There is the race report that I prefer to write, the one that talks about the strength of the six relay swimmers, that goes into someone’s first ocean swim, the difficulties of raising a Justin Beiber fan or working at Qantas, the first time being four months pregnant, or the nervous father who wondered if sea sickness is similar to morning. Thankfully no one had either. But this isn’t how I will remember the 2011 race. Our little antics didn’t compare to what happened in the water.
Granted we did fine. We had a native captain and first mate who had not just an intuitive sense of the waters but also knew how to harvest them with a spear gun or chisel. Joining with them was a girl from Danville and we tried to figure out which one she was dating: the captain or the first mate. She was more scenic than nautical, and this eased the time under the boat’s tarp as we rocked in the waves towards Lanai.
The race started dangerously. The waves were the largest I have seen at the start and this was combined with the greatest number of boats. The three jet ski patrol did their best to corral the boats, but there is the hard logistics of so many in such a space. Part of the problem that now haunts the race is that it is known as the best open water swim in the world and is starting to be enrolled as such. The race has been filled with as many boats as it can find.
Right before the race one boat lost its engine. The waves pushed it towards a coral reef and its swimmers abandoned it. Shortly after the race had started and the rest of swimmers had made their way through the diesel scented flotilla another boat sank. We think we saw a bit of the boat popping up from the waves as we past it.
In a normal race two downed boats would be enough. But the radio that was turned to channel 71 crackled that a twelve foot tiger shark had been spotted just behind their swimmer. The girl from Danville clapped in joy that she might see a shark and then took another puff from her cigarette. She seemed oblivious of any danger whether it be from smoking or dating native Hawaiians.
The shark team pulled their swimmer and asked over the radio to the race director, Coco, if they could move laterally to stay in the race. I do completely support the wisdom of the first action but have to wonder about the second. A twelve foot tiger is twice the size of me and for that matter would have measured up fairly well against the boat. One of the jet skis rushed over to monitor the shark which submerged as he approached. I have no idea of what kind of swimmer goes back into the water after a shark sighting, but the rumor was Australian.
For that matter I wonder about the people who solo this swim. Granted I have met a few on land and they are the nicest of folk, but their shoulders are different than mine and their technique is more graceful. I am, at best, a grinder, the slow guy in a master class. One of the beauties of this race is that it allows folks like me in a relay to experience the chop that they take on all by themselves. There is a shade of blue in that channel that is beautiful even as it pounds with the wind and current flowing in opposite directions. It is a struggle to time the breathing so that you make it at he top of the wave and when you do you get a small glimpse of the split of the West Maui Mountains or the L from the local high school on the hill. You readjust and then hope in a few strokes that you will time it again.
Most of these elite swimmers finish ahead of our relay team, and one, John Caughlin, was a good half hour in front. New to this year was a safety zone at the finish where the boats were not allowed to go past. Coco kept barking into the radio for ships to leave and threatened to disqualify people from the race. I have no idea if one boat in particular had its radio turned off or was just ignoring it.
What happened next bothered me in the same way that the second plane hitting a tower a decade ago did. To watch (or in our case over the radio hear) a tragedy of that magnitude changes someone.
The first call on the radio was that the boat was getting too closed to a swimmer. This was followed by a progressive series of “no,” with the last one being primal. The boat ran over Caughlin. His arm was shredded by the propellor. We heard the rushing of the ski boats and the urgent request for the ambulance on shore. He is in critical care and I hope for his survival.
I don’t know where to go from here; I have rewritten this five times moving words like “probably” and “hope” around. My wife wasn’t thrilled about me doing open water swims to begin with and tried to get me to promise never to do them again when she heard about the race. I know I need the sea.
There is always the talk of balance and that doesn’t mean between swimming and running or between quadriceps and lats. The balance is trying to figure out the trade off between adventure and responsibility, between how much you want to chuck yourself into an epic versus those that wait at home.
The truth is that a spouse is far more important than a race. I don’t know if John has a wife or a family, but certainly there must be many who know him that are in shock right now. What happened to him was unthinkable and by no means do I blame someone for being at such a wrong place at wrong time. He is 42 and from the Bay Area and both statistics are a little to close to me. I know how hurt my wife would be and my heart goes out to all of his friends and family as well.
I think the race needs to go through a level of introspection as much as its swimmers. Perhaps there should be a qualifier. All of the boat captains should be required to attend the pre race meeting and at the very least make the pick up and drop off for the first and final swimmer 1k off shore. If it means that people like me can’t do the race then that is a small sacrifice. I know from over the years about Coco and Ian and they are the nicest and thoughtful of race directors. They, too, must be in shock.
I didn’t say to my wife that I would never do the channel again, but I know that my own logistics of one day (god willing) of having a kid or for that matter trips to Paris or Prague will have to come first, and both will be treasured far more than a sixth shirt from Maui.
There are events that don’t come close to shipwrecks or wounded in good places like Tomales Bay or Santa Cruz. There is still much ocean left. Yet even with those I know that my best days are not the ones with the medals or sun burns, but the ones I can come home and share a glass of wine or laugh with my wife. There will still be day dreams about the deep blue channel sea but these will shift to realizing of how lucky I am to go home to Louise.