Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Maui (Auau) Channel 4/10/2010

I’m not normally a superstitious person, I don’t hold much weight on black cats crossing your path or walking under ladders but this last week I was starting to see things and portents of doom where I really shouldn’t have. It started with the trigger fish – (humuhumunukunukuapua’a – to give it its’ Hawaiian name). There I was doing a bit of relaxing snorkeling when I felt a little pinch on my toe, I turned around to see a brightly coloured little chap with a fetching arrow like stripe on his side watching me closely, I swam towards him thinking ‘hey little fellow, did you just bump into my foot’ and he promptly darted up to me and bit me on the finger. Now it was hardly a mortal wound, but it bled nicely for a few minutes after I had got out of the water and that night as I surfed wikipaedia I learnt I have been ‘got’ by the state fish of Hawaii. Still, I said to myself, just because a little reef fish fancied my finger doesn’t mean the larger sharper toothed varieties will find me tasty, does it?

The day before the swim I went for a last little loosener, just 2km around the ironman swim course. Half way round a felt a searing pain shoot across the back of my right hand, right across my face and down my chest and left arm, it felt like I had just been flailed. This was not the first occasion I had been hit by a bluebottle/portugese man-of-war so I knew what it was but the knowledge doesn’t really ease the discomfort, I made for home with my eyes watering and my skin burning with thoughts of how these little buggers often like to float in great numbers in the ocean, fortunately no more stings on the way back in but I wondered how many might be lined up the next day in the Maui channel. When I got back to the condo I received lots of sympathy from Vickie and an offer of a golden shower (which I declined). That night I spoke to my brother Matt about the swim and he regaled me with the story of an open water swimmer getting killed by a shark in the shallow waters off a Perth beach. Despite my protests that attacks on open water swimmers are extremely rare he did his best to convince me otherwise. It’s not wise to dwell on these things, the mind has a very active way of conceiving the worst case scenarios………..and then embellishing them.

The following morning we got up at 4am for out flight to Maui. We were treated to a 45min inter-island flight on a tiny 9-seater Cessna airplane. I had deliberately not told Vickie about the size of the craft as she has quite strong views about the safety of small airplanes (see previous paragraph about the mind and conceiving worst case scenarios). Still apart from a nagging feeling that a strong wind would tear both the wings off, it was a very scenic little flight and we picked up our hire car and headed around to Lahaina for the start of the swim. We met Jim Dickson our pilot and Mickey his crewman for the day and within about 10minutes of arriving I was in the water and swimming. Part of the haste was the concern about conditions blowing up as the morning progressed, it was already windy when we arrived and the strong currents and winds can make this crossing a notoriously choppy one. The Maui channel race the previous month had been one of the roughest on record with many teams not finishing or stopped because they were outside the 8hr cut off time. As I started I was treated to crystal clear waters, beautiful reefs and a turtle gliding about 5m beneath me. The waves initially were fairly gentle rollers coming from my right side and a little behind me so that every now and again I would get a nice push along although I was doing quite a bit of course correction to stop getting pushed off line. The first hour was easy and pleasant, the water got gradually deeper until I could no longer see the bottom but as is usually the way I don’t find myself dwelling on the deep blue beneath me on these swims, my head is happily too focused on the swim itself. I was in a nice rhythm and my main concern was not to start too enthusiastically, it was after all, going to be a good 4hrs of swimming. It’s usually about the 1.5-2hr mark that some of the negative thoughts start to creep in, not quite half way and the muscles are starting feel like they have already had a good work out. The conditions started to get quite choppy and it was getting harder to maintain the efficient relaxed stroke that is needed for a long swim. At the 2hr feed I was just over half way and I knew it was going to be a 4hr plus swim, not the 3.5hr in optimal conditions version I had secretly hoped for. I always try to break up these swims into little sections, trying not to think about how much further is left as it can weigh on the mind. ‘Swim to the next feed’ got me across the English Channel and it’s a good way to approach even more modest swims. At about the 3hr mark I remember thinking, how on earth did I keep going for 11hrs in the cold English Channel, I was feeling quite tired and the boat was looking like an attractive rest stop. Vickie however wasn’t looking like she was enjoying the boat ride. She had started off looking quite animated and moving around the boat, had progressed to sitting as still as possible to lying flat on her back and I was pretty certain the anti-nausea pill had not achieved the desired outcome. Fortunately I couldn’t hear Mickey yelling ‘follow the trail’ at one point but I had already correctly assumed she was feeding the fish.

Lanai, like all the other Hawaiian Islands is an old volcanic protrusion out of the ocean so it has a pretty high mountainous look about it This means you can see it easily a long way off (from the start) and it doesn’t appear to be getting closer until you are pretty much almost there. The last hour I manage to pick up the pace a little, I figured about 4km to go, only 80 laps of a 50m pool or one slightly long circuit of the ironman course. My shoulders were fatiguing and my neck was aching from sighting forwards so much. I could see something white on the shoreline that was getting slowly closer, I thought it was part of the beach initially but it turned out to be a boat moored just off shore (ironically it was a chartered boat that had been requested to take the occupants to a beach that was utterly deserted; where they would have no chance of bumping into other people – I mean what were the chances of someone swimming 16km just to land on their isolated beach?). The bottom suddenly came into view and like at the start beautiful coral and fish became visible. The water became shallower and Mickey informed me the boat was as close to shore as they could come (about 300m), I swam in grateful that the end was now imminent and hauled myself up onto the ‘near’ deserted beach. Maui Channel, done. I swam backstroke back to the boat and bumped into Vickie who had jumped in to meet me, she looked much happier in the water, she only vomited once on the bumpy trip back to Maui.

So another stretch of water crossed, no sharks, bluebottles or trigger fish seen. A nice, warm, tropical day out. Nearly 16km covered on the GPS in 4hours and 9min. I guess no swim of that distance is going to be easy, the heat and warmth which I had been looking forward to meant I was actually quite dehydrated by the end. Physically quite a challenge but apart from wondering how I had managed to complete more than twice the distance in the English channel I was also plotting how to improve the endurance for the next swim.
Many thanks to my pilot Jim Dickson and Mickey. Thanks to the Kona masters who let me swim with them for the weeks leading up to the swim, especially coach Steve Borowski and of course thanks to the ever present and inspiring Vickie, who gave up her day less than a week before her ironman and suffered more than I did in the name of open water swimming.
(pilot Jim, me and Mickey)