Thursday, 11 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones - Part 2 - The Swim

Swimming in the dark doesn't bother me that much. I swam a 2-way Windermere (21miles) all through the night and the first half of my English Channel swim was at night. But it's a little more unnerving when you are swimming in a stretch of water notorious for it's abundant and toothy marine life. The first thing I noticed when I started swimming was the amazing phosphorescence in the water. Every hand stroke lit up with tiny bright bubbles of light and as I breathed to my left Jeff's Kayak stood out with his green, blue and red glow sticks, it felt like my own private disco! I really enjoyed the night swimming and I was relieved to find that as I had hoped, rather than the lethargy of the last few days, I was feeling quite strong and comfortable in the water. I started with energy drinks every 30minutes and a gel hourly, but fairly early on I could feel my stomach was struggling in the salty water and hadn't settled as well as I had hoped from my two days of nausea. I stopped the gels and just kept going with the carb drinks and tried to not think too much about the rising nausea. I had a few bad retches 90 minutes in but no vomiting and otherwise physically I still felt good. The other good thing was the conditions were fantastic at this stage, calm benevolent seas with minimal swells once we were away from Molokai, we even had a nice current in the first hour although it dropped off quickly after that. By 2 hours in the sky started to lighten and I felt a twinge of sadness that the light show was coming to an end.
I still haven't mastered the art of meditative swimming, I don't know what other swimmers think about to make the time pass but I always feel like it drags! Each thirty minute feed seemed to come round slower than I thought it should and I tried to pass the time by knocking off the sets of my July 42km pool session, the first hour was the 4km warm up then 100 x 100m, so every 30 minutes was another 20 hundreds. Then I was into the part of the session I had swum with the local swim club and that eventually took me through to the 5 hour mark. By the 5 and a half hour feed the crew told me I was well ahead of the record pace and over halfway to Oahu. But sadly that was the last of the good news because at about that time the wind turned around. The light southerly cross wind become a stubborn head wind and progress slowed. The waves chopped up too, but all things considered the sea was still behaving relatively kindly and, as Jeff had predicted, the big NW swells weren't proving to be an issue.
Jeff and John swapped kayaking and feeding duties and the minutes and feeds slowly ticked by. I was stung three or four times by jelly fish but nothing worse than I was used to. Little aches started to persist though, the back of my shoulder, my bicep and the knuckle on my right forefinger for some reason! Every feed seemed to take longer to settle in my stomach and I had a growing bloated feeling in my stomach. I kept saying to myself that each stroke, each minute, each feed was getting me closer to the beach on Oahu. I kept telling myself that I had to finish this swim, the conditions were so much better than they could have been and if I quit I would likely never have such an opportunity again. I kept reminding myself that if I didn't finish the swim no matter how long I lasted it would all count for nothing, it would just have been a long meaningless training session!
I had estimated 12-13 hours in total if conditions were good, twelve hours would set a new record and so I broke that into four lots of three hour swims, like 4 quarters of a football game (Aussie rules that is). I gradually worked my way slowly through the protracted third quarter and finally hit 9 hours, this was it - the final quarter! But at about that time I had the most spectacular vomit! All of the feeds that had been sitting in my stomach reappeared in spectacular fashion; this was not an unusual phenomenon for me and I so didn't even break stroke. At least momentarily my stomach felt considerably lighter! But I was really feeling pretty nauseous now and I knew would struggle to keep much more down. At the next feed, I sipped the energy drink without conviction and asked for plain water for the next feed. I had two more feeds of just cold water and then I bonked big style. I had completely run out of juice, my legs stopped kicking and my arms wafted ineffectually through the water, progress seems to grind to a halt. I was eleven hours in, the coast was well within sight but it might as well have been a million miles away. It felt as if the only way I could finish the swim was to float in! I asked for another gel at the next feed and tried to suppress the urge to vomit. I swallowed as much fresh water as I could muster and started off again. Within 5 minutes the kick started to come back and I could feel my energy levels returning along with the pain in the shoulders as I started to pull more effectively through the water. I had another gel with the next feed at 12 hours and knew we were only just over a mile from the shore. That should take about 30minutes so the record was gone but I felt more confident I could make it. We decided to skip any more feeds and push for shore. Jeff got in with three quarters of a mile to swim, and we pounded through a strong cross current that was trying to stubbornly sweep us away from the beach. That last mile took nearly an hour because of the currents but finally deep below me I could start to make out the sea floor, rocks and coral slowly coming into view. I could see the waves breaking on the beach a few hundred metres away. I had been warned by several people that this beach was notorious for its shallow shore break that could dump you on your head on the sand but my only disappointment was that the waves started so close to the shore that I didn't have a nice ride into the beach. I caught a wave and body surfed that last few metres before stumbling onto the sand to be greeted by Jeff's wife, Krista and Linda Kaiser the legend of Hawaiian channel swimming. 13 hours and 4 minutes of tough ocean swimming, done!    
By the end my shoulders were in pieces, my tongue was swollen and raw and the lining of my nostrils felt like they had been washed away by the salt water! My back was painfully sunburnt ('factor 50' only lasts so long) and my stomach was sending a steady stream of complaints that I knew would last for several days!

Why do I do these things? Why put myself through days of anxiety for a physical test so brutal and unpleasant that I suffer the after effects for weeks? And the question I ask myself the most - how many times can you go to that dark place of despair, pull yourself up and come out the other side only to do it all again?
I am the 26th person to swim the Molokai Channel. It may be the longest of the 'Oceans Seven' big channel swims but it isn't in my view the hardest, that honour lies with the brutally cold and unpleasant North Channel. Also, as long as the Molokai Channel is, there are plenty of other swims out there that are much, much longer. Two swimmers this year attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida a distance of some 166km! While neither made it, Penny Palfrey swam for 41hours and nearly 150km before the currents swept her away from Florida. I remind myself as well that plenty of swimmers have done the 'Double English Channel' (there and back) and three have done triples! If you think what you are doing is incredible there is likely someone out there doing something vastly more amazing!
Before I swam the channel I told myself that records, accolades or medals weren't the reason to do these things. That sometimes it is just about taking an opportunity when it is presented and rising to a challenge that you fear may be insurmountable. Maybe it also helps to remember that at the end of the day, it's just a swim.    
(me, Jeff Kozlovich and Linda Kaiser)
Lastly a big thanks to my support crew on this one. All people I met for the first time on the day of the swim! Matt Buckman the pilot was easy going, professional and got me safely from Molokai right to Sandy Beach in Oahu. John my 'stand-in' support crew rose to the challenge and allowed me to complete my swim when it could have fallen apart at the last minute and Jeff Kozlovich who was really fantastic; great support in the days ahead of the swim, knew the conditions and what to expect in the channel and really helped me to fulfil this crazy ambition. Lovely also to be greeted on dry land by Linda Kaiser and Krista Kozlovich at the end. Thanks guys, it might have been a solo swim but it certainly wasn't a solo event!



  1. Congratulations on swimming the Molokai Channel. I very much enjoy reading of your adventures. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Well done Ollie. Impressed as ever. Brad

  3. Wow, that's so cool, you must have traned a lot,and then take the adventures
    I am big fan of you, thank you

  4. and to think you said you'd never do another one after the english channel. very impressed, glad you made it.

  5. Oli, a huge well done, papa Freeman must be very proud of his son-in-law! i thought drinking beers after the Cheltenham festival was tough enough but this is a new level!. A modern day super hero. Nick Turner

  6. Another great write up - well done mate