Testimonial of the 2006 Maui Channel Swim
The morning started badly; the catamaran that we booked for our race wasn't at the pickup point. Our group of six swimmers for the Maui Channel Swim Relay waited at dawn on Kaanapali beach as our leader frantically dialed to find out about the boat.
"Dude," the catamaran captain began in a sun bleached tone on the phone, "I am so sorry. The fuel line popped. The boat won't be able to make it."
"Sorry" wasn't really the word we wanted to hear after marking our calendars, spending the money to fly, renting the cars to travel, and waking far too early. Sorry wasn't going to stay next to us as we alternated swimmers into the water for the several miles of open water between the islands of Lanai and Maui. Sorry wasn't going to carry our food and sun tanning lotion. Sorry wasn't going to get us to the swim start. At least he was kind enough to soften the blow with a "Dude."
The first great skill you need for endurance sports is a solid aerobic base. This is the glue that you acquire from months of consistent training. But only second to this base is the ability to rally. Our team leader earned his keep when he said "I have a possible backup boat from the race director." Now I am huge believer of bringing backup gear to a race - a few extra hammer gels are always a good idea, and a second set of goggles is pretty handy. But a backup boat is pretty huge.
Another team on the beach lent us their zodiac to travel a mile out towards the drifting catamaran, which let us fetch our food and what was apparently an overnight visiting blond. Our sea captain had mentioned to us about how great his ship's stereo system was and about how he loved learning about humpback whales in his time spent at some capacity at Sea World. As much as that worked for getting us to book a day trip with him, it was even better at the Rusty Harpoon bar. When the zodiac returned from the catamaran, she jumped on shore and rushed to the parking lot mumbling "I have to catch my flight." Our ex-captain was going to miss our fees, but his weekend wasn't entirely unlucky.
Our leader found a cell number given out at the night before race meeting and woke up our possible new skipper. Like the maritime version of the Wolf from Pulp Fiction the new captain said he would be at the dock in twenty minutes. He was a sailor's sailor - his scraggly white beard puffed out in splotches from his sun burnt face. He was only an "arrgh" away from being an actual pirate.
We rushed down to Lahaina to see our new craft that was, in a word, cozy. But since our new requirements for a boat had been reduced to "operating" we took it.
"The boat only holds six people" our skipper barked. The girlfriend of one of the swimmers wasn't going to be able to go, and we debated whether or not a case of beer counted as passenger. This turned out a rather optimistic sense of the day.
A couple of us had done the race the year before and we felt we were experts the same way that sophomores think that they are better than freshmen because they have figured out their acne medicine. Last year we finished the race at 4:18 roughly two hours after the first beer was poured. This year we approached the race with the same casual attitude spending more time thinking our team name "Keep Stroking Sweetie" then actually spellchecking our flag. We forgot the "T" in "stroking" to make the new word "sroking." If we had done this race for a charity, then we should have picked literacy.
After loading the beer and way behind schedule we rushed out of the harbor towards Lanai. We hit our first bit of chop almost immediately, and as we headed towards the starting line the waves steadily increased to the point the boat would surf down their fronts and then make a quick turn to avoid the bow dipping into the sea. We would have to swim back against this water!
The first person puked just after the boat reached the starting line. The third swimmer lost most of the "Bad Ass" coffee she drank that morning off of the stern while our queasy second swimmer hung out near the bow. We talked about changing the order of our racers, but decided that it would be the best if they got into the water as soon as possible.
The gun went off and our team of bad spellers started against the ex-Olympians, assorted Australians, and whoever else was foolish enough to go out in this weather. As the pack of swimmers made their way through the boats that would parallel them for the race, we realized that our best swimmer was toward the back. We were only going to drop further as the race continued.
Our first swimmer returned to the boat and moaned a simple "ugh." The second swimmer did indeed do better in the water than the boat, but the third swimmer puked both halfway through her first leg and then shortly after returning and hustling up to the bow. I was the fifth leg and I quickly realized the issue of swimming in waves bigger than our boat.
This was going to be more like boxing than swimming.
During the 30 minutes of my first leg and in between those moments where I foolishly tried to breath on the left side only to receive a mouthful of water I was able to breakdown the sea into two classifications: the swells and the chop.
The swells were the determined but steady ushers of the ocean. The secret was to let these mountains of water decide when to look out in front to figure out at where to aim at West Maui. They weren't gentle anymore than say riding an elephant would be, but they weren't overly mean.
The chop was when you swore. They slapped, pushed, and at one time knocked my goggles off. The chop was nasty.
We each finished our 30 minute legs and then started to do 10 minute rotations. Of all of the bravery I have seen during any race, the deepest rally I have ever witnessed was our third swimmer who vomited after each of her legs and still returned to the water. Next year I think we should get a sponsorship from Dramamine.
I think it was my second leg, but who knows it could have been my fourth, when I got my first sea hallucination. Later on shore my fellow swimmers all said that they too saw things in the water which were most likely patches of foam off of white caps, shadows from waves, or specks on goggles. Still there couldn't help be an uneasy feeling for those who forgot to do TV parental block for the Discovery Channel's shark week. The race has a little bit of a reputation for hungry spectators.
We did our best through the rotations. We dropped off a swimmer shortly before the end of each turn who would wait until the swimmer finishing the rotation would tag them. The exhausted finishing swimmer would somehow limp back to boat which always seemed to be twice as far as the distance covered in the rotation.
We passed the 5 hour mark and still were far enough away that we could not see the small craft advisory warnings that flapped along the coast of Maui. We went to six hours, and then to seven.
There is an abbreviation to describe race days like these, those hard days of bad weather when the temperature is over 100 during a triathlon or that is snowing for a 50k ski race: GFU, generally f___d up. They are a part of any endurance career. The trick is to realize early that it is going to be a longer day and slow down. There are races you rush for time, but on days of GFU you go just to say you finished. (And when diving into nasty water helps to say “you can finish” just to get you to go.)
With tired shoulders and empty stomachs we rallied.
Somehow we finished and barely had time to shower before heading to the quiet victory banquet. We weren't the only ones battered, but we were in awe of the 17 swimmers who soloed the entire channel. The first female swimmer napped during the awards. No one was moving fast.
After a victory Mai Tai we, too, went to sleep and waited until the next day to go to our catamaran captain and return the cooler that we grabbed at dawn with our unused beer. He paddled from his catamaran in his dingy. This time he had a brunette. She stumbled out of the boat, rushed bowlegged to her jeep, and burnt rubber away from him. Without losing a beat he asked how our race went.
Some of our teammates filled him in on the trip. They talked about the waves and the sea sickness. They talked about the sun and the long looks at the horizon. They talked how the ground kept feeling like it bobbed during meals and ultimately the pleasure of being able to wear the race t-shirt.
“Dude,” he replied. “I totally had some ginseng that would have helped.”
I don't know if our race over time will wander into a legend, whether there is room for another shanty at the Rusty Harpoon. A veteran of 22 channel races said this was the toughest he has done so it has the outside possibility. But what I would like to wish for is that there is an evening in a small seaside bar when a sailor mentions the time he met a few swimmers who braved the roughest of seas. I hope there is a small little pause as he wonders what it would have been like to been out there before he looks up at a daiquiri-saturated redhead and tells her how great it is to listen to sounds of humpback whales over a brand new stereo system.