Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones! Part 1 - the build up

When Vickie qualified for this year's Hawaiian Ironman World Championships I started to contemplate another Hawaiian channel swim of my own. It seemed a shame to be coming all the way out to Hawaii without taking the opportunity to do another long distance swim. Two years ago we were out here for the Ironman and I organised a Maui Channel swim, it was a pleasant 9 mile swim in beautiful, warm clear waters and I knew I would have to top that. At first I wondered about a double Maui channel swim - only completed once before, but I kept getting drawn to the monstrous Kai'wi Channel (The Channel of Bones) between Molokai and Oahu. One of the 'Ocean's Seven' big channel swims and the longest of all seven. While cold temperatures are not an issue, monstrous swells, rough conditions, abundant sea life - jelly fish and sharks and swimming a massive 26miles/42km across this wild stretch of Pacific Ocean provide a host of logistical and physical challenges.
I got some contact details from Darren Miller who had swum the channel last year and made some tentative bookings early this year with an experienced boat pilot (Matt Buckman) and kayaker (Jeff Kozlovich). My swim season this year was filled with swims and races starting with the Gibraltar Straits in May and then a series of UK based swims; the BLDSA's 'Champion of Champions', Torbay, Windermere and a few other races including the fun Brownsea Island swim. It was a full and successful season while all the time at the back of my mind was the looming Molokai Channel. In July this year I swam a 42km fund-raising swim in my local swimming pool, it was a training swim to practice feeding over the distance and get some longer miles in the body, the feeding regime didn't quite work as well as I had hoped but I covered the distance relatively comfortably and it was a good confidence booster ahead of the real event. Swimming long distance is such a mental game that doing a long practice swim of similar distance really helps me to prepare for a swim and gives me the confidence to know I can complete it. The 2-way Windermere did this for me in the English Channel and the 42km pool swim did the same for Molokai.
As September approached I fitted in as many longer sessions as I could while trying to avoid any last minute injuries or niggles. Finally on the 29th we flew out to Hawaii. Hawaii feels very familiar to us now, we have been three times before - always because of triathlon races but it's a great excuse to come to this beautiful little corner of the world. We arrived to the baking heat and set about acclimatising to conditions very foreign to us in the UK! The first few days I swam in the Kailua harbour daily, doing laps of the Ironman course - a nearly 4km circuit with more and more triathletes for company as the days went by. We caught up with old friends and the second Saturday competed in the annual Kukio Bay swim. A fun little 1.2mile race that we discovered last time we were here. I managed to win it last time and repeated the feat again this year, it was in theory a good pre-swim loosener. However, that afternoon I started to feel seriously unwell. I was overcome with a pounding headache and nausea and a feeling of such intense lethargy that I could barely drag myself out of bed. I barely slept that night and nagging feelings of impending stress about my swim were magnified by my physical symptoms. The following day I struggled to eat much at all. I knew I was feeling nervous about the swim but this seemed extreme. I confessed to Vickie that I didn't think I could do the swim, even a little 10 minute loosener in the sea left me feeling wiped out. My only hope was that the component of my symptoms caused by anxiety would settle when I was swimming and I would feel much better once I got the swim under way. I spoke to Jeff to confirm everything was still looking good for the swim, a part of me was hoping he would say the big NW swell that was now being predicted would scupper any attempt but he sounded enthusiastic about the conditions and so I packed my gear in anticipation of travelling to Molokai the following day. That night I took some sleeping tablets and tried to put my growing fears to one side. In the morning I was greeted to two emails, one from my local support crew to say he had been injured in an outrigger race and couldn't come and another from local swim guru and coach Steve Borowski who voiced his worries about the large predicted swells. Not the sort of details I wanted to deal with 12 hours before my biggest ever swim. I spoke to Jeff one last time and he said he would find a back up crew member and reiterated to me that the swell was not going to be an issue, with those reassurances I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport. I finally arrived at my Hotel in Molokai, the only hotel on Molokai, by late afternoon (after a long wait at the airport for my bags that took a different route!). The hotel was basic but adequate and I finally managed to stomach a decent pasta meal that afternoon - my most substantial meal in 2 days. I took a few more sleeping tablets and went to bed at 6pm ready for the early start. Harley the local taxi driver, from the only taxi company in Molokai, arrived at 2am to take me to the harbour and we arrived just before 3am to wake up the crew that had boated across the previous afternoon. It was the first time I had actually met Jeff and Matt and I was introduced to 'back up' crewman John who had never been involved in any sort of long distance swim before, to be honest I was just glad they had found someone. We loaded up the boat and motored up the coast towards La'ua point - the closest point to Oahu. Jeff sat me down and said "Quick question, what do you want us to do if we see a shark?", "Well" I replied, "If you see one that looks even a little bit interested I'd rather get out before it decides if I'm edible", "Good answer" said Jeff, "I just like to check because Penny Palfry told us we could only pull her out after the first bite!" As we approached the point even in the dark we could see waves pounding the rocks and we had to come further South away from the point (and Oahu) to find a sheltered cove where I could start the swim without the risk of getting smashed on the rocks. I had brought some water-proof shoes to climb onto the rocks at the start and at 3.40am in the clouded moonlight I jumped into the black Pacific Ocean and started my Molokai Channel swim.  

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