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Mike Spalding breaks for a smile midway across the channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu
Vol. 11, No. 2
April / May 2008

  >>   City on the Edge of Forever
  >>   The Channel Swimmers
  >>   Shaka Buddha

The Channel Swimmers (Page 2)

You might think it madness to swim between islands in Hawai‘i, and you might be right. Leaping into dark seas, braving venomous jellyfish and the specter of sharks, getting slammed about by huge swells, fighting currents, swimming mile after mile for hour after hour… it’s an utterly improbable quest. The channels between Hawai‘i’s islands are wide and wild places that push and leap, growl and heave. You’re considered hugely valiant even if you paddle them, for God’s sake. And if you swim them?

There are very few people who’ve actually done it, left the shore of one island and swum to another. They have, to a one, fantastic tales to tell, though they’re a self-deprecating bunch. “Just looking into an endless void,” they demur. “It’s monotonous,” laughs Linda Kaiser.

The story of Linda’s Moloka‘i-to-O‘ahu swim last September belies that claim. She set out at midnight on Saturday the 15th to swim the 26-mile Kaiwi Channel with two others. An hour in, she swallowed “something”—a jellyfish, she thinks, though she doesn’t know for sure. Her throat caught fire. Her airways closed up. Her torso cramped and she doubled over in the water. She crawled onto the support boat and curled up in a fetal position. She started convulsing, then retching uncontrollably. It took her nine hours to come out of it.

She could have stopped there. She didn’t. Five days later, she took on the channel again. She’d trained for it, and she wasn’t inclined to give up. But there were complications, the biggest being the currents. If you catch them wrong, they will defeat you—that is an absolute channel swimmers know well. If you run into a three-knot current going out when you’re swimming in at a pace of two knots, you will not make it in. Period. To time the currents right, Linda needed to be coming in to O‘ahu around noon. She wanted to give herself at least fifteen hours for the swim. And so she would need to do most of it in darkness. She left Moloka‘i at 8 at night headed toward Makapu‘u, on the east coast of O‘ahu. It was ten hours of swimming in the black before the dawn arrived. Like being in a sensory-depravation tank, she describes the night, and she had stretches where she didn’t know if she was awake or asleep and if the images that filled her head were hallucinations or dreams. The only light came from the phosphorus that glowed on her skin as she moved through the water. She arrived at Makapu‘u after fifteen hours, swam onto an empty beach, sat among the rocks in the surf and thought in awe, “Damn, I did this.” There are rarely crowds on hand when channel swimmers complete their odysseys. When Forrest Nelson swam up onto the beach on Moloka‘i after swimming from O‘ahu, there was only a lone rooster to greet him. The two walked down the sand, both of them crowing in astonishment.