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Keo Nakama and Swimming 26 Miles from Molokai to Oahu
April 28, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
In the 1980s when I entered a Big Five firm, a colleague named Jim Caldwell said to me that he held the record for the first individual to swim from Maui to Lanai (1970). In retrospect, he looked like Australian Olympics swimming star Ian Thorpe, who is tall and lanky with hands and feet like giant whale flippers. Jim said that he had done the swim since the 8.8 mile channel crossing (named the Auau Channel) did not attract attention (we would now refer to it as “off the radar”), compared to other channel crossings, like the Molokai-Oahu crossing (the Kaiwi Channel), a dreaded, highly challenging swim of 26 miles or nearly three times the length of the Auau Channel.
Interestingly, after Jim’s “first” record swim, no one tried the Auau channel (Maui-Lanai) until seven years passed. In 1977 seven swimmers accomplished the feat, including Doug Rice, the first Lanai-Maui swimmer. With more promotion, by the late 2000s, more than 25 swimmers were speeding annually across to Maui or Lanai, and in 2008 – almost 40 years after Jim’s record – Becca Mann, a ten-year old girl, would be listed in the illustrious group. In the same year a swimmer named Peter Attia must have felt especially energetic one day, and swam from Maui to Lanai, then back again to Maui (8.8 miles times two or nearly 18 miles), presumably to return home on Maui and eat dinner with the family (this is comparable to the feat accomplished by Argentinean long-distance swimmer Antonio Abertondo, who after swimming across the English Channel three times (one-way) in the 1950s, in 1961 did a channel crossing, then completed a 21-mile “return swim” back to England non-stop).
The Kalohi Channel or the waters between Lanai and Molokai is less popular with long-distance channel swimmers. It is slightly longer than the Auau Channel at 9.3 miles. This channel swim “first” did not occur until 1978 by Bob Justman. In 1989 Carl Kawauchi swam this channel, and must have enjoyed it immensely, as he would swim the Kalohi Channel in 1995, 2007, and 2011.
About ten swimmers have conquered the Alalakeiki channel (7 miles) between Kahoolawe to Maui, including the irrepressible Carl Kawauchi. The first official crossing did not occur until 1992 (Ulrich Klinke, Alton Motobu, and Carl Kawauchi -- although each of the three swimmers has been credited at one time or another as making the first crossing, in reality the threesome swam the Alalakeiki channel together all the way), which aligns with Jim’s observation that the harder channel crossings sometimes attract more interest by swimmers who are drawn to challenges (and terrible nausea, pain from jellyfish stings, muscle ache, spasms, cramps, even hallucinations).
In 1973, just three years after his record “first” Maui – Lanai swim, my former colleague Jim accomplished the “first” Pailolo Channel (8.5 Miles) swim (Maui-Molokai). In 1993 Carl Kawauchi swam across the Pailolo channel in the reverse Molokai-Maui direction – a “first” record still not duplicated in nearly two decades. This year Steven Minaglia accomplished the Maui-Molokai channel swim. According to the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame that inducted him in 2005, Carl Kawauchi's “most grueling crossing was the Pailolo Channel from Molokai to Maui . . . He swam solo against the current almost all of the way and threatened to quit several times when he noticed he was not making any progress. But his wife refused to let him back into the boat and told him to swim or drown.” (His wife should become a motivational speaker at any school commencement ceremony.)
The “first” channel crossing record held by a woman is the Kaulakahi Channel (17 miles) from Kauai to Niihau completed by Linda Kaiser (I presume that she had to receive permission to set foot on Niihau before her swim). Only five swimmers have challenged this distant channel of the Hawaiian chain, probably seen by a tiny percentage of the entire Hawai’i population. The same Linda Kaiser also holds the “first” record for the Kealaikahiki Channel (17 miles) or the waters between Kahoolawe and Lanai (a recent record, accomplished in 2005 or barely seven years ago). Again, about five swimmers have achieved this remarkable channel record.
Then we come to the Alenuihaha Channel – an unbelievable challenge of 30 miles – from Hawai’i Island to Maui. Harry Huffaker*, the famous dentist/Hawai’i channel swimmer, achieved this record “first” in 1970. Only three more swimmers followed – Penny Palfrey (March, 2009 -- see Note below), Linda Kaiser (September, 2009), and Mike Spalding (February 2011). That’s it, for 40+ years. That tells a lot about a distance three times as the Maui-Lanai channel crossing, which is not a casual Sunday swim in itself.
There is a Maui story to channel crossings**. The first Molokai to Oahu channel swim (the Kaiwi Channel) of 26 miles was completed by Kiyoshi "Keo" Nakama -- back in 1961, nearly a decade before Jim Caldwell or Harry Huffaker’s great achievements. He passed away last year, and was a prodigy of the famous visionary Maui swimming coach Soichi Sakamoto.
The Molokai Channel is not only longer than the English Channel crossing, but treacherous and difficult among all the Hawaiian channels, with strong under-currents, ubiquitous jellyfish, menacing sharks, and so on. Also, Keo Nakama’s physique was certainly not like Ian Thorpe; he was barely five foot six inches in height and 140 pounds. (I am nearly four inches taller and weigh 165 pounds – and can barely do a couple of laps in the Kihei condo pool).
Born and raised on Maui, he was 17 years old in 1937 when he first began training in the Pu’unene irrigation ditch inspired by coach Sakamoto. It is completely audacious that the swimming children on the isolated island of Maui actually believed that they had a chance in the Helsinki Olympics. Up to the eve of World War II, Keo Nakama traveled to the Mainland with the Maui swimming club and set state and national swimming records; the Maui team won national championships in 1939, 1940 and 1941, and won more medals as a member of the U.S. team at the 1940 Pan American Games in Ecuador. He was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967 and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1975. This latter top global organization listed his accomplishments in more detail:
At the 1940 Pan-American Swimming Championships in Ecuador, the diminutive Hawaiian won 5 events (gold medals). At the Australian Nationals in 1939, he won 6 titles, adding the 330 yard individual medley to his sweep of all 5 freestyle events. Nakama was a little guy compared to the size of most swimming champions, but wherever he went big things happened, not only to him but to whatever team he swam for.
During his swim career in the early 1940s, Nakama won 2 US National Championships from 100 yards to 1500 meters. His world records extended from the mile (1760 yards) swum at Yale University when he was 22 . . ..
And on that fateful night of September 29, 1961, two years after Statehood, after he swam the 26 miles in Portuguese man o' war and shark-infested waters between Molokai and Oahu in 15 and ½ hours, a tired Keo Nakama barely walked out of the water at then-pristine Hanauma Bay and was greeted by thousands of people who had followed his swimming odyssey by radio and newspaper photographers with flash bulbs illuminating the dark waters.
He was 41 years old.
*After arriving in Hawaii from Michigan in 1965, dentist Harry Huffaker swam the Kaiwi Channel (1967), the 1st Crossing of Alenuihaha Channel (Hawaii to Maui) (1970), 1st Crossing (in reverse direction) of Kaiwi Channel (Oahu to Molokai) (1972), Auau Channel (1987), Pailolo Channel (Maui to Molokai) (1989), 1st Crossing (reverse) of Kalohi (Molokai to Lanai) (1989), Auau Channel (1989), plus many other "firsts". How Dr. Huffaker found time to maintain a successful dental practice is a wonder to me.
**Kaieiewaho Channel (72 miles) or the long Oahu to Kauai swim was the challenge undertaken by a relay team of swimmers: Linda Kaiser, Randy Brown, Michelle Macy, Joel Swartz, Billy Brown, and Mike Spaulding. This relay swim was completed over two days: November 20-22, 2011. Jonathan Ezer, who swam the Molokai Channel in 1974, attempted the Oahu - Kauai swim in the late 1970s. Penny Palfrey, a record-setting Australian/UK citizen (she set a record 12 hours 7 minutes for the Molokai Channel, almost 3 and 1/2 hours faster than Keo Nakama's record 1961 feat -- and even accomplished a solo swim across the Tsugaru Strait, between Japan's Honshu and Hokkaido islands, very very cold), was thwarted twice by extensive Portuguese man o' war in her two Oahu-Kauai swim attempts (March and November 2011) -- so the 72-mile excruciating journey still defies a successful solo swim "first". If she does complete this feat this year, she will be in the record books at age 49.
Note: To highlight the world of marathon open-ocean swimming, Diana Nyad was the world's greatest long distance swimmer in the 1970s. In 1978 after over 41 hours in the water, she had to end her 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. Then in 1979, she successfully made the longest swim in history: 102.5 miles from the island of Bimini (Bahamas) to Florida. This summer Diana Nyad will attempt again the 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. This year she will be 60 years old.
See more Hawai'i cross-channel swimming legends: William “Opelu” Pai and His Great Swim
For a background on a Pu’unene Grammar School teacher named Soichi Sakamoto in 1937 and his Olympics vision, and origins of Maui dominance in swimming in the 1940s and 1950s, see Charlie Oda and the Lost 1944 Rome Swimming Trophy
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