Sunday, September 11, 2011

Shark to Maui! But then the real tragedy...

Sharks and Speedboats - Maui Channel Swim 2011 

The morning of Saturday September 3rd started as other years when the Aussie Ticker brethren gathered on Kaanapali Beach in Maui for the boat trip to Lanai. However, the wind was up and there were a few grumbles about how choppy it might be for the annual relay swim back. We fielded 2 Aussie Ticker teams this year, a powerful new Open Mixed team (Sigi Hill, Chris Allen, Justin Brewer, Carly Brewer, Robyn Hill and Shelley Clarke) and the defending champion Makule (over 40 Mens/ fat bastards) team (Andrew DeVries, Matt McQuade, Graeme Brewer, Guy Farrow, Simon Buckingham and Matt Renshaw). Little did any of us know how the day would unfold. 

As we motored over to Lanai, it became clear that the chop and swell was significant. In fact, one other escort boat sank on the way over and all their swimmers and passengers had to be rescued and taken to the start line! Later we saw it's bow disappear to the depths of the channel! When we got to Lanai, the conditions were no better and another support boat actually got dragged onto the reef and had to be pulled off. It was shaping up as a big day. 

Both lead-off swimmers (Sigi and ADV aka The Great Man) started strongly. The experienced Makule men decided on a direct, high line to the destination point in Maui. Sigi's Open team bet on a lower line to the right, planning to use the current and potentially calmer waters to their advantage later in the race. By the end of the first leg, they were already 100m or so away. Strong second swims ensued from Shelley Clarke and Matty "Lone Wolf" McQuade. Then Justin and Graeme, Little Brew and Big Brew, son and father, hit the water to go "mano e mano" in a much anticipated 3rd leg of the relay. However, they were already 200m apart on different courses - by this stage we were running our own races. 10 minutes later the world turned when the crewman on our Makule boat yelled "Shark!". As you would understand, this is the last word any channel swimmer wants to hear! 

We looked down and to our collective horror a large beast had appeared about 5-10 metres behind Brew (ie. Graeme). Although it's dorsal fin had not yet broken the surface, it was a clear this was a serious shark. The screaming and yelling began as we attracted Brew's attention and the shark appeared to stare and follow him from behind. Brew swam to the boat with impressive speed and we hauled his considerable mass onto the boat as quickly as possible. Intact and unscathed. The shark went right and then down and under the boat. It then disappeared. It had clearly investigating Brew and was either scared of him or decided he was way too big to eat. Both are equally likely! 

We all looked at each other and tried to decide what to do. The race rules state that in such a situation you have to stop advancing in the race, but can move laterally as far as you like before starting again. We spent several minutes establishing that the shark was gone, then motored about 500m away. One other boat was nearby and had pulled out their swimmer and took the same course of action. Despite radio contact with all other boats, everyone else decided to stay in the race. 

Then it was Brew's call - stay out or get back in? Almost without hesitation, he got back in and resumed - one of the gutsiest acts ever witnessed in ocean swimming. Farrow, Rench and I looked at each other, knowing we would be next! Thanks Brew! Oh well, screw it! If we die being eaten by a large animal, then so be it. This is what we do. We have a koa bowl to defend! I know I can speak for Farrow and Rench - our next swims were the longest 30 minutes of our entire lives! 

So everyone wants to know how big the shark was. The first point to make is that the boat we were on was a Big Game Fishing boat. This was the captain's business every day (364 per year), except for once a year when some swimming idiots hire him out for the day. He said this was the biggest tiger shark he had seen for 8 years - around 15 feet long and 1000 pounds. And he is in the business of trying to catch them every day! 

We battled on and eventually finished in about 4 1/2 hours. Despite losing around 10 minutes with the shark incident, we still managed to come 3rd in the Makule division, missing out on first by only 4 or 5 minutes. Oh well, we still ended up with a much coveted race towel and a great story to tell our grand kids! 

Meanwhile, the Mixed team had powered on to the finish 10 or 15 minutes earlier. They had picked a great line, swam strongly and came up with line honours for their division..... and the much sought after Koa bowl! An outstanding performance. 

Aussie Ticker - a first and a third! A big day at the office. 

Tired and relieved, we shot straight to the outside Tiki Bar for the usual post-race festivities and a few quiet Longboard Lagers. It was then that the real tragedy of the day unfolded. The bar is between the beach and the entrance to the hotel. 

The paramedics rushed through the crowd with a swimmer on a stretcher. He was badly cut on one arm and missing his hand on the other. We immediately thought "shark" and the whole crowd looked on in stunned silence as he was whisked to a waiting ambulance. It turned out not to be a shark at all, but a freak speed boat accident. He was a tough and gutsy solo swimmer who had done the whole channel himself when a boat accidentally ran him over 100m or so from shore. The poor bastard didn't sign up for that and there will no doubt be an investigation. It appears to have been a freak accident. Now a  matter for microsurgeons, police and, I suspect, lawyers. We all wish him well. 

A lot to think about for next year! 

Mahalo for our health and Aloha! 

Simon Buckingham 

PS. The Aussie Ticker brethren put in a strong showing in the Waikiki Roughwater the following Monday. In the various age groups, Sigi was 3rd, Brew was 3rd and Chris, ADV, me and Rench peppered the podium in the 45-49 with 4th, 6th, 7th and 9th! A calm day and no marine wildlife to speak of. Luane and Shelley finished 1& 2 overall in the open womens and some of Peter Thiel's Maui team finished 1,2 & 3 in the open mens. A good showing for Australia!


  1. Love a good shark story! Well done to your swimmer for bringing up a big tiger. What were you using for burley?

  2. A note from the Maui Channel organisers regarding the condition of John Caughlin, the swimmer injured when hit by a boat propellor during the swim...

    Dear Maui Channel Swimmers,

    Thank you all for participating in the 2011 Maui Channel Swim. The conditions this year were certainly challenging and made for an exciting but difficult swim. We saw exceptional endurance, adventure, and achievement, but this year we also saw tragedy.

    John Caughlin one of our solo swimmers making the crossing was hit by a boat as he was approaching the finish line. Lifeguards on jet skis were immediately on the scene to rescue and provide emergency treatment for John, but the boat propeller had caused horrific injuries to both arms, and he was rushed to Maui Memorial Hospital.

    Despite heroic efforts in an 11 hour operation, the surgeons were unable to salvage John's right arm and it was removed above the elbow. The left arm was reconstructed; however there was extensive damage to the left hand. John's left index finger, thumb, and a portion of the hand had been traumatically amputated by the propeller. The remaining three fingers sustained multiple fractures and severe lacerations. Just 4 days after the incident, John underwent another surgery to reconstruct what remains of his left hand. Additional surgical procedures and grafts will be needed to continue the reconstruction. John will remain hospitalized in Maui for another week and will then have the opportunity to return to California for continued treatment.

    Without the use of either of his hands, John will require 24/7 care for quite some time, and has a long, hard recovery ahead of him including surgeries and rehabilitation over the next twelve months and beyond.

    This was John's third Maui Channel Swim and his first solo. He has participated in many challenging open water events both in California and Hawaii. Anyone who knows John personally, will tell you what an uncomplaining, determined and generous spirit he has. It is people like John that make us all proud to be a part of the open water swimming community.

    We know that many of you want to reach out to John and support him during his recovery. For those who would like to make a monetary contribution, a "Pay-Pal" account has been set up in John's name and can be accessed at:
    Cards and letters of encouragement can be sent in care of his sister, Jennifer Dorsey at: 1210 Green Orchard Place, Encinitas, CA 92024. For those who would like to offer other assistance, all support is welcome.

    John has enormous challenges ahead. We want to support him in meeting these challenges. We look forward to sending out news of John's recovery and healing. In the meantime, we send our prayers.

    We are sending this letter out to the Swim Team Captains, as that is the only email we have on the application. We ask that each team captain send this letter to every member of his/her team and to their boat captain if possible.

    Aloha, Ian Emberson, Race Director
    Coco Emberson

  3. Burley was 115kg of Graeme Brewer - I still think the shark was scared of him!

  4. By the way - if anyone is looking for inspiration or is having a bad day, take a look at the latest report on John Caughlin - what an incredible person - this photo and article was last weekend, just 2 weeks after the accident.


Please use the drop down menu, Comment as, to attach your name to your blog.