Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Maui Channel 2005

We arrived at the Mala boat ramp sufficiently after sunrise that the sky had been bleached to a faded jean color, that half of other vessels had already started to load the bundles of food, sunscreen, and beer while the gentle waves pushed the ships up and down, and that the others still waiting for their turn huddled in tight packs of matching t-shirts, laughed nervously, and glanced quickly away to guess the conditions further out to sea. We were organized by a long chain of email that tried to anticipate what could go wrong and what we would need – the car rental, the place to stay, the air flights, the team name, the boat – that all started from a single thread, the note that was sent to twenty people that asked if anyone was interested in forming a six person relay team to swim the Maui Channel. The lucky ones replied.

John Donne said that, "No man is an island," but I believe that nothing is more human that to swim between them. It is our need for epic journey, to continue that travel that started across the grasslands of Africa and sent us into space - to reach sometimes further than we believe is possible. (In the case of swimming after the reach you are supposed to pull as you rotate.)

Our group was not only veteran swimmers, but each also had other superpowers. If we were comic characters we would be labeled like the Coach, the Captain, the Bartender, the House, the Driver, and the Mistress of Tunes. Our team name written on the make shift dolphin towel turned flag that we hung from the top of our boat was "Where the @#$% is the Kaanpali beach hotel," the finish line of the race and the location of the victory buffet.

Our name was also our mantra and a more reassuring phrase than what we heard when coming in from the airport. In the ample camaraderie that would define the weekend, a leathery fellow swimmer gave a ride to a couple of us from the airport. He had soloed the Maui channel the year before. Deeply impressed I asked him if he had ever gone further and he said that he had done the English Channel this year but that was nowhere near as hard as the Maui Channel. Nowhere near

This, the all time pre-race psych-out comment, scared me deeply as we motored over to race start on the island of Lanai. As we reached a tiny cove the Driver, a swimmer turned triathlete, jumped off the boat, headed to the beach to join the other teams' best swimmers, and tried not to be intimidated when the conversations on the starting line were about the Olympic trials. Doubly Irish her snowy skin was drenched in the most potent sunscreen manufactured on earth. Wearing a pink cap so we could easily see her among the heavy shoulder masses, she launched when the red starting flag was dropped. We saw her as she went through small flotilla that came for the race.

Next up was the Mistress of Tunes, the one who could not only navigate the deep waters but also equally important Ipod playlists. She was half Dominican and shrieked with joy when she saw a solo crossing by a fellow Dominican - the best part of trip because despite some assistance with medication she still had a hard time with seasickness. In fact the largest difficulty of the day wasn't the feared tiger sharks or jellyfish, but how to keep a stomach happy in a rolling sea. The chop was easier to deal while swimming in the waves than hanging on the rail of the boat, and she would often plunge in to give her digestive system a rest. With long powerful strokes she cruised through her half hour leg.

I, the least experienced swimmer, was next. The second thought that came to me (just after "I can't believe I am this far off shore") was how blue this sea was. That might sound cliché, but one of the things that I have learned from traveling for swims is how varied the palette of the ocean is. The San Francisco Bay always seems like a murky green while Cape Cod is a medium blue, and the Caribbean is almost azure. This sea had a darker blue, the kind of shade that football teams pick to increase their toughness, but with an endless clarity that only most pricey of gemstones have. The water temperature was a delightful warm just a couple of notches down from too hot but in that range where you could be comfortable either resting or cruising. With the exception of the waters around Capri, this might have been the most perfect place to swim that I have been, and I was lucky to get the leg that had least amount of chop.

After me was the Coach. She has the physique that only comes after multiple ironmans and was the only one to have done the race before. Some of her old teammates from her first race were back on a different, faster team. Fifteen-year veterans they had booked a luxurious catamaran, the Shangri-La, as their guide boat, but they still overcompensated the southern swells by going too far to the right. Those of us in the first few legs could site our swim direction off of the mast of the Shangri-La. It was the perfect metaphor that we would spend the day chasing paradise just further up the horizon.

Our team captain who had done a great job of organizing was the first one to ignore the Shangri-la and aimed off course up to Kapalula. He is a pilot by profession, and I would imagine quite used to planning his own route through life. The gang on the boat waved to him, and he corrected his course toward the two white matching hotels on the Kaanapali shore.

Our final swimmer was strong enough in the water that the Corona that she had before going into the water hardly fazed her. She has an infectious disposition, an aquatic Falstaff, that, well, would make the Jolly Rogers, jolly. She clicked with our boat captain who at one point of time must have been a great swimmer, but whose lifestyle on the island with poi, surf and rum, can kindly be said, has made him now a much better floater. He had the perfect name, Marco, for someone just coming out of the water disoriented, stocked the boat with tasty sashimi and mountain dew, and cut a pineapple so that it looked like a boat.

By two thirds of the way through the waves most of us were nursing our first corona and for the next round of ten-minute legs we thought this must be the easiest Maui channel crossing ever done. Distance swimming, like all endurance sports, has long stretches of loneliness. Sometimes in order to go far you must go alone.

But the brilliance of a relay team is that you can get a group together for a weekend and enjoy such wonders like watching shooting stars with a bottle chardonnay on a tennis court or seeing turtles bob up and down in a sunset soaked surf, that even as one person must be struggling against a sea it still left five in the boat to relax, and that there will be a group that you can always reminisce about the time you decided to swim between tropical volcanic islands.

Almost halfway through the third rotation, we realized that the Mistress of Tunes was the one who was going to reach shore on her leg. As soon as she got past the final swim buoys, we hopped in the water to join her for the last stretch that was protected by the black rock snorkeling area. We stroked and breathed the last hundred yards together and knew that we could be heroes, just for one day.