Issue 12.4: August/September 2009

Across the Great Divide

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!”


Everyone converged on the grounds of Maui’s Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel on the Friday before Labor Day. The race takes place Saturday; Friday is given over to a course briefing by Ian, T-shirt distribution, carbo-loading and—for the serious compet-titors, at any rate—talking smack.

I met all of the members of my team and discovered that PSYCHED!!!:) was a major understatement. These women were exultant. Ranie seemed more like someone who’d broken out of Alcatraz than someone who’d merely swum off it. They were all sporting the official team color on their toenails, and even the whistles that team captain Sue Dague distributed—which were instantly put to use—were hot pink. Cheers and jeers and catcalls poured from our table as Ian spoke and—while I waited for someone to bust out a bottle of pink food coloring for the beer—I felt like I’d been inducted (abducted?) into some sort of feral swimming sorority. When Ian stopped by after the briefing and met my riotous swim mates, his customary inquiry into my well-being seemed—to me at least—to carry an extra urgency.

The next morning at 6, I met up with the Chums at the dock in Lahaina to motor to Lana‘i. Our boat captain and his mate looked like 30 miles of bad water—and their boat looked worse. But nothing could dampen my teammates’ spirits: They were on Maui, dawn was breaking, the sea was flat and they were about to swim a channel. They slathered themselves in sunblock and Chapstick and some sort of anti-chafing cream I’d never seen before, and marveled at their good fortune.

We arrived in Lana‘i a little after 7, now just one in a bobbing flotilla of some sixty vessels; the rule that each of the teams and solo swimmers must have their own boat to compete translates into a throng of crafts on the water. Seeing the boats lined up in the golden morning light, all of them fronting the barren stretch of beach where the swim would begin at 8, suddenly made everything real. My adrenals finally kicked in: I was PSYCHED!!!:) I stripped down to my suit and dived in to warm up. The water was cool and clear and placid—the ocean at its most enchanting. Ranie, swimming nearby, was over the moon.

She was also headed for shore: She’d been chosen to lead us off. We watched her fluorescent pink cap grow farther and farther away and then disappear into the horde massing on the beach. The ‘Au‘au race works like so, Ian had explained the night before: The first swimmer of the relay team starts from shore and swims a half-hour leg (she also has the challengeof finding her boat again in the armada). Then the next swimmer jumps in, is tagged by the first and starts her leg. And so it goes, with all six swimmers each doing half an hour until, three hours in, the intervals switch to 10 minutes and swimmers rotate through at that pace until they reach dry land on Maui.

The conditions were perfect: no wind, no waves, no current. Ian stood on shore getting ready to give everyone the send-off. He was well aware how lucky we were; he’d first swum this channel in 1975 and had since crossed it in all types of weather: when it was calm as a lake, when it was a frenzied mess. At 8 a.m. precisely he blew the horn, and some fifty-seven swimmers started stroking and kicking furiously away from the island. We kept our eyes peeled for Ranie’s pink cap, found it, and soon she was motoring along beside us. When she was done with her leg, Sue jumped in; when Sue was done, our Aussie swimmer jumped in; and so it went. Each Chum came out of the water euphoric and ready to go again.

I was sixth in the rotation, which meant that my half-hour came latest—giving the wind and waves time to pick up and putting us squarely in the middle of the channel. By the time I dived in, the wind was up to about 15 knots, the sun had disappeared and there were whitecaps. Still, given years past, the conditions were mild. And once I was in, it was amazing. I was swimming in the void, in a landscape of pure water with nothing visible below me but fading light. The channel swimmers I’d interviewed had each talked in their own ways about surrendering—to the power of the sea, to their own vulnerability. That was the fun of it, they’d said: Make peace with your mind and then you’re on cloud nine, suspended in a salty wonderland.

I pulled my body hard through the water, focusing on my stroke and seeking peace with my mind, which naturally had ideas of its own (“Hey. Hey!!! What’s that shadow in the water? Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod! Oh, OK. Never mind. BUT WAIT! What’s that moving over there??!!). But it grew quieter the longer I was in, stilled by the rhythm of movement and my growing familiarity with the abyss. Then suddenly the sea was full of sound: A pod of dolphins showed up about 200 yards behind me, all talking to each other. After that my mind relaxed completely, and when my half-hour was up, I would’ve happily stayed in longer. But it was Ranie’s turn. She jumped over the side, and I tagged her and climbed out.

In the end we were one of the last teams to finish, but at that night’s awards banquet, I decided I didn’t feel too badly about it. Turned out there were some incredible swimmers in the water, including a medal-winning Olympian just back from Beijing who was swimming on an all-star team that also featured Island luminaries Noa Sakamoto and John Flanagan. They were phenomenal—but not as fast as the winning team from Down Under, which took first place with a mind-blowing time of 2 hours, 53 minutes. In the solo division there were twelve swimmers, and the fastest of them all was Bill Goding, a 55-year-old Honolulu lifeguard who looks and swims like an incarnation of Poseidon. Bill, a.k.a. Captain America, has swum the race eight times and won it four.

At the post-race bash at the Ka‘anapali Beach, happy, tired swimmers milled about. I was one of them, still feeling the salt and the sun even though I’d showered and it was dark out. I could feel the ocean in me, which is what happens after you’ve spent a while in the water: You continue to taste it, smell it, sense it on your skin even after you’re out. I wandered around contentedly, asking people why they were there.

“The people, the air, the water, the history,” said Bob Momsen with a broad grin, explaining his annual pilgrimage. This was his twentieth year swimming the ‘Au‘au; he’d first come out as part of a team from the Olympic Club in San Francisco. DeAnn Joslin, another Californian and the first women’s solo finisher of the day, had just swum the channel for the fifth time. Why? “Every time I swim this race, I have an epiphany.”

Ian was wandering around, too, the consummate host making sure that everyone had enough to eat and drink. Then he climbed up on the makeshift stage to emcee the awards ceremony and thank Maui and Mother Nature. The Chums started hooting and hollering and promising never to return if Ian would only just give them an award now. He laughed, and the Aussies took the stage to claim their prize. HH