The sand is so warm and Sarah and I lie down and soak up the final rays of sun trying to calm the nerves and not think too much about what lies before us. John busies himself prepping our dinner and what we need to get ready for the start. Sunset is beautiful. Once it gets dark we head up to the pool area to get out of the wind and find some light. I force down my pre-swim meal of Ensure, Pronutro and a boiled egg.
The boat captain Ivan had originally suggested a 7 or 8pm start. It is now 9pm. John is convinced we should delay the start because of the wind predictions. We spend some time in our own thoughts before making a final call to Ivan to confirm the send-off time. He advises sooner than later. It is go time. I change into my costume and Sarah starts the arduous process of lathering me up with my special anti-jelly fish anti-chafe cream.
John has the Go Pro ready for me to say a few words. I have none, I am too emotional. I flash a nervous smile and throw a cowry shell from Greenpoint (down the south coast of Kwa Zulu Natal) into the ocean. Our host and legendary channel swimmer Linda Kaiser had told us it was tradition to throw something into the sea at the start of the swim as an ‘offering’ to the ocean.
Go time: we slide into the water, John in the kayak and Sarah and I swimming through the crystal clear water. Above us is a canopy of stars. The boat has its headlights shining into the water to show the way. The ocean is a warm 26 degrees Celsius. Sarah heads straight to the boat with John. I stop at the boat to say hi to the crew and then set off. The water is still relatively calm and I settle into a rhythm more easily than usual. My feeds are scheduled for every half hour and the first one comes quickly. I am swimming around 23 minutes per mile.
John whistles to get my attention. The swell has picked up and I have to keep breathing to the right to make sure I stay next to the kayak. The boat is behind me to the left. At times I can’t see John because of the swell. His whistle soon becomes music to my ears. As I glance up to see what John is whistling for, I see a fin cut across the water in front of the boat out the corner of my eye! I am so stoked, within my first hour I have spotted a shark! (More than likely a Tiger Shark, but we couldn’t be certain) Imagine what else I would encounter if I spotted a shark so early on!
The next few feeds pass uneventfully, but the swell is picking up and it is becoming harder and harder to stay next to John on the kayak. I usually breathe bi-laterally but I now have to breathe only to the right to keep my eye on John. This does not allow me to get into my usual rhythm and I can feel my left upper trap starting to seize up. John is using the whistle every few minutes to draw me back to him. I start to think it is time for a preventative Valoid as I am feeling a little queasy.
Sarah sticks a Valoid in a date ball. I bite into it and straight away throw it back up. Not a good sign. I feel better when I am moving forward so I stick my head back in the water and continue swimming.
The next feed I can’t keep down either. The boat is trying to communicate with me but I have nothing to say. The sight of the boat lurching from side to side makes me very grateful that I am not on it, but I also know that if I can’t keep my feeds down, the swim will be history pretty soon.
Sarah jumps in the water with me hoping to raise my spirits. It doesn’t help. She is right next to me trying to keep me straight and I keep swimming into her. At one point I (unintentionally) give her a shiner. I am feeling crap and for the first (and only) time start to think I may not make this swim. There is no way I can continue for another 10 or more hours like this…
Our second paddler, Bobby has taken John’s place next to me while John takes a breather on the boat. I am so grateful for Bobby, a local Hawaiian who uses simple gestures and an occasional word of encouragement to keep me going in the right direction. John and Sarah try to give me another Valoid tablet. I am convinced it was the cause of my problem and so I refuse, I put my head down and continue swimming. The doubts start increasing. I try to ward off the impending feeling of failure and wanting to die (being sea sick is one of the worst feelings in the world).
Sarah jumps back in the water shouting that John will not feed me unless I stick the suppository – which she had carefully secured in her mouth – up my bum. There is a first time for everything in life: this is my first suppository. Doing it in the pitch dark in the middle of a channel in the Pacific Ocean when you are feeling weak and disheartened is an interesting experience. But I am prepared to try anything at this point. I do the deed and manage to keep the next feed down with difficulty. Within 10 minutes I start to feel normal again! Hallelujah!
From that point on there are no more doubts. I know that whatever else is thrown at me, I will finish this swim.
I get into a decent rhythm allowing myself to swim with the motion of the ocean. I start relishing the phosphorous and black water, I flip onto my back a few times to admire the stars in the sky and just appreciate where I am and what I
am doing. At some point the stars disappear, the swell picks up even more and there are occasional flashes of lightening across the sky as the clouds roll in and visibility gets really bad. John can no longer see the light from the Makapu lighthouse that had been his guide for the past few hours and his whistling becomes more regular and intense. After a while the boat pulls up and tells us we are heading back to Molokai!
We correct our course and get back into some semblance of a rhythm. I have a strategy to get me through the night – I am dedicating each 30 minute session to a person, starting with my family. I manage to do this to a point but am often distracted by trying to stay on course and just by the beauty of my surroundings. Sarah describes the water as “clear as alcohol and black like velvet. As you stroke your arm through the water there’s a mini firework display going on around your arms.”
Something squishy swims into me and I freak out a bit. I know it is harmless but it is weird and I need to know what it is. After gaining some sense of composure I discover it is a flying fish. I learnt later that they were all around us and one landed in the kayak!
I am looking forward to the light of day coming, but also savouring the stillness of the night and relative coolth. As light begins to dawn, it is a relief not to strain to see the kayak.
Dawn breaks and although it is overcast I can finally start my bilateral breathing and get into my proper rhythm. I am actually grateful that it is cloudy so that I don’t get hit by the sun so early on.
Sarah jumps in for her second swim. I’m not in the head space for company and I start getting paranoid that the observer on the boat will think I am drafting. (Official channel crossing rules state a swimmer may be accompanied by a support swimmer for as long as they like but drafting – swimming in the slipstream – is not allowed. An independent observer is on the boat to ensure all rules are adhered to). I pick up the pace to try and get away from her and create some space. She thinks I am racing which is usually the case, but this is just a case of mild paranoia that the observer will think I am cheating so I have to stay ahead!
I shift to 4th gear for a bit (I have been in 3rd till now) I am feeling strong and comfortable and I am breaking new personal records for time and distance in the water having covered over 30km. More than half way!
I am swimming strong, in a rhythm and flying nicely with the swell. In theory I am on track for a swim of less than 15 hours. In my head that means just over seven more feeds: three and a half hours to go! But I also know that that is in an ideal world. Anything can still happen. I have done my research of previous channel swims and know that a channel is never over till it’s over! My shoulder starts hurting. I take two paracetamol. The pain only subsides for 20 minutes so I take another two. The pain continues and eventually I give in and take an anti-inflammatory. Relief! I have a new respect for anti inflammatories and suppositories after this swim!
We are just over seven miles (11km) from shore.
Straight after the feed, I stick my head in the water I see a shark! It’s a small oceanic black tip. It is the first thing I have seen seen in hours other than a few schools of smaller fish along the way. Sarah jumps back in to check it out with me. It is amazing! So special to just be in the big blue ocean with this shark below us checking us out in a very non-threatening way! Sarah stays in the water and we swim together for a bit. I am happy to share the ocean with her this time. We are relaxed and going well.
About seven miles off the shore of Oahu the volcanic rock drops off abruptly, creating a sharp shelf. This causes powerful currents to push away from the land as the water is sucked downward and outward. This stretch of water is notorious and has destroyed many a channel crosser’s dream. And I am about to hit the shelf an hour before the tidal change: the worst possible time.
Just before we approach the shelf John pulls me over and gives me a heads up that we are approaching about a mile of current and rips. I think, “That’s ok, I have been through current and rips before in many training swims.” Little did I know that the next 3 and a half hour are going to be a long battle!
I start noticing that John is having a serious discussion with the boat captain. John tries to call me over two or three times, but I don’t want to know details so I ignore him and just keep swimming. Eventually he shouts at me to listen and I pop my head up. He asks me how much gas I have left in the tank. I reply, “As much as I need.” He explains that for the past two hours I have hardly moved because I am swimming against the current. John feels I should swim around the current. Ivan thinks I should swim through it. John doesn’t want my four years of training to go out the window just because of a current. I’m not particularly fazed and figure Ivan knows best so put my head back in the water and continue swimming. Sarah jumps in and I am very happy to have company as John is clearly not happy with the situation.
Eventually a conference is held on the boat. Bobby swaps out with John. There is an intense discussion happening on the boat and it is making me a little uneasy. Sarah looks dejected and I start to wonder why. I feel fine; I am strong and feel good. I can keep going indefinitely at this pace. Ivan and Bobby are confident they will get me over the shelf and I trust them, but I do not like to see my team in distress. Unbeknownst to me, Sarah suggests a call to our host, Linda, who has swum this channel and has a lifetime of knowledge of these waters. Linda concurs with Ivan that I should keep pushing through the current. And so we do.
After about 20 minutes of my team conferencing while I swim I pop my head up to find out the status quo. All I want to know is if I am moving forward. Sarah says I am so I put my head back down and continue, loving the warm, blue, clean water. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was barely inching forward and had covered less than one mile in the last three hours. About 30 minutes later I see Sarah grinning, cheering and jumping up and down. I am over the shelf.
I have made it past the shelf, my team are stoked and so am I. I swim two butterfly strokes and set off with a new energy knowing I am through the worst of it. At this point I realise that my seven feed theory is out the window and I am simply swimming from feed to feed. I am singing worship songs in my head and focusing on my breathing. It is getting hot out here. We are five miles from the finish, but I know it is still a way to go. I realise I haven’t urinated for a while so we switch to 20 minute feeds focusing on liquids, drinking coke and water.
The water temperature drops a little and I am so grateful for the slightly cooler water off the shelf.
ONE MILE TO GO
I have my last feed. The end is in sight! Sarah jumps in and so does John. I can not think of a more fitting way to end off my swim flanked by John and Sarah as we swim the last mile over the reef against a current into Makapu bay. These guys have worked tirelessly and selflessly to get me here. We have worked together for the last four years journeying towards this dream. Although John has only been an official team member this year, he has been with me since my first ‘big’ ocean swim: Umhlanga to Durban.
I do my final two butterfly strokes to finish off my swim before Sarah dares me to catch a wave to the finish. I catch the perfect wave and float to shore, hop up and am met by my boyfriend Andries with open arms. I’ve made it. It is surreal.
So many people made this swim possible. John and Sarah you were instrumental in getting me across the channel. I couldn’t have picked two better people to have my back. Words cannot do justice to the value I place on both of you and the strength of friendship that has been forged as a result of this journey. To my team back home, you know who you are. Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved alone, you guys are the best at what you do and your time, advice and expertise have been a huge part of this journey and making it a success. To my friends and family around the world who had a sleepless night watching the tracker and praying and trying not to freak out that I was going so off course. Thank you. The knowledge that you guys were watching and cheering from the other side of the world kept me going.
To the One who gave me this dream and paved the way to make it happen in his perfect timing, I give you the glory. God, my Father in heaven, thank you for the chance to live out my dream and the incredible journey it has been. This is just the beginning! The best is yet to come!
Total distance covered: 37.18miles
Time taken: 17:54:25
Average pace: 28.33 minutes per mile