story by Julia Steele
photos by Monte Costa
Ian Emberson is a great guy, easy and calm and always thinking of others: His biggest questions in life seem to be “Got everything you need?” and “Anything else you want?” He dresses in bankers’ aloha shirts—which isn’t a shocker, really, because he is a banker—but still they’re a bit … staid for such a gonzo athlete. Ian was one of the first—and remains one of the very few—people to swim from Moloka‘i to O‘ahu: 35 miles in just under seventeen hours. He also holds one of the rarest and most prized titles in modern sport. He is an “original Ironman,” one of the handful of guys who first put together the Ironman on a dare and then did it: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run. And he came in third. Third!
I first met him after I’d written a story on Hawai‘i’s channel swimmers. He wasn’t one of the swimmers I’d interviewed, but he’d read the piece and he called. “How about a story on the Lana‘i-to-Maui channel swim?” he pitched. Ian has been in charge of the race for thirty-two of its thirty-seven years of existence—and he’s swum it thirty-four. It’s an annual affair, the only organized channel swim in Hawai‘i, a race across the 9-mile ‘Au‘au channel between Lana‘i and Maui. The ‘Au‘au is one of Hawai‘i’s shortest, tamest channels; it’s a reasonable creature that doesn’t seem out for blood, unlike some of the other channels in the Islands. Still, it’s no cakewalk: 9 miles is 9 miles. The fastest a human being can swim a mile is a little over fifteen minutes, which means that even the speediest swimmer on the planet going all out would take well over two hours to finish.
“I don’t know, Ian,” I said. “We just did a big story on channel swimmers. If we were going to do another, I’d have to figure out a different angle. Maybe,” I mused, “I could swim and write about it that way.” I’d spent months talking with channel swimmers, had been out in the ocean with three of them and had developed a huge respect for their stamina and bravery. If Dara Torres could take on the Olympics in her early 40s, I figured, I could at least have a go at a channel swim.
“Great!” said Ian. “I’ll get you on a team. Let me know if you need anything!”
In no time I was assigned. Under the rules of Ian’s event, swimmers can do the ‘Au‘au channel either solo or as part of a six-person relay team. My five swim mates came from San Francisco, Orange County, Colorado, Australia and the Big Island. None had ever met, but by the time I joined the group, they had thoroughly bonded in cyberspace and they were “PSYCHED!!!:).” They had plans for matching swimsuits, caps, T-shirts, towels, even a team banner and flag and balloons, all in hot pink. They’d christened themselves the Makule Channel Chums—a play on the fact that the word “chum” means both “friend” and “shark bait”—and in the weeks and months leading up to the swim, their e-mails flew fast and furious, sometimes several a day: logistical details, pep talks, training regimens, tales of other sporting adventures. Ranie Pearce, from SF, swam from Alcatraz to shore the week before the Lana‘i race in 59-degree water. “I had a blast,” she wrote. “Then I had a nap!”