Tonight I am staying as a guest at the Pacific Missile Range Facility beach cottages. Two of the four people making the crossing with me are in the Air Force, making our stay possible.
It’s a good thing too; there isn’t much on the West side of Kauaʻi. It’s basically the sandy dry forgotten spot of the otherwise lush “Garden Isle”. The state road even peters out here before it can make a complete circumnavigation back to the North.
Tomorrow morning we are going to make an incredible trek to an even more desolate spot. Niʻihau. Captain Don will meet us at a quarter of dawn. We will swim out and past his boat waiting for us off-shore. He will guide and accompany us from a distance as we swim the Kaulakahi Channel, the seventeen mile wide body of water separating Kauaʻi from Niʻihau. Our slow moving flotilla will consist of four swimmers, a kayaker, a paddleboarder, and a 34’ long fishing boat with a crew of four.
Everyone else has just shuffled off to rest up. It’s ten on Saturday night. We will wake at five, and be on the beach in front of the cottage half an hour later.
It’s unusual before such a big event, but I slept like a baby. The cottage had two rooms and three beds between them, with a hide-a-bed for a fourth person (me) in the living area couch. The area has a sliding glass, screen patio door which opens up to the ocean. I opened the glass door but left the screen shut. The sweet lullaby of Hawaiian surf hitting the sand was my dream machine.
On the edge of sleep I started to hear creatures outside. There was one which barked a noise which sounded like “pull! pull!”. The other two or three voices just sounded like angry moaning. The little bit of rational conscious I had left summarized that it was a probably just a bunch of animals in heat. Something big and dog-like. Maybe some monk seals. I was happy to have an answer for myself and slipped off to sleep.
My first dreams turned the noise into the legend of Barking Sands Beach. The legend explains how Barking Sands got its name. The sand there is so fine in some places it feels more like talc than sand. Some people say that when you walk over it, the unique qualities of the sand make it bark as a strider’s heals break out of the wet mixture.
According to legend, however, there was once a fisherman with nine dogs. One particularly stormy day before he set out, he staked his companions’ tethers to the ground before he left. After a while his pets missed him and began to bark and whine. Around and around the stakes they ran, calling for him, until they sucked themselves into the ground. Now when you walk on the beach you can hear them barking from below, calling for their master still.
In my dreams, “pull! pull! pull! GROAN…” (let us up please). Then blackness.
My alarm was set to wake us up at 5, half an hour before the boat arrived. The morning was on rails, everything was laid out. I didn’t really want a ton of extra time to think about what I was doing. Just execute. I woke up fifteen minutes earlier than planned. My veteran channel swimming friend, Bill, started a pot of coffee. The smell of coffee in the morning warms me all over. I crawled out of my hide-a-bed to put my feet on the cold tile floor. The coffee was warm and good. Some days, when you know that you are going to be cold all day, you can use your mind as a trap to hold onto the warmth of a cup. When you are naked, chilled to the bone in the ocean, you can go back to that mug. Hold it under your nose. Let the steam dance over your eyes and cup your hands around it, as if in prayer. Capturing and keeping mental Polaroids like those are sanity survival tools, I would imagine, for any endurance athlete. Visualize what you like, visualize what you want, visualize what completes you, makes you comfortable, what you are, and what you want to be.
The boat was late; Captain Don didn’t think so though. He was just a half a mile further down the beach thinking we were the late ones. The modern cell phone in many cases has replaced citizen’s band radio. Bill called Don and straightened it out. A phone call and a series of flashlight signals later we were lining up with the boat.
We had met Don and his powerful, immense boat-hand Calvin the night before to review the plan at Hanapepe Harbor. We gave them most of our supplies and nutrition (food in bottles) that evening. Even still, I had one thing yet to get to him on the boat. Susan set up a RunKeeper account on my iPhone to help track the swim. The plan was to keep that plugged into a cigarette lighter on the boat. It would draw a nice Indiana Jones line of our travels, which would be updated live on the net. This would keep our families happy, since they would know where we were throughout the day.
The support crew, Jen’s parents, and Jeff swam out to the boat while the swimmers waited on the beach. The surf was 5 foot on the face, the boat about 40 yards out. I decided that I would take my own phone out to the boat instead of asking Steve (Jen’s dad) to do it. I had the phone inside of three Ziploc bags, and a plastic grocery store bag as I hopped over the surf and swam out. The bag was in my teeth. Swimming something between breast stroke and doggy paddle out to the boat.
The application had a female voice announcing my progress. We just watched the old Clash of the Titans a couple weeks ago. I felt like I was paddling out with Medusa’s head in a sack. It was about the same size with all the bags. “Distance travelled, ..Zero, point, Zero miles, … average pace …”. Nothing like starting a trek like this with a voice in a sack droning.. “zero”. Ah well, progress increases infinitely once you actually start something.
Jeff paddled over. I must have looked comical as he retrieved the talking sack. I went back to the beach to join the other three Argonauts, for the “official” start. It was 6:05 AM HST. I started the bright orange stopwatch, a gift from Sue. We all did something like shake hands and back slap. The surf came at us like a wall that morning. It wasn’t like we dove in, or walked out and ducked under. It was like the beginning of twenty miles of ocean started with a greenish brown force field that held the water in a vertical, concave wall. All we did was pick a spot and dive through it.
Brian and I were chomping at the bit at first, and Bill stayed back with Jen. The boat was trying to launch an ocean kayak about the size of a Lil’Tykes yard toy. It was ridiculous, but it was all the Capt. Don could provide for Barbara today. Jeff was somewhere between us all. Arbitrating the kayak launch, the swimmers in the rear and the trajectory of the swimmers in the front, Jeff was in the zone. He some how accomplished this feat without any one of us missing him when we needed his input or guidance.
Jen is from LA. She came out with her parents, Barbara and Steve, for a family holiday with her sisters, and to bag a channel while she was there. In her home waters, there are some pretty ferocious creatures. Great Whites. Understandably, when Jen goes out, or when she swims the channel to Catalina Island (23 miles), she’s loaded for bear, or in this wilderness, shark. The ocean kayak Barbara paddled was outfitted with a “Shark Shield”. I will call it the shield. It's an electrical device which dangles in the water and is supposed to prevent unwanted guests. I talk around that word, I don’t like to use it. I won’t use it again the rest of this story, although I will see them a total of four times before the end of the day. Keep reading.
We had discussions about the kayak the night before. It looked like a kayak sawed in two and then squared off in the back so that no water could get in. It was a toy; Jeff’s paddle board, at 12 foot, dwarfed it. The three of us from Oahu made a dead pool time line for kayak. My bet was 4:20.
Bill and I were used to breaks on the hour, Jen every thirty minutes. Though he is an awesome swimmer, Brian considers himself a triathlete, so he could fuel up at any interval. The compromise we agreed on was that we would “feed” every forty-five minutes.
The first hour, we learned about each others’ paces. Jen was still warming up. Her speed would set the pace. At the first break, in the four minutes it took to eat, we discussed pace. Jeff also told us where we would aim, and how we should paddle. Our goal was to stay in a pocket between Jeff and the boat.
The boat, at 34 feet, was almost too big to be a fishing boat. Captain Don is a skilled navigator, and even still the boat would skitter around sluggishly trying to compromise between the current and the thrust of the prop. Jeff could hold a smooth direct line. That far out, the “rum line” (the shortest line to destination) is easy to plot if you have some geography to look at. Jeff’s head, 20” higher than ours, could see the shadow of the mountains of Niʻihau, and the little off-shore crater to the right of it. Our course was pretty much right between them. Jeff’s line was steady and true. His course was the derivative of the boat’s. I would keep the boat in my left eye’s peripheral vision, but stay on Jeff’s course, following his board’s underwater fin, visible on my right.
By the second break, the sun was up enough for us to look back and see a vanishing Kauaʻi. Still green and very curious about what were up to. What’s the matter? Didn’t you enjoy the cool breezes and the song of the surf? Wouldn’t you like to lay on my beaches today? What are you doing in that water, the bunch of you? Swimming away from me to my grumpy cousin. He won’t greet you, you know. All he has for you there is sand and rock. Come back. I’ll forgive you.
Don was briefing us while we ate. He interrupted himself mid-sentence to say loudly and clearly. YOU ALL NEED TO COME CLOSER TO THE BOAT… NOW! We knew what it meant; we tried to do exactly what Don said, to listen to his words, not his perception. We huddled near the wall of the boat. I think I heard someone shriek in spite of themselves. I think I heard Bill say to Barbara with “the Shield”, “Is that thing on?” Don didn’t tell us until it was over that he saw something just under Brian’s foot. A fast brown shape.
We resumed our swim. Half an hour later, though my brand new goggles, I saw a muscular shape in the water about twenty feet below. It was long like a dolphin, but its tail moved side to side, not up and down. There were more fins than a dolphin, and the shapes were very angular. We were being circled. I stopped and made eye contact with Don, announced what it was and pointed down. Don asked if it was brown or if the nose just looked wrong. I said “no”, I said the head looks flat and more bill shaped from the top. The head was kind of mineral green. “Galapagos”, he said. It’s probably fine, he’s just checking you out.
Our Galapagan escort circled us and faded in and out from the deep at least three more times over the next three miles. It was like he was either curious, or couldn’t make up his mind about something. Finally Bill and Jeff saw him. Jeff the paddler, also had a rig on his board to hold onto his camera. He tried to get a picture, but, trying to get a picture of a sh__k from the surface while piloting a twelve foot beach rescue board is about as easy as photographing a cheetah on the Serengeti after surveying him through a soda straw. Jeff missed.
The last time I saw “the man in gray”, he was about 30 feet below me. I could see him if I looked down in a line to my toes. It’s amazing how they seem rather cat-like, the tail flicking back and forth, swimming as easy as thought. He was ascending slowly, closer. Finally I poked my head up and yelled to Captain Don, “He’s still following me! What should I do?” Don said, “I would go down and go after him, yell at him”. Whatever, I thought, it’s better than being followed. I ducked down to try and surprise the gray menace but I think he knew he’d been had. The last I saw of him, he took a clockwise (yes Jeff, clockwise) turn down and faded out of view under the boat.
I should tell you that to fade from view in open ocean Hawaiian waters, is saying something. You can see to about 110 feet in the clear blue here. Maybe more. My favorite thing about channel swimming is getting to visit ‘the blue sun’. you can think of it as like an inverse sun flare that you see looking straight down to infinity in a clear ocean. I think that it’s probably made from your own shadow and the shafts of light that converge underneath it. I may have realized this because when I swim close to Jeff with his beach rescue board, the blue sun is longer, like a cat’s eye. It is beautiful and so mesmerizing that if you don’t keep your eyes on the rum line cues, you will swim forever and always feel pleasantly on course, and never be done. It wouldn’t matter; you would crawl inside your own mind and follow the siren, happy and lost.
The blue sun was beautiful. It was, however, very occluded on this trip. There were thousands of miniature asteroid-shaped, clay colored particles in the water. They were about the size and color of half an eraser head from a classic #2 pencil. Usually when I see these, it means that I am swimming through thousands of tiny jellyfish. Bill likes to call them “no-see-ums”. Every one of them that hits your skin leaves a mark, a mark which in two days time turns into a welt the size of an M&M candy. Today, this was often the case, but sometimes, there was no stinging, a nice surprise.
We reached the middle of the channel in about four hours. What was odd was that, in the middle of the channel, you don’t expect to see life, you expect to see blue, above and below, but no life. Not the Kaulakahi. There were flocks of birds screaming so low to the ocean, I nearly batted one out of the sky on a feeding break. What they were probably there for were the fish below. The fish were in schools of about a hundred, each were composed of blue silver fish about three inches long. I agreed with the birds, they looked like herring, or something, good enough to eat.
Another trend started to occur. Jen was ON now, moving. Brian, our triathlete and first-time channel swimmer, was starting to feel it. I know Brian; I’ve done several four mile swims with him. Like many athletes, Brian has a sort of a ‘tell’ when he gets tired. His mind shuts down. He stops answering questions, he stops making eye contact.
Two weeks ago I got suckered into a sprint triathlon with Brian. He took second place in the whole thing, in a field of hundreds. I was first out of the water, but still came in about 100th overall. Brian is an amazing athlete. I consider swimming to be easy, you just ..move your arms and stuff. I was starting to feel guilty. Did I pressure Brian into this thing? Just because we did 6 or so four milers together for training with mean splits, did that mean he was ready for a twenty mile channel?
For the next six hours, I felt my own pain, but I also felt Brian’s. Two hours from the finish we were only a mile away. Brian needed to see the bottom, he was focused on the bottom, finding it, but his stroke was all off, his direction had gone haywire, and his left arm looked limp. What had I gotten him into?
Jeff, also an Ala Moana beach City & County lifeguard, urged me to stay with the boat. Jeff stayed back with Brian and I moved ahead to rejoin the fray. We were going to finish this thing. We could see the soft white beaches on the low plain of Niʻihau. I could see the shiny wet sand and distinguish it from the dull white high water sand. We were almost in the boat. I was almost sipping a beer, I was basically putting my teeth into a six topping bacon cheeseburger, I was walking on the sands of Niʻihau, the warm sand. Ha ha, maybe the people of the last true Hawaiian island were preparing a lu`au just for our band of triumphant swimmers. Reality: it’s another hour of being cold, and very very smart. Swim Quinn, … just keep swimming.
My RunKeeper app failed about halfway across the channel. We’d gone beyond the range of a cell phone tower to relay the data. Back home, anybody watching us on the map could’ve been convinced that we were swallowed by an Old Testament whale on our way to Ninevah under the face of an untrackable sea. Fortunately, completely unbeknownst to me, Jen also had her own GPS tracker in the 4:20 dingy still faithfully trailing (via tow line) behind the boat where it had been parked since mid channel. If you look at her GPS plot. You will notice that it stops just short of Niʻihau. The surf had gotten completely rough and rotten. The dingy never went in, and neither did Jeff’s paddle board; it was that bad.
Jen, Bill and I waited outside the overhead surf pounders that were walloping the Eastern shore of the little island. We were waiting for Brian. The idea was to all go in together. Our landing could potentially be interpreted as hostile. Niʻihau is a privately owned island. Anything above the high water line is trespassing, but according to story, any incursion at all was kapu (taboo, or off-limits). If we were going to breach the island, we were going to do it together.
We waited for Brian. At first we couldn’t even see him. I remarked to Bill that I was pretty sure he was in the boat by now, and if he wasn’t, he should be. I felt bad, and I wanted it to be over for him. I wished a hot towel around his head. I wished that he was home with his wife, Akiko, and his baby girl. I wished that we’d shot the Au`au together instead of this tumbling, shark-infested, potentially criminal escapade.
I went to the bottom to pass the time. I wish I had a picture for you. The bottom there pops up quickly, only a quarter mile from the island. It isn’t colorful; I only saw one pencil coral. It’s gray, and the lava rock at the bottom seemed to split into odd shaped dinner plate size tiles or weird odd shaped polygons, like nonagons and septagons edge on edge. Imagine cracks in clay soil that was recently watered on and then left to dry for a day. Crazy splits, but gray, and hard, and unforgiving. Often in the very middle of a polygon was a carnation size cauliflower coral polyp. No color, just white and gray. Maybe the island itself knew, no one was welcome. No splashes of color, no welcoming flare. Go away.
In places, clumps of polygons were pulled free. They made a bowl where the real color of the offshore reef... the fish... could hide and play. I saw many colorful fish in these shelters from the surf.
When I was done visiting the fish I popped back up to the surface. Bill was surveying our most promising-looking approach. The surf was making things very hard. Overhead waves crashing on lava rock after ten hours of not using your legs. Bad things. Bill looked concerned. I checked the horizon. Where is Brian?
Jen shrieked. Something else was in the surf with us, what was it? The cries continued, I looked under the surf, nothing on her. That is good. I did notice a huge number of the eraser-like items floating in the water. Could it be these? Maybe she has a bigger reaction to them than I do. I popped back up, “Get it off me! they are everywhere”. Jen charged the boat. What makes a channel swimmer head to the boat five minutes from the end of her trek? I was confused. panicked. It sounded like they were eating her alive. What is it? What’s in the water with us? It must be jellyfish. I thought, Calm, breathe, count your breaths. She’s going to make it to the boat. She’ll be okay. They have some salves there, it’s probably jellyfish.
A couple minutes later she came back, she shrieked again. I felt something. It felt like a hot wire across the back of my neck. Bill and I both yelped. What? Oh. Man o’ War. I pulled what felt like a ramen noodle off my neck. Bill had them on his forearm. Jen was back, where’d she come from. She was yelling too. Bill saw one, a Man o’ War stuck on the back of her neck. Bill calmed her, asked her to hold still, she did. Bill adeptly pulled the beastie off of her. Everyone calmed.
Waves were breaking overhead, with us bobbing in only four feet of water. We ducked each one and waited it out. Bill scouted ahead while we waited for Brian, and on his first return he came back without his goggles. The surf was merciless, and pounding on the same kind of lava rock I had seen below. It was a white sand beach alright, but with black teeth all the way to the water’s edge. We might have swum ten hours to look at a beach from a football’s throw away.
Jeff came in from behind a dynamic horizon. There was Brian’s red swim cap bobbing in the surf. His left arm looked like it had been frog-punched, his stroke was down to a sloppy slap. He made it! They made it! We were all going to finish together.
The finish wasn’t as we expected. Everyone completed the channel in their own way in the end. I will tell you how it happened for me. I pretended like I was at Ehukai Beach (Pipeline) in Oahu, home of overhead pounders. I watched the waves. Timed them. How many waves in a set, okay 3, no wow, 4. Where do they break? Where do they collapse? Foam? Backwash?
The answer was: hug the coral where the overhead wave breaks, KICK! Dig in if you have to, but WAIT till the set ends. After the set, move back about eight feet. The next wave in the set will foam after the crash, drag you in three inches of water over the coral. With the foam though, it would be about five, maybe six inches. Think puffy thoughts. Ride the foam.
It worked. I barely got scratched on the way in. No rips in the suit. I came to a kind of furious tide pool of black rock and sea urchin. Don’t step on those either. Especially the black ones. I looked for some white sand in the middle of a rock pool pukas (holes). Ah.
My right foot was first. I had to pull it around with my arm. My body was so used to the ocean’s surface that the world was still moving with a beat, a rhythm. I tried to stand. Fail. Caught my fall with my right arm. Okay, find another puka. Where will my left foot go? Finding a spot, I fell on my right knee... a little scrape. Jagged rocks in front, legs waking up, world shifting, I panic, I have turned my back to the waves for what? Half a set cycle! Quick, look, wait. Okay, I’m okay, my estimates were good. I’m okay. No waves coming. For about the next half a minute, the cycle repeats. Look for a safe foot spot. Check for urchins, straddle, wade, lift, crawl.
When I reach the sand at the end of a channel I usually like to stand, then flop on the beach, let the sun bake me for a minute and laugh. Laugh! The absurdity of it. The resources expended! For what? It’s stupid, vain, and utterly pointless. A man swims from one island to another. The sea begrudgingly grants him passage so that he can learn something about himself. When he gets there he laughs. He has learned nothing except that the trip which has brought him here has served only as a lens to inspect everything he already knew about himself before he got in the water. The finish as an experience, it’s a moment in time so small that it is over before it began. In the end, I am an idiot trespasser on an island that isn’t mine. As if any man can own God’s creation. Laugh! Laugh until it hurts at the big blue sky.
Today my favorite funny-bone moment was not to be. Captain Don sports an enormous Hubble telescope-sized pair of binoculars. He spotted three people on the horizon two hours before my abominable transurftitude. Don told us at our next to last feeding, “I see three of them, they are waiting there for us.”
I’ve heard three stories of how people are greeted at Niʻihau. I’ll summarize them now.
The Captain of the Island Dream, a large pink-sailed catamaran which hosted an outing for the Waikiki Swim Club in 2008, told me that as a boy he and a friend floated on a piece of wreckage (I’ll omit the beginning of the story, because I suspect he was elaborating somewhat) to within site of Niʻihau. At that point, they abandoned the Winslet & DiCapriesque piece of boat dander and flopped themselves on the warm gorgeous shores of Niʻihau. While supine, two large Polynesians jumped him and his friend, jumped them, gave them both black eyes and nose bleeds (I think a broken rib too) and told them to leave the island. They crawled back in the water and swam back to Kauaʻi. Ahem! yeah. k.
From the guidebook, Kauaʻi Revealed... “If you land on a beach on Niʻihau, you will be asked to leave. If you refuse, a truly gargantuan Hawaiian gentleman will be summoned, and he will ask you a bit more firmly. This request is usually sufficient to persuade all but the most determined individuals to leave.” Probable.
From Captain Don himself. A pair of gentlemen experience some kind of failure in their boat, and wash up on Niʻihau. Stranded, they traverse the beach for a while. Two large Polynesian men confront them and draw a line in the sand. They tell them not to cross it. The next day they are confined to the waters and the boat and told “You cannot walk on our land”. I’m not sure how the story ends, if the boat gets fixed or they get a tow. Call Captain Don, schedule a fishing cruise, and I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it. You bring the beer.
So, here’s my story. I get to the sand... wait, wait. Let me tell you this first. Bear in mind I’m a little delirious. I’m starting to break down a little and notice that when I blink I see about 30 tiny green spots in my vision. They are peppered with red. I know that this is okay until my peripheral vision goes, then it’s night night time. The point... consider this story as if it’s a waking dream, maybe fiction. It’s what I know.
Okay, instead of flopping and laughing, I’m on edge. I see something like three totems. Stacked rocks or coconuts on the right. I ignore them. Just walking now is an experience. I fight the urge and stay upright. I promised my friend Ceci I would bring her back a small piece of driftwood like I have before. I walk the beach line to the south looking for something small, geometric, bone white and dry. I pick up a few pieces, and after about what seems like 5 minutes I choose one. I tuck it under the left thigh of my swim suit. I keep walking.
Suddenly I realize I am in a world of junk! This isn’t the pristine virgin beach I had imagined. It’s awash with everything. All bleached. Glow-sticks whose lights had gone out long before I decided to do this, whiffle balls, beach balls, bottles, cans, eight and a half feet of a nine foot surfboard, and on and on. What a shame. What a lesson. We are choking the beaches of places where people barely even live. Why? To teach our kids how to play baseball? To have potions to make our jeans clean? To drink processed sugar? To shoot a bigger barrel? Here it all is, all our wants materialized and washed up on this relentless beach.
Focus on the good. What do I see? ‘Opihi shells. I see one, I see another. I realize that I will have to get out in the same surf that stripped Bill of his goggles. I can’t pick up this whole beach. Don’t be greedy, don’t be like the ghosts that live in all those people’s empty bottles. Look, feel. It comes to me. Pick ‘opihi shells that nest. Bring home five, for your family of five. Tell them. They will listen. I find five shells; the biggest is almost the size of an Eisenhower dollar. I nest them, sweet Susan, Benjamin, Nathan, and little Naomi, about as big around as a dime. I package the family together and tuck them under the right thigh of my suit.
I am done here.
I look toward the ocean. Leave now? Wait, what an experience. A state lawyer friend of mine advised me on this adventure. Technically, the federal government owns (and shares to the public) everything up to the high water mark. Arguably, that is everything up to the first growing vegetation. A line of vegetation.
I look. The berm of sand slopes sharply at about 20 degrees. From the lava teeth to the vegetation, it’s about two men high over a fifteen yard run. At the top of the slope are alfalfa-like grass tufts. If I could just get a little closer look at how this plane meets that crazy mountain on the left. Step. It looks almost like Diamond Head. Step. See how the lines run sideways across it, instead of up and down? Step. How does a mountain that massive merge into a plane like this!? Step. I am 6 feet from the grass.
Two of the totems I saw spring up. The third never does, but runs to the side, very, very fast. The one on the left is a beautiful young woman in a blue and white flannel shirt with jeans or slacks. She is back-lit; I can’t tell. She looks like bronze version of how I remember my wife the year we were married. Tall, flowing long hair, half-curly and long. Before I can see her face, a camera with a telephoto lens comes to her eye.
The second totem which sprang up at the same time as the female was wearing what could have been a blue or drab Dickies work jacket. A ball cap, and some kind of pants to match. He had a very old rifle. At the end of the muzzle was either a silencer or a plug. It was in his left arm, the butt on his hip. The muzzle pointed at a forty-five degree angle away and over my head.
I didn’t look for the third. The second had a gun. That was all I needed to know.
The surf was pounding when the second said either, “You, come here!”, or “You are trespassing!” I know. I’m not sure how you could mistake the two, but they were far off, and as they say, I was “All buss”.
I have a talent. It’s one I’ve always had. It’s an advantage I have over most people that I’m not afraid to give you the in scoop on. When I smile, people know that I mean it. Maybe it’s why I resonate so comfortably here. There is aloha. We all have it. Let it in. Let it out. Show it when you smile. Don’t cheat me, give me the real confection. Show me your smile so I can see you.
I smiled, I extended my right hand in a still wave. I kept my smile over my shoulder as my body turned. When my body had turned, I walked back to the water. I could feel the rifle relax.
Getting out had all the same challenges of getting in. Maybe more. In my haste I had put a three inch gash in the bottom of my foot. Not a good place to be bleeding. Also, the sets had changed; instead of three or four in a set, it was five or six. I skulled in four inches of water and grabbed rock eight feet in front of where the overhead waves crashed. After the first set, I made a mad sprint for the outside. Instead of a minute, it was more like twenty seconds until the next set. I jammed up and scraped a finger looking for something to hold when the surprise set rolled in.
The set passed, I made another mad dash.
Crash, not yet, dive again. Crash, sprint. I was sprinting so hard in the surf avoiding the lava below I could smell my own blood somehow in my nose. Rifle behind me, waves in front, I eventually got into deeper water.
As I’m coming out, I see the boat moving away. What? Is this a joke? Like when you tell your friend to get in a car and move away? I can feel my foot bleeding out. This isn’t good, lots of fish here. How about predators? What’s happening? What if they can’t see me? What if everyone else has returned to the boat, they saw the rifle and wanted to get out of range?
Horizon is still interrupted by overhead waves. Where is the boat? There it is...
The boat, I think it’s stopping.
Captain Don lowers the ladder a hundred yards outside of Niʻihau and mutters something - I still don’t know what. We have to go now. Now! Get in the boat.
I hit the boat cushions, so spent I think I’m going to pop. The boat speeds off.
Tonight, I’m home with my wife and kids. Tucking the kids in at prayer time, I shared with them a child’s version of my adventure. How I swam to the end of the island chain. How I saw friendly sharks and beautiful coral. How I went to an island where you can only look at the beach. Then I pulled my five ‘opihi shells out. They were safe and dry all tucked inside each other. I gave the smallest one to Naomi, the next one to Nate, the middle one to Ben, then Susan’s and then I took mine.
We talked about what it means to be family and all together surrounded by each other. Then Naomi placed her shell inside Nate’s. Nate understood and put his inside Ben’s. Ben inside his mother’s, and my shell was the binder.
We said prayers and thanked the Lord for all that we had learned, and my safe passage, and then we all hugged, and the kids tucked their shells under their pillows.