Former professional triathlete Meredith Novack was about an hour from becoming the fastest person to ever swim a double crossing across the Auau Channel, from Lanai to Maui and back, on Sunday when her crew spotted a 12-foot tiger shark following 3 feet behind her.
"My crew did not tell me about the shark. They kept it a secret, which was the smart thing to do," said the 37-year old swimmer in a phone interview Monday. "Luckily, I had borrowed the Shark Shield from Leahi Camacho because we didn't have the money for it frankly. If I hadn't had it, I think we would've been attacked. It literally saved us."
Novack's crew members had told her after she finished her swim that the shark had followed the escort boat for a while and even swam up at one point to bump the one-man kayak that was next to her. However, the Shark Shield, an electronic shark deterrent, which she borrowed from the 17-year-old Camacho, who became the youngest person to swim across the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu last month, drove the shark away, Novack said. The device was attached to the kayak.
"It's their (sharks') environment, and I respect that, but I was on edge the entire swim," Novack said. "I know what's going on in Maui, the whole world does, so we had such a detailed safety plan, a rifle, a bang stick, (the number of) the Coast Guard in Maui, Ocean Patrol. We were as prepared as possible," she said, referring to the recent slew of shark incidents around Maui waters, including the fatal attack that resulted in the death of 20-year-old Jana Lutteropp last month.
Novack, a Florida native who lives in Honolulu, had been training for the 20-mile swim for nearly a year, pushing herself with up to seven-hour swims along Oahu's North Shore and Waikiki Beach. She said she "got the dream in my heart" to swim the Auau Channel last year.
"I truly, truly felt I could break this record. It's so rare to have a woman beat a men's record, I don't know why I felt so strongly about it but I just did. It was my first 20-mile swim ever. I just thought I could do it," she said.
Navigator Bill Goding (left) and coach Daniel Worden (right) stand beside Meredith Novack after she finished her swim near Kahalepalaoa Beach on Lanai on Sunday. Novack became the fastest person and only woman to swim from Lanai to Maui and back Sunday.
Photo courtesy of MEREDITH NOVACK
Marathon swimmer Meredith Novack became the fastest person and only woman to swim from Lanai to Maui and back Sunday. Crew member Jennifer Noonkester followed alongside in a kayak as Novack completed the double crossing of the Auau Channel in a record time of 11 hours, 1 minute.
Photo courtesy of MEREDITH NOVACK
Novack completed the Lanai-Maui-Lanai swim in just 11 hours, 1 minute, shattering the previous record set in 2008 by Peter Attia by 44 minutes, according to Hawaii Channel Association records. She also is the only woman to attempt to swim the channel twice in the same day.
"I knew she could do it, but mentally, it's a whole different story when you get out there," said Bill Goding, a fellow channel swimmer, who navigated the escort boat Sunday. "She (Novack) did very well, she kept her mind together. There are moments where it gets tough, and you have to tell yourself to keep going."
Perhaps no one understands this better than legendary open water swimmer Mike Spalding, a Maui Realtor who has swum all nine major channels in Hawaii.
"The Auau Channel has many challenges, which include Portuguese man-of-war (jellyfish), strong unpredictable currents, presence of large sharks and in certain wind conditions, very rough conditions," Spalding said in an email. "The double crossing in record time with a tiger shark sighting is remarkable. In order to complete a long swim, she needs to have an expert support team, good read on the currents and tides, physical preparation, good nutrition plan and most important, mental toughness to carry on hour after hour. We all should be very proud of her fantastic accomplishment."
Novack admitted that she got frustrated at times during the 11-hour swim, like at the halfway mark when she reached Maui and realized she was nearly an hour behind her goal pace.
"I swam so much harder on the way back and just thought, 'If you want to be the best in the absolute world, you're going to have to work for it,' so I just kept pushing and pushing," she said.
Novack began her swim around 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning from Club Lanai, reached Mala Wharf before turning back and finishing about half a mile south of her starting point at Kahalepalaoa Beach.
Novack said her first channel swim was such an amazing experience that she hopes to find a corporate sponsor and to continue adventure swimming. Someday, she dreams of swimming around the island of Oahu, an approximately 150-mile endeavor.
"It's such a message to share. If you're going through adversity, you just have to keep believing in yourself and just keep moving forward. This swim really really captured that," she said.
Footage of Novack's record-breaking swim is expected to air on The Surf Channel.
To donate to her campaign, which helps pay for the escort boat, crew and travel costs, visit gofundme.com/Meredith-Swims-2-Maui.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.