowledge.

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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.