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July 29, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
They’re going to have to change the name of the Kapalua Fun Swim. Unless your definition of fun includes near-death experiences.
Granted, this is coming from the Rodney Dangerfield of open-ocean swim races. Few do the spooky sport, so you get points for just showing up. When you go my speed, humor helps.
For me, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how bad you lose. Having moved into the post-60 division, I used to think time was on my side, cutting the field down among guys my age.
Unfortunately, most guys my age still doing this, do it faster. Also, guys my age have been known to “wander off.” Out in the waves, trying to find — much less, reach — the next buoy is not the best place for a senior moment.
I started doing ocean races even before moving to Maui 18 years ago. A half-dozen or so a year. A middle-of-the-pack finish used to be my goal. Then it was top two-thirds. Then it was, well, at least you’re not embarrassing yourself.
Then that stopped being a joke.
Most races are between one and two miles. Which, when the pack is ahead of you and you’re out there by yourself, can get a tad lonely. Existential questions arise. Like, what were you thinking?
None of which prepared me for Kapalua.
I’m usually off island in late July when this race happens. I remember Kapalua Bay from the time palm trees rather than condos grew on the beach, as a benign swimming spot, full of fish. One mile is short. And besides, the race has Fun in its name.
Although the waves were up along the Pali as I drove over, Kapalua Bay was its usual flat self. There was one big yellow buoy a few hundred yards offshore, then a couple of little orange ones nearby. From the air, the course was like a flagpole with a pennant mounted backwards on it.
Around 60 of us formed the traditional pre-race circle, holding hands in the sand. The swimmers came in all sizes, all ages —lots of kids. It occurs to me now — a sign? — that we didn’t have the usual blessing that morning. Instead, we were reminded to respect one another (don’t kick anyone rounding the buoys). And we were reminded to respect the ocean.
The race started as usual, running into the surf then diving in. It wasn’t long before I settled into my usual place in the pack, behind it, as we headed for that big yellow buoy.
The number of people ahead kept diminishing as they rounded the marker. And then there was no one else, just me and the buoy.
Now, there’s a sensation known to people who swim in the ocean of heading toward something, but not getting any closer. Maybe it’s the current, maybe the wind, maybe you’re getting tired …
Whatever, that’s what happened. The more I fought the water, the farther away the buoy got.
By now there were waves that the buoy kept disappearing behind. And wind. I bore down. What was the problem? I bore down some more. The buoy kept disappearing, then showing up somewhere else.
I finally reached it, many minutes later, about the same time the race organizer arrived on his kayak.
“Rick! Turn around!” he yelled. “Swim straight back to shore!”
It had finally happened. My speed had caught up with me. I had been disqualified. I got to ponder the humiliation of it all, as I headed back for the beach.
Which wasn’t exactly easy. I was so far out, I couldn’t see sand, just roofs of buildings. It was hard to find a marker, much less head for it. The waves were moving laterally to the shore, which kept disappearing behind them.
It took a long time — enough to bid farewell to this sport I once loved. That wasn’t fun, but it beat noticing how far I still had to go.
Finally, I could see the bottom. Slowly, it came up to meet me. When I hit the beach, I headed for the finish line to tell the timer not to count my time. I DQ’ed I said.
Everyone did, she answered. They canceled the race after the yellow buoy broke lose.
I had been 1,000 yards offshore when I caught up with the buoy, I learned later. It hadn’t seemed to be getting closer because it wasn’t. In fact, it was blowing straight toward Lanai, dragging its anchor with it.
The race director hadn’t pulled me into the kayak, not wanting to deprive me of my workout. There were still people all over the course to deal with.
We all made it in. Not until afterwards did the fear set in. If you were Stephen King, this would be gold, a friend told me.
Usually, after a race when people ask me how I did, my answer is, “lived to tell the tale.”
This time, I mean it.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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