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With no fanfare, swimmers cross channel into history

By Lee Cataluna


When Australian swimmer Penny Palfrey didn't make it across the Kaieiewaho Channel from Oahu to Kauai last month, the story was all over the news for days.

When six swimmers did make it successfully across the 72-mile channel last weekend, they didn't get any attention, just a bag of hot malasadas.

But oh, those malasadas were tasty.

The six-person relay team became the first swimmers on record to successfully make the crossing between Oahu and Kauai. They started from Kaena Point at 5:30 a.m. Nov. 20 and touched land at Nawiliwili on Monday morning, two days later.

"We swam a day, a night, a day, a night," said Linda Kaiser. "It took us 47 hours and 55 minutes to complete the crossing. We were so happy we made it under 48 hours!"

The idea to try the grueling channel with a team of six came from Maui swimmer Mike Spalding. Spalding, 63, invited Kaiser, 60, and Kauai swim coach Bill Brown, 32. To round out the team, he invited mainland swimmers Randy Brown, 62; Michelle Macy, 33; and Joel Swartz, 54.

Before they got in the water, they went to the heiau in Pupukea that faces Kauai. A Hawaiian cultural practitioner led them in a prayer and they asked for guidance on their journey. They planned their attempt for when the moon would be full, though swimming in the open ocean at night is darker than any night on land.

They took turns swimming one-hour shifts. While one person was in the water, the next swimmer in the rotation was on the escort boat watching every stroke. A good speed is about 2 mph, but at one point, the team hit a wicked current and their speeds fell to a quarter-mile an hour. Struggling against the current took so much strength, they cut the rotations to every half-hour.

And then there were the jellies.

Palfrey's Kaieiewaho attempt was cut short after seven hours when she was badly stung by jellyfish. Kaiser, who has completed eight other channel swims between Hawaii islands, said it was the worst she's ever experienced.

"We all got stung so bad," Kaiser said. Spalding had so many jellyfish stings that his body looked like it was covered with red spider webs. Macy came out of the water with Portuguese man-of-war stingers still in her arm that they couldn't get out.

"We brought all kinds of things with us that were supposed to be the latest and the greatest remedies for the stings," Kaiser said. "Nothing worked." Kaiser took Benadryl to lessen the reaction, but days later, she said, she's still covered with welts.

She also has a story about coming face to face with a tiger shark.

Still, they said it was beautiful in the water, especially at night when the phosphorescent plankton would cling to their arms and shine in blues and greens.

When the team got to Kauai, they all got in the water and touched the cliff side by Nawiliwili Harbor. When they came ashore, a group of kids from a swim team was there to greet them. The kids brought hot malasadas, which tasted heavenly to the famished distance swimmers. For Kaiser and Spalding, both veteran channel swimmers, it was the first time anyone was there at the end of a swim to greet them on the opposite shore.

"One of the kids' moms let us go to her house to take hot showers," Kaiser said. "They made us pancakes for breakfast."

Later that morning, Kaiser was on a plane back home to Honolulu and back to work running her pool-cleaning business. News cameras didn't follow her. Reporters didn't call. But it was only in those hours afterward that she started thinking about the significance of what they had accomplished.

"There were six swimmers and six crew members on the boat. For those hours, we were a family. We took care of one another. I'm not a team player, and I don't usually open up to people, but this wasn't about me. It was about us doing this together, something that had never been done before."

Lee Cataluna can be reached at

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