Kaieiewaho Channel, Hawaii March & November 2010
Parts 1 & 2
1. Penny’s plan to swim the Kaieiewaho channel between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, commenced in March 2009. Within a couple of days of her successful and very fast Alenuihaha channel crossing (from the big island to Maui) in horrendous conditions, she had the map spread out on the coffee table in our condo, checking the distance. And positive words from Mike Spalding (fellow channel swimmer who lives on Maui) helped fuel her enthusiasm.
But the Kaieiewaho was no ordinary channel. At 72 miles/approx 118 klms, it was more than double the distance of the Alenuihaha, and in totally unprotected, open ocean with waters up to 3040 metres deep.
We had other swim commitments planned for New York city and Los Angeles, so planning for Hawaii did not commence until October. We decided to swim in April 2010, because this fitted in with work commitments and Penny’s induction into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. I (Chris) planned to swim the Kaiwi Channel on this trip, and so we would have separate boats and crew to organize.
The first thing we did was book the boat and pilot. We found Captain Don Jones (of Kauai) from searching the web. And Jim Dickson (our pilot from Maui) assured us after speaking to Don, that he was very keen and would do a good job. Then we recruited Penny’s crew. Leading the crew, would be Forrest Nelson (our good friend from LA, and very accomplished and experienced channel swimmer). Forrest is one of only two people who have swum the Kaiwi in both directions, and knows the Hawaiian waters well. His friend Bill Goding (Honolulu lifeguard, and very fast and experienced channel swimmer) would paddle alongside Penny. And Bill in turn, recruited fellow lifeguard and fitness trainer/motivator, Jeff Kozlovich to assist with the paddling. A more experienced and talented crew would be very difficult to find.
With boat and crew sorted, we and especially Penny, put in those long training miles in the pool and open water, including the Rottnest channel, which was used as a training swim.
We arrived in Honolulu on April 19th, a few days after the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud started causing havoc with flights in Europe. Thankfully, we were travelling in the opposite direction and had no trouble at all. Since we were in town for 2 ½ weeks, we booked a 2 bedroom self contained apartment on Kuhio Avenue. The location was very handy (2 streets back from Waikiki beach), but the traffic and other noises were sometimes annoying.
Hawaii’s trade winds (fresh winds from the NE, which blow 24/7) had recently become established. After experiencing the Alenuihaha amid a “small craft advisory”, we definitely both wanted light to moderate breezes. To help us in this regard, Jeff enlisted local weather expert, Rick Shema ( theweatherguy.com ) to assist us. We were referring to the windguru website daily, but Rick’s local knowledge and more detailed and accurate data, was invaluable in helping us select a day and forecasting conditions whilst out on the water.
Our chosen date was Saturday, April 24th, coincidentally 40 years to the day since the great Harry Huffaker first conquered the Alenuihaha channel. The forecast was for light to moderate ENE of 10 – 15 knots, increasing 15 – 20 knots overnight, and then abating to 10 – 15’s on Sunday morning. Seas would be 5-7 feet, increasing 6-8 feet with the stronger breezes. Certainly not ideal, but lighter than the normal prevailing breezes. In addition to this, there was a 0.4 to 0.8 knot current from the SE to the NW, which would be pushing Penny toward her destination. The water temperature would be around 24C.
Jeff picked Penny up at 5.00am on the 24th and they drove the hour or so to Haleiwa harbour to meet Captain Don and the rest of the crew. After loading the June Louise (a 34 ft fishing charter launch) they motored to Kaena Point, the western tip of Oahu, to select a suitable starting point. Jeff and Bill had done an advanced scout a few weeks before and had a couple of options, but the swells were bigger today, ruling them out. They finally selected a landing spot a few hundred metres SE of the point. It was still hairy. Penny clambered out of the water onto large boulders between big crashing swells, and had to time her jump back in precisely, so as to avoid being pounded against the rocks. Just looking at the photos got my heart beating faster. But she managed it, with Jeff holding station on the surfboard in slightly deeper water. Penny started at 8.08am.
“Below is an insight into some of the difficulties I faced at the start of my Oahu to Kauai Island swim attempt, April 2010.
Negotiating the dangerous, surging ocean breaking onto the huge lava boulders was very difficult and dangerous; I needed to use every surf and swimming skill I have to make my way onto the rocks before turning around and heading back out into the ocean without being smashed against the massive boulders, many of which were under the surface of the water and impossible to see. Only the foaming white water around them as the swells surged against them gave away their presence.
As I approached the shore I waited outside the break for several minutes while large sets of waves surged into the small cove, finally when there looked like there was a break in the swells I made way through the white water and onto the boulders as quickly as possible hoping to make it to land before the next swell surged in behind me and knocked me over, as I tried to find my footing my feet slipped on a smooth round boulder and I tumbled over bruising my left thigh, I put my arm out to steady myself as I was knocked over by an oncoming wave and hurt my shoulder.
Once I was out of the water it took me several minutes to regain my composure and my breath before I could even contemplate navigating my way back though the swell and begin my swim.
I waited several more minutes watching the swells surge in and made mental notes of where the underwater boulders were that I needed to avoid. Should I go left? Should I go right? Both looked dangerous, could I walk along a bit? No I was stuck in this tiny cove, the only way out was navigate my way through the foaming white water and surging waves.
I waited again for a break in the swells, unable to take a few steps in to the water or wade at all since the surges would have knocked me off my feet, there was just one thing to do and that was to wait for a smaller set of swells to come through then swim out with the foaming wave as fast as I could and hope that I was far enough out before the next incoming swell thumped me into the rocks, yes I think I could make it…just.
I was in the middle of the white foaming water, now I needed to swim as fast as I could to clear the break before the next swell, Jeff Kozlovich was waiting for me on the paddle board….finally we were on our way.
Both swimmer and crew quickly settled into a good rythym. Although the wind and swell was quartering from the right, it was still very bouncy. Penny couldn’t manage her trademark 80 strokes per minute in those conditions, but still maintained 77-78 for several hours, before dropping slightly to 75. On the boat, Forrest was doing a fantastic job. Ever attentive to Penny’s needs, he hardly took his eyes off her. He handled all the feeds and attended to any other requirements she had, as well as checking that the other crew were doing OK. Bill and Jeff quietly and professionally handled the paddling duties on the surf rescue board. They did a great job, although they agreed after a few hours that a jet ski would make a more comfortable craft for a journey this long. Captain Don was right into the swim. A very fit and active paddler himself, he had gotten right behind Penny from the moment we approached him, clearly admiring Penny’s spirit in accepting this challenge. Don never took his eyes off Penny, and although he had never piloted a swimmer before, he did a superb job in keeping Penny amidships at all times. His skills were equal to the best of the English Channel pilots. Don’s deckhand, Calvin, took a while to get his head around the swim, even at one stage wanting to do a bit of trawling. But after talking with Forrest for a while, he also got right into the swim and was volunteering to help with the handling chores.
Penny was able to hold an incredibly fast 3 miles /5 klm per hour, no doubt helped in part by the favorable current. But anyone who knows Penny and has seen her swim will know her speed, her amazing endurance and her tough as nails determination. The photos which Jeff took show (via the swells and whitecaps) how challenging the conditions were for both swimmer and crew.
Penny had gotten through the daylight hours in good condition and just prior to dusk, the crew prepared the boat for night swimming. Cyalumes were rigged up along the length of the boat and on the paddle board, as well as attached to Penny. The boat and the paddle board were stationed closer, within the Shark Shield’s protective range. We use Shark Shields for all our major swims and are convinced that they provide real protection from any big ocean predators. In addition, the peace of mind from having one less thing to worry about is very comforting.
Penny got hit by Portuguese-Man-Of-War half an hour after the sun went down, at around 7.30pm. It was very dark, so she couldn’t see the culprit, but knew immediately that it was a jellyfish. She described it as swimming into a wall of jellyfish, as she was stung simultaneously from her face to her calves on both sides of her body. As she was wearing a standard one piece costume, her arms and legs copped most of it. We live in the tropics of North Queensland, Australia, and are no strangers to a wide variety of jellyfish and their stings. But the pain of this sting was excruciating. She stopped immediately and told the crew. It took a moment or two to compose herself. Initially, she thought that this was just a set back, although an extremely painful one.
But within a moment of recommencing the swim, the toxins were already going to work. Although Penny never gets sea sick, she stopped and started vomiting. She got going again, but the bouts of vomiting continued every couple of minutes. On top of this, her reaction to the toxins coursing through her body felt like receiving powerful electric shocks, over and over again.
Penny is one of the toughest and most determined athletes you will ever meet. But the stings eventually became too much for her. She was forced to stop frequently, and after 40 minutes of trying to continue amidst much encouragement from the crew, she was forced to abandon the swim at 8.10pm. In 12 hours and 2 minutes, they had covered 58 kilometers, and was almost half way across the channel. At night and out of cell phone range, it was 3 hours of motoring until they reached Kauai. The guys wrapped Penny in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible. Looking at the welts on her skin, Bill and Jeff diagnosed the stings as Portuguese-Man-Of -War. For a while, they thought Penny would need to spend the night in hospital but just as they were approaching the harbor at around 11.00pm, she started to feel a little better.
Not knowing the USA health system, Penny opted for simple Panadol (from her swim kit) and a comfortable bed at Don’s house. In fact the whole crew camped the night with Don and his partner Ele in their house at Princeville, on the northern side of Kauai. They awoke on Sunday morning to a cooked breakfast prepared by Ele, before returning to the boat to clean up and pack the gear.
Meantime, I (Chris) was on Oahu, only getting back to the apartment at 8.00pm after swimming the Kaiwi. I didn’t know of Penny’s fate until 2.00am, when, not being able to sleep, I checked the internet and read the report on the “Daily News of Open Water Swimming”. I boarded the 10.30am flight and Penny, Forrest and I spent four relaxing days exploring the island and enjoying Don’s hospitality.
Penny recovered from the major effects of the stings in a couple of days, although her lymph glands were swollen for five weeks and, six months later, faint marks on her skin from the tentacle welts, were still visible.
2. Though completing a couple of other fine swims over the next few months, the Kaieiewaho Channel outcome was still nagging at Penny. We were both certain that she would have been successful, had it not have been for the encounter with the rogue jellyfish. We also thought Penny was simply unlucky, and couldn’t imagine that there would be any more jellyfish in the Kaieiewaho, than any of the other Hawaii channels.
So Penny started planning another attempt on the channel. Her time window was late October through to early December, to fit in with home commitments and crew availability. Again Captain Don made himself and his vessel available. And Bill and Jeff volunteered their paddling services. Forrest Nelson could not join the crew due to work commitments. But Penny was honored when Steven Munatones volunteered his services as handler and swim advisor. As well as accomplishing great things as a marathon swimmer, he is currently an author, board member of the IMSHOF, and the voice behind the “Daily news of open water swimming”, which brings news of our sport to people from around the world.
Based on advice from some locals, it appeared that there would be a better chance of getting “kona” (flat glassy seas) conditions at this time of year. And that certainly would make a swim of this distance a lot easier. Again, Rick Shema volunteered his expertise, so Penny asked him to keep a look out for Kona weather. After a couple of weeks of waiting and receiving regular updates from Rick, he emailed Penny on November 1st, advising that there was a HIGH probability of the conditions we wanted from November 7 to 9. That was enough for Penny. Within 24 hours she was on a plane bound for Honolulu.
As the cost of our swimming travels for 2010 were starting to mount up, Penny sent a number of emails prior to this trip in an attempt to get some sponsorship. The beautiful “Waikiki Parc Hotel” right on Waikiki beach, came back and very kindly offered Penny accommodation for two weeks for her and her crew. This was extremely helpful for our finances, as well as being a great place for Penny to base herself. So easy to go down for a swim, as well as sightseeing, dining and shopping. She definitely didn’t need a car for this trip.
The swim day was confirmed for November 9th. Forecast was for ENE breezes, under 10 knots until late at night, then picking up to 10-15’s for most of the remainder of the swim. And the seas for the first 12 hours of the swim would be relatively flat. Not perfect Kona conditions but close enough.
Again, the crew met Captain Don at Haleiwa harbor, this time at 9.00am on November 9th. They motored west to Kaena Point, and once again had to search for a suitable starting area. Penny got away at 11.30am in virtually ideal conditions. And this time, with better publicity, a local news helicopter was in the air to witness her departure. Twenty minutes into her swim, a blue whale surfaced nearby, giving the crew a great spectacle.
The slight seas were much easier for swimming and the water temperature was a very pleasant 27C. On the first attempt, whilst Penny received a number of jellyfish stings, they were very minor and hardly worth mentioning, until she got the big one.
But it seemed today, that the jellyfish also appreciated the benign conditions. She received her first Portuguese-Man-O-War sting less than an hour after setting off. Still extremely painful, but much smaller than on the previous attempt. But then she got another, around half an hour later. And then another, and another. She gave up counting after about seven stings. It seemed they were everywhere, and impossible to avoid. The crew could not see them, so as to warn Penny, and they were almost invisible to Penny until she actually hit them. On a couple of occasions, tentacles wrapped themselves around her forearms and body, she had to stop swimming and remove them, getting further stings on her hands. And she got one fairly big sting on the left side of her face and ear. On these sensitive areas, the stinging pain was particularly bad.
PMOW stings are normally not life threatening. Major stings cause nausea, vomiting and possibly, respiratory difficulties. Penny is a very tough individual, and was determined to succeed in this swim after her earlier attempt. But after 7 plus hours of this, she could take no more, and had no choice but to call it a day. The crew was once again excellent, but the outcome was once again determined by events Penny couldn’t control. Whilst very disappointed with the outcome, Penny pushed herself as far as she possibly could. And you can do no more than this.
She did learn some lessons from this second attempt. Kona conditions may not be better for a swim like this, as it seems P-M-O-W may be more prevalent. Also, the lighter winds, whilst more comfortable, gave her no assistance. A stronger, quartering breeze on the first attempt, gave her a nice little push along. And strangely, the assisting current on the first attempt, was totally absent this time round. We are unsure of the reason for this.
Will Penny attempt this channel again? Maybe, if she does so however, she first needs to find a viable solution to prevent the PMOW stings.