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The Kaieiewaho Channel – Part 3 of 4 – The swim

December 6, 2010

After traditions and spirits were honored and asked for safety and guidance, it was our job to get down to business.  Over dinner the night before the swim Mike began to talk about logistics and rules we would be following:

– We would swim in 1 hr shifts.  If a time change was required, the entire team would shift to the new interval.  There would be no 20 minute shift by one and an hour shift by another.  

– Regardless of what we encountered, we would continue to get in for our shift of swimming.  The only exception would be if our health/safety deemed this to be impossible.  The team would continue swimming in a continuous rotation if one had to retire.

– No wetsuits were allowed.  

– Swimming needed to be continuous.  The only time the exchange would not take place in the water was during the evening.  The tag of swimmers would happen at the ladder on the ama before the new swimmer entered the water, while the finishing swimmer was on the ladder.  This was for safety reasons for the swimmer and the crew.

– The rotation would be Mike Spalding (63), Linda Kaiser (60), Randy Brown (62), Michelle Macy (33), Joel Swartz (54), and Billy Brown (32) 

– We should all take anti – seasickness pills.

After establishing the rules, we established our goal was to swim in 1 hour intervals indefinitely until reaching Kauai.  

While the rules were being established, I felt Mike continually looking at me.  In fact, I felt he was challenging me.  It finally struck me that he was probably worried about me.  I hadn't had the best showing at Molokai.  In fact probably my worst swim to date.  I'm guessing that Mike thought I wouldn't be tough enough to handle this swim as I had called my Molokai Channel after only 2 hours.  (Note: I have no confirmation about Mike's feelings on this.  These are my perceptions and opinions.)  I tried to explain that I didn't need anti-seasickness pills.  I don't get seasick.  Mike gave me one of the "Oh really" looks.  Yes, I vomited uncontrollably during Molokai, but I know it wasn't seasickness.  I almost told him to call my family and they would explain that the only thing that really happens to me on a boat is I pass out, mouth wide open and drool on myself while I sleep.  The team would soon find this out.  I didn't have him call my family though.  I sucked it up and realized that I had to prove that I could take what was thrown at me by the Kaieiewaho Channel.  And then I prayed that I could do just that.  My past resume meant nothing and ACTION was going to speak louder than words.  During the swim, I found out that I didn't really know anyone's past resume so why should I have thought they knew mine.  It is only over 48 hours did we really come to understand the swimming resumes of our new family.

The morning of the swim, I did get up and take 1 anti-seasickness pill at 3:30am.  I took it in the presence of 2 of my team members.  I wanted to be able to say that yes I did take the medication.  It was the only pill that I took for the entire trip.  Ok, yes I know I'm a little stubborn.  

We motored to the start at Kaena Point on the northern shore of Oahu.  It was still dark as sunrise was still an hour away.  As Mike got ready I noticed that he wasn't wearing any lights.  NONE!  Yes I knew about his shark encounter on his last night swim, but I was surprised that he was going to go without anything.  Sure there was an almost full moon, but WOW.  Mike jumped in the water and touched Kaena Point, turned around and started swimming towards Kauai.  I have to be honest for a minute there I didn't see him at all.  The crew assured me he was fine…no worries  Okey dokey.  Then out of the blackness he appeared.  And the crew was right, you could see him and then I noticed you could hear the rhythmic splashing of his stroke.  The swim had officially started.  

After the first rotation of swimmers, it quickly became apparent to me that we were going to be in for a longer swim than planned unless the currents shifted in our favor.  In 6-8 hours (time becomes fuzzy on a long swim), we had only gone 7 nautical miles.  My math before the start was going to have us swimming about 2 nautical miles an hour which would mean a 36-40 hour swim.  7 nautical miles in as much time was not going to be a 36 hour swim.  We kept pushing on though and each gave our best for our hour in the water.

Besides knowing early that the currents weren't in our favor, we also learned that the Portuguese Man-o-War (hereafter PMOW) weren't going to play along either.  Linda was stung on her first swim out.  A whole 2 hours into the swim we all knew that when we hit the water there was a good chance that we would be stung.  I wasn't too nervous about this yet.  Yes I had seen Penny Palfrey's two sets of photos of the stings, but I had been stung by Lion's Mane jellies in Alaska and Nettles in Monterey Bay.  I thought I knew what I was in for emphasis on the word thought.  

My first few swims were fairly uneventful.  It was more the boat life that was interesting.  It took a little bit of time before we settled into sort of routine.  The routine consisted of getting of the following:

– Get in and swim your hour.

– Get out and rinse off and assess any swim damage from PMOW and/or jellies.

– Eat and drink something.

– Go rest for a little bit.

– Get up and watch your teammate in the water.  I usually tried to get up when Linda was in the water and watch her last bit of swimming.  Then I would watch Randy.  About 30 minutes into his swim, I'd start to get ready for my swim and Joel would take over the watch.  I'd come back and Joel and I would talk and watch Randy swimming.  5 minutes before my time, I'd start to get my cap on.  You didn't want to get ready too soon as the swimmer in the water was watching for the next person.  It is a major pain to get excited to see the next swimmer only to realize that you were only halfway into your hour.

– 2 minutes to go move down to the ama.

– 30 seconds to go.  Put down the ladder for the swimmer.

– Go time.  Jump in.  Get some words of encouragement.  Rinse and repeat.

The crew seemed to have a routine as well.  They would captain the boat and watch our time.  I'm sure that they felt we were two year olds in the back seat constantly asking "how long has it been?"  It seemed like the captain rotation was 3 hours on and a few hours off to catch some sleep.  Kim Page, Joel's wife, was the cook for the entire team.  Like clockwork, she would put together breakfast, lunch or dinner and leave it out so that all swimmers and crew could eat at their preferred time.  Then she would clean it all up, rest and get ready for the next meal.  For a relay, we ate very well on the swim.  There was 2 types of  pasta, salmon, avocados, sandwiches, and plenty of peanut butter and jelly.  When the crew were on break, many of them would take the places outside to rest so that the swimmers could be inside in the warmer area.  

This was more or less the schedule.  I had a hard time sleeping on this trip.  Don't worry I was still able to show off my mouth open and drooling sleeping method as was so kindly pointed out by a team member.  I pointed out that I never claimed to be a pretty sleeper.  

And we kept swimming through it all.  I think the hard part was watching a team member get stung while in the water.  Often you would hear yelling, sometimes cursing and then you would see them put their head down and get on with it.  It was so hard yet so inspiring to watch.  I only hoped that I would do the same when my time with the PMOW came.  On the boat there was minimal complaining about the pain of the stings.  This was not a rule of ours.  I think we all just tried to get through it the best we could without affecting the other team members.  We tried all the remedies, except the natural one.  They are all crap.  Nothing makes stings feel better except time as I learned.   

On my second swim, I got to experience what some of my team members had already encountered.  Randy already had a nice "R" tattooed on his right arm.  I joked he should actually get the tattoo as a reminder of the swim.  I don't remember seeing the PMOW that I hit.  All I knew is suddenly I felt as if I had grabbed onto a bare electric wire as a jolt ran through my system starting at my arm.  Immediate response…some yelling.  Then as I continued to swim it felt as if I had lit myself on fire.  Holy cow the burning was intense.  Not at all like a Lion's Mane.  I got out and saw the welt.  I tried the useless remedies.  And then I did what the rest of the team did, sucked it up.  My first sting was minor compared to some that others were receiving so it hardly seemed like I could complain if they weren't.  On with the swimming!

The PMOW left some pretty good marks on all the swimmers except for 2 as we headed into our second day of swimming.  I received a major hit on my left leg on my 2:30-3:30pm swim the second day.  I seriously thought that there was a hole in my leg and there was some swearing from me on this one.  I kept swimming and tucking my head down to see if the leg was still there or if I was performing my own chumming game for fish.  The leg was still there and there was no blood and it hurt like hell.  It actually started to cause weird numbness and pain at the same time in my leg and lower abdomen.  This was not good.  I began to wonder how Randy and Mike were coping with their stings.  Randy seemed to attract the PMOW to his face while swimming.  Mike like to take them to the chest.  There is an excellent video of me trying to get out of the water after this swim.  Kim, bless her heart, is trying to talk to me and I was having none of it.  I was focused on the fact that my leg didn't want to work to get me out of the water.  Plus it really hurt and I didn't want to cry or scream.  I just scooted myself along my butt up to the trampoline and laid back.  Time to figure out how to get this to get better before the next swim.  I resorted to a Benedryl.  It may have helped the swelling I'm not sure the fire feeling was still intense.  It is at this point that I said something that I will forever regret to a teammate that hadn't been stung yet.  I mentioned that perhaps it was his turn.  I regretted it immediately.  It was the pain talking and I just lashed out.  Needless to say, it came true.  My teammate took a good hit to the leg.  Dang it, my bad and I'm sorry.

Only one of our teammates escaped without a sting.  Joel and I were sitting on the trampoline and he turned to me and said "You know the saying that God doesn't give you what you can't handle."  Yep I knew the one.  Joel continued "Maybe he thinks that I'm too old or tired to handle it."  Or maybe as we found out later.  God gave Joel his own challenge.  Joel had an irregular heartbeat 17 months prior to the swim.  Doctors said he was good to go. When Joel returned to California he found out that sometime during the middle of the swim his heart relapsed into the irregular rhythm.  I think God gave Joel plenty to deal with.  Joel never complained, never stopped and always was optimistic.  

So the PMOW, the currents, and one irregular heartbeat continued to be our main obstacles on this swim.  The weather was gorgeous and we watched amazing sunrises, moon sets, moon rises and sunsets.  Granted we were hoping to only see one go around of these, we were blessed with 2.  

As the second day wore on, we all started checking time and distance.  I know I was trying to get a handle on how long would we really be going at this thing.  The GPS would sometimes say 2:30am on November 22nd and other times say 10am on November 22nd.  Either way we weren't finishing the late afternoon of the 21st and we all had to prepare for another night swim.  It is around this time on November 21st, I'd say it was about 1:28pm that I heard Linda yell "SHARK, shark, shark."  The boat went into high alert. Randy was already on the ama to jump in for his swim.  Linda walked on water over to the boat.  Mike looked at Randy and said "Get in Randy.  Swim next to the boat, we'll leave the ladder down."  Randy looked at Mike, looked at the water, shook his head, mumbled "this doesn't seem like a good idea." and then jumped in the water.  I nearly puked.  Holy cow that guy has got cajones of steel.  Frankly I was hoping he would say no as I had to get in an hour later.  Since he got in right afterwards, I knew I couldn't quit if he didn't.  We all watched the water and listened as Linda explained what she saw.  Then she went to rest.  I turned to George and Jamie and said "ok how long will everyone keep watching the water because at some point we are going to go back to normal."  They promised that they would continue to watch while I was in the water.  I must have lost all color in my face as they began to tell me about shark behavior and what they would expect.  

Here are some notes on me.  Since I started marathon swimming, I don't watch Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  I perform meditation and breathing exercises when I start to panic about sharks.  My main method is to convince myself that if I can't see it, it doesn't exist.  In Hawaii these techniques are almost impossible for me.  I've seen sharks there.  I know they are there.  And now Linda just saw one.  I wasn't thrilled about having to get in again.  

Randy's hour went all too soon for me.  I jumped in the water and quietly asked "well, how was it?"  Randy looked at me and said "it was fine. nothing there.  have a good swim."  Those words I repeated as I swam damn near under the boat to stay close.  I would often take a quick peek under the boat to assure myself "ok, see nothing there get swimming."  Then I would peek to make sure that the ladder was still down.  My mantra became: Swim, nothing under the boat, ladder down, swim, nothing under the boat, ladder down, ok keep going just one hour.  I made my hour and focused on my insane mantra.  I also willed myself to continue to look at Joel's smiling face and thumbs up of encouragement.  Soon enough he was in the water tagging me and cheering me on with a "Great swim."  

PMOW, crappy currents, one unknown irregular heartbeat and a shark.  Check.  We were still in the game.  

2nd night – spirits a little low but we are still determined.  We had all suffered through stings.  We were gritting out the pain by sucking air through our teeth.  There was no crying, no yells, just determination.

Perhaps it was inevitable for one of us to succume to the toxins we were receiving, Linda took another big sting on her first swim of the second night.  She continued swimming on until she just couldn't breath anymore.  She popped her head up and said "i'm having allergic reaction, I can't breathe."  The team went on high alert.  Kim got ready with the epi-pens and some benedryl.  Randy got ready quickly to make the exchange.  We pulled Linda from the water and Randy jumped in maintaining continuity of the swim.  George and Kim started helping Linda.  We doped her up with enough Benedryl to tranquilize a horse.  She assured us that she would be fine and we needed to continue.  We did.  

Then came my worst moment on the swim.  I headed into the water after Randy.  I was still trying to shake off some panic from Linda's attack and the shark incident.  I wanted to make some good time in the water, we were now in the teens for nautical miles from Kauai.  I wanted to try to break into the single digits.  The swim was going really well according to me.  I felt good and felt strong.  Then I got wrapped up in one big or many PMOW.  I was on fire, my eyes were watering, and I was hurting bad.  This was nothing like the leg.  The leg felt like a mosquito bite compared to this.  However, these stings seemed to light up every previous sting I had.  I kept swimming but it felt like there were threads attached to my arm.  I got the call that I had 5 minutes left.  I flipped over and tried to pull off what I assumed were imaginary threads.   At the exchange, Joel gave me his regular good swim words of encouragement and jumped in.  I hauled myself out, rinsed off and got dressed.  I went out to the trampoline as I didn't feel like sleeping and I really hurt.  Then I noticed that the threads feeling was still there.  I walked back to the benches, took off my jacket and asked for a flashlight.  Those imaginary threads were real.  The tentacles were still attached to my arms and my muscles were starting to shake.  With the help of Kai and Rob, we pulled off the tentacles and then looked.  The barbs, which are the same brilliant blue as the ocean, were still stuck in my arm.  Very pretty in their sadistic way.  Mike came out and suggested the bee stinger credit card trick.  No luck they wouldn't come out.  Now I was almost in tears.  I looked at them all and said I didn't think that I could get back in the water.  They assured me that they understood.  Plus adding insult to injury, I had only made 0.5 nautical miles in one hour.  We were stuck in a major current and moving nowhere.  I quickly did the math on swim time and estimated how many more stings I could take if any.  My computations came back as "no way you are getting back in again. you won't be able to handle it."  I tried my best to explain this to Rob, Kai and Mike.  Mike looked at me and said "give yourself the 5 hours and see."  

I went back out to the trampoline to watch the current and Joel battle it out.  And I battled with myself.  Joel came out of the water smiling.  We found out he had gone 0.25 nautical miles.  He optimistically said "I thought I'd lose ground and I didn't.  We are still in this."  I wasn't so sure.  I went back to talk with Rob and Kai.  Again I stated that I wasn't sure what would happen at my rotation and I was pretty sure that I couldn't do it.  They again empathized.  I asked plainly – how long can the insanity go on?  We aren't making any ground?  We are down a swimmer due to PMOW stings and I'm out of the game.  Rob spoke to me plainly.  "We are 10 nautical miles from Kauai.  Mike is still in this as are Randy and Joel.  As long as we continue to make forward progress and everyone stays healthy and safe, we are in this."  I felt his conviction and I saw it in the faces of my fellow team members.  I went back out to the trampoline and Mike was there.  We had a chat.  He massaged my hands.  He looked at me "how do you feel?" My response "like ass."  "have you started convulsing, sweating and shivering."  My thought was WHAT THE HELL?  my actually response "not yet, but I'm looking forward to it."  "good you still have your sense of humor.  give it time."  I curled up to watch my teammate in the water.  Billy came out and had made 0.67 nautical miles, we were starting to beat the current.  Mike with determination jumped in for his hour.

I continued my debate.  I went back to Rob and Kai.  They were talking about how in canoe races they would shift intervals as the race progressed.  I began to think, I could do less time in the water but I didn't think I could do an hour.  As a team we had discussed shifting the interval if necessary.  If there was anytime it was necessary, it was now.  I spoke with Joel, Randy and Billy.  They were all still very much in the game.  I discussed that I would be in if we could go to 30 minute intervals.  We thought that this may be beneficial to helping us with the current too as we could pound out much harder for shorter period of time.  In addition, I found out that Joel had another speed suit that went to the ankles.  I could use it and it would provide me with some additional protection.  Ok ok ok…I'm back in…I hoped.

30 minute intervals fly by fast.  Rob was a little concerned about me getting back in due to we weren't positive how/if the toxins were affecting me yet.  Time would tell, the team needed me and I needed them.  I suited up for the first time ever in a full length suit.  It was weird.  I stood on the ama, got ready for the exchange, and received the "go get'em buddy." before jumping in the water.  I was scared.  I had Mike promise that he would be ready as soon as I hit the water so that if something happened the continuity would continue.  He was and I watched him, Joel and others my whole leg.  I watched for the 10 minute then 20 minute and finally the 5 minute sign.  My heart raced with fear that entire swim.  I believe that it was my teammates and crew that kept me moving forward.  I made 1 nautical mile in that 30 minutes and I knew we were back on track.  

I rested with others on the trampoline as we watched the nautical miles tick away and we inched ever closer to Kauai.  I got in for one more 30 minute interval.  Mike followed.  And Randy was there to finish it off.  Mike jumped in to escort and finish with Randy at the cliff.  We all watched and listened for the cheers that we knew would come.  They did.  It was done.  47hours 55 minutes for 6 swimmers and 6 crew to swim the Kaieiewaho Channel.  

Here are just a few of the photos. 

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One Response to “The Kaieiewaho Channel – Part 3 of 4 – The swim”

  1. kristy says:

    Congratulations again, Michelle…and to your team.  Sounds like a wonderful group of people.  I'm glad you didn't give up.
    PMOW…watch out for a renewed reaction up to 4-6 weeks after…I was stung in 2003 and for 5-6 weeks later, the wipe marks, burning and itching would reappear.  Wasn't nearly as painful as the initial stings, though.
    this article talks about the reappearance…
    http://www.aloha.com/~lifeguards/portugue.html
    "…The lesions can last for minutes to hours, and the rash may progress to urticaria, hemorrhage, or ulceration. Recurrent episodes of urticaria may last four to six weeks at the site of envenomation. (The pathophysiology of sting induced urticaria is that it occurs following release of histamine, bradykinin, kallikrein or acetylcholine resulting in intradermal edema from capillary and venous vasodilation and occasional leukocyte infiltration.)"

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