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William “Opelu” Pai and His 1939 Great Swim

May 6, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

My previous blog on the small, exceptional club of Hawai’i cross-channel swimmers sparked many warm and positive responses. As my readers would recognize by now of my evolving themes, I am fascinated by the exploits of ordinary people (specifically Mauians) who accomplish great feats against adversity, discrimination, isolation, and lack of resources. We can draw inspiration and strength from these individuals who persevered in a past that did not have televisions, Internet, phones, frozen pizzas, Costco, and even refrigerators, air-conditioning and cars.

To continue a bit more about channel swimmers, in 1984 an English Channel and Catalina Channel (20.2 miles) swimmer named Carol Lee Heltzel formed a volunteer body, the Hawaiian Channel Swim Association (HCSA), to regulate and certify major inter-island channels of the Hawaiian islands. Its membership includes everybody who has swum at least one channel in Hawai’i. The year 1984 was in midst of a key period for Hawai’i channel swims, as swimmers “discovered” the Auau (Maui-Lanai) channel and others, and so instead of one channel swim every few years, there were now dozens of individuals over a year attempting swims (of course, not all succeed, but the success rate, based on numbers in the water, was rising annually).

Simply, the swims across the English Channel gave birth to a set of rules that would ultimately certify a “recordable” channel swim or not. The first English Channel swimmer was British citizen Matthew Webb in 1875 who made the crossing in 21 hours, with terrible cross-currents and a jellyfish sting. Since the rules had been refined with dozens and dozens of certified swims for over a century, the Hawaiian Channel Swim Association rules on Hawai’i cross-channel swims are based on solid English Channel rules. The HCSA also has ad hoc committees that address protests, rule interpretations and rule-making issues. Its Recorder/Honorary Secretary possesses an official HCSA Observer's Log and list of local escort boat pilots and boats that have been used in channel crossings (after all, somebody has to be a witness, and a swimmer has to get some water and food from an accompanying boat as some swims stretch ten hours or more).

Interestingly, there are two pre-1984 swims recognized by the HCSA – but not certified (so they are not in the record books): the William “Bill” “Opelu”* Pai Molokai-Maui swim of 1939 and two demonstrators’ swim from Kahoolawe to Maui in 1977.

There is not much background on Bill Pai, except that he was a fisherman (one may have guessed by his fish nickname). One day just a couple years before World War II, Bill Pai must have made a bet with a friend, and swam from Molokai to Maui. He started his journey at Ilio Point of the then-as-now rugged northwestern Molokai coast and finished at the Blowhole near Sandy Beach on the southeastern edge of Oahu in 18 hours and 56 minutes.

Why didn’t his record stand with the HSCA? Unfortunately, Bill Pai had a friend with a boat row him out 50 yards from the shore to start his swim off Molokai. Because HCSA rules – just like English Channel rules -- require that swimmers must complete certified swims from shore to shore (that is, stepping on the sand or slipping on opihi on rocks of two separate islands), Kiyoshi “Keo” Nakama is certified as the first official swimmer across the Molokai or Pailolo Channel in 1961 (see previous blog post). However, William Pai is recognized as one of the first Hawai’i channel swimmers, and was posthumously selected as a charter inductee in 2002 into the Hawai’i Swimming Hall of Fame, along with great Hawai’i swimming stars like Duke Kahanamoku and Clarence “Buster” Crabbe.

The other case is like a wild movie: in 1977 Solomon Fernandez and Bill Lawrence were two protestors on Kahoolawe Island. In order to evade capture by the U.S. Navy for the then-illegal visit to Kahoolawe, the two men swam across the 7-mile Alalakeiki Channel (Kahoolawe – Maui). They did not think about setting a record nor entering their names into the HCSA books, just a simple escape (no U.S. Navy security detail would ever imagine that they would just slip into the channel for a 7-mile swim and may have landed in the surf of Kamaole Beach and hitch-hiked to Kahului -- adrenaline can result in extraordinary feats of endurance), so of course the duo had no accompanying boat, no observers, no witnesses whatsoever. But was somebody who saw them out of the water, so the two swimmers accomplished a great feat, just seven years after my friend Jim Caldwell had made the Maui – Lanai crossing.

If one goes back to original narratives during Captain James Cook’s first visit to Hawai’i, he and other sailors wrote astonishingly about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Hawaiians, from children to elderly kupuna who easily swam miles out to his anchored Discovery and Resolution ships at Kealakekua Bay on the southwestern coast of the Island of Hawai’i. Inter-island channel swimming probably was not unusual back among Hawaiians then (they probably had to ensure that they were welcome on the other island and not be incarcerated by a warring group), and was revived only in the last four decades. Perhaps a channel swim was thought of back then as a jog along Kihei Road is today.

Perhaps in the future, with increased interest, hundreds and hundreds of swimmers may be completing swims across channels between the Hawaiian islands, and within a few years one heroic individual would conquer the 72-mile Kaieiewaho Channel (Oahu – Kauai). In the early 1970s 18-year old Jonathan Ezer swam across the Molokai Channel, and in the late 1970s he would be the first to attempt the Oahu-Kauai swim, but he was caught in giant waves (picture the climax of the movie "The Perfect Storm") and unable to progress in the open ocean (the Maui-Lanai channel is shallower and less treacherous, and barely 9 miles across – the Kaieiewaho channel is more than seven times longer). Like the climbers of Mt. Everest, the swimmers will attempt the crossing, since the channel is “there” and no one has done it before.

See Keo Nakama and Swimming 26 Miles from Molokai to Oahu

*Amazingly, Blake D. MacNaughton did an entire University of Hawai’i Master’s thesis on the lowly, yet important opelu.

Blake MacNaughton UH Opelu Master’s Thesis


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