Patient Teammates -
Assuming there is not a change in plans, the A Long Swim team will start our swim of the Ka’iwi Channel on Saturday, July 30, at around 8:00 p.m. local time. Hawaii Standard Time is three hours behind the West Coast, and five hours behind Chicago.
The starting beach is on the western shore of Molokai, and the finish line is on the eastern shore of Oahu, 27-miles away across open ocean. Our plan is to swim into the night, through the night, and into the next day. Our hope is to try to land the swim in the early afternoon on Sunday. We are expecting an 18-hour swim. We hope our window is open that long.
All of our swims are according to English Channel Rules. Speedo, Cap & Goggles. No wetsuits. No touching the boat. No touching a human. No getting out. Start on dry land and end on dry land.
Control the Controllables
This swim has been a long time in coming, and a starting line has never looked so good to me.
It has been two years of training, two years of planning, two years of learning and two years of hoping. The training takes place early in the morning, in mostly Lake Zurich, before I get on the train to head to Chicago. Weekends we train in Lake Michigan. I moved my investment banking practice into Metropolitan Capital just after the 1st of the year and it was a great move. I regularly remind my wife that I am a banker first, a swimmer second.
In terms of planning a marathon swim, the challenge is to control what you can. As my coach, mentor and close friend, Marcia Cleveland, once explained, “For everything you can control, there are a hundred things you can’t. Get used to it. Get comfortable with it.” We did everything we could do to stack the deck in our favor. We picked the latter half of July because it is typically the time of the year when the winds and seas are not as rough. We picked the last week of July because it was after the full moon, when tides are at their peak. Hawaiian swimming icon, Linda Kaiser, has been advising us since we arrived and we have enjoyed and appreciated her involvement and wise counsel.
What we hadn’t contemplated – and certainly couldn’t control – was Tropical Storm Darby. Shortly after we arrived, Darby was all that everyone could talk about, in part because it had just been downgraded from a full-on hurricane. When the eye of the storm roared through the Islands, it was a terrifically violent with 60 knots of wind and 15 inches of rain. The bigger issue with Darby was the aftermath, where the pressure dome kept the conditions at 8 – 10 foot confused seas. It was not safe for the boat crew, it would have been out of the question for a kayaker, and certainly would have been suboptimal for the swimmer. The A Long Swim team sat and waited.
The Ka’iwi Channel
The Ka’iwi Channel (pronounced “kah-EVE-ee”) is Hawaiian for the Channel of Bones, and is considered one of the most challenging swims in the world. In addition to the 27-mile distance, it is known for its relentless trade winds. In Hawaii, the trade winds blow from east to west, and 20 knots is considered a light-air day. The waves come in two flavors; the swell (which is driven by the enormity of the ocean, and are slow undulations of four to six feet), and wind waves, which are an additional four to six feet on top. If they are moving in a coordinated direction, the swimmer is able to lock into the rhythm of the sea and move in concert with the waves. If they are not, the waves make it like the swimmer is caught in a washing machine. It is very difficult to maintain a stroke cadence and is extraordinarily tiring. The washing machine effect is something we felt for seven hours on our English Channel swim.
Then, there’s the wildlife; jellyfish and sharks. Jellyfish abound in the Ka’iwi Channel and, with the warming of all of the oceans, the species of jellyfish that can really do damage have found their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Jellyfish torment swimmers, and I have learned that I am allergic to their toxin. At best, multiple jellyfish stings can make for a long day; at worse, they can be life-threatening. Jellyfish are photo-phobic, which means that they come out at night. There is nothing a swimmer can do to protect themselves from jellyfish, and they become just one more painful thing to be spooked about in the dark.
As for the sharks, they have become an issue. Swimmers have been attempting the Ka’iwi Channel swim since the 1960s, and there haven’t been any shark incidents until a month ago. In the last few weeks, two swimmers have been pulled from the Ka’iwi Channel because of shark activity. We viewed the recent shark incidents as a bit of a wake-up call, and upgraded our shark deterrent technology. We will be using a device called E-SharkForce, which disrupts the electrical sensors that sharks use to find prey. E-SharkForce has become a sponsor of A Long Swim, we spent time with the inventor, and it’s a great relationship.
With all of these challenges, perhaps it is no surprise that the Ka’iwi Channel is not a frequent choice for marathon swimmers. Only 38 solo swimmers have completed the swim, compared with numbers like 1,600 for the English Channel. A little comparison for mountain climbers? About 5,000 people have summited Mt. Everest.
A Long Swim was built around ALS, and even borrowed the acronym for our name. This has been a big week for ALS. Research announcements are coming fast and furious, and it seems like a breakthroughs are being made every few days. After being closely involved with the ALS research world for a few years, this is a dizzying – and thrilling – pace.
There are two subtexts about most of the articles and papers announcing these discoveries; money and collaboration. Much of the money, of course, came from the avalanche of donations related to the Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer of 2014. It was lightning-in-a-bottle, and raised more than $160 million for ALS in six weeks. It was less than two years ago, and already these advancements in studies on DNA, genetic mapping, motor neurons and stem cells are emerging. With total funding raised of $350,000 or so, A Long Swim is not in the league with the Ice Bucketeers, but donations from you, our teammates, have been rolling in and we will gladly “swim in the wake” of this tremendous momentum. It is a good time to be involved with ALS research, and progress on all of these fronts can only lead to good things.
The other message on ALS research is the importance of collaboration. Scientists committed to ALS are now sharing with one another, not just within a research center, but with like-minded colleagues all over the world. A project at Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, can hand off data and findings to Oslo and Amsterdam, that can hand it off to Johannesburg and Tokyo, that can hand it back to Chicago. The sun never sets on collaborative ALS research and, now that those projects are fully funded, the process just accelerates.
If A Long Swim has learned nothing else from our marathon swims, it is that teamwork is a critical ingredient for success, even in an undertaking that looks – on the surface – like an individual endeavor. If teamwork is the lesson, then teamwork is what we support. Collaborative ALS research is the solution, and A Long Swim is committed to supporting it.
The A Long Swim Team
Speaking of teamwork, the A Long Swim team is the best in the world.
· Susan, of course, manages the whole thing. A marketing genius, she will entertain you with photos and videos on the A Long Swim Facebook page.
· Ever-vigilant Don Macdonald is kayaking and will be my eyes and ears, especially since we’ll be swimming through the night. He is fearless and smart. Kayaking in the Ka’iwi Channel is borderline unmanageable, so Don will have his hands full.
· Our son, Gordy (MVP of the English Channel swim) will be onboard for managing feedings and keeping his eye on me. In the English Channel, every single time I looked at the boat I saw Gordy standing on the rail. Every. Single. Time.
· Our daughter, Ashley will be there for stroke-counting, log-keeping and Twitter feeds (@ALongSwim1).
· Our nephew Stan will be along, too, pinch-hitting for all of the tasks, as it is never clear who will need help. This is Stan’s maiden and unexpected voyage and we appreciate him stepping up.
Because the Ka’iwi Channel is known for its waves, it is also known for crew sea-sickness, which is not only unpleasant but just doesn’t go away. Hence, the importance of cross-training.
The A Long Swim Support Team
People, Groups and More have stepped up to support us. Not in any particular order, they are:
Phillips Menswear of Barrington, Illinois – Peter Yankala has single handedly rallied the troops in our town. Our apparel sponsor, he has designed the coolest zippies and tee shirts ever. Visit his store, make a donation, and get yours – new ones have arrived.
Bob Lee – My Rabbi. He has the best advice in the world and I appreciate the way he always answers his phone and takes as much time with me as needed.
My Father – Dr. David McConnell, who was taken from us too early by ALS, and is always present in my mind and in my life. He is my ultimate role model.
Our corporate sponsors, who are stepping up all the time, including a new one, Hawaii Raynor Overhead Doors, as of today. Our sponsors are:
Just getting to the starting line for a swim like the Ka’iwi Channel is a big undertaking, and as I find myself there, I am overwhelmed by the reminder of how fortunate I am. Counting my blessings would be impossible; by comparison, counting my strokes is a piece of cake.
Over two years, the hours and miles of training, the planning and the hand-wringing over weather maps; they are all done. There is nothing we can do about those things now. We will find out very soon if the training was adequate and if the other decisions were correct. Now, we have to focus on getting to the other shore.
There was a line from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, that typifies how if feel right now. The line was from Red:
“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man on the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
Now is the time to clear our minds, get our heads on straight, dig deep and swim far.
See you on the beach.