Jan 4, 2017

Conquering Hawaii's Biggest Waves

Don Macdonald kayaking down the face of a huge rolling wave crashing down on Doug McConnell

It's a few months since escorting Doug McConnell (A Long Swim) across the Molokai Channel, better known as the Ka’iwi Channel (or Channel of Bones) separating the islands of Molokai and Oahu.

Stretching 26 miles (42 kilometers) and plunging to a depth of 2,300 feet (701 meters), the Ka’iwi Channel has the reputation as one of the world’s most treacherous bodies of water.

Leaving at midnight in pitch black inky warm, with not even a house light from shore, we shoved off from shore Doug's red and green safety lights blinking away as the only visual contact between us, stars shining so bright I felt like Christopher Columbus knowing ahead there was an island yet to reveal itself after 18 hours of sun drenched paddling.

I knew that each human powered race across the Channel of Bones is regarded worldwide as the crowning achievement of the sport and it doesn’t give up easily.

Some 16 hours later, after calm seas and great swimming, mother nature unleashed strong winds following behind a tropical depression driving the seas to 12 foot.The escort boat with a fly bridge would dip down in the trough ahead of us and disappear completely.

As evening fell, it became apparent mother nature had won this day. I leaned over to Doug and said ‘you have to let it go’, your sister and dad will understand and prefer you come home safe. I find in these swims when every ounce of energy is depleted and you are mentally destroyed, you must help swimmers (who are in a depressed state) to make these decisions with little coaching comments and suggestions to allow them to come to the right (and safest) decision. We abandoned the swim within a 1/2 mile of shore but facing jagged black rock walls, 10-foot surf to come ashore and darkness once again.

Before we left, I reflected on some recent history which left an impression and one that would live up to its reputation. The tragic loss of Hawaiian big-wave rider and waterman Eddie Aikau in the Ka’iwi Channel during the 1978 Polynesian voyage of the Hokule’a sailing canoe added to the mystique and revered power of the channel. After gale force winds and 30-foot swells disabled the Hokule’a, Aikau left the ship on his rescue paddle board to seek help for his stranded crew mates. His body and board were never found. Paddling has been a part of Hawaiian heritage since early Polynesians navigated thousands of miles of open ocean guided by nothing more than currents, wind and stars. Double-hulled sailing canoes were used to cover longer distances and single-hull outrigger canoes covered shorter, inter-island distances.

I am sure we will be back and if mother nature allows, we will be standing on the Oahu shore.