Molokai channel swim

After waiting almost three weeks for the weather to offer even the slightest hope of a swim, the gods relented. I finally had my chance to step into the breach for my fourth channel swim.

At 5:30 in the afternoon on April 26, I set off from a beautiful beach on Molokai Island and into the Ka’iwi channel, the channel of bones. This was my chance to attempt the longest of the Ocean 7 swims and I was very happy to be in the water and into the swim.

The water was warm and clear, the sky overcast and ocean sloppy with a 1.5 metre following swell. Kylie had swum out with me and was now safe on the escort boat with Captain Mike Twig-Smith, paddlers Mike Scott and Chris Harmes, while I was in the water, settling into the first stage with ex pat Aussie paddler, Shelley Oats-Wilding.

I quickly settled into a steady rhythm as the sun slid away under the horizon in front of me. Not the romantic orange and red Hawaiian sunset I’d hoped for, rather a grey and choppy end to a busy day and the beginning of a very long night.

The sun set before my second feed and the bioluminescence came out to entertain me. These small bright specks of light were generated by the action of my hand entering the water on every stroke. Tonight they were in their thousands and some appeared to be the size of a small pea and brilliant iridescent green. At times, these tiny lights emitted intense lights against a completely dark background and drifted towards me from where my hands entered the water a metre ahead. My momentum pushed me through these dancing lights which would then explode onto my goggles. They were a beautiful distraction, reminiscent of a Star Wars intergalactic battle.

I’ve developed a technique whereby I convince myself that every wave, wind, current and chop is pushing me along further and faster. In my mind I am always belting along at a great rate of knots and the rougher it gets the better off I am. This is rarely the case, but it helps settle me into a positive mind set.

The swell picked up and the water was still very choppy, but I felt comfortable in the conditions. I didn’t know it then, but skipper Mike had said I was swimming into a head-on current and wasn’t making much headway for the first 4 hours. He was thinking it might be an early night for us all. Blissfully unaware, I kept on slugging away, counting off the time by feeding every 45 minutes and the changing-out of paddlers every 2 feeds (1.5 hours), being sure to thank each one of the three in their rotation. At one stage the water glassed off, but the swell was always an issue and the wind came back later in the morning.

It was Kylie’s job to prepare and hand me each feed from the boat, paying careful attention to stick to the critical feed plan. She had suffered terribly from seasickness on all of the previous channels, but like a true champion, insisted on being with me on this one. Every 45 minutes there she was smiling at me from over the gunwale and throwing me a feed bottle. I had my suspicions, which were later confirmed, that just like a scene from “weekend at Bernie’s”, Shelly had propped her up and prepared her for every feed. She had been chronically ill the entire way and only put on a brave face to support me and the swim. She has been the backbone of my swimming goals and an endless inspiration.

On either end of the kayak we had placed Lucas solar lights for safety which come with a choice of colours. We switched to a soft glowing red because an expert in jelly fish told us that box jellyfish are attracted to white and green. Somewhere along the way, the aft light switched to strobing multi-colours. This played on my mind until I couldn’t take it any longer and I begged Shelly to please turn it back to red.

I worked out that every time I saw Shelley on the kayak it marked a 4.5-hour rotation and once I’d seen her 3 times, dawn wasn’t far away. I thought that sunrise would bring warmth on my back with clear skies for the homeward stretch.

In fact, the sunrise was slow and disappointing. Again it was overcast and it took a while for the dim light to properly penetrate the ocean beneath. It did, however, raise everyone’s spirits and it was good to see smiling faces and see the mountains of Oahu in the distance.

Not long after the sunrise, I could see all kinds of sea life, including a small, grumpy little shark who swam directly at me but got a bit nervy as he got closer to the shark shield. This little punk just hovered around for a while and once, when I lost sight of him, I ducked under the kayak and came face to face with him giving me an evil eye ball. The Ka’iwi Swim Association makes it compulsory to attach a shark shield off the kayak, which is an electrically charged cord of about 1.5 metres, creating a field around it which is supposedly repellent to sharks.

What followed was a text book example of professionalism and calm under pressure.

Not too concerned about the grumpy little one, I looked around and there, directly below me, was a large shark shadowing me gracefully, gliding in the same direction. It was the same size as the kayak, with defined rounded dorsal and pectoral fins which looked like they had been dipped in white paint.

I stopped, floated face down to get a fix on her position and then told paddler Chris that we had company. Very calmly he spoke into his radio – “we have a shark with us, repeat we have a shark.” All hands were quickly on deck and all eyes over the side, looking to spot the shark. Skipper Mike said, ‘Yep, that's an Oceanic White Tip. If it’s deep, we don’t need to worry too much, but if it’s coming up, we had better be careful’. I’m not sure what he thinks is deep but it was 7 metres below me.

The boat came in closer and we had a quick, calm and rational discussion on the immediate future of the swim. Everyone was so absolutely professional, so cool and at ease, that my confidence was bolstered and I decided to continue, to the delight of the crew. It was part instinct, part intuition but at no time did that beautiful creature threaten me. Experts tell us that sharks have sensory capacity to “smell” fear and I believe that we too can perceive whether or not we are in imminent danger. I felt sure that I wasn’t.

With this, I swam off, making certain every kick, stroke and recovery was deliberate, to demonstrate that I wasn’t a wounded prey for her breakfast. We deployed a second shark shield on the bow of the kayak and a third on the outrigger of the boat. At one stage, she did come up to within two lengths of the shield, maybe 3-4 metres. I watched her very carefully, only taking air when I had to and then eyes back onto my new swim buddy. She was still gentle and graceful, but then, at her closest point to me, she flinched as if stung by a bee and then turned immediately to her right and went on her way. The shield worked!

Over the next 4 to 5 hours, she came and went, and the crew reported sighting her ten times. At one point, she was basking on the top of the water at the bow, while I fed at the stern, close to the shields. Mike suggested I simply swim past her after a feed, but I insisted he wedge the boat between us, at least. When we reached the notorious shelf 6kms off Oahu where the depth goes from over 800 metres to 90, she simply left us.

At the time of my first meeting with the shark, I still had 17.5 kilometres to go which was a surprise to me, given that I thought I had swam so well over night. There was only one thing to do and that was to put my head down, arse up and push onward. I knew it was getting hard for the crew but I felt incredibly strong. All of my training, nutritional advice, emotional preparation was coming into play and nothing was going to stop me.

I know now that I was being pushed north off the rhumb line, the path of shortest distance between Molokai and Oahu, and in danger of missing the south eastern most point of Oahu, Makapu’u point. I didn’t know it at the time, so I pressed on 12kms… 7… 5… and I could see the cliffs and jagged coast line.

Although I still felt strong, I was getting tired in my mind. I started to hallucinate; I saw containers floating all around me, large triangles in the water and thought the boat had left Kylie behind. I imagined all of the crew were getting angry because I was taking so long, and I could see skipper Mike at the helm waving like a madman to hurry up. In fact, he was spurring me on, so as not to miss the last point of land.  

I asked paddler Mike Scott which beach we were going to land on, and he smiled and said ‘There aren’t too many beaches around here. It’s the cliff or another 500 metres to a beach.’ I chose the cliff. As we got into the lee of the Makapu’u cliffs the water calmed down and there was only a 1.5 metre swell left to deal with. Skipper Mike dived into the water from the boat to help me navigate into the safest place on the rocks to finish. I swam in close, to see where I could scramble up. I made a few attempts to climb the rocks, but got washed off. Mike found a ledge and climbed up first, I saw my chance with the heaving sea and grabbed onto a rock and hoisted myself onto my feet for the first time in 20 hours and 12 minutes.

The water drained away as the waves sucked back and I was left standing clear of the water, just as the rules dictate, to signal the end of a successful swim. After a signal from the boat, I dived back in, elated, and swam back to my cheering crew.

Each channel presents a different set of unique challenges, from extreme cold to large marine life and treacherous unpredictable currents. Paddy Mallon of “Infinity Channel Swimming” best described the single ingredient which dictates the success or otherwise of every swim. He said, “Mother nature is the boss. You don’t want to be out there when she’s kicking your arse. We always take a short swim and ask her for permission and safe passage.” Nobody conquers a channel!

This was an incredible swim. Thanks to our families for the unswerving support, Daniel & Michelle for their endless hours of kayak support often in the cold blustery ocean off Sydney. Thanks to our squad and to Vlad for his unbelievable energy and professional expertise in this sport. You’re a genius, Vlad. Big shout out to Jeff and Steve from the association and the wonderful efforts of Mike Twig-Smith, Shelly, Mike and Chris who were like guardian angels for the entire swim. And to my beautiful wife, Kylie who has never complained but has had plenty of reason to, you are amazing!