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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Steve Walker Succeeding With One Arm And A Broken Foot

Steve Walker sitting while being congratulated Cameron Bellamy on Eternity Beach on Oahu.

Photo and video courtesy of Harry Huffaker, text courtesy of Steve Walker, Molokai Channel, Hawaii.

Cameron Bellamy and Steve Walker successfully completed a crossing this week between Molokai and Oahu. The duo started at Papohaku Beach on Molokai at 9:26 pm with Matt Buckman was their escort.

Bellamy finished in 17 hours 1 minute at Sandy Beach on Oahu. Walker finished in 17 hours 52 minutes, missing Sandy Beach, but swimming into Eternity Beach.

This is his first-person account:

After the kind of rough ride out [from Oahu], we waited by Molokai for a little more than 3 hours. About 9 pm, we jumped in, and started swimming toward the shore. It was overcast, pitch black.

We both lost our caps and goggles [swimming in through] the heavy surf in the dark. We found our goggles later that had blinky lights attached to them, but never found the caps. It was a very fitting start. After crawling up the beach, we decided to just start, even though we couldn’t see the boat, and they couldn’t see us.

The water was warm. After getting new caps from the boat, we swam hard in the dark for the first 7 hours. It was good that we decided to wear caps: the jellyfish started right there, mostly little ones like horsefly stings, but every once in awhile a bigger one like a few wasp stings. Sue Walker [my wife] told me later that soon after the start, that the boat heard two whales spout from their blow holes nearby. Sue was amazed, but others were nervous because they sounded so close. Also, the phosphorescence was incredible — so bright and green, like lots of fireflies.

The ocean wasn’t cooperating. We only covered 7.9 miles in the first 7 hours — about half of what we would have covered if we hadn’t been fighting the current. The water was smooth for the first couple of hours, and 1-3 foot waves after that. It was not difficult. Given the current against us, though, we settled into the idea that this could be a 24-hour swim. The pilot said the current took him as far north as he’s ever been on a swim or canoe crossing.

The foot didn’t bother me too much after the first couple of hours. We were both getting stung pretty regularly, about 2-3 of the little ones each hour and about a half-dozen or so of the bigger ones each through the swim. These were box jellyfish. Cameron got hit by a Portuguese man o war - much worse - a little before it started getting light about 9 hours in. It didn’t slow him down, but I know it hurt a lot. I could see the lashes on his skin under the water. They covered a good part of the right side of his torso. He just kept swimming, though.

Around that time, two good things happened that I think helped Cam get through the pain. It started getting light, and the distances we were covering were starting to lengthen, meaning that the current we’d been fighting was weakening. We decided to ease up on the pace a bit. I think my arms were hurting more than Cam’s at this point, but he agreed to slow down as well. Cam is a tough guy. He’s always been chasing me over the past few years, but I could see he was swimming really well today.

Feeds had been taking a bit longer than they should have. The kayakers were not as experienced as we’d hoped, and one had gotten seasick leaving all the work to the other. We were taking 3-5 minutes per feed. Each of us was used to 30-90 second feeds. While 90 extra seconds might not seem like much, when you break every 30 minutes, over 35 or so feeds, that means that we probably added well over an hour to our time.

Catherine Breed was updating Cam’s social media, and Sue was keeping everyone I knew up-to-date. They were both great, Sue, especially for me. She was always serious, always positive. She also read me texts from people in San Francisco, Ireland, and one from my parents. These little bits of contact with the real world made so much difference; each one spurred a burst of energy. Just seeing Sue on the boat helped me, too. I was so glad she was there.

A little before 13½ hours in, I saw a 7-foot shark underwater. It was about 20 feet down when I saw it first, then it came up to about 12 feet. It was followed by a bunch more critters, although I didn’t get as good a look at the others as they were farther away. The shark really made me alert. It was just curious, though, probably a young tiger. The others, it turned out, were a pod of dolphins, a few bigger and a few smaller. Not sure if the dolphins scared away the shark, but everyone on the boat saw the dolphins; their tails go up and down. Only I saw the shark; tail goes left and right. A few minutes later, the excitement was done and the water went back to just being blue with only the occasional jellyfish. About an hour later, I saw two more sharks down deep, but they looked a little different. I am not sure what kind they were, but they never even came close.

Although we were no longer fighting a current, I was fighting another issue. My poor left-side-only breathing pinched the axial nerve on the left side of my neck. Not an unfamiliar nerve, although usually on the right side, I knew the symptoms well: Firstly, I experienced pain in my arm. Secondly, and more worrisome, I felt weakness in my deltoid which would eventually render my left arm useless. I was worried about keeping up with Cam. He was having a great swim, although not record-breaking because of the current and feeds. At 14 hours, I told the crew that I needed to swim one-armed. I started kicking hard and was almost keeping up with Cam. only 3-4 minutes behind him over 30. At the next feed, though, I suggested that he go ahead.

Catherine, a former champion from Cal who was crewing for us, had gotten in to kayak. She’d swum with us just after sunrise, too. I suggested to Cam that he go forward, even though we’d agreed to finish together. I knew I could finish, but I also knew I couldn’t keep up a pace that fast with one arm, no matter how hard I kicked. I really wanted to finish, but I didn’t want Cam to have to slow down. I strongly suggested that he go ahead, and told him that I’d finish. I insisted to everyone, and Cam and Catherine went ahead with him.

Over the next few feeds, I got his progress as well as mine. He was picking up about 5-6 minutes a mile. Cam ended up negative splitting the swim by a lot, but more importantly, he negative split it by effort. He had a great swim. I feel quite happy knowing that he’s become faster than me at these swims.

For a couple of hours, I kept up a very strong 6-beat kick with a powerful right arm pull, keeping my left arm out in front of me. I really just went back to all the pool swimming I did. Every day, we’d do some one-arm drills. They weren’t hard, and my mind and body aside from my left shoulder was still in great shape. I really wasn’t particularly tired.

As we came within the last two hours, I decided to pick it up a bit. I couldn’t really pull much more water with my right arm, so I switched to a long sweeping 4-beat kick, almost like I had fins on. I really put a lot of power in the kicking, very much straight legs. I estimate that I was only going about 10% slower than if I’d been swimming as I had been before. I could feel my foot a little, but not real pain, more just a reminder than it was there and that it was broken. It didn’t really hurt a lot.

About this time, we also started hitting a cross-current right to left. It was moving me aside at around 1 knot. The captain told me to swim diagonally, crabbing to the right. Navigation was not especially easy, either for him or for me.

Feeds had been very good. Every fourth feed was supposed to be a treat, but I’d brought enough for extras. I had 2 Three Musketeers, 2 donuts, cheesecake (never ate), 2 Hostess Cupcakes (the best ever), King Hawaiian rolls, and a couple of other things. As we got closer, Sue started giving them to me every hour. Oh, did these taste good. I don’t get any of these when I’m out of the water because of the insulin resistance, but when I’m swimming, the sugar/starch doesn’t bother me at all. I started having feeds every 45 minutes, and got a treat every other feed.

Then, I told the captain that I couldn’t continue at this pace. We were about 2 miles out. I didn’t mean that I wanted to get out, but just that I needed to slow down a little. He got very worried and said I just needed to go fast for a little longer and I’d be done. I decided it was time to dig deep and I skipped the feed and picked up the pace. This all came from my right arm. My legs were already going as hard they could. I just dug in and figured I only had 2 miles left. I’d been visualizing shorter swims as we got shorter. When we got to 4 miles, I visualized coming back from the Golden Gate, which is longer and colder. With two miles left, I decided to just do it.

Cat came back and joined me shortly after this. She was tired. She’d been kayaking for nearly 4 hours already. This also meant that Cam was finished. At one point I saw a turtle. I was more excited because the turtle meant I was close. I popped my head up, and said, “Turtle,” pointing down. She yelled, follow me. I hadn’t realized it, but I was at this point only about 100 meters from the rocks. It was still almost 10 minutes to get in because we were fighting a cross-current to get to a beach without rocks. The surf was heavy and loud. She guided me right in. One of the kayakers got in with some fins and tried to keep up with me into the beach. Catherine guided me safely into Eternity Beach, a small hidden cove with a bunch of bathers.

I got to the beach and quickly realized that there was no way I was walking up. I was now acutely aware that my foot was broken, and it really hurt a lot now, just from one brush with the bottom. I floated into water that was about 4 inches deep, my suit filling with sand, then let the small (1 foot) waves wash me up the beach. Each wave was excruciatingly painful for my foot; each move up the beach excruciatingly painful for my shoulder. Finally, I just decided to crawl like a baby. I think it was probably more like slithering like a slug. I honestly don’t know how I did that last 12 feet up the sand, but a couple of minutes later I was on dry sand, and no one had touched me.

Cam and Linda Kaiser [of the Molokai Channel Swimmers Association] were there waiting for me. Someone offered me a lite beer. A lot of people were talking to me, but I wasn’t really very talkative.

Linda and the people there offered to carry me up to her pickup, but there was no way. I swam out to the boat. About 10 minutes later, 25 minutes after landing, I used one arm and one leg to get back on the boat. The water was very rough. Sitting down, I wasn’t so bad, but I was tired. Sue wrapped me in a towel, and we started back to the harbor. I didn’t need to sleep on the boat, not like the Irish Sea, but this 17 hours and 52 minutes, really more like 18.5 hours, from boat to boat, really beat me up.

As I write this almost a week later, the foot is slowly getting better. It took a couple of days for me to be able to use my arm. It mostly just hung by my side for about 48 hours after. The jellyfish stings and a little sunburn caused me a lot of pain that night, but really weren’t bad after. I didn’t really sleep soundly at all that first night. I got an x-ray the next day. I was not going to before the swim; I didn’t want a doctor telling me not to swim. It was a hairline fracture along one of the long bones in my foot. Ten days before I can really walk on it, a couple weeks more before it is mostly healed.

Cam’s man o’ war sting was quite painful for a few days, but I could tell he really felt good about finishing first. I’m very proud of him. He’s a great channel swimmer who has rowed across the Indian Ocean. I’m proud of myself though. This was a hard swim, probably the hardest I’ve done.


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