Forrest Nelson fell for open-ocean swimming in the most pedestrian of places: off Waikiki’s Kaimana Beach, doing a 2K event as part of a 2002 Master’s swim meet. He traveled home to California and started doing swims up and down the coast. In 2004 he swam from Catalina to the coast and in 2005 he swam the English Channel. He came back to Hawai‘i for the annual race from Lana‘i to Maui, across one of the Islands’ shortest, calmest channels, the ‘Au‘au. There, in September 2005, he met Bill Goding. Bill is tall, lean and strong, a 54-year-old City & County lifeguard who’s swum the ‘Au‘au race eight times and won it three. Forrest was struck by Bill’s Captain America countenance and by his speed and grace in the water. Bill was impressed by Forrest’s tenacity and fortitude. They struck a deal to swim the Moloka‘i channel together.
The swim was planned for March 2006, but when the month arrived Bill felt the water was too cold. Forrest decided to do the channel solo but in the “wrong” direction: from O‘ahu to Moloka‘i, a crossing that had only been achieved once before. He started from Sandy’s just after midnight, navigated through crashing swells and, six miles out, swam through a “trash line” of flotsam, hitting rope, garbage, a tree limb. At dawn, he caught sight of an iridescent fish, which stayed with him for the entire swim until he reached Moloka‘i and met the rooster. Up on the beach, he was giddy: He’d been in the water sixteen-and-a-half hours, doing a swim people had told him he was crazy to attempt. And he’d done it.
In September, Forrest and Bill swam from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu together. For Bill, it was the culmination of a decades-long dream. He’d talked to all seven people who’d ever made the swim, including Keo Nakama, who did it first in 1961. (A technical point: Swimmers must touch land on either side to get credit for their crossings. A fisherman named Bill Pai actually swam the Moloka‘i Channel twenty-two years before Keo—but he was rowed fifty yards offshore to begin and so his crossing isn’t considered official. He is, however, in the Hawai‘i Swimming Hall of Fame. Other rules: No touching the support boat, no drafting, no flotation or propulsion support, no wetsuits, neoprene, paddles or fins.)
Forrest and Bill started at 1 a.m. The sea was calm. Bill was unnerved by the dark but the trepidation left him in the first hour, and he relaxed into the rhythm of the swim. Around 4 a.m. the wind came up and with it the swells. Forrest vomited again, suffering the nausea that salt water and turbulence craft so well. Dawn brought a break in the weather and three smooth hours. But then the Kaiwi gave it all she had. The swells—huge, moving masses of energy—began an insistent, inescapable assault. The winds rose to fifteen knots. The sun was relentless. Forrest’s carbo-fuel drink rotted. The last hours were a straight slog. The duo ate only an occasional Fig Newton, a few chocolate raisins. Their greatest pleasure was a mouthful of Scope, nirvana for salt-coated lips and tongues. They touched land at Sandy’s after sixteen hours, their improbable arrival heralded on the bullhorn by the lifeguard on duty. Two dozen well-wishers had shown up. And despite the maelstrom they’d just swum through, both walked up onto the beach looking supernaturally calm and energized—as if they’d only been in the water for a short training swim.
“This is by far the most challenging channel I have ever been in,” Forrest said as he stood on the beach, still dripping and now covered in lei. “My analogy is that the English Channel is a river between two huge landmasses. Yes, there are strong currents and the threat of hypothermia. But here, you’re in the middle of the frigging Pacific between two tiny dots.”
“It’s alive,” interjected a well-wisher, looking out at the shifting waters, the ceaseless shorebreak.
“Yes,” agreed Forrest. “It’s alive. There’s no protection whatsoever. You really feel, ‘This is open water.’”