The Adventure of Molokai

Prologue

All winter, I’ve been swimming. Lots and lots of swimming.

Well, lots of swimming compared to a usual winter. But this isn’t a usual winter. I didn’t have a big swim last summer, so I’m not burned out on swimming and haven’t needed my normal mental break before I start a slow build into another long swim.

Instead of enjoying a lull, I’ve been feeling trapped. Aching for more, with nowhere to realistically aim my intentions.

Frustrated, waiting for a swim slot.

An idea grows

This swim really begins somewhere in August or September.

Toward the end of the summer, D’Arcy and I picked up a new swim friend, Fast Mike. D’Arcy and I were plodding way at Chatfield and we noticed some random guy swimming alongside of us. When we reached the far end, he asked if he could swim with us. We were really happy that he asked, instead of just randomly drafting or trying to race us, so we enthusiastically said yes. After we finished our swim, we introduced ourselves.

As his name implies, Mike is fast. Really fast.

And for some reason, Fast Mike also wants to swim far.

During the fall, D’Arcy and I would randomly bump into Mike at the pool from time to time. Eventually, she asked for his number and the three of us planned a few pool swims together, which involved the complicated task of three of us being able to make a reservation during the same time slot. Growing frustrated with 75-minute time slots, we all joined a private gym that has a 3-lane pool, too much chlorine, and backstroke “flags” painted in red on the ceiling rafters. But, for only $20/month, there are no slots and no time limits. Score.

After a few frustratingly short swim slot sessions, Mike asked if I’d be interested in swimming a 10k sometime at the new tiny pool. I’d only swum 10,000 yards once in a pool all year. And now a strange boy wants to do it on a random Wednesday night?

SURE!

One of our early 10k swims

And so it began. Once a week, Mike and I would swim a 10k. Sometimes, D’Arcy also wanted to swim a 10k. So, strangely, I was swimming back to back 10ks on the weekend. And Mike was still hungry for more, so during the week, we were banging out 8,000 yard swims. Fast Mike is so fast that even at my fastest, he’s still getting a lot of rest, so I was motivated to drop some time to make things harder for him. (I’m probably dreaming that I can ever get fast enough to challenge him, but to his credit, he doesn’t complain.)

Around Thanksgiving, I realized I had swum 11 days in a row. I never swim 11 days in a row. But, I was afraid gyms would close as we hit a holiday COVID spike. So any time I could get a slot at the rec center or D’Arcy or Mike wanted to hit the gym pool, I just said yes.

And this pattern continued through December. I was getting stronger and faster. Surprised, I started logging workouts to see how much I was actually swimming. Some weeks, just accidentally, I was hitting close to 40k. I didn’t mean to- I was just swimming for the pure joy of swimming. Mike and D’Arcy were my outside lifeline and the pools were helping me keep my sanity. And I was having fun, all while my arm hair and eyebrows were getting bleached off, like in the good old days of high school swimming.

Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I spent so much time in the pool. All because Fast Mike wanted to swim a 10k with me.

By the time January hit, I had a few months of solid winter training with D’Arcy and Fast Mike (usually just two of us at a time so we don’t overwhelm the 3-lane pool, but sometimes we managed to snag three slots at the rec center). There was still no purpose or reason for all of the swimming. I was just swimming, swimming, swimming.

Until one January afternoon, I met a few friends for a nature walk around our beloved Gravel Pond. The Pond is frozen this time of year, but generally, it’s where I spend my evenings after work training. During our walk, one of my friends mentioned she and her husband were planning a trip to Hawaii. Jealous, I asked for the details and she explained that flights are super cheap right now and as long as you get a COVID test before you arrive, you don’t have to quarantine. Sounds great.

Standing on the ice of our Pond- the conversation that gave me the idea just happened!

After our walk, I met someone for a swim lesson and then knocked out another 10,000 yards with Fast Mike.

The next morning, I was cranky. I had planned to make a big breakfast for Ryan, but as I was pulling pots and pans out to start the biscuits and gravy, I just stopped. Close to a meltdown, I took myself down to my office, with the intention of doing some work. It didn’t take long until Cindy’s words were in my mind again…. Hawaii.

Out of curiosity, I pulled up flights. Yup- really, really cheap.

I looked up the requirements to enter Hawaii. Complicated, but do-able.

Should we do it?

Tentatively, I went back upstairs where Ryan had managed to make his own breakfast and I asked, “Do you want to go to Hawaii? I’d like to go to Maui.”

He looked at me like I was crazy (I’m familiar with this look), and mumbled something about wanting to check out the fishing. So, I went off to swim planning the perfect, relaxing Hawaiian vacation on Maui.

Papohaku Beach

Molokai

Clearly, we made it to Hawaii, but minus the relaxing part.

During his research, Ryan discovered that Maui didn’t have the fishing he was interested in, but the tiny island of Molokai DID. I looked up info on Molokai. There isn’t much to do there besides fish, sit on a rocky beach, oh, and swim to Oahu.

The Channel between Molokai and Oahu is called the Kaiwi Channel. It’s about 26 miles long, and full of sharks and jellyfish. It’s most well-known as being part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which in addition to Kaiwi includes the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Cook Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Tsugaru Channel, and the North Channel. I’ve ticked off three of these swims (Catalina, Cook, and English), with some desire to swim Tsugaru and Gibraltar in the future. I’ve never even considered chasing the Oceans Seven swims, mainly because I’ve never been especially interested in the North Channel (so cold! so many lions mane jelly fish!) or in Kaiwi (so hot! so sharky!). However, Ryan was proposing to pop me onto a deserted island (essentially) while he fished for days. What else was a girl supposed to do?

So I reached out to a few people I know who have swum this Channel, played around on the internet and found a boat pilot. Apparently, January and February aren’t ideal for a swim, but Matt agreed that he’d be happy to take me if we got a good weather window.

Thanks to all that extra swimming at high intensity with Mike and D’Arcy all winter, I felt as though, while not in peak form, I could still muster a measly 26-mile ocean swim on a whim. (That’s sarcasm, just FYI)

So, it was settled. No relaxing Maui vacation spent lounging beachside in the morning and snorkeling in the afternoon. We were in for a week of hard fishing trying to catch an elusive bonefish and hopefully swimming one of the Oceans Seven most intimidating channels.

Papohaku Beach

Travel

We didn’t tell hardly anyone we were going. I know the decision to travel right now is divisive and I didn’t want to anger anyone with our reckless behavior. For those of you outside of the US, and even outside of Colorado in some cases, it may seem strange to feel like it’s safe enough to travel right now. However, cases in Colorado have steadily been declining since November. Our restaurants and gyms are opening up. Most of my friends’ kiddos have in-school learning. I know things are hard for many of you and for most of my day to day, I’ve been a really responsible citizen- doing my part to stay home and following all the rules. I have only been inside a restaurant once since last April. I have had family members and friends test positive for COVID. My mom and one of my sisters are teachers. My grandmother’s long-time man-friend passed away this summer from COVID.

COVID scares me. I don’t want to get it and I don’t want to give it to someone else.

So, our decision to go for it didn’t come lightly. However, I had some PTO I needed to use up, Hawaii travel is 100% legal, without any exemptions or special permission required, and we figured Molokai was as remote as you can get. All the studies say flying is pretty safe due to the air filtration systems. Besides, everyone on our flight and in Hawaii had to have a COVID test just to be there, so it seemed less risky than going to the grocery store. Seriously, I probably come into contact with more people going to my daily swims at the gym than I did after spending a week on Molokai.

Puddle jumper.

Adventure time

We flew from Denver to Honolulu and then caught a puddle jumper to Molokai. There were 10 people on our flight and a handful of bags didn’t make it because we were 150 pounds overweight with the cargo. This flight was my first peek at the Channel I hoped to swim sometime that week. It was big, blue, and even high above, I could see the waves crashing. It was intimidating.

Landing in Molokai was surreal. You land on this teeny tiny airstrip in the middle of the island. Flying in, all you see are trees and pastures, with some mountains in the distance. The pilot pulled double duty and after he landed the plane, he hopped out and opened the door for us to crawl out. We snagged 2 of our 3 bags (the final one was part of the group that had been confiscated for contributing to the weight problem), and proceeded inside the one-room airport. A member of the National Guard took our temperature, we showed our QR code that proved we’d had our COVID tests and filled out our health forms, then meandered over to the rental car agency across the street.

We snagged our car and rushed off the only grocery store that was still open on a Saturday evening. We needed supplies since the store was closed on Sunday and none of the restaurants were open, nor would be open until Monday. We waited in line, paid $200 for approximately 3 days of food and headed off the west side of the island to check in to our Airbnb condo.

The view from our condo

We woke up Sunday morning to waves crashing and birds singing and a beautiful ocean outside our door.  After a Zoom baby shower with my sister in Missouri, we spent Sunday exploring the island and poking around for all the good fishing spots. Monday, I touched base with my boat captain, Matt, while Ryan fished. Fishing wasn’t great. Neither was the weather forecast.

The Waiting Game

We spent all week in the same routine: Get up, eat, fish/read, then some afternoon snorkeling at a nearby beach. Not a terrible way to spend a week, except the wind forecast was consistently bleak. Trying to not stress about it, I focused on finishing some books and not getting sunburned.

Snorkel mask- not MSF approved. HAHAHA.

On Thursday night, Matt gave me a call. He was out on the water to test things out, and while it seemed good, he wasn’t sure about the forecast. He hung up and said he’d call me in the morning to confirm. Friday night was our last possible window to swim, since our flight home was Saturday night at 11:45 pm.

Friday morning, we waited until about 10 am, and we hadn’t heard from Matt. A friend had sent me a weather bulletin talking about a small craft advisory for the Kaiwi Channel and the weather app on my phone was warning about high surf conditions. So, we assumed the swim was off, ate a lazy breakfast and then went out for one last day of snorkeling and poking around. Ryan found us an abandoned beach, occupied by only two Hawaiian Monk seals with some very excellent snorkeling. As we were packing up to try a new spot, Matt called.

It was 2:30 pm.

“Are you ready?”

WHAT? I explained since we hadn’t heard from him, and all the weather warnings, we had assumed the swim was off.

He sounded shocked, told me the weather was perfect and to meet him at the beach by our condo by 6.

We had 3.5 hours to pack our suitcases, organize our gear, do a last minute supply run, drop our large luggage at the airport for a flight to Honolulu, return the rental car, book a place to stay in Honolulu the next day, and make my feeds. The urgency was high.

GO TIME

The bright side to the fire drill: I didn’t have time to get nervous.

We’ve done a swim a few times, so Ryan and I went into autopilot, running down our mental check lists and getting things prepared. At 6 pm, we were on the beach, waiting for Matt.

After some initial confusion on launch point, we got it together. Matt was stationed just off shore and sending two of my kayakers from the boat, through the crazy surf, to help Ryan get our gear onto the boat.

**I should pause here to note: Ryan doesn’t know how to swim. He can sorta float when we snorkel, but he doesn’t do waves and he definitely doesn’t move forward without help. I was currently asking him to grease me up and then swim some bags to the boat. In 6-8 foot swells. Yes, he loves me more than I deserve.**

Two of my kayakers, James and Connor, arrive on shore, just as the sun begins to set. The first thing I notice is that they aren’t the “guys” I was expecting. They are children. Babies, really. (Ok, to be fair, James is 19 while Connor and his friend Shay, waiting off shore in a kayak, are 16.) But, they seem eager and ready to help, so Connor grabs my carry on-sized suitcase, plops it on his boogie board and prepares to head out to sea. He just about times the waves right… but doesn’t quite make it. Watching a kid, hugging my suitcase to his chest while he crests a giant wave might have been one of the most barf-inducing moments of my life. But, he made it and came back in for round two.

Meanwhile, a security guard arrived in a golf cart. Ryan and I busy ourselves with getting me greased up, while James calmly and politely explained to the security guard that he and Connor have no intention of staying on Molokai, they’re just here to help escort me to Oahu, not spread COVID to the native population. Listening to James with the security guard, my nerves about his age are immediately alleviated. He was calm, respectful, and got his point across. I don’t know many grown men who could accomplish that so well.

Once the security guard was satisfied, James and Ryan are ready to head to the boat with a couple of bags of goodies. Connor has made one more trip while were prepping, and he was back for the last bag, which has my plastic tub that contains Advil, Nuun, my daytime goggles, headlamps, glowsticks, tape, etc. Ryan was quietly panicking as he zipped his glasses into his shorts pocket, while James calmly and confidently coached him on how to make it to the boat. They timed the swells perfectly and were off to the boat. Matt, to his credit, managed to get the boat in pretty close in that moment, so Ryan didn’t have too far to go. I held my breath as they swam out, but got distracted as Connor mistimed a wave and went crashing around with my last bag. Me and the security guard rushed around to check on Connor, collect the boogie board, and drag my now filled-with-water supply box out of the surf. While I was helping Connor, Matt begins to yell “Let’s go, let’s go!” I see Ryan safely on board, Connor was situated with my tub again and James was on his way back to help. I saw Shay out with the kayak and ready to go. There was a lull in the waves, so Connor and I left the beach together.

6:52 pm.

The start

I swam heads up freestyle to the boat, pulling up alongside the boat and the kayak. James and Connor were a bit behind me, but moving along, with no dangerous waves approaching. I asked Ryan if he was ok, and he yelled down that he was fine. Matt directed me to keep swimming, so Shay and I headed off while Connor and James caught up.

This was turning out to be the most insane swim I’ve ever done, and we’d just barely begun.

By 7:00 pm, the sun is fully down and it was getting dark, fast. Shay had a hard time positioning himself with a swimmer- it was his first time escorting a swimmer and these weren’t exactly ideal conditions for a beginner. The wind was pushing hard, making it hard to hear. The swells were huge, shoving us together and then back apart. Because the wind was at our backs, Shay was constantly getting pushed far ahead of me, then backpedaling before I could see where he was. He was also positioned on my left- which isn’t my strong side. I really prefer things on my right, but the way the wind was blowing, being to the left was smarter. Only problem is, Shay was kayaking slightly erratically and I have a tendency to veer left into anything that is close by. Not really an ideal combo! Surprisingly, we only crashed into each other twice, though the second time I hit the side of the kayak with my head, just on top of my nose. I was just grateful that the loud crunch I heard wasn’t my nose full of blood. Still, I could tell Shay was trying hard and he was apologetic every time we stopped for a feed. The conditions are legit tough for kayaking, and I resolved to just deal with it, without getting annoyed.

Then, just after my 2 hour feed, Shay tapped me on my back with the paddle.

“We have to go back to the boat!” He’s yelling over the wind and the waves. “I don’t know why, but they just told me we have to come back.”

Knowing that’s not a good sign, I made haste back to the boat. We went around to the back of the boat and all I could hear was shouting. Thinking is a shark somewhere close by, so I started to panic as well.

I heard Matt yelling at me to “hurry up and get on the boat.” But as I was making my way toward the boat, Ryan’s clear and calm voice rang out: “Just stay there. The boat broke, but we’ll fix it. Just wait there.”

**I should also note here: This is not the first time I’ve had a boat break. They break all the time. So much so that my sister Melody likes to joke that I’m more reliable than any boat. I wasn’t concerned or bothered by a little engine trouble. I was confident they’d get it to work and we’d be back to swimming in no time.**

Red is the kayak. Blue is me. About what nighttime swimming looks like.

While Ryan and Matt fixed the broken motor, I was treading water, chatting with Shay. It was a moonless night and the stars were incredibly bright. I can see Molokai glowing behind me, already seeming small in the distance. I couldn’t quite make out Oahu. I was still busy appreciating the view and chatting with the kids when Ryan let me know that everything was fixed and we can start swimming again. A fifteen minute stop to take in the stars- not such a bad deal!

Shay kayaked another hour before switching out. Connor was in next and was having a much easier time. I was finally able to feel like I was getting into a rhythm. I could feel the current pushing off Molokai and I was grateful the wind and waves were headed in the right direction. Every now and again, I could catch the tail end of a wave breaking, earning a few moments of weightless body surfing. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride.

And then the nausea set in.

I made it about 5-6 hours before puking.

In the past, whenever I’ve puked, I always feel better immediately. Not this time. I puked up my feed, but could tell there was definitely more vomit coming. I proceeded like this for hours. Puke, dry heave. I kept trying to drink my regular feed for about an hour and half before giving up and asking Ryan for just straight water. At first the water didn’t stay down, either, but then gradually, I realized I’m going about an hour between puke fests. Tentatively, I asked Ryan to send me down a diluted Carbo Pro mix with a Nuun tab in it. It tastes DELIGHTFUL, but I immediately barf it up. I try again half an hour later. This time it stayed down. But, the next hour, everything came back up.

All the while, Ryan was encouraging me from the boat. At the first round of vomit, I heard Matt ask if I’m ok or not. Ryan, confidently told him, “Oh, she’ll be fine.” I knew I was fine, but hearing it from Ryan helped. At the next stop, Ryan assured me I’m making great time. I remembered being told there’s a current off of Molokai, so I don’t get too optimistic. Besides, I’m too busy puking to care how fast I’m going.

Every swim has it’s own rhythm. This one: Feed. Puke. Dry heave. Feel ok for 15 minutes. Gradually feel more progressively sick until right before the next feed, so I’m ready to vomit again right on schedule. Feed. Vomit. Dry heave. Repeat.

I lost track of time.

At one point, I asked the kayaker for the time. It was just about 4 am, he told me.

I was immediately flooded with relief. 4 am was GOOD. I had thought it was closer to 2 am, so the news that I made it through the dreaded 3 am hour was incredibly encouraging. I was close to sunrise and I KNEW I’d feel better just as soon as the sun came up. I risked a look ahead of me, toward Oahu. It looked CLOSE. Behind me was only blackness.

I put my head down. Puked. Start swimming.

Day break

As the sun began to rise, black giving into grays, I requested my favorite: Just water with a side of Peanut M&Ms. I was getting hungry from lack of calories, and starting to feel fatigued. I wasn’t convinced I could keep them down, but knew I needed to try.

The first throw, the M&Ms came down in a water bottle, filled to the brim with sea water. For the first time, I felt defeated. I let my exasperation win for a minute, but was able to remind myself I was just hangry. I gulped some water and nicely asked Ryan if he would reload the M&Ms and send them down again as soon as possible. He was understanding, pulled my bottles back up, and sent me fresh supplies quickly. I stuffed a few in my mouth, the chocolate feeling delightful on my swollen salt tongue. “Don’t puke, don’t puke.” I could feel the nausea start to rise as I chewed, but I fought it off and put my head down to swim. No vomit. 30 minutes later. Repeat. No vomit.

Finally, the sun was really starting to come up. As I was swimming, I thought I could start to see the bottom of the ocean. It was really deep and in the dim light, I couldn’t quite tell for sure, but as the full dawn arrived, I was more and more confident I was looking at ground. I was amazed. I poked my head up again and sure enough, there is land, directly in front of me, looming closer and closer.

No marathon swim is ever finished until your feet touch ground, so while I was incredibly encouraged at what I was seeing, I knew better than to let myself get too excited. I welcomed every wave that pushed me toward the finish line, all while knowing that the ocean could change her mind at any moment and decide to try and shove me back to Molokai.

As the sun fully rose, I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium. I could see schools of fish below and dozens of birds swooping overhead. More than one bird got a little closer than I’d like, clearly trying to decide if I was edible. I got my first full look at Matt- it was dark all night and I had no idea what he or Shay look like, since I only met James and Connor on the beach back in Molokai. I laughed and told everyone good morning.

As expected, I was feeling infinitely better now that the sun was up. We did one more M&M feed and James told me that we were in the final push. I momentarily wondered if he knew what he was talking about- the shore looked close, but not quite close enough for a final push/last feed situation. I’d predicted a 15ish hour swim, and while I was too worn out to do the math, I knew I was closer to 13 hours than 15. I hoped James was right and we were closer than I expected.

I’d heard Sandy Beach could be really crazy as far as swells go for a swim finish, so I was mentally preparing to body surf in. And then suddenly, I realized I was coming in for a landing. The swells were manageable, though I admit to very ungracefully failing to catch 2 waves in. But, finally, I was walking, clearing the water. A group of local open water swimmers had came to greet me, and as I exited, they all yelled at me to hurry up- a wave was coming, so I ran the last few yards to clear the surf. Cars were honking in the parking lot and I smelled someone cooking sausage. Bill Goding was the first to meet me at the finish and he immediately draped a lei around my neck. Then, several others came and did the same. What a magical ending to a perfectly miserable swim.

Finished!

Epilouge

Matt’s wife was on hand to drive me via car to their house, where the boys are waiting with the boat (they live on a canal, so the boat docks there). We checked Ryan’s phone for the official start and end time- 12 hours and 39 minutes. The fourth fastest time across that Channel. I was incredibly thrilled that we pulled it off, happy to be done in 12 hours and not 15 or 16, and ready for a nap before our flight home that evening.

Eventually, we grabbed an Uber to the airport to get our big suitcases, then headed back to a hotel where we showered and napped before getting a huge dinner at Duke’s on Waikiki Beach, then another nap before heading to the airport.

Dessert

Our flight home was uneventful. The blast of arctic air hitting us on the jet way back in Denver was the very real signal that our adventure was over.

Driving home from the airport.

PHOTO GALLERY

15 thoughts on “The Adventure of Molokai”

  1. Loved reading this blog…Sarah ….you are such a strong , adventurous, resilient woman and your swims are always exciting and terrifying to those of us with other abilities….thanks for sharing your beautiful story and to Fast Mike for giving you another reason to do this open water swim after being given a cheap reason to head to Hawaii!!!!!!!….LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Glad you got to have another adventure! I love the smile on your face in all of these pictures.That water looks pretty gnarly to me so glad I wasn’t on the boat! I love to read your recaps; they offer a lot of good insight that we mere mortals find fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Congratulations on another achievement/accomplishment. It’s an incredible feeling knowing that you can do a “pop in” swim like that for the shear joy and fun that comes from doing something that you love!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sarah, what an amazing and incredible swim journey! You are strong, brave, and resilient!
    Just as great is your documentary! Intereting, well written and almost compelling.
    You deserve that luscious looking pie, all the pnut MnMs you want!
    I am also proud of your captain, my son, MATT BUCKMAN. He is the most knowledgeable and accomplished waterman around….. very decisive and authoritative!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for that great account of the Molokai swim.
    It’s an incredible achievement in such an isolated place. Swimming between a few specs of land in the middle of a vast ocean gives you a unique perspective doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a swim that definitely intimidated me. The distance is manageable- done plenty of those- but the water is so big and ALIVE. If you want to feel small and vulnerable, jump off a boat in the middle of the Pacific in the middle of the night. 🙂

      Like

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