By Jack Breen:
This section of the Pacific Ocean is known as the Maliko Run. It is 10 miles from launch at Maliko Gulch to take out at the Na Kai Ewalu and Hawaiian Canoe Club hale in Kahului Harbor. It is one of the most challenging downwind runs on the planet that requires a paddler to go well offshore to avoid the reefs that create the famous surf breaks at places like Ho’okipa, Pa’ia, and Kanaha frequented by the world’s top windsurfers, foil and wing athletes. Trade winds blowing in the 25 to 35 mile per hour range from the Northeast are typical. So are big swells.
The boats on my truck are two of the 6 Epic surfskiis we own. A V10 Sport Ultra we recently acquired that is now my #1 and a Gen 2 V8 Ultra that is now my wife’s #1 and my #2. Yesterday I took those boats up to the Shop of Mike Owens in Haiku to have wave deflectors mounted on them for the upcoming race season and also took my #3 ski, a Gen 1 V8 Ultra to paddle down the Maliko Run with my pal Mark who lives in Haiku.
The Run started out really well as the wind and swells had picked up nicely while Mark and I did pre run shuttling of boats and vehicles. We were side by side alternating stringing together runs and my Makai speedometer shows I hit a good max for me of 12 mph. Somewhere off Sprecklesville, about 7.5 miles from launch we got separated with Mark taking a series of bumps going inshore and I a series heading offshore. That usually signals that the race to the harbor is on. So I started really working at stringing runs together and was having great success running a line to a water tower in town that would put me dead center of the narrow harbor mouth. I thought Mark would have to come back to that line eventually and I might be well ahead when he did. I began looking around for him hoping he had not capsized in a nasty section inshore of the good line where nice big bombs suddenly become a washing machine. We have both done that before when trying to cut too fine an angle to the harbor mouth. I was unable to spot him and was about a half a mile outside of the harbor mouth when I spread my focus passed the bumps immediately in front of me and saw a tug pulling a huge ship through the harbor mouth appearing to fill the entire mouth from my perspective, and heading straight for me. I started heading inshore to my left to get off its very wide line. I slowed to look around for Mark and to try to figure out if the tug and ship were heading for Honolulu or Hilo and decide if it would pass safely or I needed to get a hurry on to get more inshore. As I turned and powered up to go inshore I got broadsided by a large bump and capsized.
I reached out for my ski as I went over while tightening my grip on my paddle. The ski was just beyond my reach. So, I looked down for my leash to pull myself to the ski. I always wear a leash, even when paddling in calm water near shore. But there was no leash! How did it come off? That was my first thought. Did it break? That was my second thought as I looked for some remnant of it to grab. The ski was getting pushed further away by gusts as I tried to frog kick toward it with paddle in hand and I realized my only chance to catch up with it was to let go of my paddle and freestyle toward the ski as fast as I could. The paddle would follow and I could grab it once I had the ski, I reasoned.
Wind gusts reportedly reached 37 mph yesterday. One gust came at just the wrong time for me and my ski blew well away from my having any chance to catch up with it. So I found myself in the open ocean in large swells with no boat, a half a mile from the pilings that form a breakwall either side of the harbor mouth and over a mile from the nearest shoreline.
My training as a lifeguard and Coastguardsman over 48 years ago kicked in immediately reminding me that above all else remaining calm was critical to survival. The swells were big and running in 2 primary directions, toward the harbor mouth and to the West across it. If I could swim with the harbor bound swells I might be able to self rescue in about an hour, or if lucky a boat might see me and come to my assistance. I was wearing a lifejacket with a whistle, knife and personal locator emergency beacon all tied to it. My glasses and hat were still on too. If the swells took me passed the harbor mouth I could activate my beacon to bring assistance. My paddling partner would know that I was in trouble if not in within 2 hours of launch and would likely call the lifeguards at Kanaha who were less than a 10 minute jetski ride from me. Likelihood was I would be picked up on a jetski near the harbor mouth after being in the water about a half an hour, so I thought.
The harbor mouth is known to be frequented by large sharks and I realized that swimming made me much less interesting to them than I would be if I opted to just float to conserve energy. So I rolled onto my back to face the swells and used an elementary back stroke, frog style kick, and used my paddle in lieu of arm strokes, switching to breast stroke with one arm every now and then to check my progress toward the harbor mouth and to look around for Mark.
After about a half an hour I realized I could not reach the harbor mouth and would be pushed across it, so I decided to activate my emergency beacon and pick a new target along the shore West of the harbor. I swam for about another hour, alternating between elementary back and breast stoke with breast stroke predominating the closer I got to the sizable shore break in my path. During this time I kept the beacon antena out of the water per its instructions which created some challenges to swimming. Its little light blinking was very reassuring. I knew it was working and that if I ran out of steam before reaching shore I could transition to just floating until rescued, in who knows how long. A couple of large swells broke right on me and forced water up my nose and down my throat so I started tucking my chin with each swell to put my nose and mouth behind the top of my life jacket so it kept that from happening again. Thankfully that worked and I swallowed no more water. My eyes began to burn from the salt water but not so badly that I ever lost sight of my target, a small beachfront cottage in Paukukalo.
Finally I got to just behind the shore break and knew I could complete self rescue when a helicopter appeared and spotted me. I signaled them I was OK and would ride the shore break in. They hovered just in case I got pounded by the breakers and started showing signs of distress. I relaxed even more now knowing I had back up and focused on managing the shore break. I switched to sidestroke so I could keep watch on the breakers and the shallows whose floor was strewn with boulders. After ducking under two big waves and catching a few smaller ones I was able to touch some large limu covered boulders with my feet. Greater care was needed now not to let a foot get caught between them as the breakers still posed a significant risk. I sat down and rode the white water feet first to knee deep. While trying to stand there 4 strong young men reached out to me allowing me to use their well muscled arms like grab bars so I could stand lightly atop the last several feet of boulders between the pebbled shore and me. I thanked them profusely while an older gentleman offered to carry my paddle and life jacket.
One of the young men offered me a ride back to the canoe hale in the bed of his pickup, still legal to ride there here in Hawaii. When we reached his truck after a block long treck over pebbles a fireman met us saying they found my ski washed up in one piece between where I came in and the harbor. Incredibly lucky, I thought.
I picked up my truck by the canoe hale where Mark and his wife Lisa had set up a communications center. Soon I was on the phone with Maureen, my wife, Maui Rescue and then the Coast Guard to confirm with all of them that I was both the one who activated a beacon and was now safely on shore.
When we got to my ski Mark and I were happily surprised to see my slippers were with it along with my Velocatek Makai speedometer/odometer/timer which was still running and showed an elapsed time of 3:28. My last look at it before the huli showed 1:30 meaning I spent roughly two hours swimming. Distance traveled showed 10.2 miles, just .2 miles longer than the planned paddle. Max speed showed 12.0 mph with average speed just 2.3 mph, so the ski must have been barely moving as it washed up.
Eventually I realized I had left my leashes on the two skiis in Mike’s shop and missed that in my set up at launch because I got preoccupied with resetting my foot pedals as Maureen had been the last one to use this ski. It was a lapse of concentration that could have had disastrous consequences, but thankfully did not. I have learned the valuable lesson to be more mindful in my pre-launch routine.
Moral of the story: make it a focused and conscious act to always check your leash before going out on your ski, wear your life jacket, carry a beacon, and have a paddle buddy and self resue training you can rely on if things go wrong. Oh, and say prayers of thanksgiving whenever you make it to shore.