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Becoming 'Ohana' on a Brutal and Beautiful Swim

by Laura S. Jones, Staff Writer

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between the United States mainland and Japan, six swimmers made the first crossing of the 72 mile Kaieiewaho Channel between Oahu and Kauai, the outermost island in the Hawaiian chain. Five USMS members - Randy Brown, 62, and Joel Swartz, 52, from San Mateo Masters, Linda Kaiser, 60, and Mike Spalding, 63, from Hawaii Masters, Michelle Macy, 33, from Oregon Masters -  joined Billy Brown, 32, coach for Swim Kauai Aquatics, for the swim of a lifetime.

Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family, and these six swimmers became ohana in a way that those bonded by blood often do not. “These are crazy people, and I love them,” Macy proclaimed. That sentiment was echoed by everyone who shared this brutal but beautiful swim that made history.

The Swim

On the Friday evening before leaving, the swimmers received a traditional Hawaiian blessing at the Pu‘u O Mahuka Heiau on Oahu. In what they all considered a good omen, the rarely visible Kauai revealed itself so they actually could see where they were going.

Fortified with the blessing and sighting, the team launched from Kaena Point on Oahu at 5:30 Saturday morning, November 20th. They were supported by an adept and tireless crew of six on Spalding’s 50-foot trimaran called Kioloa. With an initial goal of 30-40 hours, which a few of the swimmers knew was optimistic, they left the lonely, treacherous westernmost point on Oahu in the dark and headed west. They finished together, 47 hours and 55 minutes later, just south of the entrance to Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai at 5:25 Monday morning, November 22nd.

Each swimmer swam for a total of approximately eight hours, and at night they swam without lights to avoid attracting wildlife. For the relay switch, a crew member would just briefly shine a light on the swimmer in the water so he or she could find the ladder, and then the next swimmer would just dive into the blackness. They did have a full moon, which was part of the reason Spaulding selected that weekend in November for the swim.

In addition to that full moon, they had something extra that all cultures for years have tried to define in different ways. “The spiritual aspect is what made this swim feel different,” explains Macy. “We did [traditional Hawaiian] songs and offerings and prayers and asked for safekeeping at the beginning. It was all so emotional and so right to honor those, living and dead, who helped us get here and who gave us all the strength to get through.”

Randy Brown remembers, “being aware of a sense of grace and gratitude” throughout the swim and preparations. “There was just a reverence that you don’t get at a typical Masters swim meet. And the challenge of what we knew we were doing increased the intensity of the bonding.”

Swartz agrees and adds that “the magnitude of the swim and the intensity of the effort of all twelve people – swimmers and crew – made us all reach so much further. I know I pushed myself to limits I’d never been to before.” Swartz took the time to honor his Masters coach, too, explaining that his training guidance helped prepare him for the rigors of the two-day effort.

The Team

Most open water swims require the effort of a large group of people, but in this case, the sense of team was particularly strong. Spalding was the leader and organizer and driving force; the others followed eagerly and selflessly. Randy Brown believes that the swim was successful because each participant thought of the others before him or herself. “No one wanted to quit and let anyone else down.” It may sound corny, but all of these swimmers were so inspired and amazed by each other that they were more eager to talk about the feats of their teammates and the crew than themselves. They proved that there is no ‘I’ in team.

Caring and vigilant, the crew watched over the swimmers just as the swimmers watched over each other. “The crew [members] were all really experienced watermen. Each one had stand-up paddled or canoed that channel,” explains Swartz. “There was just a lot of amazing Hawaii spirit on that boat and a lot of good water knowledge.”

To a person, the swimmers said that they counted the crew as teammates. “They even slept outside on the deck so we could sleep inside and be warm,” says Macy. “We had twelve people in a very small space for two days and we all got along really well. That swim and that connection with those eleven other people really changed me.”

When he had the most difficult leg in the current off the shore of Kauai where he only advance one quarter of a mile in an hour of swimming, Swartz said, “I was just swimming for the team. I was just happy I didn’t go backwards.”

The swimmers came together in a variety of ways. Swartz says “I literally begged Randy to get on the relay when he and Mike first started talking about it.” Macy says essentially the same thing. She met Kaiser at an open water swimming conference and mentioned her plans for Molokai, and “one thing just led to another!”

The Stings

“We faced Portuguese Man of War and jellyfish, so we were getting stung from above and below,” says Macy. “I don’t know how, but we just kept going.” The crew had to pull the creatures off of Macy after one swim. Kasier joked by email that Spalding had said “we all took enough toxic venom to kill an elephant.”

Randy Brown, a Hawaii native, also took a joking approach to the pain upon reflection. “Maybe the ocean which embraced us just wanted to embrace us a little too much with the jellyfish.” Macy remembered that the “jellyfish liked to hit Randy across the face.”

This was the same channel that defeated Penny Palfrey with merciless Portuguese Man of War stings. Even veteran Linda Kaiser was so overcome with the venom that she missed a rotation and had to be treated aboard ship for a severe allergic reaction. And after finishing a shift where she got the worst sting, Macy remembers having to do a systems check. “I can breathe, I can move, I’m going to get back in [when it’s my turn again] and do what I can do.”

At the end, after all the swimmers except Swartz had been stung horribly, everyone decided to wear rashguards. “We did what we needed to do to be safe. I couldn’t take any more jelly stings,” says Macy. Swartz had his own issues which he learned about when he got home. His heart arrhythmia had returned, masquerading during the swim as exhaustion.

And many of the swimmers were still tattooed, weeks after finishing the swim. Randy Brown says he still has the scars on the inside of his bicep and can still feel the “zinging” from the location of each hit by a tentacle.

The Shark

In addition to the jellyfish stings, the Pacific Ocean sent a larger and more dangerous creature out of the depths. Kaiser tells her story in an email: “My encounter with the shark was startling, to say the least. It was confirmed as a tiger shark about 12-14 feet, by the size of its head. That is all I saw, just the head. It was like it was a box, flat and square, with tiny beady eyes, and it smiled at me. It was not there, I took a breath, and then it was under me, coming straight up. I have had many shark encounters and find them to be beautiful curious creatures. I have never left the water when a shark approached. This was different; I think my fight or flight instinct took over, and I flew! I do realize had that shark wanted to eat me, I would not be here. [There is] no way to out-swim a shark, although I tried!”

The problem was when Kaiser got out, the next swimmer had to get in or the relay would be broken. The next swimmer happened to be Randy Brown. Spalding apparently told him not to worry. “We’ll keep the ladder down and you can swim close to the boat.” Macy laughs when she related how Brown dove in right after saying “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

The Currents

The team had cooperative winds, but “the current was not in our favor that day. We got a lot of pushing in the wrong direction,” says Macy. “We knew from the beginning it would be harder than we thought. It took eight hours to go the first seven nautical miles.”

And they got hit at the other end with a current that Swartz was afraid would push him backwards. “Getting out of Oahu and into Kauai was really hard. We actually got stuck about 10 miles out from Kauai.”

Randy Brown explains how difficult mentally and emotionally this setback was to take at this time in the swim. “We all thought we’d be done and at a luau by Sunday afternoon.” In three hours, their forward progress was a grand total of 1.5 miles. After that, the team made the decision to switch to half hour shifts and the ocean approved their decision by relaxing the current.

After such an exhausting final quarter of the swim, the finish was almost impossible, and it fell to Hawaii native Randy Brown. He thought Spalding, as the leader, should finish out the swim, but Spalding generously offered the honor and the final few hundred yards to Brown.. “I’m very in tune with the ocean,” says Brown, “but the humbling part was the finish in the darkness. It took me four attempts to ride the back of the wave to touch land.”

The Epilogue

Says Kaiser, “I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that we did it. I have never witnessed courage and heart like these people showed - to continue to get into the ocean, knowing we were going to get stung again and again, well, it’s indescribable. I am so proud and humbled by it all. That is what an ohana is ... a family that cares and takes care of each other.”

When asked about how it was to transition back to the mainland, Randy Brown says with a warm chuckle: “It’s real life again now. Even with the Portuguese Man of War, I’d rather be there.”

Share the experience and the ohana by viewing their YouTube video.

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